His Dark Materials Omnibus | Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials | Philip Pullman

Reactionary Christians irritate me. I’m convinced that there’s a certain breed of believers that live to protest whatever pop culture serves up. These militant believers target everything from Harry Potter to My Little Pony. This desire to protest has even spawned a new income stream for aspiring authors. Although I have no firm evidence, I’m pretty sure that the number of books sold to that “debunk” The Da Vinci Code exceeds the number of DVDs sold!

I say all this to let you know what my attitude was like when I started reading The Golden Compass. I figured it was just another good story that a few Christians decided to get angry about for no good reason. I was quite surprised to find something genuinely subversive about the story. Unlike the Harry Potter Books, which assume a basic common worldview, His Dark Materials turns our culture’s Judao-Christian foundation on its head.

Given the profound differences between the two series, it’s somewhat ironic that Rowling has received more attention than Pullman from Christians. Pullman was right:

I’m kind of relying on Harry Potter to deflect all that [religious backlash], actually. I was quite happy for Harry Potter to get all the attention so I could creep in underneath all of it. (Powell’s Books Interview)

Spoiler Alert:

In His Dark Materials, there are multiple worlds that a few people can travel between. The church (a.k.a. “The Authority”) is a controlling and wicked force in every world. Common also to each world is “dust”, that substance which the church considers original sin. Dust is everywhere, but starts surrounding sentient beings at puberty. Adam and Eve’s sin is assumed to be sexual awakening coupled with their pursuit of knowledge.

One of the surprising turns for me was the notion of afterlife. The “world of the dead” is nothing more than a holding world where the deceased go when they lose their souls. One of the most triumphant scenes in The Amber Spyglass is the freeing of these soulless dead people to dissolve and become the stuff of the universe again.

Positive:

I’ve read a lot of fantasy, and was happy to find something so original. Most fantasy works assume a dualistic worldview and play out an end-time scenario. Good and evil are usually equally matched forces, until good manages to eek out an against-all-odds win. (Incidentally, the brilliance of the Narnia books is their genuinely Christian worldview: good and evil are not equal. Instead, the dualism is properly located between Creator and creation.)

Negative:

  1. It’s too easy to demonize the church. A lot of wicked things have been done in the name of Christ. However, let’s keep this in perspective. Any group of people, whether religious or not, have the capacity to act wickedly.
  2. The pathos-laden escape from the world of the dead was quite unsatisfying. Pullman removed the hope of eternal life from readers and replaced it with nothingness (albeit nothingness slathered with a thick helping of poetic charm). His description here is surprisingly close to the Hindu (and Buddhist) concept of Nirvana. Letting our atoms separate and return to the universe which brought them together isn’t a very exciting prospect for me.
  3. When you finish reading these books, it’s easy to think that God is an selfish autocrat who wants to keep people away from sex and knowledge (in fact, I believe that is the point). Although parts of the church throughout history may have taught that, the Christian Canon is emphatically pro-sex and pro-knowledge.

I’m glad I read these books. I found myself shouting at Pullman through some sections, but I was rarely bored. However, I would only recommend it to children who are old enough to understand what’s going on behind the story and are willing to think critically–which, after all, is just what Pullman is proposing.

2 Responses to His Dark Materials Omnibus | Philip Pullman

  1. Greg Primmer June 18, 2008 at 4:10 pm #

    Wow. I am keenly interested on the subject of hell and the afterlife at this point in time. How would you sum up Pullman’s views on this then? You describe him as a kind of angry-at-the-church author…is he anti-Christ (that is opposing Christ’s claims) as well?
    About the comment on Adam and Eve’s sin, I’ve been studying this just recently myself. The bible says that they were ‘naked and without shame’. When they became aware of their nakedness they made loincloths for themselves. To me, this seems confusing because the author of Genesis is underscoring that they had no shame ‘inspite’ of their nakedness. I say, “well why should they?” God created them in His image no less…and found everything ‘very good’.
    What is shameful in it? The comment in your post about the ‘sin of sexual awareness’ is puzzling. They obviously felt ashamed that they were different, so what does this reveal about the nature of the awareness they gained? Were they able to see ‘truth’?
    Interestingly, the serpent didn’t tell them a blatant lie. It was a half-truth. He told them they would not surely die, as God had indicated. And they didn’t! At least not right away. Furthermore, the serpent told them the truth about the fruit. He baited them by giving them just enough ‘truth’ in his lie to sell it. In fact, perhaps he offered more truth about the nature of the Tree of Good and Evil than even God had given them. Anyways…I have a whole essay going on the subject which I’ll share with you later, Steve! Thanks for the review! I hadn’t heard that spin on the Golden Compass yet.

  2. Steve June 23, 2008 at 10:57 am #

    Philip Pullman has a great Q&A page on his website called “About the Writing”. In it he shares that no one can know if there’s a god or not. (In my view, this statement can be either true or false, depending on what you mean by “know”.) Pullman goes on to say that if there is a god, he’s hiding away in shame because of the atrocities of his followers. I dealt with that idea in the review. Although the statement’s valid, it’s very limited: any organized group of people have the capacity to do horrible things.

    Therefore, it’s unfair to talk about Pullman’s theology. “His Dark Materials” is a very good story that flows from his presuppositions.

    As for a doctrine of “Original Sin”, there’s far more than can be said here. Check out Wikipedia’s entry on The Fall of Man to see various interpretations of that first sin.

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