Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Pullman's Protest: The Fantasy of “His Dark Materials” as Polemic Propaganda

Methinks Phillip Pullman doth protest too much. The critically acclaimed author of the “three-volume fantasy and mythical series” (Donelson & Crowe) His Dark Materials, denied that his trilogy was pure fantasy, referring to it rather as “stark realism” (Weich, par. 7). In a similar fashion, Pullman has stated he’s “not making an argument, or preaching a sermon, or setting out a political tract” (Spanner, par. 18). While one cannot argue another person’s standpoint, it is interesting to compare Pullman’s public declarations with his artistic work, to observe whether or not the author’s protests seem credible from a reader’s standpoint.

At his own website, Pullman refutes his connection to the tradition of children’s fantasy which includes Tolkien or Lewis, saying he “was trying to write about…real people, not beings that don’t exist like elves or hobbits” (par. 23). This claim seems dubious, given the first line of The Golden Compass which introduces Lyra’s dæmon (3), a changeling which is “something akin to a soul but in animal form” (Donelson & Crowe).

In response to readers’ sense of verisimilitude about dæmons, “as if they’ve got a dæmon themselves” Pullman writes at his website, “we all have” (par. 23), and yet empirically, we don’t. While the concept of the dæmon may be intended to say something “true about us and our lives” it does not divorce Pullman’s trilogy from the fantasy tradition. It could be argued that Tolkien also meant to say something true about people and life in his tales of elves and hobbits, or Lewis in his tales of Narnia.

Pullman’s accomplishment with His Dark Materials, whether he likes it or not, is the creation of what Tolkien called a “Secondary World”, a place where a “green sun will be credible” (1975:51). By the end of The Amber Spyglass, readers have been introduced to a host of creatures inhabiting a handful of the “uncountable billions of parallel worlds” (1995:330). Pullman’s masterful prose allows the reader to treat creatures such as cliff ghasts “with leathery wings and hooked claws” (281), armoured bears of the panserbjørne, soul-stealing Specters, Lilliputian-like Gallivespians, “armed and shining” angels (1997: 133), harpy-like creatures who guard the land of the dead, and the extremely alien Mulefa, who possess wheels as appendages, all as credible within the Secondary World he has created.

In an interview at Amazon.com, Pullman commented that he “can’t read fantasy” because “it doesn’t tell me anything interesting about being a human being”. Like Lord Asriel, Pullman “dares to do what men and women don’t even dare to think” (1997:47), namely seeing his own fantasy work as transcending the genre and the tradition that has lead to it. Yet it is clearly a work of fantasy, drawing parallels to the very works Pullman abhors (McSporran, par. 1). Is it the tradition of fantasy literature itself that Pullman wishes to avoid, or perhaps being associated with some of its authors and the ideologies they espoused?

Pullman has had much to say about the “propaganda” (Ezard, par. 6) of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, while he himself has been the purveyor of his own polemic propaganda, since the “preach factor is equally high in both” (McSporran, par. 27). In an interview with Amazon.com, Pullman made the statement that he believes “profoundly in this notion of the Republic of Heaven” then immediately adds that he’s “not trying to preach in the book”. As with the renunciation of the fantasy tradition, this is a difficult pill to swallow, given the evidence of the texts themselves.

Pullman has stated that the trilogy is “about a universal human experience, namely growing up” (2006). The story’s liminal nature certainly plays a major role, but the backdrop it is set against is Asriel’s war against the Magisterium. What begins as a mere element of the narrative in The Golden Compass expands to become the tale’s prime mover by The Amber Spyglass.

As Lyra is drawn further into Asriel’s machinations, it only makes sense that the narrative will turn to addressing the nature of the Authority and his forces, but by the third book entire chapters are built around lengthy metaphysical and moral discourses. Whereas writers like Lewis and George McDonald made allusions to their faith Pullman is bluntly direct about the absence of his. The singular villain threatening Pullman’s fictional universe of myriad worlds is the “God of the Church, the one they call the Authority…” (1997: 45), referred to as “decrepit and demented” (2000:328) and in his final moments, “terrified, crying like a baby and cowering away…” (410). Pullman could have chosen to keep the Authority disconnected from actual faith practices, but references to original sin, (even in the alien Mulefa’s myth of the seedpods (224)) and Mary Malone’s very clear statement that the “Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake” (440) leave no question as to the target of Pullman’s invective.

Further, though Pullman excels at writing deep, multifaceted characters such as Mrs. Coulter, whom readers alternately love or hate depending on which chapter they’re reading, Pullman’s depiction of the Church in Lyra’s world is decidedly uniform, for “every church is the same” (1997: 50), despite Mary Malone’s estimation that “people are too complicated to have simple labels” (2000: 447). Mrs. Coulter’s description of them as “a body of men with a feverish obsession with sexuality” (326) coupled with her earlier estimation that “Killing is not difficult for them…” (205) encompasses the caricature Pullman paints of the religious authority in Lyra’s world.

It would seem to me that Philip Pullman, despite all his protesting, has created a tale which not only draws upon traditional elements of fantasy, which serves to dispense his own opinion concerning religion, but refuses to acknowledge that the books do so. In short, Pullman is a writer of fantasy which serves both as entertainment as well as outspoken propaganda, but refuses to accept these labels. Like the human of Lyra’s world whose dæmon settles in a shape they don’t want, Pullman should perhaps heed the words of the able seaman; “…till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it” (1995:147).

Works Cited

Donelson, Ken, and Crowe, Chris. Rev. of The Amber Spyglass/The Golden Compass/The Subtle Knife, by Phillip Pullman. English Journal Nov. 2001: 118.

Ezard, John. “Narnia books attacked as racist and sexist.” Guardian Unlimited. 3 Jun. 2002: 28 Mar. 2006.

McSporran, Cathy. “The Kingdom of God, the Republic of Heave: Depictions of God in CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.” eSharp: Electronic Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts Review for Postgraduates. 1 2003: 28 Mar. 2006 <http://www.sharp.arts.gla.ac.uk/issue1/mcsporran2.htm>.

Pullman, Phillip. Interview with Dave Weich. “Philip Pullman Reaches the Garden.” Powells.com. 2000. 28 Mar. 2006 <http://www.powells.com/authors/pullman.html>.

---, Interview with Huw Spanner. “Heat and Dust.” Third Way: The modern world through Christian eyes. 2002. 28 Mar. 2006 <http://www.thirdway.org.uk/past/index.htm>.

---, Interview. “About the Writing” Phillip-Pullman.com. 2006. 28 Mar. 2006 < http://www.philip-pullman.com/about_the_writing.asp>

---, The Amber Spyglass. New York: Random House, 2000.

---, The Subtle Knife. New York: Random House, 1997.

---, The Golden Compass. New York: Random House, 1995.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Tree and leaf; Smith of Wootton Major; The homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s son. London: Unwin Books, 1975.


  1. I agree completely; however, I think Pullman actually ends up self-defeating in his polemic. Lyra ends up as a Christ figure; the conspicuous absence of the Son in novels based on Paradise Lost makes us look for Christ in her (did you notice that Jesus is only mentioned once in more than a thousand pages?). She harrows hell, her end choice is one of self-sacrificial love, etc. She's not Christ, but Pullman makes us think of Christ when we see her--and I don't think it's intentional either.

  2. Well said sapience. I agree.