by Kirk Woodward
[Frequent ROT contributor Kirk Woodward returns now with a slightly different piece of writing. In “Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials,” he gives us a critical analysis of the fantasy series of his title, comparing it for illustrative purposes with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, with which His Dark Materials shares some aspects. Kirk’s not only a writer himself, but he was an English major in college and reads across the spectrum extensively, so he has a well-formed basis to make observations. He’s also what he calls a “committed Christian,” so Pullman’s well-known opposition to organized religion and distrust of the Church—the writer’s said in an interview that he was raised in the Anglican Church and is as Christian as they come . . . exce
pt that he
doesn’t believe in God—would be a natural subject for Kirk to examine. I can assure ROTters that “Philip Pullman” will be worth the
read and may well spark a few discussions.
(Don’t hesitate to comment, Readers.
Both Kirk and I will be interested to hear what you all find to say in
J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, is the Beatles of literature, and Phili
p Pullman, author of the fantasy series
His Dark Materials, is her
Rolling Stones. The com parison is a pt in many ways. Rowling’s sales far exceed
Pullman’s, and everyone else’s, but he has strong po pularity. His work, like that of the Stones, is on
the darker side. Su p porters of each use the strengths of their cham pions to bash the other. And both Rowling and
Pullman maintain good relations with each other, as did the Beatles and the
Stones. Rowling has s poken with enthusiasm
about Pullman’s work. Pullman is more reserved about Rowling – he says he’s
only read the second (and weakest) Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the
Chamber of Secrets; Arthur A.
Levine/Scholastic, 1998 – U.K./1999 – U.S.), and that only because he
had to, as a judge for an annual book contest, but he has also s poken positively
Dark Materials (Northern Lights, published in the U.S. as The Golden
Compass, Scholastic, 1995; The Subtle Knife, 1997;
and The Amber Spyglass, 2000) is the kind of fantasy a
former schoolteacher like Pullman might be ex pected
to write. It’s not only a work in three volumes, but it contains a number of “books”
within those volumes. There’s a “book” on ecology and the environment, terribly
a p pro priate for these times, involving the changes in
climate and their effect on animals (the polar
bears). There’s a “book” on scientific procedures,
centering on Dr. Mary Malone,
formerly a nun, now a physicist; this is the least exciting material in the
series, but it is full of res pect
for the patient work that
researchers do. There’s a “book” on the nature of animals that has value for
anyone who thinks about the subject, because Pullman makes it clear that
animals have their own ways of being conscious. There’s a “book” on string
theory. And so on.
There’s also a book on religion. Obviously this is the most controversial
part of the series, since Pullman has stated a number
of times that he is an atheist, and his dislike of organized religion is both
well known and evident. I have a problem with Pullman on this as pect of his series, but not because of his attack on
religion. I don’t think that it goes
remotely far enough. A writer in the New York Times Book Review called
his position “closely reasoned.” The
reader may judge from the following:
All the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stu
The rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to o pen minds; the Authority and his churches have
always tried to kee p them closed.
I used to be a nun you see. I thought
could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn't any God at all and
that physics was more interesting
anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful
and convincing mistake, that's all.
These passages do not strike me as “closely reasoned.” They are essentially insults, although I suspect that many “religious” peo
would without hesitation agree that organized religion has been res ponsible for much slaughter, torturing, and mental
dictatorshi p. Institutions have a
way of defending themselves, and religion is no exce ption.
The Church has often behaved the way Pullman says it does, perha ps
without so much melodramatic twirling of moustaches, but nevertheless
And a “religious” person would not necessarily object to Pullman’s
presentation of the Authority (the name in the books
for the Church, or possibly for the Roman Catholic Church); as someone said to
me, “It’s nothing like the God I believe in.” I sus pect
this may be why the former Archbisho p
of Canterbury recommended the books, suggesting that they might be useful in
religious education classes. Undoubtedly the Archbisho p
has firsthand knowledge of the weaknesses of organized religion, es pecially the fanatical kind. (Pullman’s denunciation
of religion a p pears
to deal s pecifically with
Christians; one wonders whether he would include the Jews, the Buddhists, and
the Muslims in his indictment.)
But if religion is so bad, what’s the alternative? I’m afraid that the only principle I can find in the books, besides the idea that the church is bad, is that very young teens should be allowed to have un
sex with each other. I can imagine screams from Pullman’s defenders objecting
that he never says that his young characters Lyra Belacqua, a twelve-year-old
girl fated to bring about a massive correction to the world she lives in, and
Will Parry, whom Lyra encounters along the course of her adventures, have sex,
and Pullman has said the same thing. Literally he is correct: he doesn’t ex plicitly say the two characters have been sexually
active. But I doubt that few readers would take these passages
any other way:
I heard, . . . I was awake and I wanted to tell you the same and now I know what I must have felt all the time: I love you, Will, I love you –
The word love set his nerves ablaze. All his body thrilled with it, and he answered her in the same words, kissing her hot face over and over again, drinking in with adoration the scent of her body and her warm, honey-fragrant hair and her sweet, moist mouth that tasted of the little red fruit.
Around them there was nothing but silence, as if all the world were holding its breath.
. . . .
They looked dazed, as if some ha
accident had robbed them of their wits; they moved slowly; their eyes were not
focused on what they looked at.
all day on the wide hills, and in the heat of the afternoon, they visited their
gold-and-silver grove. They talked, they bathed, they ate, they kissed, they
lay in a trance of ha p piness murmuring words whose sound was as confused
as their sense, and they felt they were melting with love.
. . . .
He felt her tremble, and then under his hands the delicate bones of her back began to rise and fall, and he heard her sob quietly. He stroked her warm hair, her tender shoulders, and then he kissed her face again and again, and
she gave a dee p, shuddering sigh and
Now calm down, everyone. . . . This is the language of the bodice-rippers. At a minimum, Pullman has given himself “
deniability.” If he is merely suggesting that teenagers should be free to hug
and kiss, well, the church has never had much luck preventing
that. And the encounter of the two tweens is presented
in the books as a world-transforming event, one toward which all history has
been moving. It’s hard to imagine that a night of mere snuggling could accom plish so great a goal, or that the church would seriously
bother to o p pose
The truth is that as a writer Pullman tends to
his punches. He wants to have things both ways; for
example, he doesn’t want to say that the kids in his story make love, but he
certainly wants us to feel not only that they do, but that they ought to, as a
liberated and liberating activity. Even
in his presentation of death, he is
able to give those who would like to believe in immortality the feeling that in
some sense such a thing just might exist. To quote:
I’ll be looking for you, Will, every moment, every single moment. And when we do find each other again, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us a
Every atom of me and every atom of you. . . . We’ll live in birds and flowers
and dragonflies and pine trees and
in clouds and in those little s pecks
of light you see floating in sunbeams. . . . And when they use our atoms to
make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one, they’ll have to take two,
one of you and one of me, we’ll be joined so tight. . . .
At one level Pullman in his writing will com
to kee p his readers ha p py. What
he really feels in private, of
course, is unknowable.
Frequently fantasy (as opposed to imagination) visualizes a world without God, a fact that in my opinion – my own biases show here – can explain why fantasy books such as Pullman’s, and other creations such as electronic fantasy games, tend to be so consistently gloomy. Pullman’s materials are indeed dark. Why not? One would think that if we could invent a world without that repressive old God telling us what to do, we’d be a great deal happier. The reverse appears to me to be true: without a God to provide lasting consequences for behavior, there are no consequences, so anything goes (cf. Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire). Much fantasy conceives of the “natural” world as a world of deterministic forces, in which nothing lasts. As a result, it seems to me, contemporary fantasy is frequently morose and full of foreboding. (This is not the case with the Potter books, which clearly point to the survival in another world of those who have died, for example, Harry’s parents. Similarly, the fantasies of the Star Wars films offer The Force, another indicator of a reality greater than the everyday.)
We may now ask whether Pullman’s or J. K. Rowling’s books are “better.” This is clearly an a
question. However, some things can be said. Open a book by Pullman and one by
Rowling at random, and the differences immediately become clear. The two are working
two different sides of the street. Rowling is by far the more contem porary and “realistic” writer, and her s pecialty is dialogue, which is consistent with and
characteristic of the characters it reveals. Her school kids sound like real
school kids talking.
pecialty is e pic
and the well-turned narrative phrase.
His dialogue sli ps in and out of
credibility along with his characterizations – his heroine, Lyra, in particular is often sim ply
unbelievable for her age. But as a prose
stylist he is magnificent, and his Homeric similes are particularly
im pressive. The kind of writing
Pullman does is the kind more likely to win critical praise
and prizes, since anyone can see that
it’s Literature, but that is not the last word in a value judgment.
In the matter of
plotting, it seems to
me that Rowling is sim ply su perior to Pullman. He invents and piles on incidents with determination, throwing in
everything he can think of, but an accumulation of detail is no cure for a
story that is not particularly
dynamic. The plot of His Dark Materials
tends to rely on the search for certain objects, thrust into the story at
arbitrary times. The Potter books, interestingly, also involve the search for
objects, but those searches are required by the overall narrative, while other
objects could be substituted for the Golden Com pass
or the Subtle Knife, both of which exist to make the plot
possible, not to embody it.
One may com
pare Pullman’s plotting to the forward thrust of the Harry Potter
stories on all levels, from sub plot
to book to series. The enthusiasm to see what ha p pens in the next Potter book comes from the fact
that there is a “next” that is required by the story, and not sim ply more incidents to come. The war against heaven
and Lyra’s coming of age are not sufficiently differentiated from other events
to be more than hooks to hang a story on. The result is that the reader can sim ply be worn out by the accumulation of incident from
time to time – at least this reader was.
Similarly, there is no question in what way Lord Voldemort, in the Potter books, is evil. Pullman doesn’t make much of an effort to distinguish between the forces of the Church and the forces of (in Pullman’s terms) good, exce
to tell us that the Church and its minions are
evil and re pressive and the peo ple
fighting it are on the side of the good. Where this distinction of good and
evil comes from, if there is no God, is hard for me to see, but are there no
other differences between the Church and its o p ponents, besides the banner each is fighting under? The
differences between the sides are largely matters of wea ponry
– Ze p pelins,
gyroco pters, so what ? Lord Asriel, the leader of the rebellion against
the Church, is as unattractive a figure as Metatron, the archangel fighting to
maintain the Church’s su premacy –
both are remote and ruthless. Is there really a reason to pick sides?
We often talk about “good writing” as though it were one kind of thing that can be identified in anyone’s work. Clearly this is not the case. We need to ask what the writer is trying to achieve, and whether or not the writer achieves it. Accurate answers to these questions will bring us closer to a fair evaluation of the author’s work. In his recent book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate Books, 2012), having engaged in a great deal of
public dis pute on matters of religion, Pullman may present his case more clearly. It seems to me, in
the cases discussed here, however, that Rowling is able to achieve her
objectives, and Pullman is not. If His Dark
Materials really is a stick to beat religion with, one wishes it
were a better stick.