a trilogy by Philip Pullman
(All published by Knopf) $49.95
The Golden Compass (1995)
The Subtle Knife (1997)
The Amber Spyglass (2000)

PHILIP PULLMAN FAULTS contemporary literature for what he calls "a fatal lack of ambition." "This is what I find most irritating in my contemporaries among writers," he said in a recent interview. "They're not trying big things. They're doing little things and doing them well."

Pullman himself could never be accused of lacking ambition. His recently completed trilogy, His Dark Materials, is nothing less than an imaginative rewriting of the founding myths of Western culture. In The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and now The Amber Spyglass, Pullman takes on the Book of Genesis, the epic tradition from Homer to Milton, and several centuries' worth of debates about good and evil, innocence and experience, religion and science, tradition and innovation, authority and freedom, and the nature of human sexuality. What is more, Pullman does all this, not in a dense, convoluted metafiction, but in a fast-paced, action-packed fantasy narrative written for "young adults," which is to say children between the ages of 10 and 14.

A fantasy novel for children? Part of the reason that Pullman has adopted the genre of adolescent fantasy is that it allows him to write with a range, and an audacity, that is rarely accepted in more "mature" modes of fiction. At the start of his career, Pullman did write one amazing novel for adults. Galatea (1978) is a postmodern fable about the magical powers of sex, money, and simulation. Over the years, it has acquired a small but ardent underground cult following. But Galatea was a commercial failure when first published, and quickly went out of print. Its strangeness just didn't seem to fit into the literary landscape of the time. Pullman switched over from adult to children's fiction and never looked back. He found that young adult fiction, like science fiction and comics, still has room for the sort of extravagance that is all too often disdained in officially sanctioned genres of serious writing.

The result has been a series of books rich and complex enough for adult readers, but fully accessible to children. Pullman is, above all, a captivating storyteller, with a knack for compelling narrative and an exuberantly inventive imagination. His Dark Materials is vast in scope, and thrilling down to its smallest details. The trilogy takes place, not just in our world, but also in the multiple alternative worlds of quantum theory. The time is recognizably the present, though some of the worlds have less advanced technology than our own. The books' heroes are children from two of these worlds. The Golden Compass introduces Lyra Belacqua, a wild and deceitful 11-year-old girl who lives in "a universe like ours, but different in many ways." In the subsequent volumes, Lyra is joined by the ferocious 12-year-old Will Parry, on the run from our own universe for having killed a man. Pullman portrays his protagonists with the utmost sympathy, but also without idealizing them. You don't forget for a moment that these are children, not adults. But there is not a trace of that cloying condescension that makes kids in Hollywood movies so irritating.

In the course of the three volumes, Lyra and Will engage in an epic voyage of discovery. They are on a mythical quest, though they do not learn until the end of the final volume what it is they have been searching for. The story takes Lyra and Will through numerous trials and dangers and narrow escapes, as they pass through multiple worlds in turmoil. At one point, they even traverse the land of the dead, in an astonishing passage that evokes (and rivals) visits to the underworld in Homer, Virgil, and Dante. In the course of their adventures, Lyra and Will also encounter many strange beings, including talking bears, witches, Gallivespians (tiny humans only two inches high), Mulefa (sort of like intelligent elephants on wheels), Specters (disembodied wraiths that consume human souls), harpies, ghosts, angels, and even God himself.

But the richest of Pullman's inventions is the daemon. A daemon is like a familiar, or a spirit companion. It is the physical externalization of your soul, in animal form. Your daemon is truly your other self: your best friend and your lifelong companion. You are never alone, as long as it stays beside you. The daemons of children can change shape at the whim of the moment. But each adult's daemon has a single fixed form. Leopard or monkey, raven or dog or serpent, it symbolizes the character of the person to whom it is attached. Every human being in Lyra's world has a daemon. At first, this may seem like a strained metaphor. But it quickly becomes compelling. The entire plot of The Golden Compass hinges upon the nature and power of daemons. In the subsequent volumes, daemons increasingly come to stand for the very possibility of a rich and satisfying inner life. They are also the part of our imagination that extends beyond ourselves and thus allows us to have sympathy for others. Gradually, as we read the trilogy, we come to realize that we have daemons too. It's just that, most of the time, we aren't alert and self-aware enough to see them and have conversations with them.

As with the daemons, so with everything else in these three books. His Dark Materials is such a good read for both child and adult readers because everything in it is so clearly and exuberantly imagined. The trilogy lingers in the mind long after you've finished it. It has a poignant, haunting quality to it, something that is quite rare in either children's or adult fiction. Nothing could be further, for instance, from the cozy, oh-so-British jokiness that makes J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books so popular. Pullman comes out of a far different British tradition. It has to do with the way that his characters and situations accumulate meanings in the course of the three volumes; what starts out as an exciting children's adventure story evolves into something far more momentous.

In fact, Pullman seeks nothing less than to rework the Christian myth of the Fall, as told in the Bible and Milton's Paradise Lost. Like the English Romantic poets Blake and Shelley, Pullman tells a version of the story in which God is the oppressor, churches and religions are the enemies of human freedom, and the Fall itself is a crucial step in personal and societal self-realization. At the same time, the grand sweep of the narrative is always anchored in the concrete details of Lyra and Will's adventures. It is their fall from innocence into experience, or from childhood unconcern into the burdens, and the awkwardness, of full sexual awareness, that drives the dazzling inventions of The Amber Spyglass.

Pullman has written a story that brings his pre-adolescent readers back to reflect upon themselves. His Dark Materials is a children's narrative about the end of childhood. And it is an adventure story that takes us through a series of marvelous experiences, not in order to banally assert that there's no place like home, but precisely to encourage us to reimagine and transfigure the things that are nearest to us, and that we take most for granted. I can't think of many books, for readers of any age, that do that.