A Secular Fantasy: The Flawed but Fascinating Fiction of Philip Pullman

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THE CONTROVERSY surrounding The Golden Compass, the recently released screen adaptation of the first book of Philip Pullman's bestselling fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, was not exactly unexpected. Pullman, a 61-year-old British writer of fantasy and mystery novels for children and young adults, has been dubbed "the most dangerous man in Britain" by Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens. He is a self-proclaimed atheist who has referred to himself, tongue in cheek, as being "of the devil's party." He makes no secret of the fact that his books are intended as a sweeping attack not only on organized religion but on the monotheistic concept of God.

Yet the world of Pullman's sacrilegious epic is not a conventionally materialistic one. It includes all the basic elements of Christian theology, from God and angels to the souls of the dead, but in a way that turns the traditional religious viewpoint on its head. The phrase "his dark materials" comes from a passage in John Milton's Paradise Lost in which Satan contemplates the possibility that God may use "his dark materials to create more worlds"--a reference not only to the multiple worlds of Pullman's universe but to his retelling of the Miltonian epic with the rebel angels as the good guys.

The film version of the first novel, brought to the screen in December by New Line Cinema and marketed as a Lord of the Rings-style grand epic fantasy, has been scrubbed of explicit references to religion--enough to pacify the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other mainstream religious organizations. (William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, unappeased, still called for a boycott.) There is a certain irony to this, since the movie opens on the heels of an atheist revival of sorts, heralded by such recent books as Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.

It remains to be seen whether the two sequels, if they get made, will manage to navigate the dangerous waters of Pullman's narrative and to translate his anti-religious message into a general anti-authoritarian one without diluting it beyond recognition. In any case, it is a safe bet that the movie, which opened to mixed reviews and a respectable though not spectacular box office performance, will lead to a resurgent interest in Pullman's books, not only among adventure and fantasy fans but among readers interested in the case against religion and for a secular morality. As a novelist, Pullman may be to militant atheism what Ayn Rand was to militant capitalism: a writer who can convey important ideas through frequently riveting fiction but can't always stop those ideas from congealing into rigid ideology.

Pullman's Parallel Universe

Who is Philip Pullman? A Christian-bashing God hater or, as the liberal Catholic writer Donna Freitas has argued, a profoundly unorthodox religious thinker? A propagandist for godlessness or a master of storytelling whose enchantment draws in both children and adults? This much is certain: His blend of fantasy and philosophy has been highly successful. The Dark Materials trilogy, hailed for skillful plotting, exquisite prose style, and imaginative fantastic landscapes as well as challenging ideas, has sold about 12 million copies worldwide. (The Golden Compass, published in 1995, was followed in 1997 by the second volume, The Subtle Knife, and then in 2000 by The Amber Spyglass, which became the first children's book to win the prestigious Whitbread Prize for literature.) The series has earned Pullman a devoted following among well-educated adults as well as children.

The books' greatest strengths are several memorable characters--above all the spunky and precocious 12-year-old heroine, Lyra Belacqua, raised as a ward of a college at Oxford--and an equally memorable alternate world. For Lyra's Oxford is not "our" Oxford. It exists in a vaguely Edwardian-era England that has sophisticated flying craft and research into particle physics, in a world with such countries as Muscovy and Texas--and a powerful, oppressive, united Christian Church whose hierarchy, the Magisterium, is based in Geneva. …