Spilt Religion: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials
Although Philip Pullman’s trilogy of fantasy books for children, His Dark Materials, is barely known in the United States, that is set to change. The books are more popular in England than Harry Potter; Pullman is a better writer in every way than J. K. Rowling, and given the cinematic success of Lord of the Rings, Pullman’s eminently filmable work will undoubtedly soon show up at a theater near you. The books have already been broadcast by the BBC as radio theatre and dramatized for the stage. Current versions are playing in lavish productions at the Royal National Theater (Olivier) as His Dark Materials I, and II, each over three hours long.
Pullman writes with energy and at times, beauty. His imagination works on a grand scale. As we follow the quest of his two child protagonists, Lyra and Will, we meet gypsy boatmen, witches, armored polar bears, cliff ghasts, ghosts, spectres, angels, the tiny but deadly Gillevspian spies, a Byronic hero and his venomous wife, a cowboy balloonist from Texas, an arctic explorer, and hordes of ghoulish and evil priests, who, like the Nazis, are interested in human experimentation. In the process Pullman weaves together elements of modern cosmology, quantum physics, the I Ching, and especially, the Bible, for His Dark Materials is a rewriting of Paradise Lost in which “Lucifer” gets to win. The title itself comes from Book II of Paradise Lost in which Satan, on his way to Eden, must cross chaos. God’s dark materials are the unformed matter that he could use to create other worlds. Pullman makes a connection between dark materials, dark matter, and in the story, a newly discovered elementary particle, “dust,” which is attracted to consciousness and linked to “original sin.”
The books composing the trilogy are entitled Northern Lights (formerly The Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. For the last book, Pullman won the prestigious Whitbread Prize (2001), not only in children’s literature but in all categories; it was the first time a book written mainly for children accomplished this feat. The plot is absorbing, though it grows a bit flaccid in the last book. Rather than attempt a summary in this short space, I will simply mention a few key elements.
Pullman’s adventure takes place in several parallel universes. In Lyra’s, which bears great resemblance to ours, people can see their daemons (pronounced “demon”). A person’s daemon is essentially their totem animal, a physical manifestation of their spirit. Since daemon and person are a corporate entity, they cannot exist at significant distances from each other without incurring great pain; people and their daemons are born together and die together. A child’s daemon takes different animal forms depending on the child’s mood, but at puberty, the daemon takes a fixed form. Daemons and their people converse and are capable, to some degree, of independent action. In our universe, home of the second protagonist Will, daemons are invisible, though they exist, and if we are wrenched away from them, we feel their absence in pain. Pullman has come up with a wonderful device, and reams of plot flow out of his daemonology.
Lyra’s parents drive the plot. Her father is Lord Asriel, whose name, Miltonists will recognize, belongs to the angel who refused to join Satan. Yet, Lord Asriel is one of the story’s two Lucifer figures, the one who wants to destroy God so that the “republic of heaven” can be set up on earth. (So many totalitarians have had that dream, you would think Pullman would be leery of it, but he is as enthralled with the idea as Blake.) Lyra’s mother is Mrs. Coulter, a church careerist who is most happy torturing children and heretics. In the background is the evil church, part Roman Catholic, part Nazi, but with an implied Calvinist theology, for its Vatican is located in Geneva. The second Lucifer figure in HDM is the ex-nun physicist, Dr. Mary Malone, Lyra’s beneficent tempter, who, near the end of the last book makes the trilogy’s theme explicit: “The Christian religion is a very powerful and very convincing mistake, that’s all.” (The impetus for Mary’s insight? At a physics conference which she attends as a nun, she discovers she wants to have sex with another physicist, and any creed which gets in the way of that just has to be wrong!)
The explicit philosophical position of the books is a smoothly compatible blend of Blakean romanticism and its near descendant, humanism. (Bertrand Russell and the currently popular A. C. Grayling are as thoroughly behind this narrative as Christianity is behind Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.) Pullman’s world favors the material over the spiritual. Indeed, God—referred to only as “the Authority”—and the angels are all material beings, though their substance is less substantial than that of men, whose sensuality they envy. In fact, men have little trouble defeating angels in combat, which makes the final battle anti-climactically easy. (In an ironic scene, the fanatical priest Gomez, who has been sent to assassinate Lyra, is killed in a struggle with an angel because he overestimates the angel’s strength and solidity.) In Pullman’s cosmos, the universe pre-exists “the Authority” who was merely the first angel to come into existence. This echoes Paradise Lost, in which Satan challenges the idea that God is the creator of the universe. How do we know, Satan tells his legions, that God didn’t just get here first and dupe us into believing he is our creator? In HDM, this accusation is taken as the premise, and “the Authority” uses his head start and greater development like a school yard bully to lord it over the angels who somehow coalesce from the cosmos. The Authority, however, ages like Sibyl, and when we see him, he is so senile that he finds his own death a blessing. The Authority, however, has appointed a Regent to duke it in his stead. This is the angel Metatron, formerly the man Enoch of Genesis 5:24, taken to heaven in the flesh and transformed. Metatron, apparently, was one of the sons of heaven in Genesis who lusted after human women, and he is rather too easily duped into his own destruction at the end of the trilogy by the femme fatale Mrs. Coulter. Together, the Authority and Metatron appear as the celestial parallel to the mad King George III and his debauched son and Regent, the eventual King George IV.
Unsurprisingly, new age religion seeps through the mythic cracks of Pullman’s story, which includes in its premises Fate, prescience, and a conscious, Buddhist-like cosmos into which people’s ghosts joyfully rise and disperse, like popping champagne bubbles. Oddly absent from all of this Miltonic scaffolding is the Son, Jesus, referred to only twice in HDM, and then only obliquely, although we do see various servants of the church crossing themselves. Pullman simply doesn’t deal with the significance of Jesus, as human, son of God, or even idea. Christ’s courage, love, and sacrifice are simply ignored, and the church that Pullman creates is all evil. What Pullman attacks, therefore, lacks even the substantiality of a straw man. Pullman’s decision not to include Christ in his version of Paradise Lost is not only a cosmic cop-out, but a clue to the weakness of his story, which is ultimately shallow.
Like no other religion, Christianity is based on a story (Tolkien called it a “true myth.”), one which has been considered and elaborated for 2,000 years by a long succession of great thinkers. At its start, the story of the fall in Genesis provides a subtle and deep analysis of human character and its tendency toward self-aggrandizement and the victimization of others. At the other end, it offers even more stunning news of the redemptive power of love and self-sacrifice. Every page of fantasy by Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and also Madeleine L’Engle is informed by this story, and thus they penetrate more deeply into the human heart than Pullman. There is no character in HDM that has the depth or complexity of Lewis’s redeemed betrayer Edmund (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) or Tolkien’s suffering servant Frodo, who sees himself turning daily, under the influence of the ring, into Gollum. Although there are evil men in HDM, there is no recognition of sin’s gravitic pull on the best of us, no recognition that people need to be redeemed, and therefore no significant conflict between good and evil within Pullman’s characters, who, delightful as they are, remain essentially flat. Humanism may seem a sober and bracing philosophy, but for fiction, it is deadly. Its sense of comedy reaches no higher than “zest,” and its scope for tragedy is correspondingly shallow. As human life and its portrayal approaches the extremes, humanism fails. While ambitious, HDM fails as an alternate to Tolkien’s “true myth.”
The staging of HDM comes at an interesting cultural moment for England. The Times reported in January that weekly mosque attendance had exceeded that of the Church of England. A few weeks later the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, talked of moving cafes and possibly even nightclubs into churches in an attempt, to lure people into attending. Certainly, the churches here, in decay, largely empty and under-funded, could use some rent from Starbucks. Yet, Christianity’s vitality can in some sense be measured by the constant hostility it arouses. The media routinely derogates Christianity as it does no other religion. The most popular show in London, The Jerry Springer Opera, puts God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Adam and Eve on stage as Jerry’s guests, and they behave as crudely as the worst trash that network executives could dig up. One wonders whether Christianity is a source of any cultural power at all. Now we have an anti-Christian fantasy for children.
Yet, at the same time HDM was on stage at the National Theatre, two other stage versions of Paradise Lost appeared in Northhampton and Bristol. Although one made Satan a hero and Christ a dwarf automaton, the other provided a beautiful and complex rendition of Milton’s work that put Christ at the center. In addition, Dogville, a serious treatment of New Testament issues appeared in cinemas and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, opened to large crowds in the United States and Britain. The story that inspired Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, it appears, is the story that will continue to goad because it can’t be killed.
Craig Bernthal is a professor of English at California State University, Fresno.
Posted: January 31, 2006
What We’re Reading (Summer 2016)