A Secular Fantasy

The flawed but fascinating fiction of Philip Pullman

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The Third Way interview offers an interesting window into Pullman’s beliefs. At first he asserts, very much in the vein of Dawkins and Hitchens, that faith in one God is itself the source of evil: “Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him.” Asked about the crimes committed by atheistic totalitarian regimes, Pullman responds that “they functioned psychologically in exactly the same way,” with their own sacred texts and exalted prophets: “The fact that they proclaimed that there was no God didn’t make any difference: it was a religion, and they acted in the way any totalitarian religious system would.”

The interviewer presses on, pointing out that in that case, perhaps belief in one God isn’t really the root of the problem—and that not only Stalin but even the secular French revolutionaries in the 18th century killed more dissenters than any Church authority. Pullman fires back with a non sequitur: “Well, that was very comforting as the flames were licking round your toes.” When he finally acknowledges that “the religions are special cases of the general human tendency to exalt one doctrine above all others,” it comes across less as a reconsideration of his views than as a grudging concession. There are no reports of Pullman’s plans to write a sequel to His Dark Materials in which the attempt to build an earthly Republic of Heaven ends in firing squads and gulags.

An Attack on Narnia
The intolerant underside of Pullman’s views also can be seen in his intemperate attack on C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia, launched in a 1998 essay in The Guardian. He is hardly the first to accuse Lewis of sexism for his tendency to relegate girls to subordinate roles, and of racism for his negative depiction of the dark-skinned Calormenes. What stands out is the nastiness of Pullman’s rhetoric: He calls the Narnia books “ugly and poisonous things” and “nauseating drivel,” and he declares that he hates them “with a deep and bitter passion.”

Pullman’s specific criticisms of Lewis—which include not only racism and misogyny but class snobbery and a “sadomasochistic relish for violence” and the elevation of childhood innocence over adulthood—are cautiously supported by some critics and hotly disputed by others. If you approach His Dark Materials in a similarly uncharitable spirit, you could find similar grounds for complaint.

Sexism? Heroic though Lyra is, it is mostly Will who fights and who gets to possess a special mystical weapon, while some of Lyra’s greatest feats are accomplished by the “feminine” method of clever manipulation and lies. The trilogy’s main adult female character, Mrs. Coulter, is virtually a cliché of feminine evil—a cold, ruthless siren who schemes, lies, and seduces her way to power—until she is partly, and not very plausibly, redeemed by a spark of stereotypical feminine virtue: maternal love.

Class snobbery? The illegitimate but aristocratic-born Lyra is vastly superior in intelligence and initiative to the lower-class children she befriends; the other hero, Will, is the son of an officer in the Royal Marines. Sadomasochistic violence? Pullman’s trilogy features some very unpleasant deaths and mutilations.

This is not to say that Pullman is a misogynist, a class snob, or a sadist, only that he should be more cautious in branding others with such labels. It is not much of a stretch to think that Pullman sees himself as the anti-Lewis. Third Way asked Pullman if he is “a conscious antidote to C. S. Lewis, seeking to do for a moral atheism what he did for Christianity.” Pullman gave a curious reply: “It’s largely nonsense, of course” (emphasis added). Writing in the British Spectator, critic Caroline Moore argues that “Pullman, for all his superior imaginative powers, is paradoxically more intolerant, more fiercely exclusive and more violently propagandist than Lewis.” That’s a shame, because there is much in Pullman’s message that deserves to be commended, including the idea that, in a world without God, one can find meaning in human consciousness, human work, human freedom, and human responsibility to the world.

Yet His Dark Materials has already earned a place of honor in contemporary popular literature and may well end up as long-lived and beloved as the Narnia series. An interesting if often frustrating thinker, a masterful if flawed storyteller, Philip Pullman deserves the larger audience he is likely to find with the release of the Golden Compass movie. For some readers, his stories will stimulate a discussion of religion and freedom, raising tough questions for believers and nonbelievers alike. For others, it will be the stories themselves that endure: tales of bravery and magic, of heroic children and armored bears, that can stand on their own regardless of any self-consciously heretical message.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young (cathyyoung63@gmail.com) is the author of Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (Free Press).

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I have yet to finish reading the series, but when reading ideological books (which, I don't do a lot of), I usually wonder why the authors don't make better use of tragedy. Portraying Christians as well-intentioned but misguided types who ultimately end up doing more harm than the good they view themselves as doing would maybe be more effective at getting to a larger audience as opposed to just preaching to the choir (no pun intended).

  • jj||

    Keep reading, Reinmoose. The first book in the series was phenomenal. Pullman is a talented writer, one of the best in our generation. Towards the end of the second, and into the third, the story turns from valid exploration and criticism of religion to a bigoted, straw man anti-religious rant. It's a sad thing because the author has a real gift.

  • ||

    JJ,

    You are right about that. I knocked these books off a while back out of curiosity. Pullman is a talented guy who can write. Ultimately though, I walked away with the feeling that he is just a really nasty person and that the world he created and the story he was trying to tell fell apart under the weight of his polemics and outright hatred of anything religious. It is a shame he is such a jerk and is so incapable of understanding or having any empathy for religion because he could be a lot better than he is. I would say overall if Phillip Pullman is the best atheist writer and thinker the world can produce, then Christians are very lucky in their enemies. I walked away from the series thinking "I am glad I am not an atheist, I might be like Pullman."

  • Rhywun||

    I'm going to reserve judgement until I read them, but anything that sets off William Donohue has got to be right up my alley.

  • jj||

    For all his hatred for C. S. Lewis' Narnia series, Pullman's books are full of nods to the stories.

    Did anyone notice the similarities between the young female protagonist Lyra and Lewis' Lucy Pevensie. Parallels include: Lyra hiding in a wardrobe, her using magical devices to visit other lands, and a messianic bear that returns to his homeland to claim his kingdom.

  • Vermont Gun Owner||

    I read The Golden Compass sometime in the 90's and thought it was good. For some reason, I couldn't manage to get more than 50 pages into The Subtle Knife...and I tried 3 different times.

  • Jumbie||

    The third book was the weakest, for sure.

    The second was the strongest with the best, most memorable, villians (which were actually frankenstien creations of humanity with nothing to do with religion.)

  • economist||

    I can't really talk about ideological literature, considering I've read Atlas Shrugged and Anthem several times each.

  • economist||

    jj,
    I think Pullman meant the parallels as a way to make his series sort of the anti-Chronicles of Narnia.

  • economist||

    Maybe they'll make a South Park episode where Philip Pullman comes to town to preach atheism (except that they made a similar one featuring a fictionalized Richard Dawkins).

  • ||

    I own all three books, but only read the first two. I agree that Pullman is an excellent story teller and The Subtle Knife is a ripping yarn...but the third book just gets way too heavy and preachy.

    I find it interesting that Pullman's books are intended as anti-God or anti-religion, and yet I found so much in them that edified my own faith.

    Indeed, I find his argument works better as an attack on certain aspects of the Catholic Church or the Church of England... But I've always thought the the importance of free will was a core tenet of Christian ideology, and I know that's a minority view.

    So I can understand the frustration that many atheists feel. They perceive these large religious institutions as the source of great evils, though it can be easily argued that simply any large institution, religious or otherwise, has a propensity for bigotry and indecent behavior.

    Which makes the following even more interesting: consider that Jesus intended to overthrow the large religious instutition (that of the Pharisees) of his day, because they had perverted the ideology in order to oppress and control. Later on we see a similar trend occur with the followers of Christ's ideologies.

    Marx suffered a similar fate, methinks.

  • ||

    I only read the first book, but I thought even that one was pretty tedious. I got excited to read the series after reading an interview with Pullman, but the book just didn't live up to my expectations.

  • ||

    Us rationalists usually forget that people will grasp on to most anything to deny their eventual non-existence.

    Pullman is fighting a stacked deck.

  • Mad Max||

    Oh, this Pullman guy sounds courageous and daring. I just hope he manages to avoid the Dungeons of the Inquisition.

    "The trilogy's main adult female character, Mrs. Coulter, is virtually a cliché of feminine evil . . ."

    Who is herself the author of several best-selling books.

  • Someone Who Doesn\'t Want to L||

    On the plus side, the Nicole Kidman version of Coulter is actually attractive, whereas the real-life version is just kind of creepy.

  • Quiet Desperation||

    Am I the only person left who reads books for simple enjoyment anymore? Sexist? Class snobbery? For pity's sake, get over yourself. It *is* possible to over think things sometimes.

    I loved the books. The world where every one has a silent partner that just quietly hangs around watching them their entire lives until it's time for them to die creeped me out for days. And I totally wanted a daemon, preferably a Pikachu that I could use to shock people who annoy me. ;-)

    Some of you think he was too harsh on religion? Are you people on holy crack or something? I didn't think Pullman put steel toed boot into religion's balls quite enough!

  • LarryA||

    Keep reading, Reinmoose. The first book in the series was phenomenal. Pullman is a talented writer, one of the best in our generation. Towards the end of the second, and into the third, the story turns from valid exploration and criticism of religion to a bigoted, straw man anti-religious rant. It's a sad thing because the author has a real gift.

    You nailed it. I'm a Christian. I saw the first movie, which I rated "good, but not Lord of the Rings." When I looked for the books I ran across the controversy and checked them out expecting the anti-church slant. It was there, particularly in The Amber Spyglass, in spades. I have heard better arguments that didn't turn into a tirade.

    Indeed, I find his argument works better as an attack on certain aspects of the Catholic Church or the Church of England

    And that's the key most atheists never find. My own stories are sometimes anti-church, but they are not anti God. There is a difference.

    Jesus intended to overthrow the large religious institution (that of the Pharisees) of his day, because they had perverted the ideology in order to oppress and control.

    Bingo. Precisely why the founding fathers set up a secular government for the U.S., with a First Amendment that separates church and state. Believing that I am a child of God makes me a better person, regardless of what atheists think. (For you intelligent atheists, I've heard the arguments. I agree to disagree.) Forcing others to believe in God is just as nasty a concept as forcing others to believe there is no god.

    As libertarians we should all understand that it's the "forcing people to do things" part that's evil, not the ideology upon which the force is justified. The rule of "The Will of the People" is no less onerous than the rule of "The One True God."

    Us rationalists usually forget that people will grasp on to most anything to deny their eventual non-existence.

    True. Including the individual immortality of Earning Heaven, the serial immortality of Justified Reincarnation, the inherited immortality of The Fatherland, and the collective immortality of The Pure Ideology.

    And I totally wanted a daemon, preferably a Pikachu that I could use to shock people who annoy me. ;-)

    Agreed, except I want a wolf. "Come on, Bitch." Other than it would be a lot harder to actually argue with a daemon than to ignore a conscience warning you that you're about to screw up. Imagine having those conversations where others can hear.

  • Megs||

    I doubt I'll get around to reading the His Dark Materials trilogy simply because I was so damn disappointed with Pullman's Sally Lockhart trilogy, for a lot of the same reasons people are talking about here. Starts off great - Pullman can be really excellent with really atraditional yet still traditional stories and characters. Then you get hit over the head repeatedly with his ideas and it just sucks. In Sally Lockhart's case, she gets an inbetween the books complete change of heart (what? all the development in a relationship happens when we can't see it??) and in the first book is built up to be this marvelous heroine and capitalist, with a real good eye to describing her business and the challenges - then I got the feeling she had a change of heart just so Pullman could have a former capitalist repent. And she does it for love of a man. Because that's what heroines do - they change the ideas that have made them strong for men, because the man is a writer and philosopher and must be smarter. And she patly renounces violence in the second two books, despite saving herself with it in the first and her disgust being treated there with a very real dualism. So yeah - nuanced, good story devolves into propaganda.

    But I do recommend Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke. Especially to the libertarians. Gun ownership, drugs, capitalism!

  • Hieronymus Braintree||

    Hey Cathy, I'm a fan and I was worried because I haven't seen you around. Where you been?

  • 715||

    I think one of the biggest problems people like Pullman have is they are unable to understand the simple fact: Yes the Chruch has its, skeletons in the closet, the same can be said with everthing, almost all Nations have commited at least one major mass murder or supressed the rights of people or lunched a war for some little thing (while comminting war crimes) people like Pullman seem to think only Relgion is evil and the root of all that is wroung with the world (the true evil is of course greed). It's truely a shame with Pullman he has great ideals but allows his personly baisness dilute them.

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    That’s true in politics, and it’s true in religion, and it’s true in every aspect of human life

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