over a decade in English-speaking countries, dangerous
books written by nutters have generated crazes. Some very bad books
have been made into movies, won lucrative prizes, and made their
authors household words. Philip Pullman's
His Dark Materials series is an exemplary instance. Canny marketing and
gullibility, linked with idolatry and
false teaching, have seen to this.
Adults good at self-promotion, who like ghoulish humour and
action-packed cloud cuckoo-land fantasies, have forgotten, or else they never
knew, that the naked Emperor and Tweedledum and Tweedledee have modern
counterparts. In secular and religious settings for at least three decades I
have written about this depressing subject. Long before Philip Pullman's books were called works of
genius by people without literary, religious, or moral sharpness, I warned
parents and teachers about them in the second edition of my book, What Should My
So, after forcing myself to see The Golden Compass this
Christmas when it opened in Sydney, I am delighted to report that the
movie is a dud. It is as confused, disjointed, and intellectually silly as
the books. Many Aussie parents, children, and teenagers already know this.
Their verdict, which is spreading like a virus, is: BORING! My house cleaner, an engineer in his forties, walked
away half-way through. What goes round comes round.
Reviewers, even, have had some sense.
Pullman has wanted for years to
be "freed from God". Film reviewers these days rarely think
aloud in these terms, but quite a few have brains. They don't like dust
thrown in their eyes — and this is Pullman's greatest special effect.
For well-intentioned adults in their 20s or younger,
male and female, who like a bit of action, don't know what to expect from
good fantasy, are taken in by modern technology and special effects, and
don't mind Fun and Games that exploit their ignorance about the meaning
of words and cultural history (eg, Magisterium), escaping to Greater Union at
a shopping mall to see a lead compass that pretends to be golden is fine.
They'll race, early, to the next two Pullman movies.
That's the idea: suck them in. The movie gets this
right. The books are peculiar vacuum cleaners spitting out occasional
recondite words like "reprobate". God or Dog, what does it matter?
Although it takes a while for film audiences unfamiliar with
the novels to figure out who the goodies and baddies are, modern culture is so
visual that some of the signs are very clear. Nicole Kidman, when she first
appears, looks like the wicked witch in Disney's Snow White, except that
she's blonde and in Pullman's terms is not a witch. The
witch is nice and has long black hair. Kidman's closest companion, a
demon monkey that accompanies her everywhere, is ugly in ways that Blind Freddy,
at age eight, can see straight away.
There are some compelling scenes that work in The Golden
Compass. A Great Bear fight between a usurper and a rightful
king bear who's got back his armour is especially good. Ursa major and minor? There are Oxford
dons who look like
Catholic priests, although they are High Anglican. Who, in a world that
doesn't know much, cares about this difference? Does it make a
difference? No. We all know, don't we, that Religion is bad and the
universe is Godless? Demons are God's
army. The Bible is wrong.
Many of the street scenes in the film make little apparent sense.
We're told that Kidman and the witch have both had lovers, as if this is
the predictable human condition. Which unions are trustworthy? What's in
a name? Pullman is clever at word games.
Lyra, the young girl who doesn't want to be a Lady and lies
through her teeth, is attracted initially to both of these women because she doesn't have
a mother. She is being raised by a brave "uncle" who is actually
her father. Almost everyone and everything in her immediate environment is
dysfunctional, masking incest and other all too common modern sexual horrors, but
All Will Be
Explained once we've seen the third film. I
don't intend to suffer that purgatorial fire.
What is so dangerous
about Pullman's books? What will be
next, since this movie takes us up in the air and leaves us
there in a hot air balloon?
The answer is easy to summarise briefly. No form of literature intended for older readers is more
dangerous than fiction that blends occult elements, especially those inseparable
from ingrained malice and superstition, with predictable, conventional
features of esteemed fantasy such as invented worlds parallel to our own, time
travel, heroic protagonists, magical creatures, and objects with supernatural
properties, like a truth-telling compass. If, in addition, such fiction includes
character types more usually found in trustworthy religious settings, the
danger is even greater.
In Pullman's Oxford, and in an Arctic region invented
by him where nefarious scientific experiments are carried out beneath the
Northern Lights, angels, ancient white witches, heroic dancing bears, and
children with protean animal daemons on their shoulders battle for survival in
a menacing and fundamentally disordered universe. Readers who lack the
intelligence, the depth, and the previous experience of wide reading that
protect against unbalanced suggestion are likely not to recognise how
disordered this universe is.
After the third novel was released I predicted that
Philip Pullman's exploration of sinister realms would appeal to readers
because of his compelling portraits of innocence, courage, and
adventurous exploration. But I warned parents and teachers that his
rests on the idea that Christianity, and especially "Church", have
always been a mistake. In a fascinating conversation with the
Archbishop of Canterbury he amplifies on this idea, proclaiming his
own atheism. The response of faithful Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs,
others to his candour can be readily guessed.
Pullman's imaginary world, the Kingdom
of Heaven incomparably rendered
in world literature in Dante's glorious Paradiso
is replaced by a bleak, ghostly realm of the dead and a vague dream of a
heavenly republic. Cosmic links are effected by dust. A corrupt,
power-hungry Authority speaks for and as "God". Murder,
promiscuity, narcissism, kidnapping, endemic lying, warring adult
factionalism, hypocritical feints, equivocation, and blind obedience to control freaks are
ubiquitous plot elements. Betrayal of apparently helpless souls is
commonplace. Children are stolen and mutilated. Many grown-ups who
should care don't. They love self more than God. Typically, they think
they see more than seers.
In such a context, the author's dramatic, credible
endorsement of friendship, self-sacrifice, and faithful love can easily be perceived
by vulnerable and inexperienced readers as antidotes
to sound religious practice.
Nowhere do readers meet the view that it is people that routinely
violate sound Judaeo-Christian
teaching who exemplify treachery. Nor do readers meet the related view that humility,
loyal friendship, self-sacrifice, and brave support of the Good under
conditions of adversity are among the most trustworthy signs of sincerity in
individuals who claim to be religious, to venerate Biblical truths, and to know
what a loving God is.
Authority and its perversion, Totalitarianism, are significantly different. Being "told what to
do", which is what many of the characters in Pullman's fiction detest, is a
requirement of life. It is soundly fulfilled when those in leadership positions know
right from wrong and practice virtue by making themselves accountable to those
with the Big Picture. Sadly, many do not do this, as Pullman loves to point out. Denials
of reality have plagued humankind since Adam and Eve. But there are still wise
parents, wise teachers, blessed marital unions, and authentically pious nuns
Wisdom is hard won. Careless love hurts
Fallen Man. Nobody arrives at the
top of the mountain where Truth resides by proclaiming virtue without living
it. Pullman knows that too. The
trouble is, so many of his proclamations are jaundiced. He leads innocent
souls to believe that adults can't change for the better: only children
can. In effect, he is saying that nobody over 17, or is it still 30?, can be
This message, I regret to say, bears
an unfortunate similarity to loose cow dung. We all know adults who are too
rigid, proud, gutless, and wilful to seek and act upon genuine correction so
that they cease abusing positions of influence. But if we ourselves mean what
we say, instead of merely parroting lovely sentiments, we know from experience that
garbage in our family lines, in others that we've come to know
intimately, and especially in our own minds and hearts, can be tossed away in big
Moore was once a Nice Jewish Girl from New Jersey. Now she is a granny
living Down Under. She has published widely on literature, education, religion, and