Philip Pullman Fails At Being Wicked

I am familiar with Philip Pullman only within the context of his His Dark Materials trilogy, and the interviews that he has given surrounding it. Based on his statements about C.S. Lewis, he seems to be a strange, hateful man. Perhaps he is otherwise a kind, rational man — maybe Lewis is his weak spot; I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I read the trilogy years ago just as the third book was released. I liked the first book, and then felt subsequently more disappointed by each sequel in turn.

The Golden Compass is a neat book. It takes place in an alternate world with its own Oxford. The protagonist is raised by Dons. Everyone has an animal familiar who is connected to them by an invisible tether, which can shape-shift until they reach a certain age and then they become just one animal thing; it is basically an external manifestation of the soul, we learn. There’s “dust”, particles invisible to the naked eye but not to that world’s science, which seems to be connected somehow to original sin. “The Magisterium” runs the world. And there are zepplins and witches and polar bears who can talk and who wear armor and cowboys — basically it is a really great bit of world-building.

And plot-wise the first book is a lot of fun. Pullman is casting “the Church” as the villians, and clearly believes it to be responsible for all the world’s ills, but for all his alleged expertise as a Milton scholar he doesn’t seem to understand it at all. Pullman evidently believes that Christianity is a terrible plague, and does his best to tar it fictionally, but errs, in that his “Magisterium” is not the Christian Church by virtue of that fact that in this world he has created there is no Christ. There never was. (More on that in a moment.)

Pullman’s Magisterium is all very concerned with Adam and Eve and Original Sin — to the point where they want to kill the little girl protagonist because some omen has foretold that she is the new Eve and they don’t want her to commit the original sin anew. (What kind of sense does that make?! If man has already fallen, and you get a second chance, why would you kill the new Eve rather than do everything you can to make sure that she doesn’t eat the apple this time?!) The point is, this world has the Old Testament but not the New, so, despite Pullman’s stated desire to write a wicked anti-Narnia, I think, at most, the book could be considered a bit anti-semitic. Here you have Judaism turned into a world power, “The Church”, that runs everything and it’s thoroughly evil.

The second and third books go increasingly off the rails. Near the end of the last book the protagonists discover that “God” is not God, but is merely the first angel who attained self-awareness, who then lied to all of the other angels and told them that he was their creator and the creator of all. Pullman’s “God” is portrayed as a feeble, doddering old spirit so fragile that he has to be kept in a glass coffin; when the kids open it he falls to dust and blows away in the wind.

It seems to me that that Pullman has done something quite opposite his intentions. He clearly thought he was writing a trilogy in which God is evil and the Church is evil and the rejection of both is the highest freedom. Only, on one hand, there’s no triumph. God blows away in the wind. Every couple, loving and unloving, is parted. The Church doesn’t get to murder the protagonist but they are still in power. (Oh, but everyone is “free”, because now they know the truth, that there is no sin, only free will. I suppose we are meant to assume that the Church will fall over time and more people learn the truth, and Pullman expects will happen in this world. So, at the very best, it seems like a very hollow victory.)

And on the other hand, it’s so much more deliciously inverted than that. Pullman, despite wanting to tar the Christian Church, could not abide having Christ in his world, and despite wanting to tar God, could not allow Him a place in the story and so gave us, in His stead, the deceitful first angel. What we have, then, is some fractional aspect of the premise of the story of Job writ large; it is a story of an entire world in which Lucifer has been given dominion and has installed himself as “God”. What Pullman has written is not a story of the evils of Christianity but rather the evil of a world without Christ, without God’s grace, and without the Christian Church.

I think he makes a very compelling case as to how bleak and meaningless his world is, and how much better off we are in this world, free to love, and be loved by, God.

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2 Responses to Philip Pullman Fails At Being Wicked

  1. Ben Tzur says:

    As a practicing Jew myself, I find the caricature of Judaism in Pullman’s trilogy deeply offensive and false. It has no relationship to the joyous, merciful and humane Judaism and Jewish Scriptures I know and live by. But I grant Crypto-Catholic’s observation that it is a frequently encountered stereotypical view by Christians of the Christian “Old Testamental” religion, which allegedly so badly needs a merciful Saviour to be added to it.

    Just to give a slight idea of the falseness of the supposition that the Jewish Scriptures do not teach a merciful and universal God and salvation, I would point out that a very important teaching of the Torah is that regarding the Noahite Covenant (Gen. 9). It informs us that all subsequent cultures and religions derive from and retain in one version or another a Noahite heritage of godliness and righteousness, and anyone who follows this heritage is assured of God’s acceptance and salvation. This teaching is not just Rabbinic. It is in the Scriptures themselves. The Book of Job is about a pagan Arab, of the land of Uz we are told in the opening sentence (Rabbinic tradition is clear on this non-Jewish identity), but he is presented as the absolute paragon and model of godly righteousness pleasing to God. The Book of Jonah teaches that even the evil Ninevites, the very people who cruelly crushed Judea and exiled the Jews, will be accepted by a merciful God if they repent their sins and return to Him; they do so, and are accepted. Based on the Noahite Covenant heritage, Abraham can even assume that there are at least some righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, and that if there are, that God will not destroy them. Those societies will be sustained by their righteous however few and despite all their general evil (Gen. 18:16ff.). This view is repeated in Rabbinic texts regarding all later cultures and religions. All are sustained by the righteous in their midst, but fall when these become too few. However, the Rabbis agreed that the vast majority of humanity would enjoy the World-to-Come, i.e., be saved, due to God’s great mercy (B.T., Sanhedrin 105a).

    Similarly, the idea that the Jewish Scriptures teach the repression of child-like joy in the world is the opposite of the truth, as anyone familiar with the festivals and Jewish family life knows. All in all, Pullman’s anti-Judaic fantasy has no relationship at all to the reality, and strangely clashes with his explicit condemnation of antisemitism per se in his other books.

    • Father says:

      Precisely! Pullman’s “Church” is a caricature based on (lamentably widespread) common misconceptions about Judaism and Christianity. Christians who try to claim that the OT God is an angry, vengeful God contrasted with the loving, forgiving NT God are gravely misreading.

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