Around London at the moment you can see double-decker buses carrying what we in the trade call a "superside" (a poster along the nearside of the top deck of the bus) advertising the upcoming film The Golden Compass. For reasons unexplained — and which Philip Pullman on his site says he lacked the clout to resist at the time it happened — this was the title which an American editor gave to the first book in the trilogy His Dark Materials, a book known in the original English as Northern Lights. Since the film version was made in Hollywood, the reprinted British editions of the book are clumsily trying to include both titles on the front cover to tie in with the film.
For the purposes of international readership, I shall use the name Golden Compass throughout this article, although I'm aware that, for example, in Spain the title is Las Luces del Norte while in Latin America it is La Brújula de Oro!
The three books in question: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass have won prestigious awards, including the Whitbread and Carnegie and recently even the Carnegie of Carnegies. In a nationwide survey here in Britain under the banner "The Big Read", Pullman's work came in third out of hundreds of books voted for by the public, falling behind only those titans of popular literature Pride and Prejudice and The Lord of the Rings, and coming in several places ahead of the highest-rated Harry Potter book. There has even been a seven-hour long production at the National Theatre.
The books are heavily coloured by the author's avowed disdain for organised
religion. If you share his
distaste, you'll think the books are well
worth reading and that the powers of evil might as well be the Church
as anyone else. If, on the other hand, you think the author is
one-sidedly portraying the institution of the Church and religious
people in general as self-serving or naive, deceived or deceiving, then
you'll probably admire the books' epic scope but ultimately find them
flawed and bitter.
The books are undeniably popular, then, which suggests that they reach out to something deep-seated in readers young and old. (The Whitbread Prize was in the overall category, the first time this category has been won by an ostensibly children's book). But concerns have been expressed by Christians in particular about the fact that the books are anti-Christian and anti-religious in general, as well as fostering a somewhat precocious relationship among two just-adolescents. So what is there in the books to get excited about? And is there anything for parents and educators to worry about?
In a moment we'll attempt the almost impossible task of summarising in just one paragraph the plot and significant characters of the 1250 pages in the trilogy. But first, a précis of what I'm going to say below: the three books provide a tremendously imaginative epic, very human despite some of the fantasy-inspired creatures within. They touch on issues close to people's hearts: the fate of the world, the origins of man, what happens after death, and the love between men and women. They uphold and encourage a range of virtues, although perhaps they overemphasise the role of physical love.
But they are heavily coloured by the author's avowed disdain for organised religion, and in particular for the Catholic Church. If you share his distaste, or are indifferent, I imagine you'll think the books are well worth reading and that the powers of evil might as well be the Church as anyone else. If, on the other hand, you think the author is one-sidedly portraying the institution of the Church and religious people in general as self-serving or naive, deceived or deceiving, then you'll probably admire the books' epic scope but ultimately find them flawed and bitter.
Two youngsters in multiple worlds
For those who know nothing whatsoever of the books, the important thing is that the overarching story is written on a grand scale, bridging multiple worlds. It involves two young protagonists who alone can save everything. They're aided and thwarted by realistic and fantastical characters alike, including Lyra's own parents, the most morally complex characters in the books. The youngsters have to grow in skill and in stature and virtue as they move towards their goal, even though they're not really sure what it is. At this level, and for many people I imagine the book simply operates at this level, it's not at all hard to see what appeals.
So what's all the fuss about? Why are Christians concerned? And why isn't anyone else? Well, in the overview above, the thing I've not spelt out is this. There is a thick black line down the middle of the book. On one side of this line are characters who are sympathetic, virtuous, loyal, cheerful, brave, heroic, faithful. On the other side are self-serving, power-seeking, conniving, deceptive rogues. There's nothing terribly new in that: "Harry Potter" arguably takes much the same approach, as does "The Lord of the Rings". It's the stuff of the mytho-epic story. The difference here is that, without exception, those on the side of darkness are agents of the Church or of what passes for God in Pullman's universe. And conversely there is not one single person of a religious bent, who displays any virtue, any sign of goodness whatsoever.
A chilling view of God
Is this a surprise? Not really. Pullman himself on his site, says: "I don't know whether there's a God or not. Nobody does, no matter what they say. I think it's perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it, but I don't know everything, and there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away." Well, that is an honest statement of a position: let us call it a fundamental agnosticism. And there's nothing wrong with that. I'm sure Mr Pullman will have engaged in discussions with non-agnostic friends over the validity of his position.
But he doesn't stop there. "Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it's because he's ashamed of his followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they're responsible for promoting in his name. If I were him, I'd want nothing to do with them." And now we've moved out of the arena where people who hold different views on the question of God can engage in healthy debate and into a battle of words. Pullman's not anti-God, as such. He just thinks that anyone who's pro-God has got it wrong and is doing the wrong thing.
This is a view endorsed or echoed by most of the sympathetic characters in the books. John Parry, to take one example, has been lost in Lyra's world for 10 years, hasn't seen his wife in all that time, yet has remained faithful to her in spite of the powerful advances of a witch. He's just braved a snowstorm in a hot air balloon and fought off a troop of mercenaries to reach the owner of the Subtle Knife, who turns out to be the son he's hardly met. You could hardly imagine more of a hero. The advice he gives: "We've had nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history. It's time we started again…" as he encourages Will to take the knife to Lord Asriel in his fight to destroy The Authority and build the Republic of Heaven here on Earth.
In an interview reproduced on YouTube, Pullman is asked what his agenda is, and what he expects young people to get from his book. And his answer sounds reasonable enough. He's "telling a story", hoping that people will "think about things" after reading the book. The books celebrate "qualities such as kindness, and love, and courage, and courtesy too, and intellectual curiosity" and attacks "cold-heartedness, tyranny, closed-mindedness, cruelty". Can't really argue with that, can you? Except that it's not so simple. In the course of that particular interview, he very carefully skirts round exactly whom he finds responsible for the qualities we are to attack. But the book makes it clear that it's the religious institutions who are responsible for all these things. And for nothing good.
Reviving hoary prejudices
So the combined effect of 2,000 years of Christianity (there's absolutely no reference to any other world religion in any of the books) is nothing but scheming cardinals with torture chambers, ready to send out a priest-assassin having absolved him pre-emptively of the sin he is about to commit? No question of art, culture, philosophy? No mention of the centuries of self-giving by religious orders caring and educating? (The only religious in the book is a former nun who has rejected her vocation and her faith). No word on the social work the Church has undertaken the world over? "If the cap fits…" some critics might say. But does the cap fit? Most readers will never know, because they'll implicitly believe what the noble and attractive characters tell them, and despise the position represented by the rest.
Of course, you could argue that the Church of Lyra's world is not the Catholic Church of ours, although it's clearly intended to present itself as such in the grotesque caricature which English Protestantism has spent so many years nurturing. Furthermore, the "Authority" it worships is no God but an aged and infirm angel, lost in the final battle when its angel carriers drop the litter in which it is being carried. The reality of a Creator God is left quietly to one side by the closest thing to a morally neutral character: King Ogunwe, an African commander allied to Lord Asriel. In the course of an explanation about the Angels, he says "It shocked some of us to learn that The Authority is not the creator. There may or may not be a creator: we don't know." Instead, it's the Dust of Lyra's world, the elementary particles of Dark Matter, which constitute the self-aware basis for all sentient life. Where they come from is never explained, but their role is a central plot device.
What might have been
There are other aspects which might be of concern to parents, especially Christians. You can read my own notes on the series at goodtoread.org. I doubt that anyone would claim that the books are flawless, and certainly not Pullman himself, but they're certainly very attractive. In the course of preparing this article, I reread all three books, read through the material on his own and other websites, and heard recordings from interviews he's given. And I find myself firmly in agreement with a lot of what he says. He gives the impression of a down-to-earth modesty and encourages reading and a broadness of spirit. He's keen to tell a story which will leave his readers thinking about the deeper things of life, about what's right and what's wrong, and about virtue. And I can't argue with that.
The saddest thing is that this could have been a different series and just as attractive. I believe that many of the people complaining about the books would find themselves in total agreement with much of what Pullman himself believes. Or, at least, would be willing to consider an honest and open debate on the issue. But his sincerely-held, and I'm afraid to say bitterly-held, belief seems to be that the institutions of the Church which some hold to be the arbiters and promoters of truth and justice here on Earth are exactly the opposite. And that is the story he's telling.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He also is the editor of the Good-to-Read website.