Reviewing His Dark Materials Sequence III - Philip Pullman vs. Christianity


In a way, it is surprising that Philip Pullman hasn’t received more attention than he has. Here we have somebody who has written a set of popular novels that are explicitly critical of Christianity. Despite this, the attention of fundamentalist, evangelical loudmouths (er, speakers), has been routed solidly on J.K. Rowling’s totally innocuous Harry Potter series. Philip Pullman clamours for attention, and he is not getting it. It just illustrates how many of these speakers are more interested in getting attention for themselves and their causes than they are in rationally debating the merits of various books.

That, and the fact that Philip Pullman would probably trounce the book banners to insignificance if he was allowed to go against these people in a meaningful debate.

Let us be clear: even if I don’t agree with the thrust of the Dark Materials sequence, Philip Pullman has almost written a masterwork. I can’t even say, as I do with such films as Fargo, “It’s brilliant. I hated it.” It is just brilliant, 95% of the time. A Christian friend of mine said it best, when she told me she had read The Golden Compass, liked it, but refused to read any more. She quoted C.S. Lewis who once said of another writer, “Brilliant, but to my mind depraved.” The story would have been perfect if Philip Pullman’s agenda had been more subtly laid out, and room left for reader interpretation and disagreement. As it stands, I am left with the awkward feeling that I’ve witnessed the creation of something special but that I as a Christian reader have been excluded from it.

Witness these quotes:

“There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did — not in the same way, but just as horribly — they cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls — they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”

The Subtle Knife, p. 52

“There are two great powers”. and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. 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.”

The Subtle Knife, p. 335

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.

The Amber Spyglass, p. 441

That’s pretty sweeping. By these and other comments, and by taking a story of a battle between the Christian God and the Christian Devil and turning it on its head, Philip Pullman stakes his ground, and Christians are not welcome on it.

Philip Pullman is an Atheist, proud of it, and is sharply critical of the religious allegory of the Narnia series. In Phillip’s words: “I realised that what he was up to was propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in… It is monumentally disparaging of girls and women. It is blatantly racist. One girl was sent to hell because she was getting interested in clothes and boys.”

As an aside, that girl that Philip Pullman is referring to is Susan, and I question his interpretation that she has been sent to hell. Although The Last Battle represents a children’s story retelling of the Book of Revelation through the ending of Narnia, seven of the eight main characters of the book series find themselves in Heaven because of a railroad accident. Susan survived. The fact that she wasn’t included in the final Narnia story was a reflection of the fact that she had “grown up” and had lost interest in such childish things as fairy tales — which in her view Narnia had become. There is no suggestion that Susan is doomed. Her life won’t be happy, having lost all of her siblings, but she’s still living, and the door of Heaven will always be open to her if she wants to walk in. I certainly doubt that C.S. Lewis is saying that interest in clothes and boys is something that automatically distances oneself from God.

But this is a small point. Philip Pullman admits that his trilogy is a calculated attack on Christianity, designed to offset what he sees as the influence of CS Lewis’ Narnia series, among other things.

I can understand Philip Pullman’s desire to create a series of books that reflects his own theology. I can even understand that he might wish to respond to a set of books that may well have made him as uncomfortable to read as the Dark Materials series makes me. Unfortunately he lets the viewpoint get in the way of the story and he deliberately alienates much of his readership.

Many are not aware that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books are religious allegory. Witness, for example, the number of attempts made by religious fundamentalists to have the books banned for promoting witchcraft. Above the retelling of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, we have a standard story of courage, temptation and love. C.S. Lewis never lets himself get tied up in theology (the closest he comes is Lucy’s statement in The Last Battle that a stable once housed something that was bigger than the whole world — referring, of course, to the birth of Jesus — a stray comment that shook me out of the book momentarily), while Phillip spends paragraphs specifically talking about the Christian God and the evils of his church.

In the Dark Materials sequence there is no reflection of the fact that many Christians, if presented with the facts, would willingly join Lord Asriel’s campaign for justice in the heavens. For instance, Dr. Mary Malone is a former nun who rejects outright any merits of Christianity, removing the only supporting character who could act as a reasonable stand-in for Christian readers. There is nobody else in these books who wouldn’t laugh at my spirituality or twist it into their own evil ends. I can buy that the Magesterium is corrupt. I can even buy that it’s been supported by a senile and sadistic usurper of God in the form of the Authority. What I can’t buy is the suggestion that no Christian can fight this Church-supported usurper without abandoning his or her own religion.

Philip Pullman isn’t the only science fiction and fantasy author to replay the Battle of the Heavens. J. Michael Strasinsky, himself an atheist, sets up angels and devils in the form of Vorlons and Shadows in Babylon 5. The goal of humanity and the other young races: to make the “old ones” understand that their time is finished and that the younger races now had to stand on their own two feet. That is a classic atheist viewpoint, but J. Michael Strasinsky remained respectful towards people of faith. Priests, shamen, Benedictine monks are all shown to be basically good characters, even though the angels of their religion are shown to be nothing more than highly evolved aliens. More to the point, he didn’t divert into lectures about why atheism was the only rational way to view the universe, or why organized religion was so corrupt. He just set up the characters and let his agenda fuel the story rather than overshadow it.

By responding to Lewis’ “propaganda” with propaganda of his own, Phillip undercuts his own argument — if propaganda is so bad, doesn’t it invalidate his own creation as well as that of C.S. Lewis? In any event, Pullman’s propaganda is less artfully made and intrudes upon a very good story. The Dark Materials sequence is brilliant, but it could have been so much better.

Tomorrow: Did Philip Pullman Really Kill God?

Philip Pullman says some interesting things in his own words on this online interview.

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