So, listening on vacation -- unless you are driving many, many miles with fellow audiobook lovers, or sunning yourself at some quiet beach -- can be somewhat problematic, so it took me over a month to finish all 34+ hours of Philip Pullman's masterpiece, His Dark Materials. (Of course, it didn't help that I left my mp3 player in one hotel room and so was without listening altogether for five days.) But like Kimberly, over at Stacked, revisiting these books after about a 10-year hiatus brought me a much greater appreciation of the depth and complexity of this trilogy. Most of the recent press about this series has been about its anti-religious (anti-Christian?) bias, but everyone seems to be ignoring the fact that it is also a cracking adventure and a wonderful exploration of character. (In my first days in Scotland, adjusting to the time difference, I finally had to turn The Golden Compass off, because it simply wasn't allowing me to settle down and try to sleep.)
I remember the bones of the stories from my earlier reading and I'll share them here. Lyra Belacqua, an all-but-orphan being raised by the scholars at Jordan College in Oxford, embarks on a dangerous trip to the far north when her best friend Roger disappears. She obtains the golden compass (the alethiometer) and meets delightful allies on her journey, but discovers that her parents are at the core of a plot to a) keep children from original sin by severing them from their souls (i.e., the animal daemons to whom they are physically linked) [her mother, Mrs. Coulter's, ambition as well as that of the ruling religious class] and b) use the fantastic energy created by that severance to open a door to uncountable alternative worlds [her father, Lord Asriel's, ambition]. Lyra is too late to save Roger, but blunders through the opening her father created to enter a world called Citigazze -- seemingly populated entirely by near-feral children.
There, Lyra meets Will -- a boy from an Oxford in our (the reader's) world -- who is hiding out because he believes he has killed a man. Will battles for possession of the subtle knife -- the knife that can easily cut through the barriers between worlds -- but Lyra's parents, and others from her world, want it as well, since it is a weapon of enormous power. Lyra and Will begin a long journey of escape that takes them, among other places, into the world of the dead where they use the knife to free the uncounted numbers of souls (including Roger and Will's long-lost father) to mingle with the essential Dust throughout the universes. They finally find safety in the world of sentient wheeled creatures called mulefa -- where they meet up with Mary Malone (previously encountered in book 2). Dr. Malone has fashioned an amber spyglass that shows her the Dust is dying and that only by destroying the subtle knife can Dust be restored.
At least I think that's what happens. The whole Dust/original sin connection (if there's no original sin, how does society perpetuate itself?) continues to elude me ... but I think I've got the picture that we all exude Dust and we all return (or should want to return) to Dust when we die. And that when organized religion seeks political power, it ceases to care about our souls. (And if you are a true conspiracy theorist, you believe that organized religion has stood in the way of completion of the trilogy in the movies, but if you've seen the first movie you know that it really doesn't matter whether or not the other two are made -- the books are just so superior.)
I believe that when the audio versions of these books were released (at the turn of the millennium, well after publication of the first two books), they were among the first ever full-cast readings of a children's book (like Wikipedia, I cite no sources). I noticed that Bruce Coville, founder of Full Cast Audio, is cited as one of the producers of The Golden Compass. Well, it really doesn't matter where these fall in that spectrum, what matters is that they are superb.
It's all down to Philip Pullman. Not only did he write them, he reads them! And he reads them so well. He's pretty amazing, actually; expressing a wide range of emotions with his voice, knowing when to sustain suspense and when to calm down. The enthusiasm with which he reads the battle scenes seems quite bloodthirsty! Mostly, though, I just loved listening to his voice. It's soothing (except for those battle scenes) and confident. A listener knows she is in good hands with Pullman; she's going to get a great story, well told.
The three volumes are peopled with a vast number of characters, and each audiobook has about 30 voice actors listed on the package. The names of just a few were familiar to me (and I've returned my copies) so the thing here is to give a shout out to those characters who particularly impressed me: Will [two different boys, both excellent], Mrs. Coulter [is there a scarier woman in children's literature?], Iorek Byrnison [the actor also voiced Lord Asriel], Serafina Pekkala, Lee Scoresby's daemon Hester [so calm and collected], Mary Malone [whose interpretation made the whole mulefa section a little more tolerable], Roger -- dead and alive [such as sweet, sad sound -- I think a girl did the voicing], the wicked Sir Charles who tries to obtain the subtle knife, another religious baddie from the third book who sacrifices himself so Lyra can be destroyed, and many, many more. There are no poor performances here. Even Lyra, whose petulant screeching is a little tiresome, matured by the third book and I even shed a tear for her as she faced her forever parting from Will (a certain vampire has nothing on the love between these two).
I listened to Once Upon a Time in the North a year or so ago, and now I'll probably go back and revisit Lyra's Oxford when I've got a moment. There are just no bad things emanating from Philip Pullman's pen, although I'm not sure how eager I am to read his latest offering (maybe I'll wait until it's available in audio -- oops, it is!).