My problems with Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials


Apology: My main problem is that I don’t have the background in philosophy to actually debate Philip Pullman, the atheist/agnostic/whatever author of His Dark Materials, a fantasy trilogy in the teenager’s section of your local bookshop. (The three books are Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the USA), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The Golden Compass has been made into a film that starts on Boxing Day in Oz.)

The world created by PP is a series of universes, some similar to ours, others quite different. Here, ‘God’ is the first angel who came into being, who convinced all others that he had created them and that they owe him their worship. He is ‘The Authority’, but he is also ‘God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty’. This is certainly the God of the Bible (though not the Koran!—Allah is not mentioned. Is there a fear of a fatwah?).

There was a war in heaven, as in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but the wrong side (i.e. God’s side!) won. The Authority now exercises supreme control, but there are those who are willing to rise against him. In the end, God dies, with ‘a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief’. (Of course, this ‘God’ is actually not the living God. And if PP were killing him for the sake of God, he would be a prophet. But he isn’t killing an idol god for God’s sake.)

Please allow me to put my main problem—one of personal deficiency—aside, and mention some problems I do have with PP and his books.

Problem 1:  I don’t know what is PP trying to achieve

PP is on the record as saying he ‘detests’ CS Lewis’ Narnia series. In an interview in the Washington Post in 2001, he said,

I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief. Mr. Lewis would think I was doing the Devil’s work.

In an interview published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003, PP said, 

My books are about killing God.

These days, he is more, shall we say, accommodating. And sometimes long-winded:

My agenda is not to convert anyone to any particular point of view. My agenda is to make them feel, see, enjoy, delight in, be beguiled and   amused by the story I tell, which is about two ordinary children in extraordinary circumstances. That’s my agenda. I’m telling a story, I’m a storyteller. If people go away from the book or put the book down and think about things more deeply than they did before, that’s good. I trust the reader, I trust the audience, I trust them to have the sense to see what the qualities are that the book is championing. I don’t think anyone can read this book and think that it is intended to rob children of happiness, or rob children of anything to do with wonder and delight and so on. I think that the qualities the book celebrates are those such as kindness, and love, and courage, and courtesy, too, and intellectual curiosity—all these good things. And the qualities the book attacks are cold-heartedness, tyranny, closed-mindedness, cruelty; the things we all agree are bad things.

Do I have an agenda? I have the agenda of every storyteller, which is to make the reader turn the pages and read on to the end of the book. And I hope that when they have read the book, they will feel a little better for doing so.

Will the real PP please stand up? I don’t know who you are. Some people have suggested you are trying to tone down your earlier rhetoric for the sake of the film’s success. Is that so?

Problem 2:  PP starts being more of a preacher in the second two books

Just a storyteller? By the end of the trilogy, I was plodding through because the plot was secondary to contrived sermonising, and promising threads set up in the first book were lost or forgotten.

PP used to be a middle-school teacher: if a student had submitted this work, a teacher might have commented: ‘A promising beginning, but derails itself in the second half.’

His teacher persona wins out in the end; the books become too didactic. For example, in The Amber Spyglass there is a kind of reflection on ‘grace’ and ‘work’; predictably, work is better. PP’s conclusion is: ‘What is worth having is worth working for’. I can imagine him bending over a particularly obtuse student and saying this through slightly clenched teeth. If there is ever a book of The Wit and Wisdom of Philip Pullman, this would have to be one of the epigrams. However, I doubt that it would be a best seller.

One of PP’s most sympathetic characters is a former nun, who in The Amber Spyglass says, ‘the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake’. I really was bored by this kind of thing—it’s not something that comes out of the plot, it is inserted into the plot to make a didactic point.

Problem 3:  Everyone associated with the religious side is uniformly bad

It would be a better story if this wasn’t the case. PP has actually said that this is ‘an artistic flaw’.

Not only is everyone on the religious side bad, everything is bad too. PP’s former nun stopped believing in God because she fancied a bloke. I’m sorry, PP: that’s a reason to stop being a nun, not to stop believing in God.

In the very interesting world in which His Dark Materials begins, John Calvin became Pope. And, PP, says, Calvin ordered the execution of children. This is tendentious in the extreme.  It’s an unnecessary detail from the point of view of the plot; and it’s not clear to the average reader, who knows nothing of Calvin, that this is an unhistorical statement about a Calvin who never existed. And it defames the memory of the real John Calvin.

In the context of widespread ignorance of Christian faith, an ignorance that I suspect PP does not share, many of these details—the ease with which a good person can stop believing, the way that God’s death is a mercy-killing, the character of Calvin (whose theology is hard enough to defend anyway)—accumulate as a host of so-called ‘reasons’ to dismiss Christian faith.

What should be our response?

Don’t fear the books or the movie—read them, see them, and discuss them with young people. (If you don’t want to add too much to PP’s royalties, get the books from the library.)

Don’t join calls for the banning of the movie, or make the books into forbidden fruit—that just makes them more attractive. And allows PP to say that’s the approach we believers in God always take anyway. Better to pray for PP. 

Read other responses to His Dark Materials. Let me offer these: (see 4 December 2007)


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