Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials

This past winter, the illustrious and venerable New York publishing house Alfred A. Knopf published the third and final volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Its title is The Amber Spyglass, and it runs 518 handsomely laid-out pages. The English-born, Oxford-educated Pullman had earmarked his first two volumes for the “young adult” market, which spans ages seven to twelve. This third volume, however, was openly marketed to adults as well. Indeed, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection. (The first two volumes of the trilogy—despite their designation as young-adult fare—should also be considered strictly adult fiction, given their high quotient of torture and violence.)

Nonetheless, the first two volumes, The Golden Compass (1996) and The Subtle Knife (1997), which are available in the children’s section of every major bookstore in the United States in an attractive Knopf paperback edition, already carry a truly impressive list of honors and distinctions. A sampling: An American Library Association Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults; a 1997 Children’s American Book-seller of the Year Honor Book; a Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books award; a Blue Ribbon Book; a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year; Britain’s Carnegie Medal and Guardian Prize for Fiction; another Book-of-the-Month Club main selection.

Many authors would readily yield a piece of their immortal souls for the kind of reviews Pullman has received in leading publications. The New York Times: “[V]ery grand indeed…scene after scene of power and beauty”; the Detroit Free Press: “Pullman is a remarkable writer and his trilogy seems destined to become a classic”; Kirkus Reviews: “Fantastic…. A shattering tale that begins with a promise and delivers an entire universe.” In the July 1, 2001, issue of the Washington Post Book World, staff critic Michael Dirda listed “10 superb 20th century works of fantasy that should appeal to people who only care for ‘literature:” Along with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Dirda included the three volumes of His Dark Materials, calling the trilogy “the Anti-Narnia, a critique of organized religion, a paean to Blakean joy in life, and, for all its controversy, the most vividly imagined ‘secondary world’ in 20th century children’s literature. But definitely not just for kids:’

Also this past summer, the Quality Paperback Book Review ran a four-color spread ad for Pullman’s trilogy, leading off with this quotation from the New York Times: “A thrillingly ambitious tale…. [M] ay well hold the most subversive message in children’s literature in years.” The same ad, illustrated with pictures from the covers of the three Pullman books, included a sidebar quotation in red type from a leading character in the trilogy, the witch Serafina Pekkala: “All the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity. 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 above quotation alone—a broadside against the traditional Judeo-Christian vision of God (“the Authority”) as good and the “rebel angels,” or demons, as evil—is evidence that his trilogy, as the advertisement puts it, “is not your standard sword-and-sorcery escapism….” It is also evidence that His Dark Materials may not really be the sort of thing that you would want to put into the hands of “young adults,” if by that you mean impressionable children between the ages of seven and twelve.

Nonetheless, few Christians or Jews seem even to notice, much less care about, the all-out attack on their faith just underneath the skillful narration and imaginative fantasy that the critics have praised in His Dark Materials, catapulting the entire trilogy to best-seller lists.

All over the Internet, for example, evangelical Protestants and even some Catholics have set up chat rooms devoted to condemning J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular Harry Potter books on the ground that they promote the notion that sorcery can be benign. The Wizard of Oz and even Mary Poppins have come under the same scrutiny from the literal-minded quarter. But few of the self-described guardians of children’s minds have looked up from their Potter-bashing to examine the far worse threat the Pullman books present to the faith of young readers. The Pullman series goes far beyond the creation of the genial (and actually quite moral) Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Potter books or the lovely Glinda, Good Witch of the North, in the Oz volumes. In the world of Pullman, God Himself (the Authority) is a merciless tyrant, His Church is an instrument of oppression, and true heroism consists of overthrowing both. These are dark materials indeed, and they are being marketed to children.

The Anti-Harry Potter

You have only to compare Pullman’s fictional worlds (for his characters pass through many worlds) with those of Rowling, C.S. Lewis, or J.R.R. Tolkien to recognize a difference. Yes, parents and school boards may raise a voice of protest because Harry Potter goes to a school for wizards, but Harry and his cohorts are always on the side of white magic. Yes, there is the wicked wizard who did in Harry’s parents and left him with a distinctive scar on his brow, but every fairy tale requires at least one really bad character, and in Rowling’s books, good always triumphs over evil. The works of Lewis and Tolkien also deal with good and evil, and good also lays evil low. But not so in Pullman’s worlds: Evil (what we Christians call God) is vanquished, but ultimately Good (the two innocent child protagonists) must make a mighty sacrifice for mankind. That sacrifice does not entail Christ the Redeemer come again.

To say that Pullman’s trilogy is “a critique of organized religion” is an understatement. The books are about the most disturbing action of all for those who believe in organized religion: the annihilation of God Himself. Read this description from The Amber Spyglass of an encounter between the dying Authority and Pullman’s young hero and heroine, Will and Lyra, the new Adam and Eve who replace Christ as saviors in Pullman’s theology:

Demented and powerless the aged being could only weep and mumble in fear and pain and misery, and he shrank away from what seemed like yet another threat. “It’s all right,” Will said, “we can help you hide, at least. Come on, we won’t hurt you.” The shaking hand seized his and feebly held on. The old one was uttering a wordless whimper that went on and on, and grinding his teeth, and compulsively plucking at himself with his free hand; but as Lyra reached in, too, to help him out, he tried to smile, and to bow, and his ancient eyes deep in their wrinkles blinked at her with innocent wonder.

Between them they helped the ancient of days out of his crystal cell; it wasn’t hard, for he was as light as paper, and he would have followed them anywhere, having no will of his own, and responding to simple kindness like a flower to the sun. But in the open air there was nothing to stop the wind from damaging him, and to their dismay his form began to loosen and dissolve. Only a few moments he had vanished completely, and their last impression was of those eyes, blinking in wonder, and a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief. Then he was gone: a mystery dissolving in mystery.

Yes, readers, that was Philip Pullman killing God, a description of His death. A subversive message for children? Yes, I think so.

The Anti-God

Pullman has his own peculiar spin on religion. Of course, God, or the Authority, no longer runs the daily affairs of the kingdom in His Dark Materials. Ruling on His behalf is an angel called Metatron (the name comes from apocryphal Jewish literature). This stand –in for God plans to intervene more actively in human affairs than the Authority did. In The Subtle Knife, some of the many worlds in Pullman’s trilogy begin to open into ours, with the aid of “the subtle knife,” a blade with unique and impressive powers, the full extent of which we only discover in the final pages of The Amber Spyglass. Through these openings made by the knife, dust escapes, dust that Pullman equates with death and that he ties symbolically to the curse that follows Adam’s fall in the third chapter of the Book of Genesis: “In the seat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Indeed, Pullman has taken the trilogy’s overall title, His Dark Materials, from another account of the fall, Milton’s Paradise Lost. Certain lines in Book II of the poem describe the vista of hell that Lucifer, the chief of the rebel angels, surveys after god casts him out of heaven:

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….

Pullman’s theology is creative, not to say positively ingenious. In his “worlds,” there are computers that talk to elementary particles fashioned of the dark materials, flesh-eating “Cliff-Ghasts,” flights of beautiful witches many thousands of years old, myriads of angels, talking ten-foot-tall armored bears, wheeled creatures—”mulefas”—with elephant-like trunks, “gyptians,” “Specters,” Africans, and Tartars. Curiously, no Jesus Christ in any form or remembrance is anywhere to be found. Of course, all this material is so complex and sophisticated that, although young readers are its target audience, only a few extremely precocious and well-read youngsters are likely to appreciate it.

Furthermore, were you to rate the trilogy like a film, it would receive an R. Granted, no four-letter words can be found in Pullman, but murder, torture, violent death, and sex abound. And turning Christianity topsy-turvy can certainly be considered blasphemy, another reason why Christian parents should be wary of the books.

Pullman, to give him credit, is an extremely accomplished writer, whose considerable erudition is joined to a powerful imagination. He has said, “I have stolen ideas from every book I have ever read,” which seems entirely plausible. His visual descriptions are, moreover, singularly evocative. Which means, among other things, that he can make the reader feel misery, pain, and loss all the more keenly.

The Anti-Adam and Eve

The plot of Pullman’s trilogy opens with the girl-child Lyra and her “daemon,” a small furry creature who is like part of her own living soul. They inhabit an academic center that is somewhat like Oxford University and its surrounding town—where Pullman himself lives—but different in many aspects, one of the most singular of which is that every human being, like Lyra, has a daemon. It can assume many different forms until its human attains the age of puberty, at which time the daemon settles on one form for the rest of its existence. Any injury inflicted on a human or his daemon is felt with equal intensity by both. Neither can live without the other. Lord Asriel, a major figure in the trilogy who also happens to be Lyra’s father, concocts an elaborate version of the story of the fall, which links the fixing of the daemon’s shapes to the transgression of Adam and Eve: “Sin and shame and death. It came the moment their daemons became fixed.”

Lyra is the illegitimate progeny of the adulterous Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, a beautiful, ambitious, and ruthless woman (her daemon is a golden monkey). Lord Asriel, who in many ways resembles Lucifer, is even more ambitious (his daemon is a stunning she-leopard), and he plots to overthrow the Authority in Heaven and on Earth in one vast terrible battle and also to conquer Death. But unbeknownst to Lord Asriel—and for some time to Lyra’s mother as well—Lyra herself stands in the way of his bold plan to recast the universe. That is because Lyra is, as Mrs. Coulter learns from a witch she has tortured to death, Mother Eve reincarnate, destined to bring about a redemption from original sin.

Pullman’s treatment of the Catholic Church in his fantasy-Oxford world is at times imaginative (he names one of the popes John Calvin the First). But it is also unflattering. Mary Malone, a physicist introduced late in The Subtle Knife, says, “I used to be a nun you see. I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn’t any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.” What is a seven-year-old to make of that?

In order to save the world, Will must close up all the entrances to all the other worlds and then destroy the subtle knife. Although he and Lyra are in love, they realize that they must part forever to prevent a repeat of the fall of man. Will must stay in his Oxford (that is, the real one), and Lyra must return to the other Oxford, where we met her. With a kiss and many tears, Will seals off their two worlds.

As the trilogy ends, with Lyra and her daemon back where they started in the Botanic Garden, she recollects something Will’s dying father had said: “He meant the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.”

Lyra then realizes why she and Will and their daemons had to separate:

“We have to be all those different things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build….”

All the different bells of the city chimed, once each, this one high, that one low, some close by…. In that other Oxford where she and Will had kissed goodbye, the bells would be chiming, too, and a nightingale would be singing, and a little breeze would be stirring in the leaves in the Botanic Garden.

“And then what?” said her daemon sleepily. “Build what?”

“The Republic of Heaven,” said Lyra.

These are the last words of the trilogy. I believe I did say something about Pullman’s theology being on the creative side. Though richly conceived and powerfully written, Pullman’s trilogy presents a disturbing—not to say dangerous—vision. Parents, do you know what your children are reading?


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