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Philip Pullmans His Dark Materials trilogy came third in the BBCs Big Read in 2003, behind The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice, but the unabridged audio adaptation of the trilogy certainly tops my Big Listen.
Ive been listening to audiobooks ever since I was a young child, when I suffered from insomnia and nothing but a good dose of Roald Dahl on tape could settle me. Although sleeping isnt difficult for me these days (since going to university Ive mastered the art of snoozing for twelve-hour stretches...funny that), I still have a great love of audiobooks, and His Dark Materials is definitely my favourite. Ive listened to the CDs several times, and with the impending December release of the first film adaptation from the trilogy (entitled The Golden Compass, which is the American title for the first book, Northern Lights), I thought now would be an appropriate time to share my opinion.
The three books which comprise His Dark Materials are Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, released in 1995, 1997, and 2000 respectively. At the centre of the story is Lyra, a twelve-year-old orphaned girl who has been raised at an Oxford college in a parallel universe, which is like, and yet unlike, our own. The world has many similarities to our Victorian age in terms of dress fashions and technology; however, in several ways it is far more advanced than our present-day universe. The most striking contrast to our own world is that in this universe every human has a dæmon, which is essentially a persons soul in the representative form of an animal. Servants dæmons are generally dogs; a sailor might have a seagull; while a kings dæmon may be a lion. Childrens dæmons have the ability to change form until they reach puberty, when the animal becomes fixed. As Lyras dæmon is still able to change shape, throughout the trilogy we are left to ponder what form it will eventually take.
Lyra is visited at Oxford by her uncle, Lord Asriel, who is a powerful explorer and scientist. While hiding in a wardrobe, Lyra watches Asriel deliver a lecture on the existence of a parallel universe and a mysterious elementary particle called Dust, which is believed by the Church to be proof of original sin. Although fascinated by what she has learned, Lyra is happy running wild in Oxford until her best friend, Roger, is kidnapped by the Gobblers, a mysterious group with a hatred of Dust and a seemingly unnatural interest in children and their changeable dæmons. Lyra embarks on a quest to rescue her friend, to discover the truth about her supposedly deceased parents and, most importantly of all, to learn about Dust.
Lyras mission is stalled by the appearance of the beautiful Mrs Coulter, whose seemingly kind and glamorous exterior is starkly contrasted by the behaviour of her cruel and sadistic golden monkey dæmon (the true personification of her soul). However, with her intelligence and uncanny ability to lie, Lyra escapes and journeys north, where she encounters armoured bears and witches.
The next instalment in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, introduces the second main hero of the story, a twelve-year-old boy from our own world, called Will Parry. Will is a murderer, albeit an accidental one, so his discovery of a secret window into a parallel universe provides the perfect hideaway. When his path crosses with Lyras, his own search for his lost father is quickly linked with Lyras quest to discover the meaning of Dust. Throughout the remainder of the trilogy, the adventures that the pair embarks upon make for exciting stories in their own right, but it is the underlying themes and symbolism of the books that caused a real stir among readers and critics.
The concepts of Dust, quantum physics and parallel universes are presented in a way that is fresh, complicated and exciting, but not so technical that only a scientist could understand. The idea of a persons soul being personified in their animal-shaped dæmon is also intriguing, as it invites the reader to consider what his or own dæmon might be. But for me, the most interesting theme, not to mention the boldest and most controversial, is Pullmans attack against the Authority and the presentation of the Church as a deceitful and controlling force with a grounding in lies and fear. While the trilogy has been condemned by many religious readers, I personally know several Christians who greatly enjoyed the books. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued that Pullmans attack against the Church is focused on the constraints and dangers of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself, and personally I agree. Heretical or not, the books have undeniably sparked a huge amount of criticism and debate, and this has probably only added to the number of people seeking His Dark Materials out to read.
Pullmans writing is gripping and multi-layered. Packed with movement and intense descriptions, the writing is really able to conjure the image of a scene in the readers mind. It is also interesting that Pullman can convey very adult themes; sexual, religious, and scientific; through the eyes of two children. His Dark Materials is often labelled as a trilogy aimed at children; however Pullman himself never intended for the books to be targeted that way, stating in many interviews that he sees the story as being open to all readers, regardless of age. While I was only ten years old when I first read Northern Lights upon its release in 1995, I still love the trilogy twelve years later, and I know many older readers who also take great enjoyment from reading the books. Perhaps it is the wide-ranging accessibility of the trilogy that has made it so successful. Whatever the secret ingredient is, Pullman has created a masterpiece here, and I strongly recommend acquainting yourself with the story if you havent already.
If youve read a book, it can be difficult to enjoy an audio version if its been abridged, as inevitably some of your favourite scenes will be removed. Thankfully, this adaptation is completely unabridged, including everything from the dedications to the lovely poetry excerpts that Pullman occasionally includes at the start of a chapter. Clocking in at an epic 35 hours across 29 CDs, you certainly get your moneys worth. Speaking of which, the recommended retail price for the audio set is £124.99, but both www.play.com and www.amazon.co.uk are currently selling it for £79.99, with free delivery. I happily paid the full price for my set, so I think this is an excellent deal.
What is perhaps most enjoyable about the audio set is that it is beautifully narrated by the author himself. For those who have read the books, you may have struggled with the pronunciation of some of the exotic names, so its satisfying to be set straight by the man in the know. As a narrator, Pullman is terrific. In fact, he gives such a passionate and animated reading that Im surprised hes never been a professional actor. He has a very soft, gentle voice, but hes able to sharpen his tone in an instant when necessary. Furthermore, as much of the books are set in Oxford, where Pullman studied in his youth and later went on to lecture at, the authors accent is certainly fitting for the role of narrator.
Pullman is joined by a dynamic cast, comprising over 40 separate voices. Joanna Wyatt, who provides the voice of Lyra, is outstanding. She captures the passion, wit, intelligence, and wildness of Lyras personality in a way that perfectly supports my vision of the character. Ill be very interested to see if Dakota Blue Richards, who plays Lyra in the upcoming film adaptations, can impress me as much. Sean Barretts Lord Asriel is powerful and awe-inspiring, and totally different to the deep, rolling rumble that is the voice of armoured bear Iorek Byrnison (played by the same actor). Alison Dowlings voice is suitably charming as Mrs Coulter, but with the underlying iciness required for the character. I imagine that finding the voice of twelve-year-old Will must have been difficult, as the casting team had to decide between a broken or non-broken voice. In the end they chose Stephen Webb, whose voice is broken but still has a youthful and innocent quality, which I feel works well.
The cast provides a splendid mix of voices and, personally, I feel it really brings an audiobook up to another level if it is complete with a full vocal cast. Although I enjoy narrator-only adaptations, such as Stephen Frys readings of the Harry Potter books, they dont quite compare to the quality of an audiobook like this one.
I know £79.99 may seem like a lot of money to spend on what are essentially just three books, but I can assure you it is worth every penny. Audiobooks are a fantastic way to experience a story, particularly if you find you often dont have the time to read, and His Dark Materials is the best audio adaptation I have ever come across. I must offer a word of warning, however: do not be tempted to buy the recent BBC radio dramatisation, as while it may be considerably cheaper, it is heavily abridged and not nearly as well performed. Instead, treat yourself to 35 hours of masterful story-telling that youll listen to time and time again.
All three titles in the highly acclaimed "Dark Materials" trilogy in one unabridged box set.