The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman
Knopf, 326 pages, $26
The Subtle Knife
by Philip Pullman
Knopf, 326 pages, $26
The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman
Knopf, 518 pages, $19.95
The bestselling novels of J. K. Rowling have tempted many reviewers to divide publishing history in two—The Potter Era and Before the Potter Era—so often are the tales of our favorite Gryffendor held up as the standard for all children’s literature. There are some who dissent from this view, not simply out of spite, but because they think this is the era of an even greater author who writes for children. The Harry Potter novels are fun, which is why every reviewer seems to use the same I-read-it-before-my-kids-could-get-to-it-ha-ha gambit. But few serious critics praise Rowling with the superlatives—“sophisticated,” “ambitious,” “complex,” “realistic”—regularly applied to the novels of Philip Pullman, especially his fantasy epic series His Dark Materials, whose third book, The Amber Spyglass, just won the prestigious British Book Award for the Children’s Book of the Year (the first book won in 1996), and is currently just behind Rowling on the New York Times children’s bestseller list.
Now I love the Harry Potter books. But there is no passage in Rowling’s series that compares with this delightful description of Lyra Belacqua, the child heroine of Pullman’s novels:
In many ways Lyra was a barbarian. What she liked the best was clambering over the College roofs with Roger, the kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum stones on the heads of passing Scholars or to hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on, or racing through the narrow streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war. Just as she was unaware of the hidden currents of politics running below the surface of College affairs, so the Scholars, for their part, would have been unable to see the rich seething stew of alliances and enmities and feuds and treaties which was a child’s life in Oxford. Children playing togther: how pleasant to see! What could be more innocent and charming?
Few authors have captured the terrific energy of children of a certain age as well.
Although he writes for children, Pullman refuses to be pigeonholed as a children’s author, arguing that “When you say ‘this book is for children’ what you are really saying is ‘This book is not for grown-ups.’” He also doesn’t think of himself as a fantasy author, insisting that His Dark Materials is “stark realism,” because the fantastic elements of the story are there just to support and embody a vision of what man really is, psychologically, metaphysically, and spiritually. “Why shouldn’t a work of fantasy be as truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being as the work of George Eliot or Jane Austen?” he asks, and rightly so. Pullman thinks Milton’s Paradise Lost is just such a mature fantasy, and His Dark Materials is supposed to be a modern retelling of the Garden of Eden story after a very Miltonian fashion.
Pullman conceived of the series after writing down its first words, “Lyra and her daemon.” The idea of daemons (pronounced “demons”) has antecedents in the i>daimon or spirit that Socrates claimed as an aid in his judgment, and in the tradition of guardian angels. A daemon is a part of the human soul that takes the visible form of an animal, or many animals—the daemons of children change shape constantly, but settle down at puberty into just one shape as a person’s character becomes more definite. So the helmsman of a boat might have a seagull as his daemon, while Pantalaimon, Lyra Belacqua’s daemon, begins the series as a moth but shifts into a mouse, a dragon, an ermine, a mountain lion, a cat, and just about any animal shape you can think of. It is extraordinarily painful for daemons to go far from their people (it feels like your heart is being torn from your breast), and when Lyra sees at one stage a boy without a daemon, she is revolted:
The little boy was huddled against the wood drying rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon, with her left hand, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child. Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick.
This device of the daemon, which is one of the great inventions of fantastic fiction, frames Pullman’s whole trilogy. The reader comes to love daemons, especially Lyra’s Pantalaimon, and one can easily imagine thousands of children (and not a few adults) wishing they had one.
The Golden Compass really begins when street urchins and servants’ children begin disappearing all over Europe (in the parallel world in which the action takes place). Word spreads on the streets that the Gobblers have stolen them, and are performing terrible experiments on them way up in the Arctic Circle. A mysterious substance called Dust seems to be involved, but the Church has forbidden any discussion of Dust, for it falls in the realm of philosophical speculation rather than theological research, and because it may have something to do with Original Sin. When Lyra’s best friend Roger and another boy are taken by the Gobblers, Lyra becomes determined to rescue them, and her adventures begin. There is a prophecy about Lyra that she will determine the fate of the universe, although she must do so without knowing what she is doing.
In The Subtle Knife, book two of the series, we meet Will Parry, a boy from Oxford in our world, who also is destined to play a major role in the history of the cosmos—he finds and bears a knife called God-killer that can cut a passage between worlds. He and Lyra meet in Cittigàzze, an Italianate city in yet a third world. Will is looking for his father, an explorer who Will thinks has traveled into a different world, and Lyra’s alethiometer (a truth-telling device, the golden compass of the first book) tells her she should help him. Lyra wants also to help her father, the mysterious Lord Asriel, who is preparing to overthrow the Authority (“God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—those were all names he gave himself,” an angel tells Will). He can do this, he thinks, because what the Church calls God is really only the name for the first angel, who tried to trick all the other creatures into submitting to him. Some of the angels rebelled centuries ago, but lost, and now Lord Asriel is rallying the remnant of those who favor truth over the Authority’s lies to overthrow the Kingdom of Heaven and replace it with the Republic of Heaven.
The Amber Spyglass adds to the mix a fourth world, where the mulafeh, elephant-like people who roll around on wheels made from the giant seeds of giant trees, are starting to die off from the raids of giant swans and because the giant trees are dying as Dust leaves the world. So by the end of the series, Lyra and Will have to overthrow the Authority, rescue the dead (did I mention they make a trip to the realm of the dead à la Dante?), save the mulefah, heal the breach between the worlds, prevent the Gobblers from intercising children’s daemons, and establish the Republic of Heaven, all the while remaining in a state of innocence so that they can either relive or renounce Eve’s choice in the Garden of Eden.
Pullman has set himself an ambitious task, trying to tell a complex yet realistic tale about the death of God and the true nature and destiny of man. He has the talent to have pulled it off, but unfortunately, his atheism gets in the way. For unlike John Milton and his other hero William Blake, Pullman is a Richard Dawkins-type materialist, and his atheism fatally flaws The Amber Spyglass, and therefore, retroactively, the whole series. Pullman, who raised more than a few eyebrows with an article in the Guardian excoriating C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories for their tendency to lapse into preaching, falls prey to that same bad habit himself. Indeed, to facilitate his preaching, he breaks many of the rules of fantasy-writing in this third volume, and although this probably makes his novel more appropriate for children, it seriously weakens it as art.
Atheists can write perfectly good and realistic fiction, because there is nothing about being an atheist that prohibits a person from understanding human motivation and the physical world. But being nonreligious does deprive you of the one thing an ambitious fantasy author needs: a plausible cosmology, a myth that tells us how things got to be the way they are. The great religions all provide this. One could even hold, as did Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, that a religion is just a story of the world, which in the case of Christianity (they held) happens to be true. A Christian fantasist in his act of subcreation can borrow heavily from the true mythic world created by the Christian God; the fantasist might change some of the names and other details, but the basic infinitely rich story has already been told.
The nonreligious fantasy author is forced to play the mythmaker twice, as it were. He has to develop a cosmology of the way the world really is, the nonreligious account that re places the account given by the religions he rejects. And he has to write the fantasy story, obeying all the rules of the larger account and then creating his own world within it. In the first two books of the trilogy, Pullman merely alluded to the larger account while telling an imaginative and exciting adventure, which promised to be one of the best ever. In the third book, however, he needed to explain his theory of innocence and adulthood, which he thought required him to tell a different story of the Fall, which in turn tempted him to explain how everything we think and feel can be explained simply by scientific materialism.
As one might expect, it is hard to accomplish all this and still tell a good tale, and despite the extra work he put into writing it (Pullman took two years longer than he originally promised to finish the third volume), and despite his attempts to make the book consistent with cutting-edge research in physics (he alludes to aspects of quantum nonlocality and multi-dimensional string theory), The Amber Spyglass is not a success. There are moments of brilliant writing, but Pullman’s imagination is not up to his ambitions, so that what should be the breathlessly anticipated climax is instead rather dull.
It is clear through Pullman’s many hints that the destiny of all the universe is tied up with the budding love between Will and Lyra. After the long buildup, and with all the turmoil caused by the Armageddon-like battle, one expects the series to end with a Garden of Eden moment, where Lyra and Will have to make some important choice that determines how things will be from now on. I was waiting with no little trepidation to see what sort of fascinating gnostic myth Pullman would offer in place of the Christian one. If Pullman were to accomplish his transvaluation of all values, where good is evil and evil good, and God and Christian morality and all that organized religion stands for are to be shown for the lies that they are, this is the scene where it ought to take place.
Yet no such alternative theory is on offer. In Pullman’s telling, the fate of all creation hinges, not on some difficult choice between good and evil, but merely on the moment when Will and Lyra first kiss. Somehow (and in the 1,100 pages of the trilogy there is nothing that suggests why this is of literally cosmic significance), after this kiss—and that’s as far as they go—the Dust that had been flowing out of the universe flows back in, and an age of peace and love is suddenly possible. Because these two young teenagers
are basically innocent, as the shifting of their daemons reveals, their innocent love is supposed to show that sex and things of the flesh are very good, when properly ordered. Pullman mistakenly attacks Christian asceticism when he really is rejecting only heretical Manicheism.
Religious people should find nothing objectionable in the moral message (though Pullman seems to think they will), but the failure of imagination here is unforgivable. Kissing may be great and all, but only a lovesick teenager can believe that everything is different after the first kiss. As we saw above, Pullman captures the complexities of childhood too well for us to accept that it is simply sexual innocence, and adulthood sexual experience. What is supposed to be the moment of high drama for the trilogy disappointingly provides only maudlin banalities.
Fortunately, there’s a little bit more to the story. Soon after The Kiss, Will and Lyra are forced to make a very painful choice between their own happiness and keeping their promises to others—and they choose loyalty and the common good. The possibility of great happiness is presented to them, and they give it up at great cost to themselves. This melancholy ending redeems the earlier banality, both morally and narratively—but only by appealing to the very Christian notion that we should put aside even good things like kissing in the name of the last things. The choice that Lyra and Will make is analogous to the choice a young man or woman considering religious celibacy makes: though I can reject my destiny, and it will require great strength to carry out, I am clearly called to forgo the great good of marriage in order that others may enjoy life and go to heaven.
It is not surprising that as acute an observer as Pullman inadvertantly develops such a powerfully Christian scene. I’ll let a passage from The Amber Spyglass explain why. In the land of the dead, harpies have been appointed by the Authority to shout to all the souls of the dead and call to mind all their anxieties and misdeeds. Over time the ghosts lose their memories of being alive, in part, it seems, as a defense against the harpies’ painful reminders. When Lyra and her party arrive in the underworld, the harpies attack them with great delight—being still alive, their painful memories and doubts are still fresh and strong. Lyra tries to bargain with No-Name, the chief harpy.
“What do you want with us?”
“What can you give me?”
“We could tell you where we’ve been, and maybe you’d be interested, I don’t know. We saw all kinds of strange things on the way here.”
“Oh, and you’re offering to tell me a story?”
“If you’d like.”
“Maybe I would. . . . Try then,” said No-Name.
Lyra, who is a terrific storyteller and whose quick-thinking and skillful lies get her out of trouble throughout the series, begins to spin one of her best tales, when “Without a cry of warning, the harpy launched herself at Lyra, claws outstretched. . . . ‘Liar! Liar!’ the harpy was screaming. ‘Liar!’” Later, though, when Lyra recounts to the dead spirit of a little girl true stories of her childhood and travels to help the girl remember what the world of the living is like, Lyra looks up to see the harpies listening in, “solemn and spellbound.” Why?
“Because it was true,” said No-Name. “Because she spoke the truth. Because it was nourishing. Because it was feeding us. Because we couldn’t help it. Because it was true. Because we had no idea there was anything but wickedness. Because it brought us news of the world and the sun and the wind and the rain. Because it was true.”
Though it is heavy-handed, I found this a powerful image, the putrid harpies enthralled by simple truths well told. Even the monsters in Pullman’s world are attracted by innocence and truth. Even they are not beyond redemption, are in need of true stories. This passage reveals Pullman’s philosophy of literature to be identical with the “true myth” philosophy of Lewis and Tolkien. And if the Christian myth actually is true, you would expect a gifted storyteller trying to tell a true story to arrive at many Christian conclusions about the nature of the world we see.
The Christian myth has such a powerful hold over our narrative imagination that it is probably impossible to write a believable epic, especially one about the Last Things, without relying on it extensively. Pullman challenges the most fantastic and yet most persuasive parts of the Christian myth—Creation, the Fall, Sin, Death, Heaven, Hell—and one credits him for gumption. If his alternative were more compelling, I would recommend parents keep their children away. (Pullman has just signed to do a “reference work” called The Book of Dust which will lay out the creation myth in full, and thus probably won’t be appropriate—or interesting—for children.)
As is, I can fairly characterize His Dark Materials in this fashion: imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for two thousand years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.
Daniel P. Moloney is Associate Editor of First Things.