Spoilers for the His Dark Materials trilogy ahead.
Dear Philip Pullman,
I am a bit late to your party. The same parents who objected to Harry Potter for its alleged Satanism, Halloween for its history of Paganism, and Pokemon for… whatever that was about, objected to your epic fantasy trilogy because of its blatant, explicit villanization of churches who primarily operate by condemning perfectly harmless things. Shocking plot twist, I know. In any case, I thought your trilogy was incredible. It was subtle, beautiful, complex, rich, and full of characters I absolutely loved. I was sure this would become one of my new favorite series, destined to be reread for years to come.
Then I got to the ending. And now that I have done so, I would like to formally register the following complaints.
- When frequently stating that Lyra’s destiny is to be tempted and make a choice that will change the destiny of all the worlds, you create certain expectations. Specifically, you create the expectation that all those things will happen. It’s cheating if, for example, the choice Lyra is to make is not actually a choice. While being in a relationship and rekindling a fading spark can be choices, falling in love is not a choice. Nobody is presented with the options of falling in love or not falling in love, and then selects one as a result of conscious consideration. It happens by unconscious processes that are not fully understood, even by those who have fallen in love. It is not comparable to eating a forbidden apple, especially when falling in love was never something Lyra was told she shouldn’t do. And if you want to object that Lyra and Will choose to leave each other later on, that doesn’t cut it. The significant changes to the way the dust moves happen as a result of them falling in love. The choices to close the windows affect the world, but there’s no other choice they would be likely to make. The choice to split up is difficult, but affects their lives, not the fundamental nature of the universe.
- I’m going to start this complaint off with a bit of praise. It is very difficult to make a magical system mystical, and simultaneously give it rules that the readers can understand. Somehow, for the majority of your series, you pulled this balance off. You did this in part by weaving connections and consistencies between aspects of the magic world that the characters understood, and ones that they perhaps could never fully understand. Understanding how the daemon-severing cage worked helped to foreshadow both the knife and the device that nearly killed Lyra, and then tied together dust, daemons, spectres, angels and ghosts. Everything in your series feels like part of a coherent world, until those last few chapters. None of your rules, clues and connections made it at all predictable that Will and Lyra falling in love would cease the flow of dust away from the wheel trees in the world of the mulefa. Nothing you established about dust connected back to love; in fact, dust was primarily connected to conscious thought, creativity, intellect. Animals can love as well as people, but they don’t attract as much dust. Prepubescent children don’t attract as much dust, but they can fall in love (my behavior during my childhood crushes was quite embarrassing, but even so my feelings were no less real than in my adult relationships). So how does that moment of love affect dust at all? Why couldn’t a mulefa have done that? Why did it have to be in that location, as dust exists anywhere there is conscious life, and how did falling in love there affect dust everywhere? And if it didn’t affect dust everywhere, well, how exactly did that fulfill the prophecy? See objection number one.
- While the characterization of Lyra the child was extremely realistic at the beginning, she seemed too mature in the last few scenes. People don’t suddenly become adults like that. It’s an ongoing process, not a sudden switch. She didn’t act like a preteen in love, she didn’t even seem like a college student in love. She seemed like a woman of about thirty-five calmly choosing her medical career over the cute boy she grew up with, and that was jarring and frankly a bit weird.
- Despite this, the relationship between the two of them developed very naturally and I in no way object to the fact that they did fall in love. They were an excellent couple who I heartily ship. This leads me to my next complaint. It can sometimes be effective to not let a couple end up together; Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca come to mind. When there is a greater sacrifice that must be made, the resulting separation can be very poignant yet satisfying. However, this must be earned. In this case, there was something oddly cyclical about the rule that forced them to separate. People get sick of they live too long outside their own world. Why? So Will and Lyra can be forced to separate. Why did the story need them to separate? Because people can’t live outside their own world. Why? So Will and Lyra can split up, weren’t you listening? Once again, this rule had no roots in the other established rules of the world. It therefore seemed completely arbitrary and made what should have been a tragic romantic end into a bland disappointment.
- Also, why is it that one window left permanently open was fine, but two would clearly end the world? Especially one opened very briefly and closed immediately afterwards? Yes, I know you went over everything about dust escaping and the creation of spectres. But still, one is fine, two will destroy life as we know it. Something about that math doesn’t compute, especially in the presence of all the many windows that have been left open for the past three hundred years and the fact that dust is still around. Oh, and did you forget that the knife kills spectres, and they are terrified to approach it, and that Will and Lyra are grown up enough to see spectres now? So if the window is only opened when Will is there, knife in hand, any spectre who tries to get out will end up very, very stabbed. Problem solved.
- Lyra and John Parry talked about building the Republic of Heaven right where they were. This was Lyra’s purpose in life once she was separated from Will. You do realize that improving the world is a long process that requires more than just one life to do, right? More than one life and more than one lifetime. And it’s a collaborative effort, where the existence of a strong community of thinkers and do-gooders is more important than any one of them, individually. Lyra could have helped improve our world, and either plenty of other geniuses, artisans and philanthropists would have existed in her world to take her place. In any world that deserved the Republic of Heaven, the absence of one little girl would not have prevented them achieving it. If that was meant to be our explanation, it did not suffice.
- Would it have killed you to explain exactly what the angel meant about meeting each other by imagination? Because it was so vague, bizarre and yes, unconnected to other magical rules, that I almost find it easier to think the angel didn’t have any way they could see each other. I think she was just hoping that because of what she said, one day they would both learn to imagine each other vividly and exist in a happy fantasy where they are both dreaming separate daydreams about each other all the time. That would be comforting, and also terrible.
Now, other stories have flaws, even flaws in their ending, and still gone on to be classics. Consider the eagles from Lord of the Rings. The eagles didn’t ruin the book, but for a very simple reason. The scene we spent the whole book waiting for was the one where the One Ring was destroyed, and that was executed perfectly. The bit where Frodo and Sam were rescued was really just the beginning of the (overly long) epilogue, so we can collectively wave our hands at. Unfortunately, in your series, the equivalent of the destruction of the ring was the scene where Lyra’s destiny was fulfilled. It was the part that everything else had been building towards, the part that all the foreshadowing winked at, and the payoff of all the setups. I know now that if I ever read The Golden Compass again, in every scene I will know that it’s all building to a profoundly satisfying ending in The Amber Spyglass. I won’t be able to stop thinking about that. So I probably wouldn’t have ever reread it.
Which sucks, because I really liked The Golden Compass. I honestly liked it quite a bit more than Lord of the Rings, Narnia or even Harry Potter.
I would like to formally request that you rewrite the ending to this book so that A. Lyra makes an actual choice B. Will and Lyra either end up together or split up for a satisfying reason that is organic to the story and C. the connection between those events and the resolution of the conflict is at least vaguely coherent. I realize that having this request granted is a longshot, but if I imagine it hard enough, maybe I’ll turn into an angel and it will be my means to journey to an alternate universe where it comes true.
Your fan (ish),
Lane William Brown