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“I can't pretend to be an unbiased reader of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. After all, I lay claim to some form of theism, and the fact that our society is filled with people like me who also profess a belief in some form of God doesn't seem to sit too well with Pullman. This, of course is fine. Modern Western society guarantees people the right to believe as they choose and I'm a big fan of that tendency. Furthermore, there is likewise nothing wrong with him expressing his critique of theism or of religion. These same accepted societal norms that grant him these rights, privileges, or whatever you want to call them, however, also protects my privilege to say that I think his book is a load of rubbish.
I was enthralled with The Golden Compass, the first book of the series. Pullman is nothing if not a gifted wordsmith--he probably surpasses his fantasy writer contemporaries J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and certainly Stephanie Meyer in this regard--and the settings, characters and cultures he populates this first book with are fascinating and fully-realized. This is particularly true of Lyra, who as a protagonist, is a real dynamo. Unfortunately, as the series progresses more and more energy is devoted towards Pullman's overarching goals: to write a variation of Paradise Lost where the devils win, and to create a fantasy series for young people that effectively opposes or undoes the work of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. He has every right to do this, of course, but I contend that fantasy novels are not very good places for executing it. The tropes of fantasy tend toward the inclusion of things like destiny and "goodness" pitted against "evil," and The Amber Spyglass is no exception. This is a problem, because the existence of such things, as far as my little mind can tell, necessarily implies some governing higher principles, some notion of the Transcendent or the True. This worldview may not demand a personal God, to be sure, but, as I said, it implies an idea about the existence of Truth and about how humans ought to behave.
And Pullman is very clear about how they ought to behave. They shouldn't believe in God or practice religion. Or at least not Christianity, and definitely not Catholicism. This is the somewhat strange and clumsily-pronounced dictum that arises from Pullman's narrative as Lyra and Will team up with friends like the nice, enlightened scientist lady, Mary, and feisty but loyal pixie-sized Gallivespians to defeat the evil tyrant god, "The Authority," and his cold, ruthless, hypocritical followers who lead "The Church." And as such, Pullman becomes just as dogmatic as those he is trying to criticize. The author's critique of religion, which seems to be mostly derived from a very narrow reading of the Old Testament and an equally narrow reading of the social practices of certain contemporary Christian groups, actually winds up being less anti-religious that originally supposed, as it employs certain Buddhist/Hindu doctrines about liberation/extinction nearly wholesale as a means of cutting down the Abrahamic religious traditions' concept of an afterlife. (So I guess Eastern religions are less evil than the Western ones? Wow, how cliche is that?)
I'm still unsure of how to interpret that move, but I'm pretty sure I know how to read Pullman's low blow of including a stereotypically incestuous priest character that, for me, signals the moment when Pullman's series crossed the line and ceased to be a (potentially valid) critique of the Catholic Church, and simply became anti-Catholic. For shame, Mr. Pullman, for shame. Yes, such crimes have been purported and, yes, some leaders from within the Church's ranks furthered the offense by covering it up. We, as a society, shouldn't ignore this. But the image of your "The Church" and its leadership is such a thinly-veiled caricature of the Catholic organization based so firmly in paranoid, dehumanizing stereotypes, that any social critique you might be attempting to offer gets rather distorted by your narrow view of our world.
I have no doubt that Pullman had the best of intentions in writing this series. I think that his real desire for young people is that they feel empowered to decide for themselves how to live their lives and not feel like they have to accept the traditions and ways of thinking handed down to them. But he seemingly can't compose a fantasy story that encapsulates these themes without making a very, very specific and pointed attack on theism, Christianity, and Catholicism. It is actually jarring to see this carried out in the text of the novels. At one point in The Amber Spyglass, Mary relates to the young heroes the story of how she stopped believing in God. This is preceded by discussions of fictional elephant-like creatures that ride on wheel-like seedpods, and followed up by more talk of the young protagonists search for their lost external souls that take the form of shape-shifting animals. This shift between metaphor and cold, hard literalism, between a symbolic fantasy world and our everyday, lived-in existence is, for me, awkward and unclear. I can't imagine what might be going through the heads of ten- and eleven-year-olds when they arrive at that particular passage. But apparently the this foray into the literal and the topical is deemed necessary for Pullman, because otherwise, readers wouldn't ever get the message that they need to stop believing in God. Heaven forbid they should make any attempt to incorporate his thoughts on individual autonomy and freedom into their preexisting way of understanding the world. (Even the Narnia books offered us more leeway with regard to interpretation and personal application.)
No, Pullman wants to make his understanding of human history very clear, and essentially spells things out in one concise statement, found on page 479, wherein we learn that "all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity" wherein the enlightened "followers of wisdom" have worked to open minds while the author's stand-ins for religious tradition--most specifically, Christianity and Catholicism, or perhaps, more expansively and inclusively, traditional institutions in a broader sense (except this could possibly be interpreted to include things that Pullman seems to like quite a bit, such as universities, and Darwin's Theory of Evolution and whatnot, but I digress. . .)--of course "have always tried to keep them closed." Wow. "All the history of human life," huh? I don't know about you, but to me, that kind of reductionism is offensive to the complexity of the history of human life. Now who's being dogmatic? ”
William B wrote this review Wednesday, September 5, 2012.