If your soul was visible as an animal, what would it be? I suspect mine would be a donkey—obstinate, pessimistic, and inconveniently noisy.
Fortunately for me and everyone else in my life, our souls do not take animal form and walk about beside us—except in the fantasy world, supposedly similar to our own, conjured by modish writer Philip Pullman in the His Dark Materials trilogy (recently produced for TV by HBO and the BBC). Imagine a world where such a thing was truly normal. Every street and building, every office, shop, and vehicle would be crammed from edge to edge with squawking, braying, screeching, or roaring beasts and birds. Do they do the inconvenient things beasts do? And what if my donkey did not get on with your anteater?
Then there is the cruel certainty about yourself that these so-called daemons would provide. If on your thirteenth birthday you discovered that your soul looked like a cockroach, an urban pigeon, or a rat, and would for the rest of your life, it would be a bit like being branded on your forehead with the word “failure.” Then again, if the ambitious new executive in your office had a vulture perched on his shoulder, or a rattlesnake coiled round his arm, you’d obviously know to be careful. But then, anyone so obviously nasty would surely never get the job. Novels and plays might become very hard to write, for deviousness, alas, makes fiction function. In many ways it makes the world go round. A world without dissembling sounds wonderful, but is it practical?
That is surely a question for the theologians. But it is also a question for the strange industry which has grown up around Pullman, who is now working on the sequel to His Dark Materials, the oddly-named Book of Dust series. The question is this: Is Pullman actually any good, or he just popular with the cultural elite because he is anti-Christian? His central idea, that we all have these visible souls in animal form, is widely praised as a brilliant conceit. But it isn’t brilliant when you really think about it. I wonder if, despite huge sales, his stories are actually read all that thoroughly. I suspect the first trilogy (which in my view begins well but deteriorates quite quickly) is bought in heaps by atheist parents for their young, but not necessarily read to the (disturbing) end by all its recipients. And then there is the problem with turning the books into drama. People keep doing it. But it keeps not quite working.
HBO and the BBC are said to have spent close to $50 million on this series, a great deal for a TV drama. It is a strange choice. A 2007 film based on the same story, The Golden Compass, flopped despite a budget of $180 million and despite featuring stars such as Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. The British National Theatre, a temple of radical, progressive thought, also tried laboriously to stage it. You may guess how well that went by the fact that the reviews concentrated on how clever the puppetry was—as if a movie in the Terminator series had received a lone Oscar nomination for “Best Makeup and Hairstyling.”
Pullman fancies himself a bit of a polymath and genius, or at least that is the impression I get from my various encounters with him. He enjoys going on about Milton and William Blake, perhaps hoping that their grandeur will rub off on him. He is not at all opposed to grandeur, despite being something of a radical. In Britain he is now a knight of the realm, and should properly be called Sir Philip, an honor never given to Charles Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, or to the writer who (though in my view greatly superior in intellect and style) is perhaps his nearest equivalent, C. S. Lewis (whose work Pullman loathes). He has the wearisome attitudes of a tediously left-wing schoolteacher grousing in the staffroom about government cuts and the wicked right-wing government.
For instance, he imagines that the British prime minister, Alexander “Boris” Johnson (a profligate social liberal in real life), is some sort of conservative. Sir Philip recently sallied onto Twitter to say: “When I hear the name ‘Boris Johnson,’ for some reason the words ‘rope’ and ‘nearest lamp-post’ come to mind as well.” Even his friends pointed out that this was going too far, and he swiftly retracted it, saying, “I don’t advocate hanging Boris Johnson. I think that would be a very bad idea. Recent events have aroused my anger to the point where I temporarily lost my judgement. In the heat of the moment I made a tactical error.”
Whatever is “tactical” supposed to mean? I have heard more sincere regrets from railway companies. What did he imagine he was saying when he talked of a rope and a lamp-post? If a conservative person had made a similar suggestion on Twitter about a figure of the left, he or she would by now have been driven from public life. The left’s Thought Police patrol Twitter with a literal-minded humorlessness. Yet this somehow did not apply to Sir Philip, who grows sensitive when reminded of the incident.
Even so, Sir Philip has said something that worries and disturbs his boosters and supporters. At the start of his success, in February 2001, he gave an interview to the Washington Post, in which he proclaimed: “I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” He told the Guardian the same year: “I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with deep and bitter passion, with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling away.” Britain’s suburban atheists don’t like to be quite so explicit, even if secretly they think just as Sir Philip does. I know from experience that Sir Philip’s admirers often do not like finding out that he said these things.
His severe radicalism is not just an embarrassment. It is also a difficulty for filmmakers and TV moguls, who suspect that the mass market may not be quite ready for a man who openly seeks to undermine what is still in theory the majority faith in most Western countries. It is not that they necessarily disagree, just that they have to worry about revenue. This could be why the executive producer of the TV series, Jane Tranter, has gone on record in the USA to say that the new series is not in fact an attack on religion. “The religious controversy that was around the film was not relevant to the books themselves,” she argued. “Philip Pullman talks about depression, the control of information and the falsification of information . . . there is no direct contrast with any contemporary religious organisation.”
“Philip Pullman, in these books, is not attacking belief, not attacking faith, not attacking religion or the church per se,” Tranter insisted. “He’s attacking a particular form of control where there is a very deliberate attempt to withhold information, keep people in the dark, and not allow ideas and thinking to be free.” She went on: “At any time it can be personified by an authoritarian church or organisation, and in our series it’s personified by the Magisterium, but it’s not the equivalent of any church in our world.”
Isn’t it, though? In Pullman’s stories, priests are called “Father” and defer to Cardinals. The very word “Magisterium” (referred to with a sort of terrified awe, as if it were the NKVD) is closely associated with Roman Catholic teaching. And the emblem Pullman’s priests wear and display, though surrounded with twiddly extras, is unmistakably a cross. The TV series’ CGI Oxford, meanwhile, has acquired about a dozen extra unmistakably Christian spires. In the creepiest scene of all, we get a glimpse of an altered version of the Bible, in which a crucial passage set in the Garden of Eden is profoundly changed. The original from Genesis, in which the serpent tempts Eve, runs thus, “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” But Pullman’s heroine, Lyra, is given this version by her kindly old tutor: “Your eyes shall be opened, and your daemons will assume their true form and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” I am not quite sure why this alteration of Holy Writ gives me such a jolt, but it does.
There is a dilemma here. Will ratings fall if Pullman’s story is televised in its full atheistic power, with a wicked, cruel, and child-hating Church, whose priests are sinister, murderous, or drunk, and whose God is a silly old man? Or will the complex drama sag and limp if this ferocity continues to be left out or toned down? The BBC series so far is less cruel and shocking than the books, but also less exciting, more wordy and allusive. How many of its target audience, for instance, know what the word “magisterium” means?
So far, in Britain, viewing figures have been dropping quite a bit—from 7.2 million viewers for the first episode to 5.7 million for the second. I’m not surprised. CGI pictures of a fantasy Oxford and London are all very well, but tweedy scientists arguing about something called “Dust,” which isn’t in fact dust, doesn’t make for compelling TV in modern society. And there’s apparently still enough life in Christian belief in the English-speaking world to make TV moguls wary of the full high-octane attack upon belief that this might have been.
A pity, in a way. If atheism ever properly unmasks its batteries, I suspect it may find it has more opponents than it thinks it has. It is when people grasp what the alternative is that Christianity may finally discover the vigor to defend itself.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.