The Dark Materials of Children’s Fiction

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Dec 2004

New Line Productions, whose brilliant fantasy film The Return of the King won eleven Oscars in the spring of 2004, will release in 2005 or 2006 the first of a series of films based upon His Dark Materials, the epic trio of novels written by the English author Philip Pullman.

Pullman is an evangelical secularist and leading light in the UK’s ‘National Secular Society’, currently opposing the use of taxpayers’ money to fund any school in which religious belief is taught as truth. He is a close friend and ally of the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, for whom all religion is a mental aberration, and Catholicism especially so.

The Return of the King was the culmination of a three-movie epic based upon the fantasy The Lord of the Rings by the Catholic academic J.R.R Tolkien. While the Catholic Herald considered this epic a thoroughly Catholic and morally healthy allegory on original sin, it has described His Dark Materials as “truly the stuff of nightmares” and “worthy of the bonfire”.

Given Pullman’s deft exploitation of Catholicism’s historical authoritarian scandals, especially the Inquisition, this latter judgement could not have been better calculated to arrive on the long list of evaluations that appear inside the covers of paperbacks these times – and so it does on the pages of His Dark Materials, at Pullman’s request.

However, it is easy to understand the Catholic Herald’s indignation.  His Dark Materials pits two twelve-year-olds against a villainous power called ‘the church’, to break its cosmic hold over multiple universes in the name of ‘the Authority’, an arrogant, deceitful and decrepit ‘God’. They are presented quite deliberately as a new Adam and Eve who reverse the expulsion from Paradise by rescuing the dead from an underworld of deception to which the lie of ‘heaven’ has consigned them, and who assert the right of all children to grow into sexual maturity and responsible adulthood, freely making their own moral choices.

‘The church’ in the world of Lyra Belacqua, the first of these children, is ruled by a collection of institutions known as ‘the Magisterium’. The leader of the revolt against ‘the Authority’, Lord Asriel, is described as allowing a “spasm of disgust … to cross his face when they talk of the sacraments, and atonement, and redemption, and suchlike”.

However, this world is not quite Earth, but an Earth-type planet in another universe that interpenetrates ours. Pullman is playing with the notion made popular by speculative physics and cosmology that all historical possibilities eventuate somewhere, mixing elements of Milton’s Paradise Lost with history, science fiction, fantasy, New Age romanticism and anti-Catholic polemic. Lyra is a rebellious and adventurous urchin aroused by ecclesiastical tyranny directed against her friends.

The focus of this tyranny is a fear of ‘Dust’. In Lyra’s world ‘the church’ has discovered that a mysterious elementary particle tends to accumulate around adults, and has concluded that this ‘Dust’ is somehow connected with original sin. Through an institution known as the ‘General Oblation Board’, run by Lyra’s sinister mother, it has set up a laboratory in Lapland to see if, by operating upon children, it can prevent their corruption by this ‘Dust’.

To describe this operation it is necessary to explain that in Lyra’s world every human is accompanied by a visible daemon – a kind of external alter ego or twin soul of the opposite gender that always stays very close. Lyra’s daemon is called Pantalaimon. Like the daemon of every child his ‘form’ is not fixed. He can become a moth or a mouse or an ermine or a leopard, as circumstances demand, or as his desire takes him. He is also Lyra’s dearest companion, advising, warning, chiding and so on.

I must say that my first reaction to Lyra’s daemon was to suppose that she was a witch-in-training, and that the ‘daemon’ was her witch’s ‘familiar’ – but in fact the idea is closer to one expressed by Socrates – that he had an inner spiritual ‘voice’, close to a ‘muse’.

This fancy, the external shape-shifting daemon, is a brilliant fictional device that allows Pullman to explore the ‘soul’ of a character, even when that character has no human companion to converse with and is in dire straits.

It also allows him to devise the horrific experiment ‘the church’ is practising in Lapland at a place called Bolvangar – to see what happens when the bond between the child and the daemon is severed by a kind of guillotine. Will this prevent the accumulation of ‘Dust’, ‘saving’ the soul of the child?

Pullman’s purpose is clear enough. In Lyra’s world ‘the church’ is perversely prepared to destroy the true personality of a child in order to ‘save’ it – depriving the child of its dearest companion, its soul. It is also prepared to prevent the child developing into an independent adult. The symbolism of the ‘cutting’ of the bond between child and daemon is further developed in the following passage, in which one of Lyra’s allies, a true witch is exhorting her fellows:

“Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvangar. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north: I have travelled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did – not in the same way, but just as horribly – they cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls – they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.”

This obvious allusion to the castrati who once sang in the Sistine chapel reveals Pullman’s skill in weaving the most sensational facets of the church’s history into his narrative texture. It also, of course, tips his hand, undermining the power of the story as allegory and leading his readers by the nose to his own fondest conclusions.

The first novel in the series, Northern Lights, is nevertheless a brilliant work of imagination, and the writing is way above the norm for children’s fiction. His descriptions of the Aurora, of journeys across snowbound moonlit landscapes and other arctic scenes are breathtaking. Judging by the message-boards on websites devoted to the novels, children are deeply gripped by the idea of daemons, and by other extraordinary creations such as armoured polar bears who can speak and work metals. The novels are already a ‘phenomenon’, long before children will get a chance to see the film renditions. They are also far more sophisticated and involving than the Harry Potter stories of J.K. Rowling.

But how should Christian adults react to all this? Supposing a ten or twelve year old were to quote the above passage to a parent or an RE teacher – what would they say? And what on earth should our own magisterium make of all this, given that its supposed twin in an alternative universe already figures among the villainous and overbearing powers of the story? (The chosen director of the forthcoming films, Chris Weitz, has declared that although the film script will not refer to ‘the church’, the term ‘magisterium’ will be kept for the dark overbearing power.) To react as the Catholic Herald has done would be to add grist to Pullman’s mill and to become part of his publicity machine.

The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has already ploughed an entirely different furrow – one of welcoming the raising of great theological questions in children’s fiction and of rebutting the notion that the ‘God’ of His Dark Materials needs any defence. The drift of his assessment is that Pullman is merely excoriating the darkest and silliest Gnostic excesses of Christian fundamentalism, and that this is not at all a bad thing to do. His major misgiving is not so much over Pullman’s work as over the capability of the average believer to cope with the issues he raises.

Pullman insists that he is merely supporting values such as love, freedom, responsibility and compassion – and attacking nothing more laudable than fear, a misguided adult desire for control, and intellectual tyranny. This is all very well, up to a point.

That point came for me in the second novel, The Subtle Knife, when, on our planet Earth, the second of Pullman’s child protagonists, Will Parry, receives the following abbreviated history lesson from his father:

“There are two great powers … and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”

‘Those who want us to obey and be humble and submit’ are, inevitably, ‘the church.’ By clear implication, all of the church’s enemies belong to the
children of light.

The best defence for Pullman here is that Will’s father, John, is about to expire and so has little time for nuance. Even so, how on earth could Pullman have entirely left out of Will’s education the capacity for tyranny, torture, conspiracy and lies of secularist authoritarians – from Napoleon I through Bismarck to Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, Sadaam Hussein and Kim Il Sung? Would he not need some small warning that all of us are prone to self-regard and a love for power, and that distrust of soutanes and zucchettos should not veer over entirely into naïve adulation of everyone damning God and dressed in mufti or military fatigues?

Will’s history lesson raises an interesting and crucial question for Catholic education. How effective are these novels, and others like them, in influencing the macrohistorical judgement of the children we educate?

By ‘macrohistorical’ I mean the ‘short story’ we compile for ourselves to summarise the meaning and overall drift of the past. I have seen a TV documentary on children’s fiction in which a young girl, no older than fourteen, delivered the following verdict on His Dark Materials:

“It shows how bad the church always was, and how silly Christianity is.”

Pullman couldn’t have asked for a more concise summary of the message of his own parable – for that, in the end, is what His Dark Materials attempts to be – a kind of secularist’s Pilgrim’s Progress for children, an Anti-Narnia. (Pullman’s contempt for C.S. Lewis knows no bounds.)

The problem with countering such ‘stories’ is that it is the more scandalous aspects of Christian history that tend both to accumulate in secular histories, and in the imagination. When events such as the Inquisition, the wars of religion, and the burning of witches are encountered by children in the context of both ongoing church scandals and stirring propaganda like His Dark Materials, what is the overall effect? What ‘story’ do Catholic children wind up with?

Someone needs to do some research on this, but in the meantime my inclination is to urge strongly upon all educators the need to be aware of what is flying underneath the radar into Catholic schools in the form of compulsively readable children’s fiction that is also blatant propaganda for evangelical secularism. Teachers of History, RE and English literature need to be especially concerned about this, and to develop a collaborative response.

The nub of this response should be, I believe, to point out that power over others is an essentially secular concern, that the clerical church became scandalous only when it bought too heavily into that secular concern, and that it will now do far better when it has been detached from it. And that despite these distortions of the church’s mission in the past, there was always in the background a church of wisdom and compassion whose positive contribution to human development far outshines that of militant atheism.

What would be the measure of our success? Nothing less, I believe, than the emergence of liberating Christian fiction from among our pupils, set in the real world of children today, and just as compelling as Pullman’s work. We need to ponder hard on the fact that Irish Catholic education has never yet done anything like that.

However, a morning spent interviewing six young Catholic readers of His Dark Materials, ranging in age from 12 to 17, has convinced me that there is no need for extreme alarm over the impact of these books. Three of these children read the stories as mere escapism, unrelated to their own lives, and had not noticed the agenda. The other three had noticed the anti-Catholic polemic, and two of these had found it ‘over-the-top’. The third had noted that their church did indeed hold to a defined truth, and was in that sense ‘authoritarian’, but did not seem unduly troubled by this. The eldest boy was impressively sophisticated in his understanding of what Pullman is up to.

My overall conclusion is that, far from wringing our hands over the possible impact of these films when they arrive, we should seize the opportunity to point out both the silliest excesses of secularist polemic, and the considerable shortfall in the Enlightenment’s programme to perfect the world by reason alone. Children need to know, for example, that ‘terrorism’ emerged out of the secular authoritarianism of the French Revolution, and that it is the secular God of North Korea who is currently testing chemical weapons on the bodies of children.

~

His Dark Materials consists of three novels by Philip Pullman: Northern Lights, (known as The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. They are published by Scholastic Children’s Books.

Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams laudatory comments on the London stage production of His Dark Materials are at :

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2004/mar/10/theatre.religion

There is an interesting discussion between Pullman and the Archbishop at:

http://www.secondspring.co.uk/fantasy/williams_pullman.htm

Probably the best website to sample children’s reaction to the novels and to keep up to date on the forthcoming films:

http://www.bridgetothestars.net/

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