Discussing Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials / "The Golden Compass")

In light of the cinematic release of The Golden Compass and the discussion among Catholics over the film’s content, it seems fit to re-post (howbeit updated) something I had blogged back in 2004:

For all the frequent discussion of The DaVinci Code or Left Behind by Catholics on the net, there is apparently another work of fantasy fiction enjoying great popularity and which some Christian readers maintain constitutes an even greater threat to the faith in its capacity to confuse and decieve its audience.

Stephen Riddle of Flos Carmeli believes that Philip Pullman‘s Dark Materials trilogy “is more potentially damaging than Harry Potter or the much maligned (and not really worth it) DaVinci Code“; so do, for that matter, Amy Welborn and Mark Shea. And there is justifiable cause for concern because, as with The DaVinci Code, Hollywood has decided to cash in on the hype by turning The Dark Materials into a movie.

I confess that I have not read Pullman’s work, and honestly when it comes down to it, in spite of all the praises for his literary skill, I’d rather fulfill my ambition to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Simarillion or re-read Lewis’ entire Chronicles of Narnia than attempt to digest an atheist whose works Peter Hitchens has described as “a labor of loathing” directed at a member of The Inklings:

Philip Pullman is the man who may succeed in
destroying a country that the liberal intelligentsia loathe even more
than they despise Britain. That country is Narnia . . .

Pullman puts forward a complex theory of man’s true destiny, and his stories are a powerful epic that everyone should read. But many who buy these books for children and grandchildren would be surprised, and even shocked, if they knew just how vehemently Pullman despises the Christian Church, and how much he loathes his dead rival, Lewis. He is, in fact, the Anti-Lewis.

However, what follows are some articles by “reliable sources” (IMHO) which may well acquaint our readers with Pullman’s work:

  • “The Anti-Narnia”, by Meredith (“Basia Me Catholic Sum”), begins with a brief but good defense of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and moves on to explain why she found Pullman’s universe to be a literary letdown:

    Beautiful writing can cover a multitude of sins, but not for long. Pullman attempts a massive transvaluation of values: God is evil, Satan is good, Original Sin is Heavenly Grace. I’m not sure that any writer could pull off such an audacious sleight-of-hand, and Pullman certainly doesn’t. The inversions remain too disturbing. The whole thing crumbles under the weight of the centuries-old archetypes he attempts to subvert: Pullman’s life-giving Dust can never really supress the memory of TS Eliot’s handful of dust, or the ashes and dust of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. His good, wise serpent can’t drive out the serpent that is a primal symbol of evil.

  • Amy Welborn writes of the difference between Tolkien and Pullman:

    J.R.R. Tolkien, to whom Pullman is often compared, but for whom he has little regard (for the record, Pullman despises C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, calling it “anti-life”), was a man of deep convictions as well. The difference between the two writers’ work, though, is that Tolkien, as devout a Catholic as he was, took special care in his voluminous fantasy works – which extend far beyond The Lord of the Rings, by the way – to offer what he calls a “sub-creation” embodying his vision of reality and truth, but in which there is never an explicit reference to the notions “our world” has of God, nor of religion at all, creating on the way, a work of art, not polemics.

    So there lies the essential difference, which extends beyond ideology. Phillip Pullman ultimately fails as a writer in His Dark Materials, not because of his views on religion, but because he simply can’t resist the temptation to preach about them, putting art to the service of manipulating his young readers’ opinions, ironically enough, with even more force and skill than any of his imagined Magisterial Courts could ever muster on their own.

  • Paradise Denied: Philip Pullman & the Uses & Abuses of Enchantment. (Touchstone Magazine October 2003). Leonie Caldecott, editor of the commendable Second Spring magazine, on the axe-grinding anti-Christian agenda of the “anti-Inkling”:

    On April 1, 2001, I attended a Pullman talk and signing-session at the Oxford Union with my daughter and some of her friends. . . . The microphone was passed around the audience for questions. “Why are you so nasty about the Church?” asked a child sitting several rows down from us.

    Pullman then launched into a diatribe against the Church as being responsible for all the horrors of history: wars, heresy hunts, burning of witches, etc. When he finished, a fairly large proportion of the audience burst into applause. Later we were told that the girl who had asked the question was devastated. Several in our party were preparing to receive the sacrament of confirmation. The point of receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit, notably fortitude and right judgment, was demonstrated graphically to them on that day. I meanwhile began to wonder whether I should start popping out of wardrobes in a set of cardinal’s robes, as in the famous Monty Python “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” sketch.

  • In “An Almost Christian Fantasy” (First Things 113 (May 2001): 45-49), editor Daniel P. Moloney takes a different turn, agreeing with fellow critics on the defects of Pullman’s writing brought about by his atheistic motivations,

    Atheists can write perfectly good and realistic fiction, because there is nothing about being an atheist that prohibits a person from understanding human motivation and the physical world. But being nonreligious does deprive you of the one thing an ambitious fantasy author needs: a plausible cosmology, a myth that tells us how things got to be the way they are. The great religions all provide this. One could even hold, as did Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, that a religion is just a story of the world, which in the case of Christianity (they held) happens to be true. A Christian fantasist in his act of subcreation can borrow heavily from the true mythic world created by the Christian God; the fantasist might change some of the names and other details, but the basic infinitely rich story has already been told.

    The nonreligious fantasy author is forced to play the mythmaker twice, as it were. He has to develop a cosmology of the way the world really is, the nonreligious account that re­ places the account given by the religions he rejects. And he has to write the fantasy story, obeying all the rules of the larger account and then creating his own world within it. In the first two books of the trilogy, Pullman merely alluded to the larger account while telling an imaginative and exciting adventure, which promised to be one of the best ever. In the third book, however, he needed to explain his theory of innocence and adulthood, which he thought required him to tell a different story of the Fall, which in turn tempted him to explain how everything we think and feel can be explained simply by scientific materialism.

    But at the same time concluding with a rather different and unexpected take:

    . . . imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for two thousand years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.

    I imagine that many Christians (and not a few members of St. Blog’s) may disagree with his review, but I rather enjoyed Malonely’s unconventional reading — and Pullman himself would probably find the suggestion that a Christian might even derive valuable moral lessons from his work positively infuriating. 😉

  • The author of the blog “Confessing (Ex-) Anglican” [now evangelical] offers a prayer for Pullman in which we can all join:

    . . . one essential plank of Pullman’s “evangelistic” strategy is to make God appear, not terrible or evil, but simply weak and pathetic. It’s clear that Pullman’s worldview has no room for a God who is weak, pathetic – or who dies. He seems to believe that putting such an image of God in people’s minds will help inoculate them against Christianity (it’s clear that one of his aims is to create the right sort of “mythic structures” in his readers’ minds).

    But of course, the whole message of Christianity centres on the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ: when God himself, in his Son, made himself weak, pathetic and helpless. God in the manger; God on the Cross.

    If Pullman cannot see this, then this explains the total absence of Christ from his books – there is simply no way of fitting Christ into Pullman’s worldview. That is where the worldview falls apart.

    That also gives me some small, faint hope for Philip Pullman – the fact that he cannot fit Christ into his worldview opens the possibility that one day Christ will force his way into Pullman’s worldview and shatter it; that Pullman will see that a weak and helpless God – one who needs to be carried around (as a baby), one who can be held in contempt by men and killed (as a man) – far from being the ultimate nail in Christianity’s coffin, is in fact the God who loves him and has, in his Son, laid down his life for him.

On March 17, 2004, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, met with Mr. Pullman at England’s National Theatre, where they discussed a variety of topics (the resurgence of gnosticism; Mel Gibson’s The Passion; the ethics of teaching religion in school, among other things). During the ‘Q&A’ period the following question was posed to Pullman:

Q: Is one [religious] truth someone else’s lie, and does that inevitably lead to warfare?

PP: This raises the question of relativism and so on. It’s a terribly difficult one. If my religion is true, does that mean your religion is false, or are we worshipping the same god by different names? I’m temperamentally ‘agin’ the post modernist position that there is no truth and it depends on where you are and it’s all a result of the capitalist, imperialist hegemony of the bourgeois… all this sort of stuff. I’m agin that but I couldn’t tell you why. I’m rather like the old preacher who was agin sin. That was the message that came from his sermon. It’s a temperamental, visceral thing.

It seems to me that Philip Pullman wants very dearly to be an atheist — but as he admits with some embarassment, there is something in him that reacts, strongly, against the metaphysical conclusions implicit within atheism: the relativistic [“post modernist”] assertion that there is no truth, no meaning.

Indeed, as Daniel P. Moloney reveals in his review of the trilogy in First Things, Pullman himself simply cannot help but be motivated by implicitly Christian values:

In Pullman’s telling, the fate of all creation hinges, not on some difficult choice between good and evil, but merely on the moment when Will and Lyra first kiss. Somehow (and in the 1,100 pages of the trilogy there is nothing that suggests why this is of literally cosmic significance), after this kiss—and that’s as far as they go—the Dust that had been flowing out of the universe flows back in, and an age of peace and love is suddenly possible. Because these two young teenagers are basically innocent, as the shifting of their daemons reveals, their innocent love is supposed to show that sex and things of the flesh are very good, when properly ordered. Pullman mistakenly attacks Christian asceticism when he really is rejecting only heretical Manicheism. . . .

Soon after The Kiss, Will and Lyra are forced to make a very painful choice between their own happiness and keeping their promises to others—and they choose loyalty and the common good. The possibility of great happiness is presented to them, and they give it up at great cost to themselves. This melancholy ending redeems the earlier banality, both morally and narratively — but only by appealing to the very Christian notion that we should put aside even good things like kissing in the name of the last things. The choice that Lyra and Will make is analogous to the choice a young man or woman considering religious celibacy makes: though I can reject my destiny, and it will require great strength to carry out, I am clearly called to forgo the great good of marriage in order that others may enjoy life and go to heaven.

As any reader of Mere Christianity knows, it is the subtle and gradual recognition of ‘The Law of Nature’, ‘The Moral Law’, ‘The Law of Decent Behavior’; the gnawing feeling that there must be a Meaning to it all, some kind of Truth, that spells the end of atheism and the impending consideration of the divine.

If Moloney is right — and I believe he is — then Pullman had best look out, for the Hound of Heaven may be after him yet.

* * *

Discussion of Pullman’s works has increased dramatically in the Catholic/Christian blogging world. Pete Vere and Sandra Meisel have published their joint study of the book: Atheism for Children: Philip Pullman and Children’s Fantasy (Ignatius Press, 20007). Likewise, Thomas Peters (American Papist) and Carl Olson (Insight Scoop) have been blogging extensively on the book’s transition to film.

As has been reported, the film version has been heavily “sanitized” and purged of Pullman’s original anti-Christian / anti-religious bias, presumably to make it more marketable to children and American audiences. Judging by the trailer and its release during the Christmas season, New Line Cinema’s hope is that it will be received with the same enthusiasm as Disney’s version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or Peter Jackson’s brilliant rendition of the Lord of the Rings (Pullman would love as much).

Pullman’s books, of course, are far more disturbing than the watered-down film adaptation — but the legitimate concern regarding the latter is that it will provide sufficient motivation for children to read the books. And (unlike the writings of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien), these really aren’t the kind of books I’d want my children reading, at least until they were able to do so critically.

Worth Reading (Additional Posts)

  • “Happy?” – Amy Welborn has penned an excellent post regarding the cinematic release of The Golden Compass (and those Christians endorsing it):

    But you know what? These are issues that come up very naturally in the lives of adolescents. They are pretty much always present. You don’t need to give Philip Pullman and the makers of this film more money in order to make the discussion happen, just as you didn’t need to add to Dan Brown’s pile of money he’s sitting on up there in New Hampshire to have interesting discussions on Christian origins and Mary Magdalene.

    Having good discussions about the nature of religious authority, particularly in the context of one’s own religious tradition is harder when you’ve got the bigotry and unthinking caricatures to slog through.

  • “The Devil’s Party”, by Alan Jacobs. First Things‘ “On The Square” Dec. 3, 2007. (Repost of a review from the Weekly Standard): “Pullman’s anti-theistic scolding consorts poorly with his prodigious skills as a storyteller. In imagination and narrative drive, he has few peers among current novelists. For such gifts to be thrust into the service of a reductive and contemptuous ideology is very nearly a tragedy.”
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