His Dark Materials
His didactic materials
When story-tellers fail:
On Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials'
I'll never forget the shocked silence that greeted my ingenuous kindergarten announcement that, "I don't believe in God".
My class-mates, and even my otherwise perfect teacher, Miss Matthews, simply didn't know how to process such a shocking proposition. In Quebec in 1970, a five year-old atheist was nearly as strange and terrible a creature as one with green skin, fangs and a devil's tail. (I exaggerate, but not that much.)
Philip Pullman seems to have shocked much of the Christian world in the same way that I did my kindergarten class. His Dark Materials, a fantasy (or science fiction; see sidebar below) series whose plot revolves around an attempt to kill "god" is obviously at least in part a direct reply to children's books (or "young adult novels") probably best exemplified by the likes of C.S. Lewis' soporific apologia for Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia.
In any case, the series has been taken as anti-Christian and a quick Google search will quickly find all sorts of horrified and angry reactions to it.
So I, as a both a life-long atheist and a long-time reader of F and SF, am (but for the fact I'm neither a father nor a teenager) am pretty close to Pullman's ideal reader. I approached the first volume with a lot of curiosity and no small amount of hope that I would enjoy it quite a lot.
|'As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don't think it's the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means.
'The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader's mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I'm not going to explain.
'Anyway, I'm not in the message business; I'm in the "Once upon a time" business."'
— Philip Pullman's homepage.
|'As for any inner meaning or "message", [The Lord of the Rings] has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical ...
'... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse "applicability" with "allegory"; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.'
— J.R.R. Tolkien, preface to The Lord of the Rings.
Sadly, and despite the words displayed so prominently on his homepage, far too much of His Dark Materials seems to have been written by someone only "in the message business" and not by a writer in the "Once upon a time" business.
Indeed the very prominence Pullman gives to the disclaimer quoted above suggests a writer who, consciously or otherwise, doth protest too much.
The first book in Pullman's trilogy is easily the best. The Golden Compass is a taut and well-told tale set in an alternate world that is at once comfortably familiar and eerily strange. A world with advanced concepts in particle physics but a technology roughly equivalent to that of our own late 19th century. Here, England is a country controlled by a powerful Church; that is inhabited by witches with the power of flight; and by bears with the power of speech. More alien still, each human being is bound to and with a daemon, a symbiotic creature we eventually learn is probably best described as a physical soul; cut the invisible link between human and Daemon and neither is likely to survive for long.
Pullman wisely grounds the book on the apparent orphan, 11 year-old Lyra Belacqua, who is being raised in a state of reasonably benign neglect at an otherwise all-male Oxford College by her mysterious uncle, the Lord Asriel.
Lyra is a grubby but charismatic kid, a natural leader with a basically decent nature, whom the reader easily believes will be well-liked even by the victims of her pranks.
The story begins when Lyra sneaks into a forbidden room in order to spy upon her visiting. She sees the College's elderly Master sprinkle poison into a bottle of wine set aside for Asriel and so must reveal herself to save his life.
I won't bother with a synopsis. Suffice it to say that Pullman introduces us by confident steps into Lyra's world and, if her adventures are sometimes too often solved through convenient third-party help, I don't think that will much bother younger readers — it didn't, at first, bother me. And certainly there is danger and adventure enough, culminating in a genuinely monstrous experiment being conducted in the very far north of her world.
|His Dark Materials|
By Philip Pullman
Published by Random House
His Dark Materials is marketed as fantasy and mostly follows the familiar three-volume structure of epic fantasy, not to mention the older tradition of a child's coming of age. Throw in the talking bears and flocks of witches in flight and it is hard to think of it as anything else.
Yet when all is said and done, the series doesn't feel like fantasy. Pullman employs quantum mechanics' many worlds hypothesis to explain the succession of "Earths" his characters visit and much of the "magic" we see is explained by science or by hand-waving that sounds like science.
In particular, the mulefa, beings co-evolved to use wheels where (almost) all life on earth employs limbs could easily have rolled (as it were) from the pages of Analog. Even the angels are explained away with the help of the sort of "science" that keeps Doctor Who on the SF side of the F/SF divide.
Not that it matters much, but some of us enjoy making (or feel compelled to make) the distinction.
As is usual in such tales, Lyra is a child of Destiny, and though a riff on a fairly standard kid-lit heroine, she is a sympathetic and believable character whose inevitable heroic coming-of-age is compelling and convincing.
Or is that coming-of-age inevitable?
Not so evident in the first volume, by the end of the third, Pullman's atheist's subtext makes it clear the author doesn't believe in fate or inevitability — yet ironically, his philosophical purposes seem to have got the better of his story-teller's instincts.
By the mid-way point of the second volume, The Subtle Knife, an air of inexorability began to bleed all the tension from the plot. Secondary characters and story-lines multiplied like variations on quantum theory and their final collapse seemed arbitrary and confused. It wasn't long after I had started The Amber Spyglass that I found I was repeatedly flipping forward, to check (again and again) how many pages I had still to go through to reach the end. And by the time I really got there, I felt I had long since been left with nothing but message.
That I agree with Pullman's secular vision of the cosmos and agree that life is better lived facing the reality of permanent death, and that sex is dangerous but fundamentally beautiful, none of that agreement means I thought his books were particularly good ones.
As I said at the outset, I very much wanted to like His Dark Materials. I wanted to be able to point to the series and say, "Read these!"
But Pullman forgot that a story-teller's first duty is always, and before all else, to the story and not to his (or her) own, real-world beliefs. If he really was attempting a secular reply to the likes of Lewis, he fell right the same preachy trap that Lewisdid. If he was trying to answer the far more subtle religiosity of the likes of Tolkien, Pullman's atheism showed none of the restraint of the latter's Catholicism.
Tolkien's series remains the gold standard for heroic fantasy because, although his deeply-felt (and arguably profound) faith informs nearly every page of The Lord of the Rings, his book is never about Catholicism, or about God, or about faith.
It is "simply" about characters who grapple with right and wrong, who struggle with fear and temptation and plain exhaustion, all within the context of the invented world (or as Tolkien himself put it, the "secondary creation") in which his tale occurs.
The story itself is "about" the consequences of the finding and attempted disposition of a dangerous magic ring — that's it, that's all. As Tolkien himself has pointed out, any further meaning comes from the "thought and experience" of its readers.
None of which can be said for His Dark Materials. We are subject to characters and sub-plots whose only purposes are didactic (Dr. Mary Malone, physicist-nun turned physicist-atheist is a prime example), most of the conflicts are settled through the banality of fist-fights or other kinds of physical battle — even when angels are involved (yes, angels — but natural beings, not God-created angels). Even Lyra and Will's trip through Hell (yes, think Dante, River Styx and all) feels easy when compared to Sam and Frodo's nearly hopeless trek through the merely harsh and arid lava fields of Mordor.
Worse than Lewis and his tedious deus ex bestia, Aslan, saving the day time after time as his allegorical Christ figure, Pullman relies on phalanxes of faceless witches, demons who need only a little understanding and truth to find mercy, and warrior bears to save his characters from death or worse than death.
Worst of all, Pullman doesn't just stoop to allegory, he declares that God is literally real (well, sort of; "god" here is merely a usurping "angel". The evil demi-urge is evil all right, but is only a very powerful natural creature; a materialist's version of Gnosticism, if you will. But I digress) and then proceeds to kill him.
Once both "god" and Hell have met their fates, we are presented with a pro-sex homily and the blossoming of a young love doomed to be torn asunder by the inexorable laws of multiverse physics. Presumably this was intended to bring eucatosthrophic tears to the readers' eyes, but any tears of mine were those of impatient relief.
I wouldn't discourage a curious child from reading His Dark Materials — there are pleasures to be had, and I don't think it can cause any lasting harm — but I certainly can't recommend it to anyone, adult or child, who is looking for good fiction.
Pullman's philosophy is in the right place, but his sense of craft is missing in action.