Reading allegories in fantasy literature

Christopher Farai Charamba The Reader
“A reader lives a thousand times before he dies.” These the words of the “Game of Thrones” scribe George R.R. Martin. The books, now turned into a major television series, are a delectable canon of epic fantasy literature. Martin is able to capture the imagination of the reader, create worlds, generate suspense and capture a wide range of emotions in the reader.

Certainly, in that series of books, the reader lives and dies multiple times over, sometimes vicariously through the characters.

Fantasy novels are an interesting genre to read and must be so to write. The author goes beyond the physical realm within which they exist and imagine alternate worlds where the rules and laws that govern the metaphysical space they occupy are often suspended and replaced.

Such books are a magnificent reflection of the expanse of human thinking and human desire to go beyond current existence.

Often they also serve as an allegory of the human condition focusing on different themes – political, religious, romantic, colonial and other issues that plague the existence of man.

One such fantasy novel, a trilogy in fact, is titled “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman. The three titles in the trilogy are “Northern Lights”, “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass”.

Pullman’s books follow Lyra Belacqua, a young girl who lives in a universe where the human soul lives outside one’s body in animal form. In children, this soul known as a daemon has the ability to change form at will until the child comes of age and it adopts a permanent form.

After her friend Roger is kidnapped by Gobblers who works for the Magisterium, Lyra sets off on an epic adventure where she travels to multiple universes to look for him and in the process discovers secrets about herself and her family, about the Dust, a substance which is said by the Magisterium to be linked to original sin and the creation of man.

Her journey takes place in the company of her daemon, witches, armoured polar bears and a tribe of seafarers.

“His Dark Materials” is an interesting political allegory that picks at institutional religion, particularly the Catholic Church which the Magisterium seems to be modelled on.

In this trilogy Pullman interrogates religious dogma and its imposition on society without question.

“[I]n my view, belief in God seems to be a very good excuse, on the part of those who claim to believe, for doing many wicked things that they wouldn’t feel justified in doing without such a belief,” Pullman is quoted as saying in an interview with The Guardian.

His trilogy was placed on a banned list in the United States and ranked at No. 8 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list for 2000-2009.

According to Jen Northington, in 2007, the Catholic League campaigned against “The Golden Compass” (the alternate name for “Northern Lights”), declaring that it promoted atheism and attacked Christianity.

Cynthia Grenier, in the Catholic Culture, said: “In the world of Pullman, God Himself (the Authority) is a merciless tyrant. His Church is an instrument of oppression, and true heroism consists of overthrowing both”.

The trilogy derives its name from a line in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and some have stated that it is in part a retelling of this text.

Pullman is able to ask religious, philosophical, sexuality and even scientific questions in these three books putting even the most liberal of readers at some discomfort.

This narrative is certainly one which can cause offence to those of a religious inclination despite the fantasy setting of the storyline.

Despite this, Pullman put together a well packaged fantasy offering which though targeted to an older teen or young adult audience, makes for good reading at any age.

The author is expected to release a companion trilogy to his first titled “The Book of Dust” with the first instalment expected in October this year.

Christopher Charamba is a self-proclaimed ardent reader of sorts. He can be found on Twitter @ChrisCharamba

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