Friday, November 23, 2007

His Dark Materials

As far as I can tell, the field of ‘literary catechism’ seems almost entirely dominated by Christians. It is, of course, a primarily Christian tradition—at least in the West—but, given the secularization of Western society, it seems that someone would have found out by now how quickly children and readers can learn a system of values from a well-told story.

Philip Pullman stands out as a ‘catechist’ of the secular, atheistic literary tradition and he does so intentionally. His best known work, His Dark Materials, is an entire world—actually, an infinite number of worlds—saturated with his secular humanist beliefs. One cannot help but compare his effort to The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. In fact, critics seem unable to avoid making the comparison. It is amazing how ready society seems for an author who can achieve an epic of this magnitude without an underlying Christian faith. William Waldegrave of the Daily Telegraph seems to speak for the masses when he writes, ‘Move over Tolkien and CS Lewis. Philip Pullman has completed his extraordinary cosmological tour de force.’

Of course, whether or not Pullman’s attempt is successful is another question. As a literary scholar, I think His Dark Materials leaves a great deal to be desired. His characters are internally inconsistent. His plot has gaping holes, questions unanswered at the end of the almost six-hundred-page third installment. The language is so ‘original’ as to be contrived. But how the story is told is not really important within Pullman’s books. He has, I must concede, outlined a compelling and riveting plot.

The trilogy centers around a little orphaned girl named Lyra who lives at Jordon College, Oxford, in a dimension very similar to our own. She soon finds out that she is not actually an orphan, but the illegitimate daughter of two of the most charismatic people in that world—Lord Asriel, a powerful scientist, and Mrs Coulter, a paragon femme fatale and Church official. Lyra finds out about a heretical substance called ‘dust’ that emanates from every adult human being with which she communicates using her altheiometer, the titular golden compass. The church wants to destroy it, but Lyra decides it must be good and that she must save it. On her quest, she finds a boy from our dimension named Will who comes into possession of a knife that can cut through worlds. In the climax, the pair journey to the underworld to free the spirits of the dead from their overlords placed there by a tyrannical angel playing the part of God. Once they are free, the spirits dissolve and rejoin the dust. In the end, Lyra and Will choose to return to their own dimensions to encourage creativity and learning so that more dust can be produced.

Dust is the underlying myth of the His Dark Materials universe. It arises from, and contributes to, human consciousness and imagination. It is man’s consciousness that gives the universe its purpose—to preserve that consciousness. It is actually dust, or the idea it represents, that is the basis for Pullman’s defense of atheism. I recently attended a dialogue between Philip Pullman and the pastor of Saint Mary the Virgin Anglican Church in Oxford entitled Writing, Myth, and Religion in which he explained these beliefs.

Pullman’s defense of atheism is actually an ethical one deeply rooted in the literary philosophies of William Blake and John Milton. Paradise Lost, and indeed the story of the Fall of Man, is a story of the end of innocence and the coming to experience. According to Pullman, ‘the closer we come to humanity, the more self-conscious we are, the less grace we have.’ Children have a kind of ‘unconscious grace’ which they lose during adolescents. The process of becoming human as an adult is to develop a kind of ‘conscious grace,’ within the story, the faculty to produce dust.

Religion is bad precisely, Pullman asserts, because is discourages the development of conscious grace. The ideas of sin and repentance encourage self-doubt and repression that inhibit our ability to be human. Dependence on a God-figure suppresses our need to think and feel for ourselves. The story of the Fall is the prime example—man is cast out of the garden for choosing knowledge. No God would want his creation to be ignorant or child-like.


As a Christian, I clearly disagree with Pullman’s assertions about the effects of belief. But I don’t think they may his story value-less. The books have literary merit and worth, though probably exaggerated by overzealous secular critics. But what impressed me the most about Philip Pullman is that he really does understand the way fiction affects people. He understands that the sense of right and wrong comes from watching others, but also from characters we admire in fiction. He claims, rightly, that writers cannot avoid preaching sermons—it’s just that a well-told sermon is rarely resented and often effective. He has actually created a fairly internally-consistent cosmos without God and written it into a story that people will read and from which they will learn. That alone is a feat worth respecting.

The first part, known in the US as The Golden Compass, will be released on December 7. I know many Christian groups are outraged by it, but I’m not convinced there really understand why. A catechetical story can only go so far—it teaches, it does not convert. Perhaps Christians should accept the movie as an occasion for learning more about secular humanism. More likely, though, Christians who see the movie should remember that the great human consciousness Pullman goes through so much effort to praise and preserve is a gift from God that we should use to think, to create, and to love.

His Dark Materials
Suggested Age-Range: Confirmation-aged, adult
Look for: a defense of atheism to critique, a praise of human consciousness, charitable love
Be Wary of: a defense of atheism, sexual overtones, occasional language, violence--though not graphic
Availability: Still under copyright

2 comments:

Joie said...

I understand that Pullman's "plot has gaping wholes" but how about the parts?

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