Amy Welborn Michael Dubruiel

His Dark Materials

For this month’s look at books, let’s begin by playing a game.

Try, if you can, to guess from which genre of literature the following quotations were taken:

The Authority, god, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father the Almighty – those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves – the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself….The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie.

…I met an angel: a female angel….She said that all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity. She and the rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.

The Authority considers that conscious beings of every kind have become dangerously independent….

There are two great powers….and they’ve been fighting since time began….Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.

Let’s hear your guesses on the source of these snippets of wisdom. The latest manifesto from a fortress in the Montana backwoods? One of any volumes plucked at random from the “New Age” shelf in your local bookstore?

Final answer?

Wrong. Those rather tendentious flailings at someone’s image of traditional Judeo-Christianity are taken from one the more popular fiction series for older children and teens: His Dark Materials by British writer and former schoolteacher Philip Pullman, books which have received almost universal accolades from education and librarian’s organizations, including awards from the American Library Association, Horn Books, and Publishers Weekly. The last book of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, was published in October of 2000, and at this writing (late January) stands at #49 on the bestseller list, with hundreds of mostly glowing reader reviews.

Forget Harry Potter. Although some readers continue to disagree, it’s clear to an objective observer that J.K. Rowling doesn’t have any agenda on her mind but that of penning entertaining fantasy that’s about as dangerous as an episode of Bewitched.

Philip Pullman is different. He’s a gifted, imaginative writer, but with a twist. He does indeed have an agenda, he doesn’t hide it, and it’s all about religion.

The complex plot of the His Dark Materials trilogy resists simple summary. The books, resting somewhere between the fantasy and science fiction genres, revolve around a pair of pre-adolescents, Lyra and Will, children from different worlds (literally) who share two common bonds: the loss of parents and the possession of objects which give them unique access to knowledge. Lyra holds the Golden Compass of the first book, an object which communicates truth about any situation to any person wise enough to be able to read it, which Lyra is. Will’s gift is the Subtle Knife (the title of the second volume), an instrument which can cut open windows to other worlds.

Through their adventures in various worlds, it becomes clear that Lyra and Will are objects of interest to both sides in another heavenly war, this one, like the first, between God (the Authority) and Satan (called Lord Asriel here). Why? Because, it seems, these two children will be essential actors in a re-enacting of the Fall and Temptation of humanity, a second chance to claim the true fruit of the Fall, which was never really sin, it seems, but knowledge and wisdom, replacing the old, authoritarian “Kingdom of Heaven” with the “Republic of Heaven.”

From the quotations above, it’s clear where Pullman’s wartime sympathies lie. In Lyra’s world, one which is similar to but not exactly like ours (which is Will’s), the “Church,” a combination of the worst of Inquisitorial Catholicism and Calvinism, (the central “Magisterium” is located in Geneva) attempts to controls thought and stamps out heresy with glee and even murderous intent – one character, a “Father Gomez,” is given absolution in advance before he’s sent out by the Magisterium to kill Dr. Mary Malone, an ex-nun, now physicist, who’s posed to play the part of Lyra’s tempting serpent.

Philip Pullman is, indeed, a gifted writer. It’s clear that young readers have been captivated by these books, not because of his agenda, but because of interesting characters, skillfully built suspense and an array of fantastical creations, ranging from the basic premise of other worlds co-existing almost within each other, to specific features like huge, sentient, warrior polar bears, tiny spur-bearing spies called Gallevespians, and, most brilliantly of all, what those in Lyra’s world call daemons – material manifestations of one’s soul that are in the form of animals, creatures that accompany a person for the whole of one’s life, but don’t settle down into a permanent shape until adolescence. Pullman’s use of this last element is really a fascinating way to provoke thought about character and personality.

But, as one reviewer has observed, the best word to describe the cumulative effect of these novels is “a tragedy,” and not because of the events within them, but because of Pullman’s anti-religious agenda. The agenda is clear in interviews, as Pullman calls the God of the Old Testament a “hideous old brute” – but sneaks only into the last few pages of the first book. By the last, however, the agenda is the central focus, even involving a death-of-God scene in which Lyra kills the Authority, revealed to be a decrepit, runny-eyed old creature, whose dissipation into the atoms is accompanied by his own sigh of relief.


What makes it worse, if possible, is Pullman’s own dishonest attitude towards his work. In interview after interview, the author claims that he doesn’t even like his books to be classified as “fantasy,” since, in his words “I’m a realist in everything I write.”

Not so fast. A “realistic” treatment of Judeo-Christianity would require admitting that any sense of human dignity and freedom adrift in the world today can be traced to the Judeo-Christian ethos. An artist truly dedicated to “realism” in his depiction of organized religion would shine light, not on inquisitions and heresy courts, but on hospitals, schools, art, literature, scientific knowledge and sacrifice. And oh yes, a “realistic” presentation of Christianity would mention Jesus of Nazareth.

J.R.R. Tolkein, to whom Pullman is often compared, but for whom he has little regard (for the record, Pullman despises C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, calling it “anti-life”), was a man of deep convictions as well. The difference between the two writers’ work, though, is that Tolkein, as devout a Catholic as he was, took special care in his voluminous fantasy works – which extend far beyond The Lord of the Rings, by the way – to offer what he calls a “sub-creation” embodying his vision of reality and truth, but in which there is never an explicit reference to the notions “our world” has of God, nor of religion at all, creating on the way, a work of art, not polemics.

So there lies the essential difference, which extends beyond ideology. Phillip Pullman ultimately fails as a writer in His Dark Materials, not because of his views on religion, but because he simply can’t resist the temptation to preach about them, putting art to the service of manipulating his young readers’ opinions, ironically enough, with even more force and skill than any of his imagined Magisterial Courts could ever muster on their own.

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amy welborn Michael dubruiel

Amy Welborn's most recent (February 2012) book: Wish You Were Here: Travels Through Loss and Hope