Doing the Devil's Work; the Two Stars of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Inhabit a World Where Caricatured Catholicism Is the Enemy. but While It Should Make Great Theatre, Does It Pander Too Much to Old Prejudices?

The Evening Standard (London, England), November 17, 2003 | Go to article overview

Doing the Devil's Work; the Two Stars of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Inhabit a World Where Caricatured Catholicism Is the Enemy. but While It Should Make Great Theatre, Does It Pander Too Much to Old Prejudices?


Byline: MELANIE MCDONAGH

NICELY timed for Christmas, the National Theatre is staging a two-part epic for grownups and children about the death of God. It is the dramatised version of Philip Pullman's remarkable trilogy, His Dark Materials, which is about witches, armoured bears, angels, child-catchers called Gobblers, daemons and any number of interconnecting worlds, to name but a few of its attractions. But the climax is the destruction of God, who, in the final book of the trilogy, dies in the form of a withered old man.

Not, however, before the author makes clear that what we think of as the Creator is merely a jumped-up angel.

Small wonder that Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National, saw the dramatisation of the trilogy as the answer to a prayer - if that is the right word - for a contemporary production on an epic scale that would address the great questions that the modern arts skirt right around. As he put it in one interview, "Why are we here? Is there a God? If so, why is he indifferent to our welfare?" The answer is unequivocal: God, as he is traditionally understood, is an imposition on humanity and the life to come is just the physical survival of our atoms. As one of Pullman's characters puts it: "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all."

It should be brilliant theatre. And it is a good time all round for Pullman fans, with the publication this month of his latest book, Lyra's Oxford, about the heroine of the trilogy, a couple of years on. The author is now at work on a book about some of the minor characters and explaining its (very complicated) metaphysics.

Even further down the line, there is to be a film of His Dark Materials, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard.

It is good to have the great questions about the meaning of life raised in this way. A robust atheist polemic, which is what Pullman presents, asserting the death of God and the corrupting effect of religious belief on the human psyche, is something that all the faiths can engage with, unlike, say, the consensual agnosticism that passes muster as the norm in most public discourse.

But the problem with Pullman's trilogy is how he sees the enemy. His story is about a battle between good and evil, with the forces of evil seen as an all-pervading institution, perverting natural sexual impulses and using torture to maintain its power.

And that evil is, rather than indeterminate belief in God, organised religion. Not just any old religion either: it is described throughout as "the Church". More precisely, it is Roman Catholicism.

It doesn't take long for the author to make this association. At the start of the trilogy, we are told about the sinister Magisterium - a Vatican-style tangle of courts, colleges and councils - which has ensured that "the Church's control over every aspect of life [was] absolute". Its most sinister aspect is something called the Consistorial Court of Discipline. And the last representative of the papacy is called, ironically, Pope John Calvin.

The picture of the Church that Pullman describes evokes strong emotions precisely because it is so familiar. A bit like Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, it plays on cliches about Catholicism of very long standing. He freely invokes a charged vocabulary guaranteed to make Protestant English flesh creep: the Magisterium, the Authority, the sacraments, heresy. …

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

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 ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

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

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Doing the Devil's Work; the Two Stars of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Inhabit a World Where Caricatured Catholicism Is the Enemy. but While It Should Make Great Theatre, Does It Pander Too Much to Old Prejudices?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
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?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
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.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, 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." (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

    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.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.