It’s been nearly 6 months since we’ve said goodbye to Westeros and our favourite characters in Game of Thrones. Ever since that time, we’ve been looking for a worthy fantasy series to fill the void. Something with enough wonder, excitement and edge to give us our weekly fiction kick. Something to inspire endless speculation and discussions among friends and co-workers. That being said, we believe we’ve found just that in HBO’s latest fantasy series, His Dark Materials. I’ve recently had the opportunity to catch up with the TV series and I am seriously blown away. The beauty of fantasy is its ability to suspend our disbelief and bring us into a whole other world full, magic and supernatural elements. A break from the mundane drudgery of college assignments, quarterly reports and homework. Notably, HBO’s shows haven’t always been so accessible for children due to the mature nature of its programmes.
Which is why you can only imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon this gem. A high-budget HBO fantasy series for the whole family to watch? Inconceivable! His Dark Materials might not be “mature” in certain departments but it deals with complicated themes with interesting characters, excellent worldbuilding and a star-studded cast to boot.
A Tale With A Twist
One thing I’ve thoroughly missed since the end Game of Thrones was the complex, winding narrative told. Stories of families, political powers and warring factions vying for control over a kingdom. All the while in the background, a silent evil emerges to cover the world in darkness. Though the plot eventually became severely truncated for the sake of time and convenience, Game of Thrones still managed to deliver the goods. Especially in the first four seasons of the show.
For the longest time, I haven’t been able to find a series that captures the thrill of a rich, layered story that inhabits a world full of wonder, terror, magic and mystery. That is until now. His Dark Materials has got me hooked from the very first episode and I am not inclined to stop anytime soon. Based on Phillip Pullman’s novel series of the same name, it follows the adventure of Lyra Belacqua played by Logan’s adorable and fierce Dafne Keen.
Born under mysterious circumstances, Lyra is an orphan dropped off at Oxford College by her uncle, Lord Asriel, played X-Men: First Class‘ James McAvoy. The thing is, though, it isn’t our world’s Oxford College. In fact, it isn’t even our world at all, in spite of its many similarities. In this reality, humans have animal companions known as daemons. They serve as friend, protector and an extension of one’s soul.
This world is controlled by a malevolent and powerful religious organization known as the Magisterium, an instrument of the Holy Church. One that suppresses knowledge through propaganda and violence. One particular subject deemed heretical by the Magisterium is the concept of Dust. A magical, life-giving substance. It just so happens that Lyra’s uncle has been actively researching on the subject in the Arctic lands. Stranger still, he’s found a whole city within the Northen Lights, covered in Dust.
Right back to Lyra. So Lyra is a child with a great destiny as foretold by the witches of the North. Her choices could determine the fate of her world and all worlds. Oh, did I forget to mention that there are multiple worlds and realities within His Dark Materials? Well, there are. After being denied an opportunity to go on Lord Asriel’s expenditure into the North, she finds herself being called into the service of an enigmatic and powerful woman by the name of Marissa Coulter played by Luther‘s Ruth Wilson.
It just so happens she’s going North. Along the way, Lyra discovers an unsettling conspiracy involving the Magisterium using their agents, Gobblers to kidnap children off the street. An operation spearheaded by none other than Coulter herself. At the same time, a nomadic group of people, the Gyptians have also noticed the alarming rate in which their children have disappeared. Now Lyra must rally the allies of Gyptians, revolutionaries and an armoured bear to fight the Magisterium. A war is on its way.
If you’ve been looking for something to scratch that epic fantasy itch, then His Dark Materials is for you. And don’t worry, the book series is finished so don’t fret about the writers messing about with the storyline. Admittedly, it doesn’t have the same level of gore and violence or sexual intrigue as Game of Thrones. Nonetheless, it has managed to be just as controversial as the show, if not more so.
Commentary and Controversy
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books were made to be a deconstruction if not a subversion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and traditional medieval fantasy. He sought to shock us, playing with our notions of chivalrous knights and damsels in distress. Using this gritty premise to provide insightful commentary on the genre and the baggage that come with it. Similarly, Pullman’s His Dark Materials aims to do the same except it takes at aim another beloved literary property, The Chronicles of Narnia.
The original Narnia books were made by prolific Christian author, C.S. Lewis who weaved not-so-subtle Christian allegories into every piece of fiction he wrote. Lewis believed he could minister to the young with his stories and hopefully evangelize to others through the power of fiction. Pullman hopes to do the same as well, but against the tyranny of organized religion, specifically the Catholic Church.
His anti-Catholic sentiments are thoroughly peppered throughout his books and within the series. In the past, the Catholic Church was seen as one of the most powerful institutions on the planet, commanding armies and millions of followers. In our modern imagination, especially among the New Atheist, the Church was seen as a repressive dogmatic force that stifled progress and denounced any beliefs outside their system as heresy. This cynical view of the Church is overtly portrayed in the show with the Magisterium actively hovering Oxford University and sending its agents to root our heresy where ever it may be. It certainly doesn’t help that the Catholic Church uses the term “magisterium” to describe their authority to interpret the Word of God.
When Lord Asriel makes a scientific discovery that may weaken the power of the Magisterium, they send their agents or “inquisitors” to hunt him down. Organized religion is clearly not seen in a positive light here but then again it rarely is these days. Shows like AMC’s Preacher, Netflix’s Castlevania, HBO’s Righteous Gemstones and the myriad of other shows purport this idea of religious institutions, specifically the Christian Church, as evil and tyrannical. Pullman’s doesn’t stop there though.
Pullman also takes aim at the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal, child cases to be exact. Though the series and books never outright show a caricature in the form of a pedophilic Magisterium agent. Rather, we see this through parallel through a covert executive branch of the Magisterium known as the Gobblers. Operatives tasked to kidnap children and use them for experimentation. The way in which the Gobblers are seen as a myth in the world and the manner in which their existence is covered up is very deliberate, mind you.
These thugs and criminals are allowed to operate with impunity and silence because they are funded and protected by the Magisterium. Not unlike the way the Catholic Church has covered up their past sexual abuses and protected their predatory members by moving them from parish to parish. If you’re interested in learning more about this, we highly recommend you check out 2015’s Spotlight.
Needless to say, Catholics were less than thrilled about Pullman’s fiction. At some point, they even called for its members to boycott the book series and the 2007 film based on Pullman’s first book, The Golden Compass. Apparently, it worked with New Lines Cinema being “scared off” from making any more sequels to the film. Pullman himself has said that his work isn’t necessarily anti-Catholic but serves as a general warning about the dangers of religion. Despite Pullman’s comments, I can forgive those who remain sceptical about his statements.
Personally, as a Christian myself, I’m not offended by Pullman’s books or His Dark Materials. Not necessarily because I agree with them but because I appreciate the level of craft, detail and love placed into the plot and characters of the books. Hey, I don’t have to agree with Cersei Lannister to see her perspective or be captivated by her story arc. I don’t have to fully agree with Ned Stark’s actions merely because he’s the “good guy” in Game of Thrones.
The same way I can still thoroughly enjoy Pullman’s amazing anti-religious fantasy brought to life without having to be offended. It’s that good! I’ve watched the first two episodes already and it is nothing short of breathtaking and exciting. It’s epic, grand and thrilling with an important message about the power of knowledge, friendship and freedom. Something for everyone to enjoy. You can check His Dark Materials every Tuesday morning at 10 am with reruns at night at 10 pm, or stream it from your HBO GO app.