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.