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Volume 14, Issue 6: Ex Libris


Woelke Leithart

His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knige, The Amber Spyglass)
Phillip Pullman
Knopf, 1996, 97, 2000

Perhaps the most disturbing feature of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is how well it is written. Either that, or the fact that it is targeted at children. But it is even less suitable for kids than Harry Potter: I haven't read fiction so rabidly anti-Christian in a long time.

In the last few years, Pullman's fantasy trilogy has been gaining in popularity. Even now, its following is second only to another British fantasy that also contains witches and magic. In the last year, the conclusion to the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, has won the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year Award. This is the first time a "children's book" has ever won the award.
His Dark Materials is a trilogy containing The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. As with most fantasies, a summary of the play can do one of two things. It can be completely incomprehensible to those who haven't read the book, or it can fail to do the book justice. In this case, I have opted for the latter. This is regrettable, because many of the plot points I will recount will not make much sense. But that is because Pullman's fantasy is quite complicated. If I can dare mention Tolkien in the same article as this God-hating trilogy, it is like recounting the events of The Lord of the Rings in 1000 words or less. Would you even mention Faramir?
The Golden Compass introduces the reader to Lyra, the heroine of the series. She lives in the Oxford of an alternate universe, where histories different than our own have transpired (for example, in Lyra's world John Calvin became Pope and moved the Papacy to Geneva). When Lyra's best friend, Roger, disappears and her father does not return from his expedition to the Arctic, the blond-haired eleven-year-old sets off to find them. Along the way, she meets witches, armored bears, and gyptians. (In our world, they would be equivalent to gypsies.) From the Master of Jordan College in Oxford, where she was raised, she receives an alethiometer, a truth-telling device that Lyra discovers she has a natural talent for using. Once in the North, she discovers that children are being tortured by the Church to discover if they are a source of energy. She rescues the children and, along with Roger, finds her father, Lord Asriel. In the climax of the novel, we see Asriel is a villain; he tortures Roger to death and uses the energy to build a bridge into another universe.
This all takes place in the course of about three hundred pages. The Golden Compass is the best of the lot in much the same way that Star Wars is the best movie of the original trilogy: it's fresh, it's rousing adventure, and they don't talk about the Force much, though there are hints.
The Subtle Knife begins in our universe with a boy named Will. He stumbles into another world through a "window" in the landscape where he meets Lyra, who followed her father into this new world. Will receives the subtle knife from an ancient philosopher who shows him that he can use it to cut windows between worlds and thus go wherever he pleases. Lyra's alethiometer is stolen from her when the pair visit Will's world, and they spend a good part of the book trying to steal it back. At the close of the book, Will discovers that his father who disappeared ten years before had accidentally come into the middle world. Literally while they are speaking, his father is killed. Lyra is captured by her mother, Lord Asriel's lover, and Will sets off to find her. As the book progresses, the reader discovers that Lord Asriel is planning to make war on heaven and its ruler, The Authority.
The Amber Spyglass continues the same story, except that everything gets even more complicated. Lyra and Will band together and journey to the underworld to get advice for the future. Lord Asriel's armies grow in size and attack the "Clouded Mountain" of God. After defeating God, they realize the universes are still decaying. Fortunately for the universes, sexuality has awakened in Will and Lyra and in their consummated love the world is reborn.
I'll start with what's good about His Dark Materials. Easily the best thing about it is how well it's written. Pullman knows how to draw a story. The Golden Compass is the best in this area because there's nothing extraneous; the tale moves along at a good pace that's not too fast but keeps the story entertaining. It's also the freshest of the books, with Pullman's imagination shining from of every page.
And that's the other major plus to the series: its imaginative scale. Lyra's world is brilliantly imagined, as are most of the other alternate universes, each of which contains its own histories that are slightly (or perhaps vastly) different from our own. For example, in Lyra's world and most other worlds, every person has a daemon. Daemons are the physical manifestations of their humans' souls and take the form of various animals. The daemons of children form constantly, as an expression of the idea that children's characters change constantly. Lyra's daemon changes form until the very end of Spyglass; Lord Asriel's is a snow leopard. Most servants have a submissive dog daemon. This is Pullman's best idea, but others include the alethiometer and the subtle knife. Of course, he borrows from other works as well (witches and broomsticks are certainly not original to Materials), but his imagination is still impressive.
But His Dark Materials is by no means perfect or even close. From simply the story's point of view, the biggest con is that the climax is anti-climactic. Lord Asriel and his forces win the battle against God's mountain in the space of about fifteen pages, and the rest of the book is concerned with fixing the problems Asriel helped cause when he opened a bridge between the worlds. The ultimate goal is to set up the "Republic of Heaven" (which sounds just plain silly) to replace the tyrannical "Kingdom of Heaven." After the buildup, we expect something a little more spectacular; we might expect God to put up a bit more of a fight. Again, a comparison with Tolkien is warranted. The buildup in The Lord of the Rings is immense, but the battle scenes deliver, and the wonderful scene at the cracks of doom fulfils anticipation. In Materials, everything slowly fizzles out and Metatron, the hardest angel to defeat, is overcome by lusting after a woman while in the middle of fighting a battle.
But the anti-climax is a very small problem compared with the level of anti-Christianity in the trilogy. Pullman openly admits in the acknowledgements that he is retelling Paradise Lost. There's just one difference: Satan is completely the hero and the eventual victor. In Compass, the antagonism is not very explicit. Even the statement that Calvin became Pope could possibly be chalked up to the oddities of another universe. But the level increases in Knife until in Spyglass it is impossible to ignore.
"The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all," says one character from our world. "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," says an angel, speaking of the same character.1 When Will and Lyra finally cause God's death, he is described as "the old one," and so old he "ha[s] no will of his own." Then he disintegrates, with "a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief," fulfilling an idea early in the trilogy that perhaps it would be merciful to kill God.
His Dark Materials is also in the business of redefining morality. One of Lyra's talents is her ability to lie convincingly; her name is changed partway through the series to Lyra Silvertongue. This gets her out of scrape after scrape, and the other characters admire her skill. Granted, some of this deception is legitimate: her deception of the malevolent bear king in Compass is rightly brilliant and helps to usurp his false authority. At the same time, however, the sheer amount of lying and deception that occurs, even among friends, outweighs any positive elements.
The most fascinating thing about the entire trilogy, however, is how much Pullman is still tied to Christian imagery and ideas. To give credit where credit is due, he does try very hard to buck Christian themes and ideas. Though he is quoted in The Weekly Standard as calling the Chronicles of Narnia "one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read," with "no shortage of … nauseating drivel," he nevertheless pays at least a small homage to it; Lyra spends the first chapter and a half of the trilogy hiding, as Lucy did, in a wardrobe. But in Spyglass, it gets even more explicit. Lyra and Will visit Hades to search for lost loved ones. But like Christ, they overturn the way that Hell works and set the dead free. After their descent into hell and ascension from it,2 death no longer has any sting for those who die.
Another example, again from Spyglass: In order to defeat Metatron, Lord Asriel and his mistress are killed. As they literally drag him down "into the abyss," they consciously decide to do it for Lyra. The woman even says that sacrificing herself is the only good thing she has ever done. Thus, the victory is won through self-sacrifice, even unto death.
Interestingly, the most admirable character in the trilogy is a bear, Iorek Brynison. He is courageous, self-sacrificing, noble, and (unusual in Materials) honest. Ironically, he is also a king. The entire trilogy is about tearing down the monarchial tyranny of Heaven and letting men each have their own say in the Republic of Heaven. In the meantime, however, Iorek rules his bear kingdom only because he is the son of a king, not because he is elected. He is the best leader in the book and gives a glowing picture of a successful monarchy while other monarchies are being torn apart. Why would anyone want to eliminate monarchies when this one clearly works so well?
By no means should Materials be read to young children. Quite apart from the books' questionable morals, the anti-Christian message is not one that children should be hearing. But should mature Christians read His Dark Materials? Well yes. And no. Propaganda is dangerous only as far as it is subtle, and Pullman's trilogy is about as unsubtle as non-Christian art gets. Christians should have no difficulty seeing straight through what he is trying to do. But the fact that these books are marketed to teenagers does make them a little more dangerous. The books are fascinating reading and very well written, but there's more to a worthy book than that. Does the book imitate Christ's story? No. It tries to tell, quite literally, an antichrist story. For that reason we should be wary.

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