Philip Pullman's Subtle Lie

Author: Ann Thomas

When I first read the His Dark Materials trilogy, as an informed adult, I thought it was brilliant. As an evangelical Christian I was not offended at all – because it was fantasy. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and, like most people, am used to suspending reality and taking my mind into a completely different world where different rules apply. On that basis, I found the premise of the books remarkable and well thought out. You learn and grow along with the characters.

So when I heard there was a monumental fuss about them I was momentarily taken aback. Then I looked at them again. This time I didn’t suspend reality and enter another world. This time I compared reality to the world in the books. Now I can see why people are concerned.

This is the crux of the matter. As an informed adult (or teenager) the books can be taken as pure fantasy. They might give us some interesting issues to think about, but they do not describe the real world. But for the unguarded, the familiarity of some of the images can be misleading.

Even young children quickly learn that you can’t expect to fly like Peter Pan or get squashed flat and spring back again like in the cartoons. In my experience most children have quite happily separated Harry Potter from the real world and only copy him in their imaginations. They don’t have any idea about attempting real witchcraft. But His Dark Materials is different, because it deals with philosophy and religion – ideas.

These books are a perfect example of what happens when you leave God out of life. Men are left to their own resources, and they have no choice but to believe that mankind can create a better society on their own – what Pullman calls ‘the Republic of Heaven’. In order to justify the humanist viewpoint it is necessary to make God and the Church into the ‘bad guys’, and the heroes are those who triumph over them by their own inner qualities.

Taken on that basis, it is a gripping and moving story, well deserving of all the accolades the secular world has given it. However, we need to look at whether Christians, of whatever persuasion, should be offended by the way that the books depict God and the Church, and whether we should be concerned that unbelievers will be turned away from the truth by such a clever lie. The Guardian called the first book, Northern Lights “a thought-provoking reflection on the human condition.”

Before proceeding, I think we need to get things in their proper perspective. For all their popularity, how many people will read these books compared to the enormous amount of other influences that are out in society today? The following comment sums it up well:

“Why have so many of us got upset about these books, when television has a far bigger influence and reach and many of the same issues are found there? More children will be exposed more regularly to the “theology” of Buffy, the negative portrayal of the church in Eastenders and the sexual morality of the pre-teen magazines than will ever read even the best-selling HP books let alone the rather highbrow (ie fat!) and rather good, if disturbing, Pullman trilogy.” – How Are They Reading?, website of The Church of England Diocese of Chelmsford)

The Story

The first book, Northern Lights, now filmed as The Golden Compass, is set in a world very similar to our own, but very obviously different. It concerns a young, orphan girl called Lyra who grew up in a college in Oxford. Children start disappearing all over the country, including Lyra’s friend Roger, and she stumbles on a group going to the north looking for their children, and goes with them.

She has many adventures and meets many people, including the wicked Mrs Coulter, who turns out to be her mother, and the daring Lord Asriel, who turns out to be her father. The children are eventually rescued and Lyra follows Lord Asriel as he succeeds in creating a bridge between their world and another, through the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights.

The opening of the bridge creates a great disturbance in nature, and the second book, The Subtle Knife, finds Lyra in the other world looking for Lord Asriel, who doesn’t know she has followed him. There she meets Will, a boy of her age from our world. He had found a window between the two worlds and is looking for his father, who disappeared on a polar expedition when Will was born.

Will becomes the bearer of the ‘subtle knife’, which is able to cut through anything, including the fabric between the worlds. Lyra finds out through the alethiometer, a ‘truth meter’ that she is able to read, that she must help Will in his search, and they have many adventures together. The book ends with Will finding his father, who tells him he must take the knife to Lord Asriel who is preparing for a great war.

Through both these books runs the theme of the mystery of Dust. It is an elementary particle, like electrons, and collects invisibly around adults from the age of puberty onwards. Children attract very little Dust. Lord Asriel discovered that Dust fell from the sky at the Northern Lights, through the gap into the other world. It is also discovered that Dust is intelligent and is communicating with Lyra through her alethiometer.

The Church in Lyra’s world is very like our medieval Catholic Church, with politics and power being its main goals. The Church is afraid that Dust is the physical evidence for original sin, and is conducting research and experiments (often unethical) to learn more about it. Mrs Coulter works for the Church, but for her own ends and as long as it suits her.

However, there is very little reference to the Church or theology in the first two books. They are mainly rip-roaring adventure stories in which we see the characters of Will and Lyra tested, and the other main players defined.

It is not until the third book, The Amber Spyglass, that the ‘theology’ is spelled out, as the reason for Lord Asriel’s war is made clear. The Authority, who calls himself God, is not the creator of the universe at all but simply the first of all the angels, who has taken power on himself to rule everything. The Authority considers that conscious beings of every kind have become dangerously independent, and plans to set up a permanent inquisition in every world. And the first thing he will do is destroy the republic that Lord Asriel is building. That is why Lord Asriel is preparing for war.

The third book centres on two separate stories – Lord Asriel’s war against the Authority, and Mary Malone’s relationship with creatures in another world and her discoveries about Dust. Mary Malone is an ex-nun turned scientist from our world, researching dark matter in the universe – which she finds out is Dust when she meets Lyra. In the world of the mulefa she builds the Amber Spyglass with which she can see Dust. She discovers that the Dust is streaming away at an ever-increasing rate, and without Dust everything will come to an end.

Meanwhile, in Lyra’s world, there is a prophecy that she will be the second Eve, and what she does will determine the fate of everyone. Believing that she will fall like the first Eve, the Church determines to kill her before she falls. Since they believe Dust is original sin, if they destroy that too, the whole universe will be freed from sin. They do not realise what Dust really is, and that Dust is essential to life.

In many a science fiction or fantasy book, religions and beliefs have been invented as literary devices to serve the plot. This could be argued to be the case with His Dark Materials. However, Philip Pullman is on record as saying,

“I’ve got no evidence whatever for believing in a God… maybe there is a God out there. All I know is that if there is, he hasn’t shown himself on earth. But going further than that, I would say that those people who claim that they do know that there is a God have found this claim of theirs the most wonderful excuse for behaving extremely badly. So belief in a God does not seem to me to result automatically in behaving very well.” – The Mail on Sunday, 27 January 2002, p.63.

He went even further later in the same article to say

“… wherever you see organised religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It’s almost a universal law.”

Yet he was raised largely by his grandfather, who was a clergyman. He went to church and Sunday school, and gained a faith in God and the Bible from his grandfather.

It seems clear from His Dark Materials, that Philip Pullman has not just invented a religion and a God, but deliberately twisted what he knows of Christianity to the worst viewpoint.

God

Since Philip Pullman no longer believes in God, he has created a character in his books, who claims to be God, but actually isn’t. All the awful things he has to say about “The Authority” are not slurs against God, they are descriptions of someone who is not God:

“Balthamos said quietly, ‘The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty – those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves – the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. One of those who came later was wiser than he was, and she found out the truth, so he banished her. We serve her still. And the Authority still reigns in his kingdom, and Metatron is his Regent.'” – The Amber Spyglass, p.33-34.

So ‘God’ is an angel who usurped power over everyone else. He also has none of the characteristics of God. For example, he is not found to be “the same yesterday, today and forever”, but has aged over the millennia.

“‘Well, where is God,’ said Mrs Coulter, ‘if he’s alive? And why doesn’t he speak any more? At the beginning of the world, God walked in the garden and spoke with Adam and Eve. Then he began to withdraw, and Moses only heard his voice. Later, in the time of Daniel, he was aged – he was the Ancient of Days. Where is he now? Is he still alive, at some inconceivable age, decrepit and demented, unable to think or act, or speak, a rotten hulk? And if that is his condition, wouldn’t it be the most merciful thing, the truest proof of our love for God, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?'” – The Amber Spyglass, p.344.

Near the end of the final book, the Authority dies. This is not a shocking sin, because he is not God, remember? He eventually is found to be a decrepit and fearful old man, unable to cope with life any longer. Since angels condense out of Dust, he finally cannot hold himself together any more, and dissolves:

“She was gazing into the crystal litter. It was unbroken, although the crystal was stained and smeared with mud and the blood of what the cliff-ghasts had been eating before they found it. It lay tilted crazily among the rocks, and inside it – ‘Oh, Will, he’s still alive! But – the poor thing…’

“Will saw her hands pressing against the crystal, trying to reach to the angel and comfort him; because he was so old, and he was terrified, crying like a baby and cowering away into the lowest corner.

“‘He must be so old – I’ve never seen anyone suffering like that – oh, Will, can’t we let him out?’

“Will cut through the crystal in one movement and reaching in to help the angel out. Demented and powerless, the aged being could only weep and mumble in fear and pain and misery, and he shrank away from what seemed like yet another threat.

“‘It’s all right,’ Will said, ‘we can help you hide, at least. Come on, we won’t hurt you.’…

“Between them they helped the ancient of days out of his crystal cell; it wasn’t hard, for he was as light as paper, and he would have followed them anywhere, having no will of his own, and responding to simple kindness like a flower to the sun. But in the open air there was nothing to stop the wind from damaging him, and to their dismay his form began to loosen and dissolve. Only a few moments later he had vanished completely, and their last impression was of those eyes, blinking in wonder, and a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief.” – The Amber Spyglass, p.431-2.

The Church

If you have lost your faith, what can you make of the Church? The followers are blind fools, and the leaders are only interested in power. Philip Pullman draws on the dark history of the Church to relive the clawing for politics and power and the horror of the inquisition.

“‘Sisters,’ she began, ‘let me tell you what is happening, and who it is that we must fight. For there is a war coming. I don’t know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the church. For all its history … it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out… That is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.'” – The Subtle Knife, p.52.

“[Speaking about an ancient angel:] ‘She told me many things… She said that all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity. She and the rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed…
“And for most of that time, wisdom has had to work in secret, whispering her words, moving like a spy through the humble places of the world while the courts and palaces are occupied by her enemies.'” – The Amber Spyglass, p.506.

The Church is portrayed as oppressive and closed minded. It dominates and destroys the lives of those it rules. Evangelical Christians believe that the real Church is the coming together of those who have been saved from the wrath to come and the powerlessness of life now. Those who have willingly surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ, who willingly surrendered his to death for their salvation.

What we must ask ourselves is, which picture will be believed by those outside the Church today, looking in? Peter urged us to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15), but how many people see that hope in our lives enough to make them ask the question? There is a telling indictment in The Subtle Knife:

“‘A rebellion against the church?’

“‘Partly, aye. There was a time when he thought of making it an issue of force, but he turned away from that.’

“‘Why? Was the church too strong?’

“‘No,’ said the old servant, ‘that wouldn’t stop my master… No, it’s my belief he turned away from a rebellion against the church not because the church was too strong, but because it was too weak to be worth the fighting.'” – The Subtle Knife, p.47-8.

The World of the Dead

The sad thing about Philip Pullman’s loss of faith is that he has no choice but to paint a picture of life after death as without hope. If there is no God, then there can be no heaven, and what can you do then?

Even those who are not committed Christians have a hope that there is some sort of heaven waiting for them. When sharing the gospel we take that hope away when explaining the problem of sin, but return it to them greatly magnified when explaining about salvation through the cross. Philip Pullman takes away heaven, says it is all a lie, and replaces it with an awful prospect of an eternity of dreariness and misery.

I find it hard to believe that people would accept his view, mainly because it is so unattractive and depressing. And, far from being offended by his description of life after death, I feel a great sadness, that he may be living his life with this prospect:

“‘It is a prison camp,”‘said Balthamos. ‘The Authority established it in the early ages.’…

“‘Everything about it is secret. Even the churches don’t know; they tell their believers that they’ll live in Heaven, but that’s a lie.'” – The Amber Spyglass, p.35.

Yet the Bible promises us “No eye has seen, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor.2:9) The promise of a kingdom to come is very real: “…They were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Heb.11:16)

The other interesting thing is how Philip Pullman views those who have been faithful to God as either wasting their lives (“while all the joy of life was going to waste around us”), or being so fanatical that they can’t see the truth when it is staring them in the face:

“‘When we were alive, they told us that when we died we’d go to heaven. And they said that heaven was a place of joy and glory and we would spend eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss. That’s what they said. And that’s what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us, and we never knew.

“Because the land of the dead isn’t a place of reward or a place of punishment. It’s a place of nothing. The good come here as well as the wicked, and all of us languish in this gloom for ever, with no hope of freedom, or joy, or sleep or rest or peace.’…

“But her ghost was thrust aside by the ghost of a man who looked like a monk: thin, and pale even in his death, with dark zealous eyes. He crossed himself and murmured a prayer, and then he said:

“‘…The world we lived in was a vale of corruption and tears. Nothing there could satisfy us. But the Almighty has granted us this blessed place for all eternity, this paradise, which to the fallen soul seems bleak and barren, but which the eyes of faith see as it is, overflowing with milk and honey and resounding with the sweet hymns of the angels. This is heaven, truly! … My companions and I of the true faith will remain here in our blessed paradise, and spend eternity singing the praises of the Almighty, who has given us the judgement to tell the false from the true.’

“Once again he crossed himself, and then he and his companions turned away in horror and loathing.” –The Amber Spyglass, p.335-6.

Perhaps this is what offends some Christians – being pictured like that. Personally “I know whom I have believed” (2 Tim.1:12) and I know His promises, and I would hope that my life would tell a much better story for people to believe in than that.

The Republic of Heaven

In doing away with heaven, Philip Pullman recognises that people still need hope for the future.

“‘We all need some sort of myth,’ he has said. ‘Some sort of over-arching narrative to live by. For hundreds of years in the West, this need was fulfilled by the Christian story, but that is now either dead or dying.'” – Robert McCrum, Sunday January 27, 2002, The Observer.

“He told an Oxford literary conference in August 2000: ‘We’re used to the Kingdom of Heaven; but you can tell from the general thrust of the book that I’m of the devil’s party, like Milton. And I think it’s time we thought about a republic of Heaven instead of the Kingdom of Heaven. The King is dead. That’s to say I believe the King is dead. I’m an atheist. But we need Heaven nonetheless, we need all the things that Heaven meant, we need joy, we need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, we need a connection with the universe, we need all the things the Kingdom of Heaven used to promise us but failed to deliver.'” – Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday.

Lord Asriel, in the books, sets out to destroy the kingdom of heaven because it is a dictatorship and a fraud. This is clearly Philip Pullman’s view, and once again is very sad.

“‘And is he going to attack the kingdom of heaven?’

“Ogunwe looked at her levelly.

“‘We’re not going to invade the kingdom,’ he said, ‘but if the kingdom invades us, they had better be ready for war, because we are prepared. Mrs Coulter, I am a king, but it’s my proudest task to join Lord Asriel in setting up a world where there are no kingdoms at all. No kings, no bishops, no priests. The kingdom of heaven has been known by that name since the Authority himself first set himself above the rest of the angels. And we want no part of it. This world is different. We intend to be free citizens of the republic of heaven.’ – The Amber Spyglass, p.222.

 

Philip Pullman offers no hope for the life to come, and no power to cope with the trials of this life, except the idea that if mankind ‘gets it together’ we can create a better world here. Like most humanists he has an inflated idea of mankind’s potential.

Philip Pullman was asked in an interview with the Mail on Sunday,

“What are the key values in the Republic, rather than the Kingdom, of Heaven?”

He answered:

“Firstly, a sense that this world where we live is our home. Our home is not somewhere else. There is no elsewhere. This is a physical universe and we are physical beings made of material stuff. This is where we live.

“Secondly, a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of a real and important story, a sense of being connected to other people, to people who are not here any more, to those who have gone before us. And a sense of being connected to the universe itself.

“All those things were promised and summed up in the phrase, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. But if the Kingdom is dead, we still need those things. We can’t live without those things because it’s too bleak, it’s too bare and we don’t need to. We can find a way of creating them for ourselves if we think in terms of a Republic of Heaven.

“This is not a Kingdom but a Republic, in which we are all free and equal citizens, with – and this is the important thing – responsibilities. With the responsibility to make this place into a Republic of Heaven for everyone. Not to live in it in a state of perpetual self-indulgence, but to work hard to make this place as good as we possibly can.” – The Mail on Sunday, 27 January 2002, p.63.

The Fall

As mentioned above, in His Dark Materials the Church is convinced that if a second Fall can be prevented, and Dust can be destroyed, the whole universe will be freed from original sin.

“… The child, then, is in the position of Eve, the wife of Adam, the mother of us all, and the cause of all sin.…

“Please remember – the alethiometer does not forecast; it says, ‘If certain things come about, then the consequences will be – ‘ and so on. And it says that if it comes about that the child is tempted, as Eve was, then she is likely to fall. On the outcome will depend … everything. And if this temptation does take place, and if the child gives in, then Dust and sin will triumph.” – The Amber Spyglass, p.71.

“‘And finally,’ said Father McPhail, ‘the child. Still just a child, I think. This Eve, who is going to be tempted and who, if precedent is any guide, will fall, and whose fall will involve us all in ruin. Gentlemen, of all the ways of dealing with the problem she sets us, I am going to propose the most radical, and I have confidence in your agreement. I propose to send a man to find her and kill her before she can be tempted.'” – The Amber Spyglass, p.74-5.

In the books, the Church is wrong about Dust, and wrong about the Fall. When Lyra does actually ‘fall’ it is the salvation of the universe. Pullman has the Church believe the Fall to be all about sex, and the loss of innocence, and God’s disapproval. In this he is wrong – the Fall was about rebellion. In this way, as in many other places in the books, he is setting up a straw man to knock it down. He then wins merit for his own view, as opposed to that of the Church, by seeing sex as good, the culmination of a loving relationship, which of course it is. When this happens to Lyra and Will, it attracts the Dust back into the universe.

“‘Like Mary said -‘ he whispered, ‘you know straight away when you like someone – when you were asleep, on the mountain before she took you away, I told Pan -‘

“‘I heard,’she whispered, ‘I was awake and I wanted to tell you the same and now I know what I must have felt all the time: I love you, Will, I love you -‘

“The word love set his nerves ablaze. All his body thrilled with it, and he answered her in the same words, kissing her hot face over and over again, drinking in with adoration the scent of her body and her warm honey-fragrant hair and her sweet moist mouth that tasted of the little red fruit.

“Around them there was nothing but silence, as if all the world were holding its breath…

” In the beanfield, drowsy in the late afternoon heat, Mary heard Atal’s voice, and she couldn’t tell excitement from alarm: had another tree fallen? Had the man with the rifle appeared?

“‘Look! Look!’ Atal was saying, nudging Mary’s pocket with her trunk, so Mary took the spyglass and did as her friend said, pointing it up to the sky.

“‘Tell me what it’s doing!’ Said Atal. ‘I can feel it is different, but I can’t see.’

“The terrible flood of Dust in the sky had stopped flowing. It wasn’t still, by any means; Mary scanned the whole sky with the amber lens, seeing a current here, an eddy there, a vortex further off; it was in perpetual movement, but it wasn’t flowing away any more. In fact, if anything, it was falling like snowflakes…

“‘The young ones,’ said Atal.

“Mary turned, spyglass in hand, to see Will and Lyra returning. They were some way off; they weren’t hurrying. They were holding hands, talking together, heads close, oblivious to everything else; she could see that even from a distance.

“She nearly put the spyglass to her eye, but held back, and returned it to her pocket. There was no need for the glass; she knew what she would see; they would seem to be made of living gold. They would seem the true image of what human beings always could be, once they had come into their inheritance.

“The Dust pouring down from the stars had found a living home again, and these children-no longer-children, saturated with love, were the cause of it all.” – The Amber Spyglass, p.492.

Philip Pullman falls down on two counts: firstly he has totally misunderstood basic Christian theology – although since his grandfather was a clergyman, perhaps misunderstood is too lenient a word – and pandered to the idea that the first Fall was about sex and God’s disapproval; secondly he portrays two twelve-year-olds falling in love in the way that two adults would. He never actually says they have sex, so younger readers need not be offended and can imagine what they like, but it is obviously implied. Jacqueline Wilson, who writes best-selling books for young people of a similar age, would never portray such a love scene – it is not the way twelve-year-olds think and behave.

Conclusion

My first conclusion is echoed from someone who has said it better than I can:

“Of his three famous children’s books, the first two, Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife, are captivating and clever, but the third, which took the Whitbread prize, is a disappointing clunker with some gruesome and needlessly nasty scenes. This is probably because The Amber Spyglass – in which God dies – is too loaded down with propaganda to leave enough room for the story.” – Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday.

Once he gets into his philosophy, it gets pretty deep, and I did wonder how many readers would have got bogged down trying to get their heads round the ideas about the Authority and the Metatron; the world of the dead; pre-emptive penance and absolution; the connection between people and their daemons (the animal embodiment of their inner nature); and the whole business about what Dust is and is not. You really have to concentrate to keep up with him.

It has been said that 80% of people have admitted that they believe what they read in the newspapers. Since many more people read newspapers than will read His Dark Materials, and since newspapers are more directly concerned with real life, I think this should be a greater area of concern. If that statistic is even partly true, then there will be some people who will adopt Philip Pullman’s version of things quite easily.

The ideas about God, faith, and heaven, being woven into the atmosphere of the story and the characters that we come to know and relate to, could be absorbed by some, especially if they reinforce any vague ideas the reader may already have. So few people today think seriously about these sorts of issues.

On the other hand, those who are willing to think seriously about his ideas may well be provoked to think about how plausible they are and whether there are any alternatives. His portrayal of the Church is so out of date and extreme, I find it hard to believe that anyone would seriously believe that the Church in the books bears any resemblance to the Church today. And the thought of a life without hope of heaven, and relying on mankind to discover a selfless love for one another to make things better is not very attractive or plausible.

So we come to the question about whether or not to read the books. I couldn’t put it better than the following:

“Would I try to prevent children reading Pullman? No – but I wouldn’t encourage it either. There is too much which could confuse. Should adults working with children read it? Absolutely. Partly because it’s a good read which will enrich and provoke you and inspire you to want to engage your children’s imaginations and hearts with truth. But also because we need to be able to talk with those we’re working with about what they’re watching, hearing and reading. So set the video too, for Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the Teletubbies (or both!) according to what age you work with. Find out what your children are reading: and read it as well. Talk with them about the good things you and they have enjoyed, and what, if anything, you found at odds with your Christian faith. Put God on the agenda of your conversations with them about their world rather than trapping Him in your teaching sessions. Encourage them to be thinking consumers of culture, who notice values in what they see and read, and who are able to say for themselves, ‘I don’t agree with that.’ ‘I wouldn’t do that’ or, of course ‘That’s really good.’ And thank God for it. – How Are They Reading?, website of The Church of England Diocese of Chelmsford.

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