A Secular Fantasy

The flawed but fascinating fiction of Philip Pullman


The controversy surrounding The Golden Compass, the recently released screen adaptation of the first book of Philip Pullman's best-selling fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, was not exactly unexpected. Pullman, a 61-year-old British writer of fantasy and mystery novels for children and young adults, has been dubbed "the most dangerous man in Britain" by Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens. He is a self-proclaimed atheist who has referred to himself, tongue in cheek, as being "of the devil's party." He makes no secret of the fact that his books are intended as a sweeping attack not only on organized religion but on the monotheistic concept of God.

Yet the world of Pullman's sacrilegious epic is not a conventionally materialistic one. It includes all the basic elements of Christian theology, from God and angels to the souls of the dead, but in a way that turns the traditional religious viewpoint on its head. The phrase "his dark materials" comes from a passage in John Milton's Paradise Lost in which Satan contemplates the possibility that God may use "his dark materials to create more worlds"—a reference not only to the multiple worlds of Pullman's universe but to his retelling of the Miltonian epic with the rebel angels as the good guys.

The film version of the first novel, brought to the screen in December by New Line Cinema and marketed as a Lord of the Rings–style grand epic fantasy, has been scrubbed of explicit references to religion—enough to pacify the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other mainstream religious organizations. (William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, unappeased, still called for a boycott.) There is a certain irony to this, since the movie opens on the heels of an atheist revival of sorts, heralded by such recent books as Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.

It remains to be seen whether the two sequels, if they get made, will manage to navigate the dangerous waters of Pullman's narrative and to translate his anti-religious message into a general anti-authoritarian one without diluting it beyond recognition. In any case, it is a safe bet that the movie, which opened to mixed reviews and a respectable though not spectacular box office performance, will lead to a resurgent interest in Pullman's books, not only among adventure and fantasy fans but among readers interested in the case against religion and for a secular morality. As a novelist, Pullman may be to militant atheism what Ayn Rand was to militant capitalism: a writer who can convey important ideas through frequently riveting fiction but can't always stop those ideas from congealing into rigid ideology.

Pullman's Parallel Universe
Who is Philip Pullman? A Christian-bashing God hater or, as the liberal Catholic writer Donna Freitas has argued, a profoundly unorthodox religious thinker? A propagandist for godlessness or a master of storytelling whose enchantment draws in both children and adults? This much is certain: His blend of fantasy and philosophy has been highly successful. The Dark Materials trilogy, hailed for skillful plotting, exquisite prose style, and imaginative fantastic landscapes as well as challenging ideas, has sold about 12 million copies worldwide. (The Golden Compass, published in 1995, was followed in 1997 by the second volume, The Subtle Knife, and then in 2000 by The Amber Spyglass, which became the first children's book to win the prestigious Whitbread Prize for literature.) The series has earned Pullman a devoted following among well-educated adults as well as children.

The books' greatest strengths are several memorable characters—above all the spunky and precocious 12-year-old heroine, Lyra Belacqua, raised as a ward of a college at Oxford—and an equally memorable alternate world. For Lyra's Oxford is not "our" Oxford. It exists in a vaguely Edwardian-era England that has sophisticated flying craft and research into particle physics, in a world with such countries as Muscovy and Texas—and a powerful, oppressive, united Christian Church whose hierarchy, the Magisterium, is based in Geneva. This world is populated by witches who fly and live for hundreds of years and Arctic tribes of intelligent white bears who wear armor and are skilled metalworkers. Most unusually, every human being in this universe has a "daemon," a talking animal that embodies his or her soul; their bond is so close that separation by more than a few feet causes agony to both. A child's daemon can change into any animal, but it "settles" at puberty, taking on a shape that reflects the human's identity: dogs for loyal servants, birds for free spirits, and so on.

Pullman excels at fleshing out his imagined universe, with its unique technologies, its social rules (there is a strict taboo against touching another person's daemon), and its linguistic quirks (in Lyra's English, chocolate is "chocolatl" and electricity is "anbaric power"). He excels, too, at drawing the reader into the story and deftly pulling together seemingly unrelated strands of the plot.

At the start of The Golden Compass, Lyra learns that her uncle, Lord Asriel, is leaving on a polar expedition to study something called Dust—a mysterious substance, invisible to the naked eye, that the Church regards as evil and sinful. This development coincides with a series of kidnappings that claims Lyra's best friend, Roger, and the appearance of a beautiful aristocratic woman who befriends Lyra and is connected to the abductions. Lyra's journey to rescue Roger puts her on the trail of a hideous Church-sponsored experiment to keep children pure of sin. It also puts her on the trail of Lord Asriel, who is working on an experiment of his own to open a window into parallel worlds.

As events unfold in the next two volumes, it turns out that Lord Asriel's real goal is nothing less than to overthrow the rule of God, and that Lyra has a special role in this quest: A prophecy names her as the new Eve, destined to free humanity from the yoke of sin and death. Lyra's allies on this worthy mission include witches, bears, rebel angels, and two people from "our" London: Mary Malone, a physicist and ex-nun, and Will Parry, a boy Lyra's age with a unique destiny of his own. After harrowing adventures and great sacrifices, Lyra devotes herself to building a "Republic of Heaven" in her world to replace the false promise of the Kingdom of Heaven. This republic, our young heroes learn, must be based on human self-government rather than divine authority, and on the conviction that we should live life to its fullest in this world rather than aspire to bliss in the next one.

In Pullman's universe, God, also known as the Authority, is worse than nonexistent: He is a tyrannical fraud. According to Pullman's peculiar theogony, in the beginning there was Dust, a substance generated when matter develops consciousness. Dust condensed into beings of pure spirit—angels—and the first of them established his dominance over the others by falsely telling them he had created them and the world. (In the final volume of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, this entity is explicitly identified as the Judeo-Christian God.) In a similar twist, the afterlife is real, but it's a bleak, desolate prison camp for the souls of the dead, and true salvation lies in the oblivion expected by atheists. In a powerful sequence deliberately modeled on the Christian story of the Harrowing of Hell, in which Christ descends into the underworld to liberate the righteous, Will and Lyra invade the world of the dead and lead the souls out into a living world where they blissfully dissolve into atoms.

Pullman deserves credit for tackling ideas of this depth and magnitude in his novels, and for his ambitious reimagining of myth and theology (at times bringing to mind Mikhail Bulgakov's classic Russian fantasy novel The Master and Margarita, with its unique take on the Devil and the life of Jesus). Unfortunately, His Dark Materials suffers from serious flaws both as literature and as a religious critique.

Evangelizing Atheism
While Pullman has said that he is interested in "telling a story, not preaching a sermon," he slides more and more frequently into preaching as the story goes on. Some of his favorite ideas—for instance, that the human body with its senses is far superior to the fleshless spirit of the angels, or that the best afterlife is to become one with nature—are stated again and again and again and again. The idea that the transition from childhood innocence to adult experience should be welcomed, not feared, is illustrated by a heavy-handed plot twist in which Lyra and Will's sexual awakening proves to be the key to the world's salvation. When ideology and literature collide, literature suffers. The Amber Spyglass is not quite on a par with the first two novels: Its new characters and worlds are generally less interesting, far too much space is given to sententious musings about the meaning of life in a post-God world, and eventually you start to feel that Pullman is trying to cram too many messages into his narrative, even if that means unnecessarily dragging it out.

He stacks the deck too. It's not clear, for instance, why the Authority needs to keep the souls of the dead in such a wretched place and not even bother to reward the faithful. Conversely, to sell the idea that "the sweet and most desirable end" for the souls of the dead is to drift into nothingness, Pullman depicts this dissolution as an ecstatic moment in which the souls' atoms not only become one with the universe but mingle happily with the particles of deceased loved ones (whom, for some reason, they couldn't find among their fellow ghosts).

Worse still, Pullman paints every character connected to the Church or religion, from the fascistic zealots of the Magisterium to the crazed monk in the world of the dead who stubbornly believes he's in paradise, with an antipathy that sometimes recalls Ayn Rand's demonization of her welfare-state bureaucrats. (In a 2003 interview with the Christian magazine The Third Way, Pullman conceded that this tendency was "an artistic flaw.") Those on the anti-God side, meanwhile, are judged far more leniently. Lord Asriel, who sacrifices the life of an innocent child to his single-minded crusade, is still a heroic if flawed figure. The witches can be ruthless and vindictive—we learn that one witch queen punished a tribe that failed to honor her by slaughtering the white tigers it worshipped as totem gods—but they are still portrayed sympathetically because they are nature-loving, Church-hating pagans. The double standard grates at times.

When Time Out New York asked him about his anti-religious message, Pullman replied, "The position I've always taken is that religious intolerance and tyranny is just one aspect of a wider problem, which is the tendency in human societies toward absolutism.…We have to struggle all the time against that tendency toward wanting the one 'true' answer that abolishes all the others forever. That's true in politics, and it's true in religion, and it's true in every aspect of human life." But Pullman is soft-pedaling his position. His Dark Materials, at least, explicitly singles out religion as the major source of oppression throughout human history. "That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling," the tiger-slaying witch queen says with the author's obvious approval. In Pullman's novels, religion is not credited with any positive contributions to human society (whereas, in real history, the Catholic Church played a key role in ending such practices as forced marriage and infanticide) and is blamed for some things to which it has little if any connection (such as genital mutilation intended to prevent sexual pleasure).

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 ( is the author of Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (Free Press).