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Philip Pullman's ideas behind His Dark Materials
June 23, 2008 4:40 PM   Subscribe

Philip Pullman interviewed about the ideas behind "His Dark Materials" [YT,1 hour, South Bank Show,parts 2,3,4,5,6,7]. Inside, and hidden from those who don't want spoilers, are links relating to the ideas raised and about the books generally.

References have to start out with the Fall of Man and specifically with Milton's Paradise Lost (Pullman's opinion this book) which gave the series its title and form. Add in some William Blake and especially "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" which Pullman memorised as a child (part of an excellent New Yorker article "Far from Narnia"). Finally Heinrich Von Kliest's essay "On the Marionette Theatre" which sees the fall in a positive light (and which features an un-foolable fighting bear to boot).

Growing up his early literary inspirations included Tove Jannson's "Moomins" - for their gentle strangeness, Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons" books for their skilful construction and the comics such as The Eagle and Superman for their vivid way of telling a story. An illustration in "A Hundred Million Francs" by Paul Berna might have been the original inspiration for Lyra. "The Balloonist" - by MacDonald Harris serves as a template for Arctic exploration by balloon. Leonardo da Vinci's painting "Lady with an Ermine" and "Young Woman with a Macaw" by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo were inspirations for the look of daemons. A general antipathy to CS Lewis' Narnia ( Pullman on 'The Dark Side of Narnia') - and other books which appeared to be against the idea of growing up - helped shape HDM too.

Altough they are fantasy the books have quite a lot of science in them: multiverses, dark matter and communication devices which work on quantum entanglement for example. And if you would wish to follow in the steps of Mary Malone you might want to know about divination using the i-ching too.

On writing - Pullman outlines some lessons for aspiring writers and fans of garden sheds interview him on the perfect place to construct your own best-selling trilogy.

On religion we have previously had a thread about Pullman's conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Separately he has been called "The Most Dangerous Author in Britain" for his religious views. In the documentary he sites Physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg.

For more serious fans Srafopedia is a wiki-based encyclopedia to go with the series and BridgeToTheStars is perhaps the best site for serious addicts.

Finally places are important: the gargoyles of Oxford, Jordan college - based on Pullman's alma mater, Exeter College. The (threatened) boatyards of Jericho, Svalbard -the Arctic pearl (from a previous post). And finally, of course, a garden.
posted by rongorongo (85 comments total) 80 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just finished this trilogy three days ago, and it's one of the most affecting things I've ever read, to the point that I had a very difficult time making my way through the last three chapters or so of The Amber Spyglass.
posted by infinitywaltz at 4:45 PM on June 23, 2008 [5 favorites]


delicious, thank you!
posted by Lizc at 4:46 PM on June 23, 2008


Oooh. Nice!
posted by brundlefly at 4:52 PM on June 23, 2008


Outstanding post.
posted by bardic at 4:54 PM on June 23, 2008


Did no one else react to these books with dismay? They really felt like propaganda to me. And by no one else, I mean to exclude people who also are opposed to Harry Potter because he is a witch. Grammar fail, but you get the gist.
posted by prefpara at 5:07 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Too bad the movie adaptation was such an abortion.
posted by GuyZero at 5:10 PM on June 23, 2008


I rather enjoyed the first book. Didn't make it two chapters into the second book for whateve reason. This is an excellent post, though.
posted by empath at 5:12 PM on June 23, 2008


Fantastic post. His Dark Materials is one of the best series of books I've ever read, let alone one of the best fantasy series. I can't tell you the number of people I've turned onto these books who have thanked me profusely.

The stage play(s) adapted by Nicholas Wright were also astonishingly good.
posted by papercake at 5:12 PM on June 23, 2008


#1 & 2 are good, #3 rubbish
posted by zeoslap at 5:13 PM on June 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


I agree with zeoslap...I BARELY made it through the last one. It was a muddled mess.
posted by GavinR at 5:16 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


prefpara: I know other people have had strong negative reactions to these books. I'm sure if enough people start posting here you'll have plenty who agree with you. I can see where, especially in the third book, you could say that the writer's hand is pushing the characters at times more than the narrative need... but I never stop enjoying the journey and am awed by where the characters end up and what has happened to them/they've accomplished. Not to mention how heartwrending I find the decision made by the two main characters at the end of series. I find the books very emotionally effective and affecting -- much more than I would if it was just a propaganda piece.
posted by papercake at 5:16 PM on June 23, 2008


I felt they had an anti-religon bent, prefpara. But should all books that express a philosophy be categorized as propaganda?
posted by brundlefly at 5:17 PM on June 23, 2008


But should all books that express a philosophy be categorized as propaganda?

Of course! If it's a philosophy you don't agree with, that is.

(Do I need a sarcasm tag? I have a small pile gathering dust...)
posted by rodgerd at 5:19 PM on June 23, 2008


So - is the book better than the movie? Is it worth my time, or is it written at a grade 4 level much like some of the other popular series out there?

(Watched "The Golden Compass" recently - the most positive thing that I can say about it is: "it lacked direction"... Talk about a bunch of "scenes" compressed together, stuffed, shoved and hacked to fit - it felt so "disjointed"...)
posted by jkaczor at 5:27 PM on June 23, 2008


My opinion on the books: loved the first one, meh on the second, and the third was pure crap. But then again I also found the Fionavar Tapestry a big piece of garbage, so what do I know.
posted by Vindaloo at 5:36 PM on June 23, 2008


So - is the book better than the movie?

Yes

Is it worth my time, or is it written at a grade 4 level much like some of the other popular series out there?

Well, it is a series written for children.

I'll join the list of people who thought the first was good, the second was okay, and the third is still sitting somewhere with a bookmark halfway through it.
posted by markr at 5:37 PM on June 23, 2008


I felt they had an anti-religon bent, prefpara. But should all books that express a philosophy be categorized as propaganda?

What makes me uncomfortable is not the anti-religious bent, per se, but the combination of two things: the fact that the books are aimed at and marketed to children, and the fact that, in my estimation, the books are neither even-handed nor (for lack of a better term) intellectually honest. In other words, I think that by pitching the books to people who lack the sophistication to identify the ways in which the books are manipulative.

It's my understanding that people who object to C.S. Lewis have similar concerns. It's just different when your audience consists of kids, man.

I find the books very emotionally effective and affecting -- much more than I would if it was just a propaganda piece.


This is a really interesting comment. It reminds me of an argument that my mom and dad seem to be perpetually in the middle of. They fight over whether, if a great genius creates propagandistic art, that art can be called great, however skillful and transcendent it is. Your comment seems to assume that propaganda is always obvious and clumsy. It can be sophisticated and brilliant. My reaction to these books was fueled by Pullman's talent, because it makes them (if I am right) more dangerous.

**

I should say, my first comment sounds (on re-read) like "OMG these books are rilly lame amirite" which I did not intend. Sorry.
posted by prefpara at 5:41 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I rather enjoyed the first book. Didn't make it two chapters into the second book for whateve reason.

I'm glad that I'm not the only one who had this reaction to the series. I loved the first book and could barely put it down. I had a lot of momentum built up and plowed into the second book thinking I would find the same lush ground but something about how it began just drained the fervor out of me. I put The Subtle Knife down and never went back to it. Now I don't even know where my copy is.

The movie was a big letdown. I anticipated the idea of The Golden Compass/Northern Lights movie a great deal but the result was much too rushed. It lacked the sense of expanding menace that I expected.

This is an excellent post, though.

Absolutely. Enough so that I want to go back and read the other two books and see what it was I might have been expecting versus what I would actually get.
posted by djeo at 5:43 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Let me complete my thought:

In other words, I think that by pitching the books to people who lack the sophistication to identify the ways in which the books are manipulative, Pullman crosses a line, at least for me.
posted by prefpara at 5:45 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I read them and I'm glad they exist as a counterweight to all the tons of mystical stuff that's out there. But by no means did I find them affecting. Perhaps it was the poor audiobook readings, but even the first one I just finished and thought: So, I've read it. And then went and chewed a piece of gum.

I think that by pitching the books to people who lack the sophistication to identify the ways in which the books are manipulative.

If this is your problem, you should maybe work on the vast edifice of Sunday School and the song Jesus Loves Me before this lone trilogy.
posted by DU at 5:48 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure this is not a series for young, impressionable children. I read the first book at 13 (and got gawked at for carrying around such a big book that wasn't even homework) and I liked it even though I didn't really get it. I read it the whole series again in college and loved the hell out of it. I'm having a hard time understanding what part of it is "propaganda" though. I mean, propaganda for what? How is it any different from any other piece of literature?
posted by amethysts at 5:48 PM on June 23, 2008


It's my understanding that people who object to C.S. Lewis have similar concerns. It's just different when your audience consists of kids, man.

As a kid I found The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe cool but the rest of the Narnia books mostly boring.

As an adult I find the religious themes in the series trite and didactic. A walled garden with fruit in The Sorcerer's Nephew? Really? Subtle.

But Pullman's books are no more dangerous than Animal Farm and are probably more entertaining to most kids.

I mean, propaganda for what?

That 'The Church' is Bad and 'Science' is good. If the Narnia series is a veiled ad for Christianity, His Dark Materials is the opposite.
posted by GuyZero at 6:01 PM on June 23, 2008


I'm having a hard time understanding what part of it is "propaganda" though. I mean, propaganda for what? How is it any different from any other piece of literature?

The trilogy taken as a whole sends a message that is pretty unabashedly opposed to organized religion.

That said, I think that the book's treatment of God himself was a lot less nasty than I'd been expecting and handled with a sense of pity (as opposed to vitriol) that I found surprisingly tender. I also question the idea that a work of literature whose central message can be boiled down to "Blind obedience is bad, and independent thought is good" can really be considered propaganda. Is it still propaganda if the lesson is to think for yourself instead of buying into propaganda?
posted by infinitywaltz at 6:05 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


What makes me uncomfortable is not the anti-religious bent, per se, but the combination of two things: the fact that the books are aimed at and marketed to children, and the fact that, in my estimation, the books are neither even-handed nor (for lack of a better term) intellectually honest. In other words, I think that by pitching the books to people who lack the sophistication to identify the ways in which the books are manipulative.

That's nothing! Have you heard of the Bible series? They even make obscene "children's" versions!
posted by odinsdream at 6:11 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great post, not so great books. I mean, the end of the first one had me jumping out of my chair for joy, but it never regained that peak for me.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:11 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm with those who were very disappointed after hearing such good things. The first one was "OK," the second "bleh," and the third "very meh."

As for Narnia, some of the ideas behind the novels were sleazy (the dwarves who cannot see Aslan, etc.) but I enjoyed all of them much more than HDM. Perhaps it's because I read them when I was a kid. I loved the Earthsea trilogy too. I just don't think this one compares.

But still, impressive post. Thanks for all the links.
posted by mrgrimm at 6:12 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wil add that I am, apparently, the only person on the planet (other than my wife) who really enjoyed all three books, rather than just the first one or two.
posted by rodgerd at 6:13 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, it didn't strike me as propaganda nearly as much as Perelandra, or That Hideous Strength - a third book that truly suffers from unreadability.

I'm with infinitywaltz and papercake: the third book may have been weaker, but I feel for those of you who didn't experience the wrenching decision at the end, made with no time at the worst possible moment --that is to say: right after the best possible moment. It's one of the strongest moments in anything I've read. Of course, if you've sulked through the previous several hundred pages hating the book, I guess you wouldn't be much affected. I'm glad I liked the last book enough to be able to enjoy that properly.
posted by umberto at 6:15 PM on June 23, 2008


Thanks again, Metafilter, for making me feel not crazy. I'm with the "it went downhill" camp. Baaarely made it to the end. (Though I greatly enjoyed the first book.)

I think this is largely due to my sense of the author pushing his story and character into the shape of his ideas, such that the original chemistry was lost. Because of this it just completely missed me, emotionally.

On the other hand, I recognize that a significant number of intelligent, sensitive, non-crazy people were very much moved by the books, so it's apparent that Pullman has touched a mood. My hunch is that individuals who feel an especially sharp antipathy towards organized religion, or anger about the many bad things done in the name of religion, will find a stronger connection with the story.

While I recognize all the hurtful bullshit that people have used organized religion for, I remain a strong advocate of disorganized religion.

I think the criticism that Pullman may be targeting an audience too unsophisticated to recognize/analyze the author's bias is well put--I had similar reservations when I read it.
posted by flotson at 6:16 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Nope rodgerd, me too. But not the first time I read the second two. Their tone is different, and they aren't quite as action packed or colorful. If you can get over the hump of the change in tone and direction, they're quite good and not really "children's" literature any more; I'd say they move into straight fantasy.

((spoilers))

And honestly, what I wondered the second time I read 2 and 3 was, how can you say these are atheistic anyway? They posit a living universe of sentient matter--Biblical God may be dead, but there's plenty of deus ex machina, so much so that it communicates with characters through magic compasses and computer screens. And how is Lyra's finding a path out of the land of the dead anything but a play on the Harrowing of Hell? She and Will are both cast in very Christlike roles.

Good post btw. Will take me awhile to read through all the stuff!
posted by emjaybee at 6:25 PM on June 23, 2008


That 'The Church' is Bad and 'Science' is good

I think you should read them again. Or once, even.
posted by DU at 6:25 PM on June 23, 2008


I think you should read them again. Or once, even.

But I will never, ever be able to read your mind. So why don't you tell us what you think?
posted by GuyZero at 6:27 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Too bad the movie adaptation was such an abortion.

I liked the movie. Seemed a bit rushed but it was kinda fun. I haven't read the book, though.

I read the first Chronicle of Narnia when I was a kid and enjoyed it, I believe they spelled out the "Aslan = Jesus" thing quite literally -- and wasn't the snow queen the first wife of the biblical Adam or some crazy shit like that?

I don't think the books actually accomplish what C.S. Lewis set out for them to, because tying his mythology in with Christian mythology turns the entire thing turns both into a ridiculous story for children

On the other hand Pullman is a bit more sophisticated, as his books simply set out to show the downsides of organized religion.
posted by delmoi at 6:31 PM on June 23, 2008


I got the impression that it was more against abuse of power than organized religion, more like "open your eyes, think for yourself make up your own mind", not "science good god bad".

The audio book version (ready by the author w/full cast) was also alot more interesting and emotional than the book, I thought. Pullman's voice had this really sweet tinge of emotion when bad things had to happen to Lyra. I enjoyed it very much. I also liked the links and connections to other things that are woven in and out.
posted by amethysts at 6:32 PM on June 23, 2008


I think you should read them again. Or once, even.

I take it you're not a believer in authorial intent? Hasn't Pullman explicitly stated that he meant for the books to turn people off organized religion? What is it about the books that makes you think he failed?
posted by delmoi at 6:33 PM on June 23, 2008


/delurk

Considering the state of YA lit at the moment, I think grown ups complaining about narrative archs and the value of hidden biases should, well, shut the heck up.

This is the closest we get to a legitimate flying spaghetti monster debate in most schools, so perhaps we should just all be glad these books aren't getting burned, eh?
posted by digitalprimate at 6:39 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Separately he has been called "The Most Dangerous Author in Britain" for his religious views.

This puzzles me a bit. To the extent that Pullman may have been able to construct a compelling anti-theist mythology, I realize it's possibly genuinely subversive. But I almost want to laugh at the idea that some people find purported atheist fiction threatening, and I think a man like C.S. Lewis, who found in pagan mythologies expressions germane to christian principles, would also not be particularly threatened by Pullman's work.
posted by weston at 6:40 PM on June 23, 2008


Hasn't Pullman explicitly stated that he meant for the books to turn people off organized religion?

I don't know, has he? Did you notice there are two clauses in my quote?

The only 'Science' in the books is the handwaving about dark matter, which is all McGuffin talk. A hundred years ago it would have been electricity, magnetism or aether that held the secret of consciousness.
posted by DU at 6:45 PM on June 23, 2008


Loved the first two, was not keen on The Amber Spyglass, worked on the Compass movie. Wasn't surprised that it was basically a flipbook of Big Moments from the novel, given the changes of directors and the multiple script changes. Realistically speaking, where can you go narratively after you've rejected a script by Tom Stoppard?

That being said, some development guy was on crack when he greenlighted a trilogy anyhow. I'm pretty sure teenage sex, ex-nun particle physicists, and wheeled sentient giraffes do not a third-movie Hollywood blockbuster make.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:48 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Did you notice there are two clauses in my quote?

What quote? From your reply to a previous commenter? What does having two clauses have to do with anything?

You obviously have some sort of opinion on the books DU but other than enjoying both the first book in audiobook format and subsequently enjoying gum I really can't make out what your opinion is. You keep hinting at it and now I'm really curious. Please direct me to Coles Notes on DU's Opinion on The Golden Compass.
posted by GuyZero at 6:53 PM on June 23, 2008


The thing is, when I'm reading stuff that deals with spiritual matters, I like it to be written by someone who has thought deeply about it enough to arrive at a conclusion more profound than 'organised religion sucks therefore all spirituality does too without exception.'

For me that's why this series went downhill. After book one it could have gone anywhere. Then book two and three do nothing but explain how Philip Pullman really hasn't thought all that deeply about his subject and doesn't care. Sure, organised religion sucks bigtime. Spirituality outside of that? Well, for many people, there's still something going on there, even if organised religion has lost it almost completely.

It's like a work that takes three full length novels to explain the author's point of view that even democratic politicians sometimes tell lies, while first teasing you with the idea that it might have something more interesting to say about politics.
posted by motty at 7:00 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


And honestly, what I wondered the second time I read 2 and 3 was, how can you say these are atheistic anyway?

I think the hang-up for many people is that the world of the books is a decidedly non-theistic one, rather than atheistic--but those two formulations get conflated for people. It's just that the theistic formulation of the world--that it and the divine are essentially different and separate, that life comes from God breathing it into dust, not in any way of dust--is so much the default teaching that it just doesn't occur that there are other ways of looking at things.

The HDM is much more of a pantheistic, or panentheistic place. The divine is immanent within matter, dust--Dust--sentient as a matter of nature, not an inspired external force projected into it, but an emanation of something deeper. But because that's non-theistic, it gets conflated as atheistic for many folks who react badly to the books.

Me, I loved the first, thought the second felt sort of rushed and awkward, and liked the third, which again felt kind of awkward and rushed at the end. I also like the Narnia books for what they are, which I've gathered puts me in an apparently really small intersection of this particular Venn diagram.
posted by Drastic at 7:00 PM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


I just finished this trilogy three days ago, and it's one of the most affecting things I've ever read, to the point that I had a very difficult time making my way through the last three chapters or so of The Amber Spyglass.

When I finished the last book, I threw the damn thing across the room, and then I cried for half and hour. I was not twelve, either.

I loved the first. The second was a small struggle, the last less so. Tremendous series, I think. I've reread the Narnia books over the years, and they certainly seem much thinner (metaphorically and physically) and more transparent to me in their message. Still love them, though (scoot over a little in the Venn, Drastic).

Part of my love for the Pullman series comes from its having a girl as the center of the journey. That isn't something I got a lot of, growing up as a book-consuming girl. I got used to always putting myself into the male role, since a boy was always the protagonist of any books I liked (Dark is Rising series, My Side of the Mountain, etc.), and it was doable, but distancing. As a thirty-something grown-up woman, Pullman's books let me be that twelve-year-old girl again, one who finally got to see herself in a book.

Thank you for a wonderful post. I'll enjoy these links in the coming days.
posted by rtha at 7:07 PM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


I read — and greatly enjoyed — the entire His Dark Materials series. I found it to be a wonderful and well-wrought tale about children who come into their own and fight evil. I didn't find the second or third books particularly vexing, though I did find the third one a little slow. I even read Lyra's Oxford, a fourth book which follows Lyra on another adventure.

Funny thing, for me at least, is that I wasn't all that impressed with the series as an atheist foil to Narnia or Lord of the Rings

The series talks about religion and god and the afterlife — subjects rarely broached in the genre — and does so in such a way as to encourage thought. And while I don't much care for Pullman's take on the Real God™ — or, perhaps what he'd say about my religion — I think he makes the same mistakes most atheists do when discussing religion: He underestimates the human spirit and its insatiable desire to reach for the divine.

When I read of the plot to kill god, I think to myself "Oh… that must be some evil being pretending to be god". And then when it's implied that god is evil, or just plain ineffectual… well, that's not my god at all. So instead of being propaganda, I just experience a wonderful yarn that presents myriad opportunities for engaged parents to discuss God and religiosity with their children.
posted by silusGROK at 7:09 PM on June 23, 2008



When I read of the plot to kill god, I think to myself "Oh… that must be some evil being pretending to be god". And then when it's implied that god is evil, or just plain ineffectual… well, that's not my god at all.

The other thing is--that's not implied. It's explicit, just as it's made explicit, right there in the text, that "the Authority" is not "the Creator." The angels are very forthright--the Authority was always just one of us, they say, but proud, grasping. Sort of a Demiurge, really.
posted by Drastic at 7:13 PM on June 23, 2008


I'm noticing that there seems to be a lot similarities in the way people talk about this series and the way people talk about the Thomas Covanent series. What they seem to have in common is that they take a much beloved genre and use it as a vehicle to talk about BIG IDEAS, as opposed to merely being an exercise in world building, which is what is most satisfied to genre fans.
posted by empath at 7:25 PM on June 23, 2008


SPOILERS AHOY

emjaybee, one of the things I appreciated most about the third was that the first two were setting gradually bigger challenges for resolution, and I found most of the resolutions pretty cool, and really worked for me; the truth-telling escape from limbo did't actually wrok for me first time around - I had to re-read that specific section, which I supposed one could judge a failure of story flow (but if someone did, I'd have to wonder if they'd dismiss any fiction that benefited from re-reading as worthless). All in all I found it quite satisfying. No magic talking animal showed up at the end to make everything alright, and no little girls are barred from a state of grace for wanting to grow into women.

The complaint that children's lit shouldn't have a point is, bluntly horseshit. All children's books do. Hell, children's books are probably the most directed of all the forms of literature. Practically every kid's book from woah to go has a point. If you're going to beat on Pullman for wanting to make a point, I hope you're screaming about Dr Seuss (a far more didactic author), Richard Scary, the Berenstein Bears, A. A. Milne, hell even Lynley Dodd. I have a very, very hard time believing anyone who claims that their problem isn't with Pullman's message, not messages in children's books, because if they latter were true, they'd have to stop children from reading entirely.
posted by rodgerd at 7:29 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


The complaint that children's lit shouldn't have a point

This is, I think, a pretty obvious straw man. I don't think anyone (at least in this thread) has said that they are upset because Pullman's trilogy has a message. What I have expressed (I won't speak for others) is discomfort with the way in which he communicates his message. I am not a fan of any manipulative, dishonest, myopic, or unfair presentation, whatever the content.
posted by prefpara at 7:36 PM on June 23, 2008


I am not a fan of any manipulative, dishonest, myopic, or unfair presentation, whatever the content.

So, you'll be forming the burning party for Animal Farm, 1984, and Horton Hears a Who, then?
posted by rodgerd at 7:38 PM on June 23, 2008


@ Drastic… It's been a couple years since I read the books, but I could have sworn that book three put the "evil" on Metatron, and not god exactly… that god was merely a wasted and tired being. But I could be misremembering.
posted by silusGROK at 7:40 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, you'll be forming the burning party for Animal Farm, 1984, and Horton Hears a Who, then?

Right after I torch this Pullman garbage, amiriiiiiite?! That's clearly what I've been clamoring for. Now who's with me?
posted by prefpara at 7:47 PM on June 23, 2008


The thing is, when I'm reading stuff that deals with spiritual matters, I like it to be written by someone who has thought deeply about it enough to arrive at a conclusion more profound than 'organised religion sucks therefore all spirituality does too without exception.'

I truly wonder how you can get this from reading the books. There is clearly a great deal of time spent describing the beautiful relationship sentient beings have with their world. Pullman is extremely careful to make sure you don't leap to precisely the conclusion that spirituality or reverence for the world and its infinite complexity is somehow not important.

It's also an insane proposition on its own - that religion, organized by humans, could ever possibly approach the complexity of the universe, somehow tying the two things together to fail. Pullman is clearly aware of this.
posted by odinsdream at 7:47 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's been a couple years since I read the books, but I could have sworn that book three put the "evil" on Metatron, and not god exactly… that god was merely a wasted and tired being. But I could be misremembering.

Well...caveats of dueling fuzzy memories (I haven't read them for a few years myself :) ). I think it was explained fairly well that "The Authority" was a grasping angel who got all powermad, seized control, ruled with an iron fist--but eventually got old, weak, and was caged by Metatron basically repeating the pattern. Usurped the power from a false claim in the first place, leaving the first false claimant a pathetic shell. You could easily imagine, barring the war's intervention, that aeons hence some new upstart Demiurge would do the same thing to it. Demiurges all the way down!
posted by Drastic at 7:52 PM on June 23, 2008


prefpara: Well, you claim to dislike manipulative literature, so you obviously hate Orwell and Suess, both of whom are polemecists.
posted by rodgerd at 8:03 PM on June 23, 2008


I wil add that I am, apparently, the only person on the planet (other than my wife) who really enjoyed all three books, rather than just the first one or two.

No you're not. I loved 'em all. These are books for young adults and adults who can make up their own minds. Pullman is not CS Lewis; he's not trying to mold impressionable preteen minds. He's also a far far better writer and his story is at least consistent with the belief system he's allegedly trying to push (in exactly which part of the Bible did Jesus advocate coming back to life and then USING YOUR BONECRUSHING JAWS TO RIP THE FACE OFF OF YOUR ENEMY?)
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:07 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure teenage sex, ex-nun particle physicists, and wheeled sentient giraffes do not a third-movie Hollywood blockbuster make.

Don't forget the gay angels.

I may have been blockheaded as a child-- or perhaps it was just growing up in a secular household-- but I didn't get the Christian side of the Narnia books at all when I was a child. My cousin had to inform me that Aslan was supposed to be Jesus, whereupon I shrugged. So what? I got the morality, which I didn't mind; I liked a sense of justice in my books. To me the Narnia books were splendid adventures, from which I took what I liked. And I think Pullman is a bit hard on Lewis; he's always banging on about how Susan is supposedly excluded from Narnia because she has become an adult woman, signified by her wearing stockings and lipstick, when as I remember it, she doesn't arrive at Narnia with the others because she's become distracted not by her femininity but by materialism and status seeking, which has caused her to deny her memories of Narnia (she calls it a "silly game we used to play").

The Pullman books are not by any means for children, imo. I tried reading the first one to my son and he became so upset by the violence and scenes of cruelty-- of which there are many-- that we had to stop. They're for teenagers, really.

I still haven't made it past the second chapter of The Amber Spyglass. I keep intending to, though.
posted by jokeefe at 8:29 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


You know, I really enjoyed CS Lewis, and I enjoyed Pullman's trilogy. As I kid (i.e. first or second grade) I understood some of the things Lewis was trying to say and was able to consider them on my own, and the same goes for Pullman's books (though I read them in my teenage years). Please, don't underestimate the reasoning power of kids.

I think people who try to characterize Pullman as godless or atheistic are totally missing a very strong point of the books. He was bringing up the very apt point that ultimately, the experience of the divine is an individual, personal one--brought on by our own personal experiences of life and the life within us (i.e. Dust). Attempts to shape this glorious divinity into any one set of rules or shape and impose it on people was sacrilege in of itself. He was making an attack against organized religion, arguing that it actually removed the divine from within us, but I don't believe it's because he is completely against people sharing the experience of the divine with one another. Didn't he advocate it--that expressing love and friendship for your fellow man was a necessary part of experiencing life and the divine? I see little conflict with the message of love, hope, and forgiveness that Jesus taught.

I come from Christianity, though it was an admittedly not-fundamentalist upbringing. I learned from my father who believed evolution was an expression of the power of God, not a defiance of it, who loved Jesus for His faults and His divine nature, and who engaged in careful theological study of the text so as not to conflate the opinions of the men who edited it with the divine hand that inspired it. So take that as you will.
posted by schroedinger at 8:29 PM on June 23, 2008


Perhaps it was the poor audiobook readings,

Is there more than one audiobook version? The version I listened to, read by Pullman with a full cast for dialogue, was absolutely stellar. I think it was the highest quality audiobook translation I've ever listened to.
posted by CaseyB at 8:29 PM on June 23, 2008


rodgerd, you are not alone. i read and was totally into all three books. even if you don't like the story by the third one, you still have to admire the attention to detail and creativity. richard dawkins has cited the 3rd book as an exmple of adaptive evolution that had gone in a totally different direction than our own. also, lyra kicks ass.
posted by dminor at 8:30 PM on June 23, 2008


or perhaps it was just growing up in a secular household-- but I didn't get the Christian side of the Narnia books at all when I was a child.

Me neither; my family life was completely irreligious. That's why I always find shouts of "manipulation! propaganda!" in regard to the Narnia books very odd. I certainly didn't become interested in being a Christian after reading them, and no way was I likely to confuse childhood dreams of riding around on the back of a giant talking lion with... whatever the religious equivalent might be. If the propaganda didn't work on an abject heathen child like me, it couldn't have been very good.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:55 PM on June 23, 2008


The thing is, when I'm reading stuff that deals with spiritual matters, I like it to be written by someone who has thought deeply about it enough to arrive at a conclusion more profound than 'organised religion sucks therefore all spirituality does too without exception.'

I didn't get that point at all; the reverence for human consciousness, thought, and emotion in the trilogy is outright mystical. If anything, he's calling out organized religion because of its lack of spirituality. It's hardly the reductionist materialism of Dawkins.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:08 PM on June 23, 2008


I didn't get the Christian side of the Narnia books at all when I was a child.

You know, I didn't either, but I did find them preachy and sort of condescending in a way I couldn't quite put my finger on. That undercurrent I felt made a lot more sense when I finally figured out where it was coming from.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:10 PM on June 23, 2008


And I think Pullman is a bit hard on Lewis; he's always banging on about how Susan is supposedly excluded from Narnia because she has become an adult woman, signified by her wearing stockings and lipstick...

That idea seems to get around. See also:

“There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. ... I have a big problem with that,” - J.K. Rowling, Time interview

"'My younger brother was decapitated, you know. A god who would punish me for liking nylons and parties by making me walk through that school dining room, with the flies, to identify Ed, well ... he's enjoying himself a bit too much, isn't he?' " - Neil Gaiman, "The Problem of Susan"
posted by ormondsacker at 9:12 PM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


I would think an 'atheistic' book wouldn't have angels and God in it as beings who exist.

Maybe I should give them another go, but it seemed that by the end I was reading just to get it read.
posted by ODiV at 9:25 PM on June 23, 2008


please please please no-one refer to Narnia as an allegory so I don't have to fight my irresistible compulsion to correct you.
posted by Justinian at 9:40 PM on June 23, 2008


Just because Lewis himself preferred to think of the Narnia boks as "suppositional" doesn't mean that that there isn't a pretty strong argument for allegorical elements in them.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:05 PM on June 23, 2008


organised religion sucks therefore all spirituality does too without exception

I really have no idea how you could get this idea from the books. Is there some other version out there, where he winds up the last book by advocating burning Christians and kicking dogs? Maybe a leaf fell out of my copy.

On the contrary, while in the most literal sense the book might be "atheist" or even outright anti-theist, it's certainly not anti-spiritual. A good portion of the second and virtually all of the third books are taken up by his spiritual mythology (arguably to the detriment of the plot, to a certain extent). If anything, his thesis seems to be something along the line of "organized religion sucks because it represses spirituality."


As for the argument that the book is too 'coercive' to be appropriate for young readers, I think this both fails to give YA readers enough credit, given the number and variety of coercive messages the average junior-highschooler is exposed to. Furthermore, if you genuinely have a problem with HDM and think it's inappropriately coercive or biased, the list of other works you'd also have to take out of YA reading lists would be enormous. I'm not sure you'd have anything left but the most bland and milquetoast drivel.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:07 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Those arguments depend on a misunderstanding of what an allegory is; direct symbolic correspondence is the key element of an allegory, and neither Narnia nor Aslan are symbols. Nor is Tash, etc.
posted by Justinian at 10:08 PM on June 23, 2008


(I was, of course, replying to infinitywaltz)
posted by Justinian at 10:08 PM on June 23, 2008


I think you can sort of loosely refer to the Narnia books as "allegorical" in casual conversation, but I agree that when it comes down to strict definition and literary criticism, they aren't technically allegorical. In other words, if someone referred to them as allegory during a spirited discussion over beer, I probably wouldn't bother to correct them, but it they did so in a work of literary criticism, I most certainly would.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:12 PM on June 23, 2008


if HDM is coercive of anything, it's of our ultimate ability to shape the world around us.

i think if anything is worth preaching about it has to be that.
posted by dminor at 10:17 PM on June 23, 2008


if someone referred to them as allegory during a spirited discussion over beer, I probably wouldn't bother to correct them

This is why you probably have more friends than I do.
posted by Justinian at 10:23 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


This is why you probably have more friends than I do.

You only think that because you've never heard me go on one of my tirades about Tolkien.
posted by infinitywaltz at 10:27 PM on June 23, 2008


Excellent post, thank you.
posted by voltairemodern at 11:23 PM on June 23, 2008


The only 'Science' in the books is the handwaving about dark matter, which is all McGuffin talk. A hundred years ago it would have been electricity, magnetism or aether that held the secret of consciousness.

If this is your take on the books then I would not recommend "The Science of His Dark Materials" to you. Personally I would agree that science was sometimes used as McGuffin. In this respect HDM is no different to vast swathes of SF and other literature however. Clumsy authors use science merely as glue to hold together a shaky plot or as veneer to give a sheen of apparent credibility. I got the impression that Pullman had actually spent time talking with grant-dependent research physicists to flesh out the character of Mary Malone, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists to work on the behaviour of mulefa, people from the Royal Geographic Society to get his scientific expedition right and even linguists to work out the vocabulary and speech patterns of Lyra's world. So yes the books are fantasy but I think they are more likely to induce an interest in science than most.
posted by rongorongo at 2:59 AM on June 24, 2008


I'm in the camp of people who loved all three books. I share Pullman's world view, so that probably colors my perception, but I think even without that I would consider the series to be well written and interesting. Instead, I think it's brilliant and it's among my favorite books of all time.

For the people who didn't like the books, I have a question. Do you like the genre of epic fantasy? If not, then I'll chalk it up to a difference in taste. But if you do like the genre, what series do you prefer? I'm asking because I'll have to read it. I've read "The Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter," and much of the "The Wheel of Time." What am I missing?
posted by diogenes at 5:38 AM on June 24, 2008


I share Pullman's world view, too, and I found the third book -- particularly the last 1/4 -- insufferable and forced. For the first time (to me), the message overtook the story -- the author's hand was too visible. Too bad, because I liked the first two books, and sort of enjoyed the languid pace of the third.
posted by pardonyou? at 7:38 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I guess the message does start to drive the story at that point. It never bothered me, but that's probably because I like the message so much.

I just realized that nobody in this post has used the word Humanism yet. I think Humanism is the foundation of the story.
posted by diogenes at 9:03 AM on June 24, 2008


diogenes: I think Humanism is the foundation of the story.

Very true, and I think there are enough loopholes in the narrative that religious humanists have appropriated it for their own. HDMs big problem as a secular humanist text is that the whole narrative is dependent on some new age dualistic juju in order to work, and in the end, the characters are left in a basically spiritual universe.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:53 AM on June 24, 2008


I got the impression that it was more against abuse of power than organized religion, more like "open your eyes, think for yourself make up your own mind", not "science good god bad".

I agree. Religion does not come out looking good in the books, but I don't think science does either. The Church tries to protect children from the dust, inadvertantly destroying them. Lyra's father, scientist, sacrifices children to use their power. So..uh...both look bad.
posted by graventy at 10:18 AM on June 24, 2008


I'm pretty sure that the reason Susan doesn't make it into Narnia is because she has "grown-up," and that occurs after Susan's mom separates her from her siblings and sends her on a trip to the U.S.

I take it to mean that Lewis thought maybe that NY and LA were Sodom and Gomorrah, respectively, and everything in between was just the devil's playground.
posted by nushustu at 12:26 PM on June 24, 2008


I came away from the books thinking Pullman was a very sad and lonely old man.

Is there anyone in that series who has a happy, stable relationship with another human being? Even the heroes, 14 year olds who have sex to save the universe (ick), are immediately forced to separate into parallel universes.

I loved the first book and found the rest depressing.
posted by feersum endjinn at 2:55 PM on June 24, 2008


Is there anyone in that series who has a happy, stable relationship with another human being?

There are a few. The Gyptian families are pretty solid, and Lyra forms good relationships with several of them as well as with Roger and Lee Scoresby.

As for Lyra and Will having to separate...well, that's not really the same thing as a failure to connect. I'd say it more parallels the simple fact that every pair of lovers has to separate eventually when one dies. It's part of Lyra and Will acting as a microcosm of consciousness / human life experience / what-have-you.

Within the logic of the books, as well, it doesn't much matter whether someone is human--Lyra has something like a parental relationship with Iorek and while he isn't human he's certainly a person.
posted by hippugeek at 11:28 PM on June 24, 2008


That 'The Church' is Bad and 'Science' is good.

It's not so simple. Some of the wickedest characters in the series are well-meaning scientists who have rationalized away ethical objections to their conduct.
posted by sindark at 3:17 PM on June 26, 2008


Indeed, the chief evil of the first book is probably 'breach of medical ethics.'
posted by sindark at 3:27 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


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