So my thoughts on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which includes The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.
First, I can’t believe this, but it’s true: I’ve finally found a series of books that I would recommend people not read for religious reasons. I don’t mean like Narnia and Left Behind, which are Christian stories with bad theology. I mean the other end of the spectrum. That’s right, these books are too non-christian for me.
It’s an odd place to be. I feel a little Jerry-Fallwell-ish, and if there’s anything I never wanted to feel it was Jerry-Fallwell-ish.
Not that I’m for banning or burning books just because I don’t like them or I am morally uncomfortable with them. But I read them, like I do with other religion and anti-religion themed books so that I could form an opinion on them, and the opinion I have formed is negative.
First, because it also matters, I don’t like the writing. It’s not particularly good or engaging, doesn’t move the plot along very well. The character development is weak; Lyra is, predictably, portrayed as a rather foolish girl, and the author seems as surprised as his character when she develops a little cleverness to go along with her spine later in the series. I didn’t really care what happened to the characters either. I was more moved by Lyra’s relationship with Pan and the struggles that it endured than I was by her relationship and struggles with Will. It had major point of view problems, with one character using the vocabulary of the other before being introduced to the concept (and their worlds and therefore vocabularies were drastically different at times). While the story arc was at least interesting, if slightly offensive, the execution of the action was often poorly done. These books took way too long to read.
Second, on the subject of general moral ambiguity and parenthood: I would be the last one to say that there is a hard and fast right and wrong and that kids have to be made to toe a line. But kids do respond to a sense of fairness and stability in the world and in their lives. They expect, for example, to have some idea whether or not their parents are trying to kill them. I was utterly confused through the entire series about whose “side” Asriel and Mrs. Coulter were on, whether or not they had parental instincts at all, and whether or not Lyra could trust them not to kill her. I get that this was part of the plot, but it was disturbing rather than intriguing.
Third, on the separation of God and Religion: In the first book, the primary bad guy was the church of Lyra’s world (which is a fantasy world and not our own). The church there, which is similar to the catholic church of the middle ages, perhaps, is corrupt and drunk on its own power to the point of being hurtful and downright evil. That’s fine. I’m down with reading about that. It’s a human organization in a fantasy world, and it is corrupt. That doesn’t mean that every church everywhere is evil, or that the church in our world is evil, or that the things for which the church used to (and ideally should) stand for are evil. I can separate those ideas, and I think intelligent readers can be expected to. In fact, I object when people can’t seem to distinguish between God and religion. It’s like not being able to distinguish between, say, the concept of freedom and the messed up and often very flawed and evil application of that ideal as seen in American foreign policy. In fact, it’s rather offensive to confuse the two. Dis religion (and corrupt religious bodies) all you want; it doesn’t mean you’re dissing god. Pullman doesn’t actually claim to be an atheist, but a ‘materialist,’ that is, some one who believes in the purely physical, not spiritual, aspects of life. God doesn’t exist for Pullman, and he thinks people who believe in God, spirit, and so on, are at least mildly deluded. He speaks about it in and interview here. Strangely, he seems unable to separate God from religion, because he blends the two, and he seems very concerned with God.
Fourth, on God/the Authority: which brings us to the trilogy’s main plot, the quest to kill “the Authority,” the semi-divine being who has been falsely claiming to be the creator and who ruled all the worlds (there are infinite worlds) with an iron fist before becoming old and powerless, whereupon rule turned over to his meaner right hand man, Metatron (who for some reason is also Enoch) who rules even more harshly through the corrupt church. At first, this quest is the sole (soul?) vision of Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father, who, given that he has just killed a child (Lyra’s best friend) and offered to be in cahoots with his ex (Lyra’s mother) who has killed and tortured even more children, might be assumed to be the bad guy. But, as mentioned in the moral ambiguity paragraph, he is not. Yeah, he kind of doesn’t care about his daughter and wants to kill god, but apparently, this is the “good side.” Almost more disturbing, the Authority is killed kind of by accident, and Metatron on purpose but basically off screen and it’s very unclear that this is an act of love and sacrifice on Asriel and Mrs. Coulter’s part (which I think I was supposed to see it as) or just a thing to do because they’re existentially bored. I actually liked the bit about the afterlife/world of the dead and releasing the trapped souls so they could go back into the cycle of life as atoms or whatever. But we’re left with this: having killed god and his stand in (both of whom of course were personified and male– way to be shockingly different), our tragic heroes are poised to build “The Republic of Heaven,” which stands for what exactly? What are the ideals on which life is founded? Knowledge? That’s a small theme in the book so I’ll buy that. Justice? Notably lacking. Love? I’m not even sure that anyone in the books experiences anything beyond attraction and friendship. Aw, the ickle kiddies fell in teenage puppy love. How world-altering. No, if you’re going to insist that the Authority is a liar and there is something else in the world that is the source and breath of all that is (Dust), then you need to give us some reason to see it as a, you know, thing (I’m going all Sorkin in my inability to describe what’s wrong with the picture here). Either set up a story and a worldview in which there is a something that undergirds everything and articulate what that is and how we live it, or set up one in which there is no thing and we courageously make our way in the world. But you can’t, oh mr. materialist, insist that thinking god exists is foolish but thinking that dust exists is not and then not really give us any reason to care about it. It’s not atheism or anti-christianity (although it is anti-belief-system, basically, anti-every-belief-system), or materialism or what have you. It’s a world in which I’m not sure what to care about or what the characters care about or why I should care about them and what they care about.
So, yeah, very unimpressed with the story, the writing, and the worldview presented. I do not recommend in terms of enjoyability of reading, nor in terms of something that I think kids would like or even feel comfortable reading.