I picked up Philip Pullman’s book The Golden Compass one evening a few weeks ago, and was immediately engrossed, to the point where I had to re-read the next two books in the Dark Materials trilogy. I was reminded of everything I loved about the books: Pullman deftly connects some fascinating ideas from contemporary physics, like the multiple universes theory and the theory of dark matter, with much older animistic ideas like daemons, talking bears, witches, gnostic wars in heaven and so on. The first book is particularly readable, though I feel the energy runs out as the trilogy goes along, like Dust flowing out of the universe, and the last book is really very confused and confusing, not least with the ridiculous Mulefa (don’t tell me you like the Mulefa?)
You feel Pullman is struggling with the portentousness and importance of what he is doing – by the time he was writing the third book, the first two books had already done very well, and you suspect he may have felt, my God, I have an important role here to write the epic for our times and to build the ‘republic of heaven’. And perhaps he struggled somewhat under that weight. Sometimes he seems a bit dazed by his own plot machinations – there are some hilarious scenes in the final book where the characters and author are palpably struggling to define what exactly they need to do to save the world:
“So”, said Lord Asriel, “to sum it up… the future of every conscious being depends on my daughter remaining alive?” ‘That is so.” Lord Asriel sighed as if he had come to the end of a long and exceedingly complicated calculation.
Each chapter, in the third book, begins with a quote from the likes of Blake or Milton, as if he is reaching for reinforcements as he tries to steady his epic structure from collapse.
You have to applaud Pullman’s ambition, to write an epic, in this most un-epic of ages, and to be a Milton or Tolkein for our times. Every culture needs epics, to help it make meaning of the universe, life and death, good and evil. Perhaps you can even measure the spiritual health of a society by the quality of its epics. So it’s a mammoth, Promethean task Pullman took on, akin to the hubristic undertaking of his anti-hero Lord Asriel to kill God.
And Pullman has tied this epic creative undertaking to a real-world cultural agenda. He supports the Secular Alliance of Europe, which argues that church and state should be kept separate and faith schools should be abolished. But he also thinks atheism should be taught in schools, which seems a contradiction to me. Either leave God / Godlessness out of schools or don’t. You can’t kick out faith and keep atheism – they’re two responses to the same question, two sides of the same coin.
In any case, His Dark Materials does not seem to me an atheistic book. If anything it’s a strange combination of pantheism, gnosticism and some fairly primitive animist magic.
The key idea in the trilogy is that the universes are full of Dust, which is like dark matter. Dust is conscious – it answers Lyra when she asks it questions. Dust is what makes us conscious and gives us free will and ‘souls’. And Dust has conscious intentions for the universe – it intends for Lyra and Will to meet, fall in love and have sex, in order to renew the power of Dust in the universe. So Dust is, I guess, sort of like the Stoics’ idea of the Logos – a divine intelligence which pervades the universe and which steers all things according to its plan. Dust has a conscious plan, and it has chosen ones – Lyra and Will are the chosen ones. This doesn’t seem that far from Christianity.
Pullman then builds a gnostic castle on this pantheistic or Stoic foundation. What humans think of as God is really a usurper, who must be overthrown so that the kingdom of heaven is replaced with the republic of heaven. This is similar to some gnostic ideas of the first or second century AD, in which Earth is ruled by an archon who must be resisted and overthrown. Again, this is less atheism and more a racy and heretical Gnostic Christianity.
Gnosticism, back in the first and second century AD, was always a somewhat irrationalist culture that often blended with primitive magic and animism. So too in Pullman’s books, which have some fairly nasty black magic in. The daemons I don’t have a problem with. But I do have a problem with the human sacrifices. For example, when Lord Asriel crosses from one universe into another, he does so by black magic involving the sacrifice of a child. It’s a very nasty moment, and he doesn’t really get his comeuppance – in fact, he dies a hero’s death, overthrowing God’s evil chief angel.
This is what happens when old established religious structures break down – we revert to primitive and nasty beliefs in things like child sacrifice and black magic. He’s not the only gnostic-magician to express such nasty beliefs – Alan Moore, the graphic novelist and practicing magician, also has a character who travels through time through human sacrifice, in his book From Hell. Beware anyone who would bring back the age of magic, witches and druids – it was a bloody age of human sacrifice far more brutal and terrifying than anything under Christianity. Christianity took us beyond such primitive practices by turning actual human sacrifice into the symbolic sacrifice of the Mass and communion. There’s a danger of the old primitive practices coming back as civilisation comes under pressure.
By the end of Pullman’s trilogy, there are more holes in the plot than there are windows in the multiverse. Why did Dust choose Lyra and Will to redeem the universe? Why does their losing their virginity redeem the universe? Why does Mrs Coulter suddenly become a heroine, having murdered many children? Is there no cosmic justice for all the evil she has committed? Does her evil soul return to the Dust just like the soul of ‘good’ people? How very Nietzchean – in a world without God, we can do what we want without any real comeuppance. And why does the Authority keep souls in the underworld?
It’s a world of deep moral confusion. At the same time, this is an epic, so there needs to be clear heroes and villains. So Pullman makes the bad guys the church and the good guys anyone who opposes the church, like Lord Asriel (even if he sacrifices children). A rebel angel reveals the battle lines:
the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity. The followers of wisdom have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his Church have always tried to keep them closed.
That word ‘stupidity’ grates. It smacks of the intellectual arrogance one often finds in the Skeptic movement. It’s not a battle between good and evil, it’s a battle between the wise and the stupid. The wise are all the atheists and anyone who believes in religion is ‘stupid’. Yet while Pullman is open-minded to any kind of belief – in magic, in pantheism, in gnosticism – he is very, very clear that the Church is uniformly evil. As Reason magazine notes:
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.
Right at the end of the trilogy, however, we discover that what is causing Dust to run out of the universes is not the Authority or the Church or the rebels, or the whole ‘wisdom versus stupidity’ battle. That’s a complete sideshow. In fact, we discover that what is causing Dust to flow out of the universe are the windows made in the fabric of space by the Subtle Knife. It’s a technical glitch. So at the end of the trilogy, when this is revealed to us, an angel takes it on herself to go round the universes closing all these windows, like an IT manager fixing the company fire-wall.
Why should the Subtle Knife threaten the end of Dust and therefore the end of consciousness? How can a human creation threaten the divine fabric of the cosmos? What has this technical glitch got to do with the cosmic battle between wisdom and stupidity (if anything)? At one point it is suggested the Church is ‘against Dust’ – but seeing as humans, the angels and the Authority are all made of Dust, how could they be for it or against it?
In the words of The Temptations, we are left with a ball of confusion. I don’t blame Pullman for the moral confusion of his world view – writing a good epic is about the hardest thing to do in literature. A good epic is an attempt to make sense of the universe, of good and evil, of man’s place in the world. Even Milton and Dante struggled on occasion, and Pullman is no Milton. But he does represent, quite well, the spiritual and moral confusion of our time.