13 May 2015

Philip Pullman’s 'His Dark Materials'

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 . . . except 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 response.)]

J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, is the Beatles of literature, and Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy series His Dark Materials, is her Rolling Stones. The comparison is apt in many ways. Rowling’s sales far exceed Pullman’s, and everyone else’s, but he has strong popularity. His work, like that of the Stones, is on the darker side. Supporters of each use the strengths of their champions to bash the other. And both Rowling and Pullman maintain good relations with each other, as did the Beatles and the Stones. Rowling has spoken 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 spoken positively of Rowling.

His 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 expected 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 appropriate 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 respect 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 aspect 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 stupidity. The rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.

I used to be a nun you see. I thought physics 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” people would without hesitation agree that organized religion has been responsible for much slaughter, torturing, and mental dictatorship. Institutions have a way of defending themselves, and religion is no exception. The Church has often behaved the way Pullman says it does, perhaps without so much melodramatic twirling of moustaches, but nevertheless indefensibly.

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 suspect this may be why the former Archbishop of Canterbury recommended the books, suggesting that they might be useful in religious education classes. Undoubtedly the Archbishop has firsthand knowledge of the weaknesses of organized religion, especially the fanatical kind. (Pullman’s denunciation of religion appears to deal specifically 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 unprotected 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 explicitly 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 happy accident had robbed them of their wits; they moved slowly; their eyes were not focused on what they looked at.

They spent 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 happiness 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 presently she gave a deep, shuddering sigh and fell still.

Now calm down, everyone. . . . This is the language of the bodice-rippers. At a minimum, Pullman has given himself “plausible 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 accomplish so great a goal, or that the church would seriously bother to oppose it.

The truth is that as a writer Pullman tends to pull 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 apart. 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 specks 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 compromise to keep his readers happy. 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 apples-and-oranges 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 contemporary and “realistic” writer, and her specialty is dialogue, which is consistent with and characteristic of the characters it reveals. Her school kids sound like real school kids talking.

Pullman’s specialty is epic and the well-turned narrative phrase. His dialogue slips in and out of credibility along with his characterizations – his heroine, Lyra, in particular is often simply unbelievable for her age. But as a prose stylist he is magnificent, and his Homeric similes are particularly impressive. 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 simply superior 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 Compass or the Subtle Knife, both of which exist to make the plot possible, not to embody it.

One may compare Pullman’s plotting to the forward thrust of the Harry Potter stories on all levels, from subplot to book to series. The enthusiasm to see what happens in the next Potter book comes from the fact that there is a “next” that is required by the story, and not simply 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 simply 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, except to tell us that the Church and its minions are evil and repressive and the people 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 opponents, besides the banner each is fighting under? The differences between the sides are largely matters of weaponry – Zeppelins, gyrocopters, 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 supremacy – 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 dispute 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.

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