His Dark Materials (Book Review)

The movie "The Golden Compass" opens today amid both expectation and controversy. This movie is based on the first book in the award winning trilogy by Phillip Pullman, His Dark Materials. Various Christian groups have already issued warnings about the anti-religion message of the books and are now warning about the movies. From what I have heard the religious references have been all but removed from the movie, but because of the association with the books the warnings remain the same.

As always, I don't just accept what the critics are saying, but go read for myself before I form any opinions. So, I recently read His Dark Materials, and have no hesitation in commenting on the book. However, I'm still debating on seeing the movie now or waiting for the DVD, so I can't really say much about the movie. The imaginative world that the book creates will no doubt make for some wonderful special effect opportunities and, from the trailers I have seen, the special effects look great and might be entertaining. But early critical reviews indicate the movie suffers from the same problems as the book, namely little to no character development and trivial, ineffective plot.

I very nearly put the books aside without finishing them. For several reasons, they get very tedious to read after a while. The use of some classic archetypes helps a little, but about the only thing that salvaged His Dark Materials from being used as a doorstop is Pullman's mastery of setting the scene and describing the action. He really can pull you into the story by creating an exciting "word picture." But after awhile, even that gets tedious and the problems in the storytelling outweigh the eloquent and inventive narration.

The biggest problem in the books is that the plot wanders, jumps from scene to scene, and ultimately evaporates rather than reaching a dramatic conclusion. The books read more like a series of short stories than one well thought out epic. The heroes stumble from one misadventure to another, often for the most trivial reasons. For example, in The Amber Spyglass the reader must go through page after page of Lyra and Will's tiresome journey through the land of the dead. The reason given for this dangerous journey is that Lyra wants to tell her friend Roger she is sorry he got killed. Supposedly Lyra and Will have this important mission to save the world, yet they go off on a dangerous side journey to apologize to a dead boy? That makes no sense in terms of the plot. As it turns out, the journey through the land of the dead allows the heroes to release the dead souls into oblivion, and that seems to be the only reason for that part of the story. That action does little to create or resolve conflict in the plot, but is one long, tedious diversion.

There is some development of the two main characters, but most of the characters pop in and out of the story just to solve difficult plot problems. It borders on the melodramatic at times, and was frustrating to me as a reader. Some of the most important characters, such as Lord Asriel and the members of the Magesterium, are missing from most of the story. We get very little information on the motivation or reasons the characters act as they do. Neither is there is any clever setup or foreshadowing of how the heroes can solve their problems. Rather, the omniscient Author provides a last minute solution by bringing in characters that we know nothing about and learn very little about in subsequent scenes. In general, the characters are "cut-outs" that have no believable traits that we can identify with. They are either "good" or "bad" but show very little in the way of a realistic portrayal of the conflicts and limitations of human nature. Believable heroes have flaws alongside their good qualities. Villains need to have some depth before the reader can identify with them as truly dangerous. Almost none of that is present in the books.

Furthermore, the conflicts in the story that should have created drama fail to materialize. The villains never seem to present a serious threat to the heroes, but are often inept, ignorant, or nowhere to be found at critical moments. The Magesterium, which we are told is a powerful authoritarian regime, can't seem to put together sufficient forces to stop the renegade Lord Asriel, or even capture one lone child. The supposedly extremely powerful angel Metatron is sucked in by something so trivial as a woman batting her eyelashes at him. The Authority, Pullman's literary stand-in for God, turns out to be a weak old creature, no threat to anyone, who dissipates into nothing when encountered. How then can The Authority be a threat to the heroes? All the setup for a confrontation between the rebels and The Authority goes nowhere.

The great inventiveness of the parallel worlds turns out to be a dud at the end of the story as well. The only way the characters can solve the problems of their worlds is by closing off all the connections between parallel worlds and never visiting them again. As a reader I was fascinated by the speculation of how parallel worlds might develop in similar as well as different directions. Apart from the Armored Bears, that was about the only thing that I really enjoyed in the books. But by the end of the story, the best, most inventive, and beloved part of the story is turned into something evil. Moreover, by the end of the story a love interest has developed between Lyra and Will. Yet, that love must remain forever unfulfilled because each has to return to his or her respective world and never see each other again. The very powerful and useful Subtle Knife has to be broken and discarded so that it won't be used again. Even the Golden Compass, a very inventive part of the story, ends up being diminished and used inconsistently. Many times, Lyra can use the device but fails to do so without any plausible explanation. Thus, the author uses this device to solve some plot points, but ignores it for others. It's really too powerful of a device and Pullman has to not use it in order to avoid a really trivial plot where every move is foreordained by the Golden Compass. As she matures, Lyra loses her innate ability to read the Golden Compass and must spend many years re-learning how to read the symbols. Why?

All of that left me wondering, what was the point? Why create this fantasy world, inventive literary devices, and a budding romance, only to destroy them in the end? Why create such devilish villains but never make them a believable threat? Because Pullman's writing is generally good, these weaknesses confused me at first. I think I get it now. Pullman clearly set out to preach his philosophy of life through the story. It's not that Pullman is a poor writer so much as it is that his desire to propagandize took over the story. Consequently, the adventure story takes a subordinate role to the propaganda.

Throughout the books, scenes are included solely to allow various points to be preached at the reader, usually via didactic dialogue, but those scenes fail to push the plot forward. For example, the journey through the land of the dead and the releasing of the dead souls into oblivion makes little sense to the plot and only appears to have been inserted as a setup for one of Pullman's philosophical points. It's another way of saying that there really is no heaven waiting for us, but not to worry because death releases you from any physical or emotional discomfort as your atoms dissipate back into the cosmic "Dust." Personally I think that is a terrible idea to put into the head of teenagers. It could easily be misinterpreted as a good argument for suicide as a solution to teenage angst.

The Golden Compass is also used for a symbolic purpose, not just for literary purposes. It always tells the exact truth to those who can read it, symbolically representing a desire to follow what is true, not merely what is hoped for. If the Golden Compass had some uncertainty associated with its answers, it would be more powerful as a literary device, but that might imply some sort of faith is needed or that truth is sometimes uncertain. The nature of the Golden Compass is that it provides "revelatory" knowledge obtained intuitively and accepted without question. Lyra's loss of the ability to read the Golden Compass expresses the idea that we cannot rely on having the truth given to us easily by some authority. It may be appropriate for children to do so, but adults must search for truth with their intellect. By itself, that's not all that bad of a viewpoint, but in the overall context of the story, it is pointing readers away from reliance on divine inspiration and towards human intellect alone. It seems there is no room for "child-like faith" in Pullman's world.

There has been a fair amount of talk about the story "killing off God" but that issue turns out to be secondary and supportive to the main theme. Pullman portrays God as an ancient angel, borrowing from the Platonic and Gnostic ideas of a demiurge, but throws out any spiritual or supernatural elements. He turns the old Gnostic dualism on its head and promotes the idea that only the physical world of matter is good. The theme really is not "killing God" but that there is no omniscient creator to begin with, and the sooner we get rid of the idea the better off we will be in this world. That view of God fits in with the portrayal of religion as authoritarian and tyrannical, suggesting that if we did not believe in God and heaven and hell the authoritarian Church would have no hold on us. The theme that emerges is if people didn't believe in God, were not subject to spiritual authority, and were not living with the hope of an afterlife, they would make better use of this present physical existence. The real message Pullman is trying to preach is "live here and now because that is all you have got." And, your life here should somehow make things better and more enjoyable for physical existence and not be a life searching for some ultimate reality beyond physical existence. That's why he closes off all the other parallel worlds and destroys the means of reentering them. Those worlds symbolize a longing for something other than this life and this world. The characters must live in their own reality (the present physical life) or die an early death. Thus, he characterizes religion and belief in God as corrupt and destructive because he believes it prevents people from doing good and enjoyable things in this life.

In the end, it's a shallow argument based on a poor representation of religion. If he limited his attack on authoritarian religious institutions that corrupt knowledge of God, I could put up with the plot flaws. Philosophical novels do often sacrifice story telling to better express a conflict of ideas. But there is no distinction made in the books between religion and religion gone bad. It is clearly an attack on belief in God in general and Christianity in particular, not just some corrupt events in the past or religion as a political handmaiden. Pullman completely ignores all of the good things that religious people do and denies and belittles the true depth of feeling of religious devotion. For example, the character of Mary Malone abandons not only her life as a nun but any belief in God for the most trivial of reasons. It seems she is unhappy because she can't have a love affair and is not having any fun. That shallow understanding and representation of religious devotion may be true for a few, but for most of us, our desire and dedication to live a life devoted to God gives us great joy, not sorrow and frustration. Pullman's representation is a shallow, inaccurate view of religion and the important role it plays in people's lives.

Fortunately, the anti-religion argument is presented in such a lopsided manner that it is unlikely to convince anyone who is not already leaning in that direction. There is no place in the book where the deeper philosophical questions surrounding God and religion are even raised, much less debated. The adult characters merely lecture the children on how it is and the author's complete control over the story allows him to create a god-like being and authoritarian Church that is exactly what his argument needs. It's pure propaganda, in other words, and does not present a realistic conflict between ideologies. The story also does not take up the greater questions of what to do if this life turns out to be less than desirable. For example, the only hope offered at the end of the story for Lyra and Will is that they can rejoin as undifferentiated atoms of matter in the great cosmic "Dust." Consciousness, like life itself, somehow emerges from this "Dust" spontaneously and is only meaningful to the extent we choose a course through life that leads to physical enjoyment of this life. That's simplistic philosophical materialism presented without any real counter argument about the problems that view creates. A philosophical novel can be every bit as dramatic as an adventure story, but only if the book presents the reader with a real conflict of ideas. Since the books fail to do so, they fall short as philosophy in the form of fiction.

Adult readers will probably see through the blatant propaganda. Adult readers are also likely to be as bored with the story as I was, even though younger readers may enjoy it. As is often the case, younger readers don't need complex plots and character development to enjoy a story, but can see themselves in characters such as Lyra and Will and become engrossed in the inventive imagery. But young people are also not as likely to see or understand the flaws in the ideas presented in the book. His Dark Materials ends up as a clever, albeit simplistic story whose sole purpose is propagandizing children into a materialistic, libertine, self-centered existence. It tells the reader to reject any spiritual authority and just do what you think is best. That's the same message as the one from the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Thus there is no doubt where the message is coming from.


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