Review: Philip Pullman's secular faith

By ALICIA MOSIER  |  Dec. 4, 2002 at 4:59 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- To the news that Tom Stoppard has signed on to adapt Philip Pullman's fantasy trilogy "His Dark Materials" for the screen, one might reasonably reply: Why would such an erudite playwright be interested in a children's book?

Of course, fantasy is the genre of the moment. The audience for "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," is expected to exceed the record-breaking numbers who came to see the first episodes.

But "His Dark Materials," the film version of which is due to be released by New Line Cinema in 2004, is a very different beast. While the stories of J.R.R. Tolkein and J.K. Rowling have dominated the market, the three books in Pullman's series -- "The Golden Compass," "The Subtle Knife," and "The Amber Spyglass" -- have crept up from behind to stun the literary world with a whole new approach to fantasy fiction, one that's as mind-bendingly sophisticated as the most intricate Stoppard play.

It's also caused a storm of debate among many Christian readers. The controversy that accompanied the Harry Potter books is as nothing compared to the response Pullman's series has received. Rowling's fictional world, in which children are trained in magic spells and battle with dark forces, drew criticism from parents concerned that it would tempt their kids to dabble in witchcraft. But the world of "His Dark Materials" is not nearly so innocent. In fact, the Catholic Herald called the series "the stuff of nightmares," "worthy of the bonfire." And its creator seems to like it that way.

Pullman dislikes being called a fantasy author almost as much as he dislikes being called a children's author. "His Dark Materials," he says, is "stark realism;" he intends it to explore fundamental questions of morality, truth, love, and death in ways no less sophisticated than the novels of Jane Austen or the poems of John Milton (from whose "Paradise Lost" the trilogy's title is taken).

Grandson of an Anglican priest and a devout atheist well versed in quantum physics, Pullman has created a universe in which "the Authority" (also known as God) is a sadistic being, a trickster and a liar who bears more than a little resemblance to Lucifer. The story's heroine, Lyra Belacqua, and her friend Will Parry (who wields a weapon named "God-killer" that can slice through to different worlds) are destined to lead a long-wished-for revolt against the Authority. The revolt will end with the replacement of the Kingdom of Heaven by a Republic of Heaven in which the truth, not the lies of God and the Church, will reign.

Along the way, as Pullman weaves a tale that reverses history toward a new Garden of Eden, Will and Lyra become a new sort of Adam and Eve. Even while using all their cleverness to halt the encroaching power of the Authority, they must remain innocent so that they will be free to accomplish what amounts to the salvation of the world. At the climax of the series, it is their first kiss that changes the fate of the universe and turns back all the deception, domination, and repression for which the Authority stood. (They are then called upon to choose between their personal happiness and the good of the world, and they nobly choose the latter.)

The Republic of Heaven begins with a kiss, implying that the things of the flesh are not evil after all (as they are in the church of -- no kidding -- Pope John Calvin), but are in fact the creators of a heavenly country here on earth.

Pullman's upending of the Christian story is not merely an ingenious narrative device. It is part of his campaign to bring a "moral punch" back to literature -- and in the background of that campaign is his own antipathy to organized religion. As he put it last summer in a debate on morality in fiction in Edinburgh, he opposes "every religion and fundamental organization where there is one truth and they will kill you if you don't believe it."

But even though, as he believes, we are living in a post-religion era (he is "all for the death of God"), that doesn't mean there are no momentous questions for literature to address.

Fantasy writing, Pullman says, "is such a rich seam to be mined, such a versatile mode, (but it) is not always being used to explore bigger ideas." The realities of good and evil, Heaven and Hell still compel our imaginations, and it is the responsibility of modern fantasy writers to use all the tools at their disposal to investigate them.

Pullman's moral seriousness is refreshing, as are his ambitions for fantasy literature. But haven't his predecessors in the genre also been concerned with big ideas? Pullman is often compared to C.S. Lewis, who in the "Chronicles of Narnia" created a universe no less complex and compelling than that of "His Dark Materials." But the power of the Narnia books (like the works of Tolkein) is their presupposition that all myths draw upon the one "true myth," namely Christianity -- and this, according to Pullman, is precisely where they go wrong.

In a much-publicized speech at an international book festival in June and an earlier article in the Guardian, Pullman pilloried Lewis's epic as "monumentally disparaging of girls and women" and "blatantly racist," a work of "propaganda in the cause of the religion (Lewis) believed in." Lewis, he believes, was simply "preaching," and preaching a repressive faith to boot.

But if Lewis was a preacher, Pullman is one all the more -- only in the service of a different religion. It's the faith of the Enlightenment, of scientific materialism, of secular values and truths that are fluid, of republics rather than kingdoms. In his comments at the festival, Pullman described the belief system of his trilogy this way: "When it was possible to have a belief about God and heaven, it represented something we all desired. It had a profound meaning in human life. But when it no longer became possible to believe, a lot of people felt despair. What was the meaning of life? It seems that our nature is so formed that we need a feeling of connectedness with the universe. If there is no longer a king, or a kingdom of heaven, it will have to be a republic in which we are free citizens. We ourselves as citizens have to build the republic of heaven."

This statement perfectly describes the faith of secular modernity, and it makes understandable the enthusiasm for Pullman's books among intellectuals like Stoppard and Jon Snow, the chairman of the Whitbread Prize committee, who upon giving the prize to Pullman (the first children's author to win it) confessed that "We (the jurors) are more taken, it has to be said, with (his) view of God than Lewis's."

"His Dark Materials" is an attempt to mythologize the Enlightenment, to retell the story of the world using the paradigms of modern atheistic materialism. But the fact that, among other things, its climax -- the salvation of humanity achieved by a teenage kiss, ushering in a life that will entail, as Lyra says, "all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we've got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds" -- is so banal shows that much more needs to be done in order to make this myth a strong competitor to the one Lewis and Tolkein drew from in their stories.

So Christians need not fret too much about Pullman. His challenge to the Christian myth is, while fascinating and impressive, ultimately a failure. What's more, he tests his protagonists in courage and loyalty and purity of heart, virtues that all people of faith can applaud. For all his efforts to overthrow the Christian story in fantasy literature, Pullman ironically ends up reaffirming its richness -- in part by virtue of the fact that his alternative, despite its many sparkling moments, cannot find a conclusion that is really compelling.

Alicia Mosier is managing editor of First Things, a monthly journal of religion and public life.

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