The Golden Compass Lies

Alan Jacobs writes a fine review of Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials.  The only point on which I disagree is that I find nothing appealing in the trilogy or on par with Tolkein or Lewis.

Whichever party readers support in the ancient contest between God and Satan, they will be disappointed to see how often, in The Amber Spyglass, the tale's momentum is interrupted by polemic. Pullman's anti-theistic scolding consorts poorly with his prodigious skills as a storyteller....

Again and again, Pullman's mocking of religious belief gets him into trouble. There is an irony in Pullman's calling Lewis's narrative method "dishonest," because dishonesty is the signal moral trait of Pullman's trilogy. One sees a number of unequivocally evil people in these books, and one sees a number of Christians, and these are always -- always -- the same people. Everyone associated with the Church is cruel, remorseless, and only rarely less than murderous. Conversely, everyone outside the Church is blindingly righteous, Lord Asriel being the only partial exception. (And his most indefensible deed proves to be the inadvertent cause of -- in the narrative's terms -- an immeasurably great thing.) These decent, compassionate folk regularly denounce religion and God, while the monsters who run the Church utter scarcely a word in their own defense -- just to make sure that no reader comes to a conclusion Pullman doesn't want....

This is a nice trick: Other universes become places where Pullman's enemies can be made to do any imaginable evil, so that he can better justify his hatred of them. Meanwhile, who knows how many readers go away from this book believing that John Calvin massacred innocents with the callused enthusiasm of King Herod?

Omission serves Pullman's purposes as well. In the whole trilogy there is just one reference to Jesus Christ, whose teachings, character, and influence do not, after all, fit well with Pullman's picture of Christianity. And how many people, especially young people, know enough about Christian doctrine or the Biblical narrative to realize just how deceptive Pullman's treatment is? How many will know, for instance, that the sin of Adam and Eve had nothing to do with their love for each other, despite Pullman's contentions in The Amber Spyglass that the Authority wants a world of ice-cold celibates and that erotic love is a form of rebellious creativity?...

Such gilding fits Pullman's general disrespect for honesty: His heroine Lyra, though everyone she meets calls her "innocent," almost always saves the day with lies, and if in this final installment her lies get her into trouble, the lesson is certainly not that lying doesn't pay but rather that lying doesn't always pay.

If Christianity, and religion in general, are what Pullman is against, what is he for? Well, he's in favor of open minds; he thinks we must choose between loveless God and godless love, and we should choose love. Events near the story's end suggest that positive energy in the world, the Dust, is produced by specifically erotic love. Mary, that admirable tempter, asserts, "All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that's an evil one, because it hurts them."...

Ultimately the flaw that cripples Pullman's ambitious trilogy is just this unwillingness to reckon with European history since the Age of Revolution. He renews the splendid anti-authoritarian rhetoric of that era without acknowledging that some of the best-intentioned rebels have seen their lovely plans turn foul. For Pullman, Blake's early romanticism marks the end of history, and in His Dark Materials Pullman positions his readers at that wonderful moment before anyone could see, in the cold light of the morning after, the tangled consequences of even the most principled revolutions.

This sentimental refusal of historical understanding leads directly to the Manicheanism of Pullman's moral vision: closed versus open minds, tyrants versus liberators, the vicious Church versus its righteous opponents....A writer who tells adolescents that good folks are distinguished from evil ones on the single criterion of religious belief is not doing them any favors.

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Melinda Penner