Wednesday, January 5, 2011

His Dark Materials

Some thoughts on His Dark Materials.  

I read this series because when the movie came out, there was a lot of discussion, especially from religious groups, about the sort of anti-C.S. Lewis that the author, Philip Pullman, was making himself out to be. 
I tend not to like to give plot summaries, so if you need one, try this one.  And beware of possible spoilers below.

After reading the three books, I have the following questions or comments:
  • Why was Jesus completely left out of the story?  If Pullman is taking on Christianity, Jesus would be an important element of the religion to address, no?
  • Pullman gives a lot of weight to the idea that Lyra is the new Eve.  What exactly was the choice that she was forced to make and/or the command that she could obey or not obey? 
  •  Eve was the mother of her race.  Exactly what was Lyra inaugurating?
  • Why would we need another Eve?  The first Eve made exactly the choice that Pullman would have wished (choosing knowledge over obedience to authority).
  •  Does Pullman really have problems with Christianity or just with authority in general?
  •  How is it that even when two belief systems appear to be so diametrically opposed as Christianity and atheism, they appear to share the same values?
I do have my own thoughts on some of these, but I’d also like to know what you think!


  1. Having not read the books, I must say your first question is pretty funny. One would think Jesus would at least make a cameo...

  2. Haven't read them yet, but I've wanted to on and off for a few years. I guess I'm still interested in hearing if you think they were worth the time to read or not.

  3. I definitely think they are worth the time. 1) They are YA, so quick reads. 2) They are culturally important. The reason I read them in the first place is that I'm reading through EW's list of new classics. 3) Pullman does a fabulous job of world-creation, always a criterion for judging fantasy.

    I think that many of the Christian groups that so strongly opposed Pullman were overreacting a bit in their vehement criticism (whoa, that's new!)

    On the other hand, I don't think it's fair for an adult to bludgeon a young reader with thinly veiled theological arguments; that's probably my strongest objection to the series.

  4. I have read that Pullman is opposed to organized religion. Is it possible that he doesn't consider Jesus to be part of "the establishment"?

  5. From my friend who couldn't get her post to work:

    Some responses from a Pullman-loving, HDM-loving, Let's Book-loving atheist:

    1. I don’t know that Jesus has to have a place here, because Pullman wasn’t taking on Christianity per se—he was taking on The Church, as in The Oppressive Institution, and the idea of a(ny) god. Pullman’s values seem to be pretty in line with Christianity’s values, actually, which speaks to your final question as well: kindness, love, mercy, acceptance, forgiveness, etc. These are the qualities of any decent human being, and I don’t believe Pullman has any quarrel with humans who live their lives by them, whether they are Christians or anything else.
    2. Lyra had to choose experience of the material world over abhorrence of it; the knowledge that comes with delight in the universe and all its gifts (made manifest in Dust) wins out over abstinence from said delight. I use abstinence purposefully, because it seems that Pullman locates this delight specifically in sexual (or at least sensual) experience. My confusion here stems from Mrs. Coulter: if she represents the World-is-Evil hard line of The Church in the books, why is she hands-down the most sensual character in the book? Talk about embracing the material and physical worlds!!
    3. Pullman must LOVE Eve. We don’t need another one because the first one failed or chose wrongly; we need another one because The Church so badly mucked up her choice in the first place. I think Pullman suggests that we ALL need to be Eve; we all need to choose experience and the world and sensuality over something metaphysical or spiritual, because it’s the world we’re given. Each time one of us becomes Eve, we become a member of the Republic of Heaven. Plus, the last time we got another Eve (Mary), as far as Pullman is concerned anyway, we basically undid (or tried to undo) what Eve did. In “cleansing” the world by reversing (or whatever) Eve’s sin, Mary proclaimed that experience and sensuality were wrong/evil/sinful and needed purging.
    4. I may have already given my perspective on this above. I think Pullman’s problems are with: an omnipotent creator, oppressive world-wide institutions of ANY kind but especially The Church, any perspective that advocates abandoning or denigrating the material, physical, human world as sinful, inherently evil, or less-than some unknown “beyond” or “after.” He’s quite fond of stealing Lewis’s line, “It’s all in Plato,” as in, everything Plato stands for, Pullman is against.
    5. Personally, I love the books, and I do think they are preachy, but I disagree that they are LESS preachy than the Narnia books. Even as a child raised in the church, I found that series horrifyingly preachy. I hated them—because I wanted to love the stories, the talking mice, the fauns, the wicked queen, the worlds that were so fully realized. But every time Aslan showed up, they lost me. I guess I’m just not a fan of the deus ex machina in any form, but he grated constantly. At one point, I was grounded because I told my mother that “Aslan was a real dick.” I think I was 9. So maybe it’s just that I’ve waited my entire life for a children’s book that preached good values without the veil of Christianity. I KNOW I’ve waited for a long time for a book that advocated atheism, because dammit, I’m an atheist and I think that’s okay. I love how he dispensed with The Authority in such a beautiful, merciful way, and didn’t need to have kids violently killing him; to me, it was like, “Okay, you’ve had your run, but we all know it’s time for you to go.” It spoke to me. And I have no problem with kids reading these books and being swacked in the face with this message, any more than I have a problem with them reading the Narnia books. I didn’t like those books, but I don’t think they should be taken away from kids because of their message. Ditto HDM.

  6. Lizz, these are some very insightful comments, and I'm glad that someone who loves the series can respond to my questions.

    One very clever move that Pullman made was to put Lyra in another world, one that is very close to ours, but NOT ours. That way, if anyone objects to his characterization of (say) the Church, he can respond that the objection might be justified in our world, but his is a "made up" world. Again, I think this is a little sneaky. The film sort of avoided this kind of deception by renaming "the church" in Lyra's world. (I think they called it "the magisterium?")

    An example of this would be Lyra's choice between embracing/disdaining the material. As far as I know, that's never been a doctrine of Christianity; in fact, that dualism comprises the Manichean heresy.

    I agree that C.S. Lewis is just as guilty of preaching, if not more so, than Pullman. I never read the Narnia books as a kid, and as an adult, they're very difficult for me to read. I much prefer Tolkien's prose; I think he avoids the kind of preachiness that I'd accuse both Lewis and Pullman of perpetrating. And I wouldn't take them away from kids at any rate. As a librarian, I want kids to read; if my son were reading these books, I would want to discuss them with him, just as I want to discuss them in this forum.

    p.s. I got in trouble at around the same age for my blasphemy against Richard Nixon.

  7. /Does/ he skirt such accusations by claiming Benefit of Fiction? I've never seen him do that. He is pretty clear about his agenda, I think.

    There is no way I can stand on equal ground with you to debate theology, but am I really wrong in thinking that Christianity encourages us to focus on the spiritual over the material, and the afterlife over the here-and-now?And do not many churches consign sexuality to its procreative function and denigrate its sensual pleasures? I think that Pullman wants us to embrace those things rather than deny or de-emphasize them.

    OHMYGOODNESS I hope you didn't think I was suggesting that you of all people would ever take a book away from anyone, ever. :)

  8. Lizz, I don't know enough about him to know how he might respond to accusations of inaccuracy. And most of what I do know is several years old, based on the furor when the movie was released.

    Part of the problem is everyone's localized experience of church/religion. He's writing from his own background, growing up (I assume) in England. He may well have encountered churches that disparaged sexuality and the material. My own experience has been that if that occurs, it is usually one person's distorted view (i.e. a local pastor); as I've read theology and come to a wider lens through which to view the church (and I'm speaking here of protestantism, which is not really a "church" in the sense that the Catholic Church is), those positions have not been held to for many years.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. I've enjoyed this exchange!