His Dark Materials

His Dark Materials

I had to read them, didn’t I? After all, I do yammer on about being an atheist, so obviously that meant I would have to read Philip Pullman’s trilogy. It’s a bedtime story for atheists everywhere! Right?

Well, no, not so much.

Mr. Pullman may well be an atheist, but that is not what his books are about. It is apparent throughout the trilogy that his humanist leanings informed his writing, but anyone who complains that these books are going to turn children into atheists a) don’t understand how books work, and b) haven’t read the books themselves. I mean, did everyone who read The Hobbit when they were nine start believing in dragons?

The problem that religious folk have with these books has nothing to do with the books’ — or the author’s — stance on the existence of a creator. For the record, the book is entirely neutral on the subject. In fact, it goes so far as to acknowledge the possibility of a creator, while steadfastly pointing out that there is no evidence to support the idea. No, the problem religious folk have with the book is that the book has a problem with religion. I can certainly see how someone who was raised in, say, the Roman Catholic church might be concerned. His Dark Materials does not have much good to say regarding organized religion. During the first part of the story, titled The Northern Lights but published in the US as The Golden Compass (why?), the Church exists as a bogeyman lurking in the background. I mean that literally. Children start disappearing. The reader learns pretty quickly that the Church is behind it, but that doesn’t stop the other children from creating horrible stories of “Gobblers” who steal you in the night and eat you, or worse.

I have to admit, I found a lot of the metaphysical stuff fascinating. I always like stories that take entrenched myths and turn them upside down. Did you ever read Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil? Where the Devil himself shows up and explains to the Vampire Lestat that he’s really the one pleading the case for mankind to an arrogant and uninterested God? I really kinda dug that book.

Where was I? Oh, right. Metaphysics. I’m pretty sure that, had I read these books when I was twelve or thirteen — the age group toward which they seem geared — a lot of it would have gone over my head. At that point I didn’t know what a Metatron was, and if pressed I would have guessed it was some kind of Transformer that came out after I stopped reading the comics. And I would have completely glossed over every mention of quantum physics. I’m older and a little smarter now, and I am capable of reading such material without my eyes glazing over, but I have to slog through prose leveled at junior high school kids to get to the good stuff.

And that would be my main criticism. The prose… is not great. Granted, I do not have a lot of experience with “young adult” fiction, but the writing here seemed needlessly clunky. I thought that it was not so much writing for teenagers, as writing that teenagers would do for each other. At times it was only a step or two away from reverting to text-message shorthand.


The most obvious comparison here is to the Harry Potter series, and His Dark Materials simply cannot hold a candle to Rowling’s work. However, please do not take that in any way to mean that it is not worth reading, because it is. Pullman’s setting is as dazzling in its epic scope as Rowling’s is in detail. His plot is not as character-driven, and for that matter his characters are not as accessible, but it does succeed in making the reader observe the world from a new angle.

Toward the end of the final book, The Amber Spyglass, Pullman really starts to let loose with The Message. There are quite a few passages that might as well be highlighted with headings that read, “Here’s The Point.” These passages, unfortunately, are speed bumps along the road, but they don’t slow things down so much that you consider stopping. And, being a story for younger audiences, I have to admire the way things are not exactly Happily Ever After at the end. In fact, given all Pullman puts his heroes through, the ending almost seems a little cruel. But I suppose it does have its own poetry, as well.

I did take away something from the series that I rather liked. It’s something I might tell my kids one day, if they should ask me about the Meaning of Life: At the end, make sure you have a really good story. And make sure it’s all true.

Posted in Atheism, Reading

5 responses to “His Dark Materials”

  1. Dan Telfer says:

    I would give it an almost identical review (I got it for X-Mas and finished it a couple weeks ago).

    I had similar issues with the prose and lack of character development. I mean, people were always running, and you almost never knew what was driving them. There’s like 900 pages of “I’m exhausted and bleeding and have no meaning in my life”. That wears really freaking thin no matter how much depth the universe has.

    I blame the way Pullman handles exposition. Tolkien spent decades crafting his exposition until one minor character’s name was an endless story. Rowling put her characters in school, so they were often learning about their world along with the viewer. Pullman… well… he kind of just has old people reveal exposition to the main character in unsatisfying shards that occur in one paragraph per 100 pages. It’s excruciating.

    I thought “the message” and the poetry were beautiful, though. He did a good job of showing how an atheist finds meaning in life. Fucking gorgeous stuff there that will always stay with me.

    But those wheeled elephant things…? Hoo boy. That was a little Dr. Seuss for me.

  2. Dan Telfer says:

    Oh, and I think you painted the trilogy a little more “agnostic” than I would. I thought the way he anthropomorphized “The Creator” made him more of a metaphysical creature. A metaphor for a man-made construct, something we created in our collective subconcious not unlike the gods in Neil Gaiman’s novels.

    In other words, while I think you’re right that it’s harder on the church as an organization than Christianity’s belief system, I think he clearly outlined it’s place in his mind. He portrays the idea of God as finite, fragile, and tragic.

  3. bez_zatej says:

    as for why it is The Golden Compass:

    “Pullman earlier proposed to name the series The Golden Compasses. This term also appears in Paradise Lost, where it poetically refers to the “compasses” with which God shaped the world, an idea depicted in William Blake’s painting The Ancient of Days. Due to confusion with the other common meaning of compass (the navigational instrument) this phrase in the singular became the title of the American edition of Northern Lights (the book prominently features a device that one might label a “golden compass”)”

    source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/His_Dark_Materials

  4. Christopher says:

    He does portray the character the Church has been led to think is God as an old, frail being who was once a mighty tyrant who lied and forced humans to worship him as a god. I love that part. But there is a specific line in there, I forget where, in which characters are discussing the nature of the Authority and they say something to the effect of, “The Authority is not the creator. We don’t even know if there was a creator.” Which reads to me to be an acknowledgment that you cannot prove a negative. At the same time, I agree that Pullman’s own opinion is pretty obvious. And I totally agree that it is a beautiful illustration of an atheist finding a higher purpose.

    And thank, bez_zatej, for the explanation. I assumed it was just the standard, “Americans are too stupid to understand this. Make it prettier.”

  5. Sachin says:

    Kudos. A very refreshing approach to the series.

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