SPOILERS AHEAD for His Dark Materials.
In the past I have written extensively of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I have spoken of how it is a spectacular feat of imagination that almost equals The Lord of the Rings. I have also spoken at length regarding its anti-Christian themes, and it is regarding this that I wish to offer something of a reappraisal.
For those who have not read the novels, or may only have seen the damp squib film version of the first novel Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass, the US title, which was used for the film), the His Dark Materials trilogy is set in an elaborate parallel universe, which subsequently expands to other universes, including our own. In the universe where the story begins, each human has a “daemon” that takes the form of an animal, from which they are inseparable. Essentially they are like spirit animals. The heroine, Lyra, along with Will, a boy from our universe, have a series of extraordinary adventures that include witches, armoured polar bears, mysterious spectres that kill only adults, as well as the even more mysterious “Dust”. Along the way, traditional notions of good and evil are challenged, as the Church from Lyra’s universe seeks to control and dominate, initially represented by the villainous Mrs Coulter. At the same time, the enigmatic Lord Asriel seeks to fight the Church, though his methods prove equally diabolical in many respects. This all comes to a head in an extraordinary confrontation between beings from multiple universes – including the angelic realm – as a war takes place against God himself.
Or does it?
The sticking point for certain Christian readers has always been the apparently anti-Christian, anti-God stance of the novels. Indeed, this article is not a complete recanting of what I have stated previously, as to be fair the novel does go to great lengths to dismiss the Christian notion of heaven, hell and the afterlife in general. Moreover, Pullman’s “God” character (referred to as “the Authority”) turns out to be the first angel created by Dust. This angel then lied to the other angels and told them he was God, leading to centuries of deception and oppression. However, whilst Pullman undoubtedly has an atheist viewpoint, it is worth considering the following.
Firstly, has not Pullman inadvertently reinvented God in the form of Dust? He seems to have hit the classic atheist dilemma, in that God cannot be disproved in much the same way as he cannot be proved. The brilliance of the Dust concept is that it can be read as “The Big Bang” or even “God” if you wish. Pullman is wise enough to know he has to leave wriggle room.
Secondly, Pullman’s own experience of organised religion is clearly a deeply negative one, and frankly mine has been too, on the whole. I cannot blame him for using his writing as a means of expressing this. I have also written of oppressive religious systems, both real and imagined, on multiple occasions (most notably in my novels Love vs Honour and Children of the Folded Valley). To complain that Pullman has it in for Christianity (and monotheism in general) is foolish, as his exploration of religious corruption is valid, and even though I do not subscribe to a simplistic view that all religion is bad, historically Christianity does have a lot to answer for, bad as well as good.
Finally, my past objections to Pullman centred around his responsibility as an author, specifically my concerns that he would put children off the idea of God entirely. Whilst it is true that books can contain powerful, worldview shaping ideas, and that authors do have a responsibility for what they write, I am increasingly convinced, even as a Christian believer, that “protecting” children against novels like His Dark Materials is misguided. I believe in engagement and discussion, not blanket prohibitions that lead to “forbidden fruit” curiosity.
My own faith has led me to conclude that God has a way of turning up in people’s lives and confounding their expectations of him. Phillip Pullman himself may even discover this himself one day, but in the meantime I would argue his extraordinarily imaginative tales should not be feared by Christians. Despite his views, Pullman is asking honest, difficult, painful questions and this is not a bad thing.
Of course, some Christians will still insist the novels are dangerous, and I agree. All good writing is potentially dangerous. That includes the Bible. Over the centuries those texts have been twisted and perverted to all manner of insidious ends, justifying everything from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan. At this point in history, I don’t think His Dark Materials can lay quite the same claim, but yes, it is good to bear in mind that like all good writing, it is potentially dangerous. Does that mean we should get hot under our dog-collars and engage in book burning lunacy (as some have done this week to JK Rowling in protest of her views on Donald Trump)? Absolutely not.