The focus of this paper is a brief Christian critique of Pullman’s views on religion, especially as he expresses them in his book His Dark Materials.
Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, is well known for his antipathy towards religion. Yet although he insists that this world is all there is, he seems constantly drawn towards ideas of transcendence.
He advocates many Christian values, though he refuses to accept their Judeo-Christian origins, and assumes them in his attack on the church. He sees himself as an enemy of religion, but his atheism has a distinctively Christian flavour.
Philip Pullman is a brilliant and controversial writer whom Peter Hitchens dubbed ‘the most dangerous author in Britain’ (1) (a headline Pullman proudly displayed on his way) (2). He is best known for His Dark Materials (HDM), a trilogy comprising Northern Lights/The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2001). It has sold millions of copies in over 40 languages, and has been adapted for stage, radio productions, film, and television (BBC/HBO 2019–2020).
Its antipathy towards religion prompted some American Christians to campaign against the Golden Compass movie (2007). This hostility arises from Pullman’s consistently antagonistic views on religion, and particularly for his subverting of biblical themes and images.
He claims, ‘I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business,’ (3) yet also declares, ‘I’m happy to be known as [religion’s] enemy.’ (4) Pullman has written many books, but the focus of this paper is a brief Christian critique of Pullman’s views on religion, especially as he expresses them in HDM.
HDM tells the story of two children from parallel worlds whose paths intertwine, plunging them into a series of extraordinary adventures. It’s a story of good versus evil, but the sense of who or what is good inverts many traditional Christian ideas.
Northern Lights centres on twelve-year-old Lyra whose world resembles ours, yet in some respects is very unlike it. A key difference is that part of each person’s psyche is externalised in the form of an accompanying animal – a dæmon (5) – which is tightly bonded to the ‘human’ (though the person is inextricably composed of both parts).
Pullman says it’s the best idea he ever had. It allows for a physical conversation partner, lending greater dynamism to what would otherwise be internal dialogue, and graphically reveals characters’ emotional states.
This is especially so for children, for whom the animal species is not yet fixed, showing the unsettled nature of pre-adulthood identity. Lyra lives under an oppressive totalitarian regime, the Magisterium (blatantly echoing the Roman Catholic church), which is troubled by the discovery of ‘Dust’.
These mysterious particles are attracted to people, especially after puberty. The Magisterium infers a connection with original sin, leading to cruel experiments in protecting children from it.
The Subtle Knife (SK) opens in our world with a new protagonist, Will. He stumbles into another world where he encounters Lyra and comes into possession of a remarkable knife that cuts windows between worlds.
Their adventures in SK and The Amber Spyglass (AS) take them through multiple worlds, including the world of the dead, and they join in a war between the Authority (‘God’) and those fighting to establish a Republic of Heaven. The great battle brings an unexpected twist when the Authority is killed off in a surprisingly anticlimactic moment.
Pullman subsequently wrote two HDM novellas and a short story – Lyra’s Oxford (2003), Once Upon a Time in the North (2008), and ‘The Collectors’ (2014) – but countless fans were impatiently awaiting The Book of Dust. Pullman told me in 2004 that this would present the ‘creation myth’ underlying HDM. (6)
Eventually, he decided on a Book of Dust trilogy, but neither volume published so far – La Belle Sauvage (2018) and The Secret Commonwealth (2019) – contains this creation myth. La Belle Sauvage (LBS), which tells the story of Lyra’s origins, shot Pullman back to the top of bestseller lists.
The Secret Commonwealth (SC) picks up Lyra’s story eight years after HDM when she has absorbed rationalist and relativistic ideas. These have robbed her of imagination and the ability to perceive unseen aspects of reality, prompting a rupture in her relationship with her dæmon, Pantalaimon. A new HDM novella, Serpentine, is due on 15 October 2020.
Pullman is a breathtaking writer possessing rare ability to grip, delight, and stretch readers from pre-teens to academics. He displays dazzling imagination, mastery of narrative construction, and superb virtuosity with language.
He draws on a vast range of influences, including ancient myths, Romantic literature, mysticism, science, and the Bible. Pullman is steeped in the English literary tradition, so the Bible unavoidably forms part of the marinade.
But Pullman became familiar with it through spending time living with his grandparents as a child. His grandfather, a parish priest, was ‘the sun at the centre of [his] life’. (7)
Although Pullman calls himself an atheist, he says ‘I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that’s the tradition I was brought up in and I cannot escape those early influences.’ (8)
The three main influences on HDM (9) all relate to the Bible: Milton’s Paradise Lost, William Blake’s work, and an essay by Heinrich von Kleist.(10) Milton’s story of angelic rebellion is the most obvious (and gives the trilogy its title. (11)
Pullman sees Satan as the hero, endorsing Blake’s verdict that, ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.’ (12)
Pullman recounts the story of an old country squire listening spellbound to Paradise Lost being read aloud and suddenly exclaiming, ‘By God! I know not what the outcome may be, but this Lucifer is a damned fine fellow, and I hope he may win!’ Pullman adds that these ‘are my sentiments exactly’. (13)
In HDM, the angelic revolt is unfinished business. The war against God is ‘the last rebellion’ with ‘humans, and angels and beings from all the worlds, [making] a common cause.’ (14)
Pullman, like Blake, ignores the way Milton deliberately presents Satan as heroic and enticing, before undercutting his boastful stance. C.S. Lewis called this Satan’s ‘progressive degradation’, (15) contrasting Milton’s simpler portrayal of the Son, which emphasises his humility. (16)
Although Paradise Lost’s themes are core to HDM, William Blake’s work influences Pullman more profoundly, though more subtly. He describes it as, ‘like a key that unlocks a part of [himself]’. (17)
He refers often to the impact of Blake’s poetry, but also acknowledges the importance of Blake’s visual art, which he first encountered shortly after graduating. (18) Pullman shares Blake’s interest in the contrast between innocence, the passing of which feels like loss, and experience, which brings great gains.
Pullman links acquiring experience with puberty and sexual development, connecting it to the Fall (Genesis 3). He infuses this and Milton into his rich and exciting narrative, brewing a heady mix of anti-religious sentiment with which he ‘chips away at the very basis of Christian doctrine’. (19)
The rest of this paper asks three key questions of HDM: How is the world viewed? What is loved, despised, or ignored? How is a better world imagined? These form a useful diagnostic framework for reflecting on any cultural work. Read part II of his article.
Tony Watkins helps Christian leaders relate media and the Bible through his writing and teaching, and is doing doctoral research exploring relationships between Old Testament prophets and today’s media. Tony has written, or co-written, several books including Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Philip Pullman and Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema.
This paper was first published on the website of the Jubilee Centre and re-published with permission.
1. P. Hitchens, ‘This is the Most Dangerous Author in Britain’, The Mail on Sunday, 28 January 2003, p.63.
2. See the photograph accompanying C. Hitchens, ‘Oxford’s Rebel Angel’, Vanity Fair, October 2002, pp.174–180.
3. P. Pullman, ‘My Books’, philip-pullman.com.
4. P. Pullman, ‘Religion’, philip-pullman.com/pages/content/index.asp?PageID=12 (No longer available; accessed 9 Sept. 2008).
5. This draws on Socrates’s guiding spirit (daimon), not demons within Christian theology.
6. T. Watkins, ‘Interview with Philip Pullman (from 2004)’, tonywatkins.uk/pullmaninterview.
7. P. Pullman, ’I Have a Feeling All This Belongs to Me’, in: Discovering the Golden Compass: A Guide to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, edited by G.W. Beahm, Hampton Roads, 2007, pp.9–33.
8. L. Miller, ‘Far From Narnia: Philip Pullman’s Secular Fantasy for Children’, The New Yorker, 19 December 2005.
9. The Amber Spyglass acknowledgements.
10. See T. Watkins, Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Philip Pullman, Damaris Publishing, 2004, pp.74–78.
11. ‘Unless the almighty maker them ordain / His dark materials to create more worlds’ (Book II, lines 915–916).
12. W. Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, in William Blake Collected Poems, edited by W. B. Yeats, Routledge, 2002, p.165.
13. P. Pullman, ’Introduction’, in: Paradise Lost: An Illustrated Edition with an Introduction by Philip Pullman, edited by J. Milton, Oxford University Press, 2005, p.1.
14. P. Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, Point, 2001. p.222.
15. C. S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, Oxford University Press, 1960, p.99.
16. Thanks to John Coffey for drawing attention to this and showing that Milton used this to critique abuse of authority and lust for power (‘“The Brand of Gentilism”: Milton’s Jesus and the Augustinian Critique of Pagan Kingship, 1649–1671’, Milton Quarterly, 2014, Vol.48,2, pp.67–95.).
17. P. Pullman, ‘William Blake and Me’, The Guardian, 28 November 2014.
18. Although Pullman says little about Blake’s visual art, it clearly influences his imagination.
19. B. Schweizer, ‘“And He’s a-Going to Destroy Him”: Religious Subversion in Pullman’s His Dark Materials’, in: His Dark Materials Illuminated : Critical Essays on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy, edited by M. Lenz, and C. Scott, Wayne State University Press, 2005, p.160.