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Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: an attack against Christianity or a confirmation of human worth?
By Rachael Ebbs, Fan Writer

The ‘metaphysical tragedy trilogy’ , His Dark Materials, consisting of Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass, is of particular interest to me because of Phillip Pullman’s intriguing allegorical writing. I believe his texts worthy of study because of the messages portrayed regarding themes such as love, religion, knowledge, fate and power. His Dark Materials is about two children’s journey into adolescence together. Northern Lights introduces us to eleven year old Lyra who, after her best friend Roger is kidnapped, goes North to save him, unintentionally betraying him into opening a door into another universe. In The Subtle Knife, 12 year old Will, a fugitive on the run after killing a man, meets Lyra after an accidental discovery of a window to another universe and together they win the powerful subtle knife and embark on a journey to find Will’s missing father. In The Amber Spyglass, Will subsequently searches for Lyra, who has been kidnapped by her evil mother, then together they journey to the land of the dead in an attempt to assist Lyra’s father in his battle against God, the Authority.

Two most interesting aspects of His Dark Materials are Pullman’s references to the church and human worth. Pullman’s criticism of the church, particularly the Christian religion is sustained throughout the novels, as is his portrayal of the strength and importance of human worth. My research question is therefore:

‘Is Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy an attack against Christianity or a confirmation of human worth?’

Pullman has written these novels with the intention of expressing the importance of human worth and not as a deliberate attack against the Christian religion. I argue that the process the children undergo reflects human goodness and that the Christian religion is dealt with as a foil to this goodness.

Pullman uses much allegory and specific events in his writing to represent beliefs in a number of different ways. In The Amber Spyglass, Pullman allows his characters to kill God thus attracting criticism from the church and other religious groups. The critic Jeffery Overstreet describes the novels as ‘Atheism for Kids: Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy is an agenda-driven epic that tells kids “Christianity is evil.”’ What these groups fail to see is that what the church personifies in God, is represented in what Pullman describes as ‘Dust’. In an interview with Magpie Magazine, Pullman states, ‘the charitable works are what’s important…good works alone are a measure of goodness.’ He may metaphysically kill God but he certainly does not destroy Dust. Continually, he uses his protagonists to keep it there and plentiful. In the same article he explains that ‘[w]hat I’m actually doing is to separate the original inspiration of a religious leader, such as Jesus, from the pernicious and altogether political and power-driven structures of the church erected in his name.’ This is what he wants Lyra to create at the end of the novel: ‘the republic of heaven’. The God he creates is a human corruption of God. Freud was an enemy of all religions and like Pullman had ‘no hope for “conscious” based thought based on a repressive part of the personality’ . It is an attempt to gain power, the abomination of how tyranny is used to allow people to live freely in the republic of heaven; not ruled by a God but abundant with Dust. His Dark Materials criticizes the corrupt organisation that manipulates faith to turn it into a source of power; namely the church. Similarly, he promotes the idea that no matter how strong the church, human goodness can overcome it through the simple act of unconditional love.

We need to fully understand the concept of the body, the soul and the spirit. Pullman creates an idea, much like Freud’s idea of the Id, which says that it is ‘the unconscious basis of the psyche dominated by primary urges’ and that ‘contact with the external world modifies part of the ID.’ He states the body is capable of sensing the world around it, the spirit is capable of learning about the world around it, and the soul, loving the world around it. Each of these plays its own important role and each comes to the conclusion that to live life to the fullest, as Merlyn, senior staff writer and webmaster of The Bridge through the Aurora website believes Pullman is trying to tell us, ‘we must love, we must think and we must sense’ . Angels, winged beings that serve God, personify the importance of a body. They have souls and spirits, yet without their bodies are weak and unfulfilled. Metatron, God’s regent, is a powerful angel and a ‘lover of the flesh’ but is susceptible to Marisa Coulter, Lyra’s evil mother, and her temptations. Because he does not have a body, he cannot touch or feel flesh as he once loved to do and so is weak. Without the spirit, the body cannot live on. The spirit acquires knowledge and becomes stronger, with more knowledge. This is also the part of the being that makes the Dust. The soul is the most explored part of being in the text and is the equivalent, in Lyra’s world, of a ‘dæmon’, a shape-shifting creature that settles in the shape of one animal during adolescence and can talk and reflect the kind of person it is attached to. Without it, a human cannot feel emotion or love. ‘The energy that links body and human is immensely powerful’ as described by Lord Asriel, Lyra’s ambitious and powerful father, when he uses Roger’s dæmon bond to break through to Cittagazze, another universe. Tony Makarios, a Bolvangar victim, has no daemon, is lifeless and has no sense of emotion. The nurse at Bolvangar looks like ‘she would be able to stitch a wound or change a bandage, but never tell a story’ . When Lyra is in the world of the dead, she cannot recognize love because she does not have her dæmon to explain it to her or show her what it is. In the end, Lyra says, ‘[w]e shouldn’t have lived as if it mattered more than life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.’ Here, we are informed us that to live life to the fullest, we must live it here and now. ‘[Y]our dæmon can only live its full life in the world it was born in,’ explains John Parry, Will’s father who implies that to love, we must not dedicate ourselves to live another life such as a nun or a monk. Therefore, Phillip Pullman’s idea of body, spirit and soul is a powerful metaphor for the way people should live their lives, with their senses gaining knowledge and offering love.

Dust, the centre of the novel, is taken from chapter three of Genesis; ‘dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ However, the reader of the trilogy must acquire a personal justification of Dust, as Pullman does not tell us exactly what it is. When Mary is talking to the dust on her computer, it describes itself as ‘angels’, yet the mulefa, strange and intelligent four-legged beings from another universe, see dust as golden particles which accumulate around adults. As people’s dæmons settle, they seem to have much more dust, yet children do not have much at all. It is obvious that the wiser a person is, the more Dust is attracted to him or her. Conscious beings make dust ‘by thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on’ , so it is made by the spirit, the Dust part of us. Dust is attracted to the dæmon; the part that loves.

When Lyra and Will fall in love, it is the strongest kind of love that can be portrayed; an unconditional everlasting love. This is the strongest kind of human worth there is and that is why dust is attracted to them: ‘The dust pouring down from the stars had found a living home, and these children-no-longer-children, saturated with love, were the cause of it all.’ Yet we see also that when Father Gomez steps off the Tualapi to kill Lyra that he is ‘radiating dust’ , further suggesting that Father Gomez was in love with someone or something; in this case, none other than the church. Pullman creates Father Gomez to symbolise that love is not always used in the right context. He was so enamoured with the church that he was deluded to the point where killing Lyra was the most honourable task in the Magesterium.

Pullman uses Genesis chapter three as an allegory, the basis for his story and to express concepts of fate and suppression. He creates a great prophecy that will be the centre of the novels and the story. Failure to carry out this prophecy will result in the death of Dust and corruption and power ruling all. Eve eats the fruit of the tree because the serpent tells her that it will open her eyes, therefore giving her knowledge. By taking the apple, she disobeys the Lord, creating original sin. This is to attain knowledge, the same thing that creates Dust. In the eyes of the church, knowledge is a very powerful weapon that needs to be kept under control. Pullman makes his readers feel as if they are being ‘watched’ all the time, alerting the senses with the presence of the church all around. Money is put into ‘experimental theology’, (fundamental physics), and when Lee Scoresby journeys to the observatory, there is a representative of the church present. By revealing knowledge about Dust, the representative pronounces Lee Scoresby an ‘enemy of the church’ . Mary says herself, ‘I was holy and clever. Ha!’ Therefore, knowledge is power evidenced in the way the church uses it. To convince people of its theories, the church uses scientific findings as a form of propaganda. When the instrument Lyra describes at the beginning comes in contact with the light, symbolically the black side is repelled and the white side is attracted due to the power of photons, yet the church describes it as illustrating a ‘moral lesson’ . Pullman frequently uses symbols to represent good and evil. The motif of Dust which represents human worth is very powerful in his trilogy.

Knowledge is not the only thing the church tries to suppress. Religion is adapted to suit itself and so, to do this, things must be taken away or added. The General Oblation Board is created in order to experiment with the eradication of original sin, or to prevent children being susceptible to Dust. It carries out experiments that cut away a person’s dæmon, their soul. This act of cruelty is one of the most prestigious ways in which Pullman criticizes the church. Lyra herself says, ‘ why do they do these things to children?’ because, in Lyra’s world, the act of separating human and dæmon is probably the cruelest.

Pullman also deals with the issue of homosexuality and the attitude of the church. Balthamos and Baruch are both men, yet Will describes their love as so passionate that he finds himself ‘moved and intrigued.’ If such people could love as passionately as these two, then surely the church cannot scorn homosexuality, as love attracts Dust and Dust is beneficial to society. This attack on the church is overcome with the symbols of love portrayed by angels, Pullman’s expression of human worth. Pullman further attacks the church for the way it suppresses even the dead. To not be able to escape the church (even in death) is a way in which Pullman uses exaggeration to express his contempt of the church system. The ‘prison-camp’ of the land of the dead is effective through the use of descriptive language and imagery in portraying the suppressive nature of the church. A comment made by one of the readers at states, ‘if you are the type of reader who likes a book full of imagery then you will like these‘ and this is a prime example. The land of the dead is different from what the churches preach as heaven and hell. As the boat man says, ‘everyone comes here, kings, queens, murderers, poets, [and] children. ’

‘[T]he church’s power over every aspect of life has been absolute’ indicates the place the church plays in everyday life in Lyra's world. Pullman states in an interview with Susan Roberts of that ‘wherever you see organized religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It's almost a universal law.’ There are various branches of the church, organizations and colleges such as ‘The College of Bishops’, ‘The Consistorial Court of Discipline’ and ‘General Oblation Board’. These are part of what Lyra’s world calls the ‘Magesterium’, yet they work as separate entities: Pullman’s criticism of the way the Christian, Jewish or Muslim religions operate. Believing in the same thing: one God, who rules over all, they work against each other. In contrast, he uses people who work together to confirm human worth. To do this he creates Marisa Coulter, described by Metatron as ‘a cess-pit of moral-filth’ . Her love for her daughter Lyra overcomes her lust for power and persuades her to join Lord Asriel and work together to murder Metatron. Thus they save their daughter Lyra, yet they could not do it alone, which is a confirmation of human worth. This can be compared with the love of Balthamos and Baruch. Together they work with passion, yet after Baruch’s death, Balthamos is unable to work to his full potential, feeling that he also has ‘died’.

Pullman says that, ‘the whole story is about is growing up. It's about the difference between innocence and experience’ . The growth and change of the protagonists, Will and Lyra, is achieved by their both gaining wisdom, symbolized by the amount they learn about dust. At the beginning of His Dark Materials, Lyra is immature and irresponsible, and being ‘Lyra of Jordan’ was all that was important to her. Learning more about the importance of dust, she thinks more about the effects of the abomination of dust, not just on herself, but on those around her. One of the most powerful scenes in His Dark Materials is in The Amber Spyglass when Lyra and Pantalaimon are standing on the dock before they enter the world of the dead. Lyra loves her dæmon more than anything else in the world and leaving it behind she feels ‘as if an iron hand had gripped her heart’ . She knows that she has to leave it behind to benefit others, so that the spirits and future spirits can escape. The expression of the goodness of humans is shown finally when Lyra and Will decide to live apart in their separate worlds. To benefit civilization, their love goes deeper than can be imagined. Will possesses it in ‘every fiber of his being’ . Love is the one thing that the subtle knife cannot cut through because it is stronger than anything else in the world, further shown when Will sees the face of Lyra’s mother and is reminded of his own mother’s. This causes the knife to break, as he could never cut through the love for his mother: ‘the knife came up against something it couldn’t cut.’ Kirjava, Will’s dæmon, then suggests Lyra’s name at the end of the novel, because she knows that Will’s love for Lyra is so great and pure, that nothing can destroy it, not even their separation. This is the strongest sense of human worth Pullman expresses in the novel and this is done through the development and changes within the characters of Lyra and Will, very much like the way Shakespeare’s character Hamlet fully matures during the play.

Mary, another very important character, is used by Pullman to criticize the church and its façade. Being an ex-nun, she is able to recognize that even though she initially felt connected with God and without him didn’t have a purpose; her purpose was, is in effect, to ‘tell them stories’. She finds that to spread knowledge and understanding to others and to place others in front of her, just like the trees and the clouds try to stop the Dust from flowing away, is her purpose: ‘Matter loved Dust’ . More importantly, she tells us from first hand experience as a nun that she believes the Christian religion to be ‘a very powerful and convincing mistake’ . Pullman uses Mary to express his more direct criticisms of the church and, in a way, to mock it with statements such as, ‘I saw there wasn’t any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway’ and ’I knew what I should think: it was whatever the church told me to think.’ She acts like the serpent, becoming very significant, yet even though the church reprimands the serpent for disobeying the Lord in Genesis, she disobeys the Lord in leaving the church, but she has to do this in order to love. The church suppresses Mary’s feelings for another person and confines the nuns to the institution.

Marisa Coulter represents human reform. Coulter uses her charm and wit to advance herself in an organization ruled and governed by men. The church is a predominantly male society, traditionally with male-only priests, and the only entry for women is as a nun. Coulter, a power-thirsty woman who, after marrying into power fails to gain it, goes to the source, namely the church, and sets up the General Oblation Board. She is clever in recognizing that Dust is of great concern to the church and specializes in that. No matter how charming she is and how much she achieves, she is still discriminated against by the church, best illustrated when she visits the Consistorial Court of Discipline after a scientist is murdered and she pronounces, ‘I can only imagine it’s the devil himself. I dare say he feels quite at home in here.’ This is one of the most important statements in His Dark Materials and is a climax in the trilogy; we finally see that there is some goodness in Coulter’s heart after her portrayal as such a cold-hearted person.

Pullman further attacks the church by mocking it. One of the most farcical ideas is that of pre-emptive absolution. Here, one will pray for a sin not yet committed, in a way, building up a bank of ‘credit’ which can then be used to gain forgiveness for a crime later committed. This happens to Father Gomez, who, after carrying this out all his life, is granted forgiveness for the murder of Lyra Belacqua. Pullman uses this as a way to mock the system and, through the use of colloquial language and sarcasm, creates a surrounding of humour around such heinous activity. That a man can be forgiven for a murder not yet committed is somewhat of a ridiculous idea. Pullman portrays the incredible kingdom of heaven as a place the churches preach as glorious and rewarding for those who dedicate their lives to it; Hell is a place where those who sin go.

Women’s roles, values and rituals are important points, which Pullman draws into question about discrimination. He himself criticizes the novels of C.S Lewis’s Narnia series, saying they are ‘loathsome, full of bullying and sneering, propaganda, basically, on behalf of a religion whose main creed seemed to be to despise and hate people unlike yourself.’ This is mostly portrayed through the use of the retiring room at Jordan College and the way that Lyra scorns female scholars as, ‘poor things, [who] could never be taken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a play.’ Pullman expresses stereotyping of gender roles by presenting the retiring room in Jordan College as strictly forbidden to women, and he also criticizes the way in which we still follow rituals in everyday life; ‘[I]t was traditional for the master to cook it [poppy heads] himself.’

Many people look to God for love, trust, friendship, happiness and all the qualities that humans should possess to have the greatest human worth. Yet, Phillip Pullman causes God to be killed. This is not an attack on Christianity but a confirmation of human worth; all those qualities which people personify in God, Pullman has created in Dust. The God Phillip Pullman has created in His Dark Materials possesses none of the worthwhile qualities and, as an evil, suppressive leader of all, even the dead, is the human corruption of God. Pullman creates Dust, which sums up all the qualities people see in God. Pullman uses his criticism of the corrupt church system to emphasize the importance of human worth. Through Pullman’s language, these novels are not written with the intention of attacking religion, but as a way of emphasizing that human acts of kindness and love are more important than dedicating one’s life to a God. His Dark Materials is not an attack against Christianity, but a confirmation of human worth.

Textual References
· Appenginanesi, Richard and Zarate, Oscar, Freud for beginners, Icon Books Ltd. Cambridge, 1979
· Holy Bible NRSV, Catholic Edition, Catholic Bible Press, 1991
· Lewis, C.S, The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, William Collin Sons & Co. Ltd, Glasgow, 1989
· Masson, Sophie, Know the Author – Phillip Pullman, Magpies Volume 16 No. 2, May 2001
· Pullman, Phillip, Northern Lights, Scholastic Ltd. London, 1998
· Pullman, Phillip, The Amber Spyglass, David Fickling Books, 2000
· Pullman, Phillip, The Subtle Knife, Scholastic Ltd. London, 1998
· Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Thomson Learning, 2000

Electronic References
· Darkness Visible: An Interview with Phillip Pullman -
· At a glance: His Dark Materials Trilogy -
· Jeffery Overstreet’s Preview of ‘His Dark Materials’ -
· Meryln, Senior Staff Writer and Webmaster, The Bridge Through the Aurora Commentaries – Of Dæmons and Angels -
· Powell’ interview – Phillip Pullman -
· Roberts, Susan, Culture: Interview with Phillip Pullman -

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