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

By Young, Cathy | Reason, March 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Young, Cathy, Reason


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.