Lyra and Pan in happier times (shown here played by Dafne Keen and an unidentified but appropriately magnificent ermine in the HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials).

The kids’ fantasy that explains the adult world: A tribute to His Dark Materials

As the HBO TV adaptation arrives on NEON, Sam Brooks looks back on His Dark Materials, the only children’s book series he was allowed to read as a kid.

A little girl and her shapeshifting daemon. A sweet-voiced, evil-faced woman with a glamourous monkey for a companion. A giant polar bear wearing armour. When I watch the trailer for the new HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials, streaming on NEON now, it speaks deeply to two parts of me.

On one hand, it speaks to the prestige-television-loving adult Sam. It’s got a stacked cast (human feline Ruth Wilson, multi-talented Lin-Manuel Miranda, soft Brit James McAvoy) and creative team (Otto Bathurst of Peaky Blinders, Tom Hooper of future hatewatch Cats, legend Philip Pullman himself). It’s the exact right confluence of serious drama and high fantasy that never quite grabbed me with Game of Thrones, which always felt like it was aiming for dramatic weight rather than inventive, imaginative visuals. And finally, maybe most crucially, it’s a show about people rising up against a system that seems to exist for no other reason other than to put them down and impose their own will. Seems quite pertinent in 2019!

On the other hand, it speaks very much to the avid reader that was child Sam. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to read kids books. My mother forbade them, alongside Disney and Thomas the Tank Engine. In her mind, C.S Lewis was a Christianity propagandist, Doctor Seuss was a wife-abandoning charlatan, and Beatrix Potter had tried and failed to humanise one of our greatest pests: the rabbit. I had to read Harry Potter during lunch at school, just so I wouldn’t get caught out. That was how real the ‘no kids books’ rule was in the Brooks household. The idea was that, rather than introduce me to real-life concepts and situations, kids books would simplify those situations and turn my brain into mush like the rest of humanity. Her words, not mine.

The one exception? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. 

Yes, it’s that polar bear. And yes, it’s awesome.

This series wasn’t just allowed in the Brooks household, it was assigned reading (alongside Little Women, the adult version of Chinese Cinderella, and the Mists of Avalon). The first book of the series is set in a parallel universe Victorian-ish England, and follows 12-year-old Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon as she stumbles across a lightly Catholic Church-flavoured controversy. This was the kind of nonsense that my mother advocated against, pushing me towards the likes of Margaret Atwood. Please, parents, do not get your child to read The Blind Assassin. They will not appreciate it and it will put them off the rest of Atwood’s material for at least a decade.

In short: I was immersed in Northern Lights from the very first page. It sucked me into the world – enough like a world I’d read about in books or seen in films, but very much its own thing – immediately. Just read this first passage:

“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table. The places here were laid with gold, not silver, and the fourteen seats were not oak benches but mahogany chairs with velvet cushions.”

Without going all literary critic on it, it sets up the world, and Lyra’s place in it, perfectly. This is a world of grandeur, with dark places and darker secrets, and she’s a small part of it. There are great tables, there are portraits of Masters, and she is sneaking through them. 

Lyra stopped beside the Master’s chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail.  The sound rang clearly through the Hall.

‘You’re not taking this seriously,’ whispered her daemon. ‘Behave yourself.’

Her daemon’s name was Pantalaimon, and he was currently in the form of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show in the darkness of the Hall.

Nine year old me was all, “Holy shit!” (swearing was okay, kids books were not, if you’re keeping track). What the hell is a daemon?! Why is it in the form of a moth?! Why is ‘Hall’ capitalised? I devoured the book in less than a week, and I’m sure I whined until the arrival of the rest of the trilogy, which I more or less inhaled with my eyeballs. It wasn’t that I hadn’t read fantasy, it was that I hadn’t read a fantasy book that spoke to me without simplifying anything. His Dark Materials spoke to me, a child who was learning things every day, and eager not just to learn but to understand.  

Looking back on the trilogy now, I can absolutely see why it got past the gatekeeping eye of my mother. It’s not just a beautifully inventive series, it’s intellectually and philosophically complex in a way that other novels aimed at children don’t aspire to be. This wasn’t a simplistic Harry Potter vs. Dark Wizards conflict, this was a character against an entire establishment, slowly figuring out how that establishment works and where she stands in relation to it. Like the rest of the books my mother loaded on me, His Dark Materials was a way to educate me about the way the world worked and where I stood in it.

Dafne Keen as Lyra in the HBO His Dark Materials series.

As someone who grew up a part of the Catholic Church (an educated Christian, one baptised so he could go to a Catholic school), the depiction of the Magisterium made sense of something that was very real and present in my life. An inexplicable system with rigid rules tied to rituals and an arbitrary sense of morals? Yeah, I’d heard of it.

Then there’s the daemons – constantly shifting creatures that settle on an identity once a child reaches adulthood, a manifestation of that person’s true personality, whether it be a snake, a snow leopard, or a villainous monkey. I was a clearly gay kid, one who could recite the scripts to Absolutely Fabulous as easily as others could recite nursery rhymes, so the visualisation of children figuring out who they were also made sense on a very visceral level to me.

I’ve no doubt that my mother had clocked this part of it. In her mind, there were books that were worth reading because they helped you understand the world, and there were books that were worth reading because they helped you understand yourself. This fulfilled both purposes, excellently. More than enough to get past the gatekeeper.

These days, when we’re reminded on a daily basis that the systems we live under are corrupt and worth rising up against, I’m thankful I had this introduction to the series at that age. It wasn’t just a step in my development, it was a core part of it. His Dark Materials was a gentle guide through a few of life’s more incomprehensible structures and even when it didn’t provide definitive answers, it taught me that it was important to keep asking questions.

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It’s also why I’m genuinely excited about this adaptation.

Twenty years ago, my imagination did the work. But now, my inner child has grown up, my daemon has settled into a form (some kind of drunk swan, probably) and I’m ready to see a whole new generation of people engage with what is, to me, the most essential young adult series.

His Dark Materials drops weekly on Tuesday nights on NEON.

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