Every year, I make a point to re-read one of my favourite book series’ of all time: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Consisting of three novels (Northern Lights — entitled The Golden Compass in the US — The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), this series marketed for young readers and young adults is a brilliant literary reversal of John Milton’s classic epic poem, Paradise Lost, even taking its own series’ title from the same poem:
Into this wild Abyss
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave–
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,–
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
I love this series. I’ve loved it since I first picked it up back when I was in elementary school. However I often find it difficult to talk about this series without needing to acknowledge the…notoriety this series holds with many (usually religious) societies
and people. One publication actually called the His Dark Materials the “stuff of nightmares and worthy of the bonfire.” Wow. Them’s fightin’ words — and, for the record: I believe book burning is the stuff of nightmares and demonstrates nothing more than a level of ignorance and hatred so great, that there are not enough superlatives in the world that can, in any way, encompass it.
Bringing it more close to home, I can speak from experience the reactions that even seeing someone else reading this series can have upon the intolerant. While I spent my childhood in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, my young adulthood was spent in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. Now, when I started reading this series in New York at the tender age of around nine or ten, nobody bothered me about it. But come the age of seventeen-ish, when I picked up this book to re-read it? I got spewed with quite of bit of religious diatribe and verbal vitriol, a lot of it from people who hadn’t even read the books.
But despite all that, I don’t want to talk about the issues various religious groups have with these novels, or even the ridiculousness I have experienced over the years when people see me re-reading Pullman’s trilogy — you may take those as you will. Instead, what I want to discuss is the more insidious form of censorship that this series has experienced in North America: the invisible kind of censorship. I say invisible because, unless you were to own multiple versions of the series, or happen to like looking at books’ Wikipedia pages (as I do), you might not have known that several lines in the North American publication of the third novel in the series, The Amber Spyglass, were censored by the publishers.
CAVEAT EMPTOR: This post will contain spoilers for the His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, specifically details relating to the character arc of the protagonist in its concluding novel, The Amber Spyglass. You have been warned.