‘His Dark Materials’ and Radical Theology

The A. V. Club‘s Noah Cruickshank responded to their “AVQ&A” feature, this week asking what popular culture artifacts pull a bait-and-switch on their audiences, answering with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.  I’ve been meaning to go back and re-read these books this summer, so I’ve been thinking a little bit about the books’ connections to Milton and others.  Here’s what Cruickshank wrote:

I don’t think anyone who finished The Golden Compass thought that the next two books in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy were going to lead to the death of God (or The Authority, as he’s called in the series). The first book is a beautifully written, classic piece of fantasy, with witches, talking polar bears, and a hefty dose of world-building. But what began as a story about a young girl in a single magical world became an epic story about destroying the corrupt power of a single deity over all worlds (including our own). It’s heavy stuff, but Pullman wasn’t interested in just telling a story for young readers; he had a theological point to make. Pullman is a noted atheist, and His Dark Materials isn’t a religious work, but a humanist one. Plenty of fantasy series have religious overtones (The Chronicles Of Narnia is my favorite example, but Twilight is chock full of allusions to Mormonism), but usually they’re pretty obvious from the get-go, not themes that dawn on the reader halfway through. The three books work beautifully in tandem, and His Dark Materials is one of my favorite series in any genre. But I do feel like I got hoodwinked. I don’t mind that the books are a kind of counter-allegory to Paradise Lost, but it seems to me Pullman was a little coy about his intentions.

One of the things I really appreciated about His Dark Materials is its quite the opposite, that it was pretty clear that the book was moving in somewhat Nietzschean directions from the outset with its critique of the church, and that these directions made the meshing together of Milton, with elements of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and The Everlasting Gospel in the final book even more stunning.  Perhaps it is that I read these texts though the lens of Altizer, that these connections would make sense, and I thought that Pullman’s His Dark Materials created a Nietzschean fantasy series that eclipsed, for example, James Morrow’s Godhead trilogy, at least in terms of contributing to a conversation about radical theology.

That being said, is reading His Dark Materials really making a point about atheism?  Perhaps I want to read radical theology into the texts, because a radical theology reading of Pullman seems to “make sense” rather than appear to be a “bait-and-switch.”  What do you think?

4 thoughts on “‘His Dark Materials’ and Radical Theology

  1. I’ve always though of The Golden Compass as a strategic entry point into Pullman’s treatment of God. Keeping in mind that His Dark Materials was written for younger readers, it seems that Pullman uses the Golden Compass as a way of easing into the theological aspects of the later two novels. The critique of the church is there, but addressing the evils of the church is not the subject of The Golden Compass, it’s not the primary motivation of its characters as it is in its sequels. The Golden Compass serves as an example of the evils of religion, and the second and third novels attempt to fix/destroy that evil.

    I see what Cruickshank is talking about as a “bait-and-switch,” but I think this is a feature, not a bug, and that the shift in focus was a strategic choice by Pullman to make the later two novels more accessible to young readers. I’m not sure if this damages our ability to read a consistent theology into the trilogy. I should also say I haven’t read these novels since I was maybe 15.

  2. I felt like it was a bait-and-switch in the sense that the books became increasingly heavy handed, as much or more so than comparable “Christian fantasy,” as they went on. That said, I did enjoy them, especially the subtlety characteristic of the first 75%.

  3. I would have to echo Hill, though my appreciation fell off exponentially throughout. The first book really is just great, beautifully written literature frankly. But the other two get more and more obvious in their “intent” until the polemical aspect outweighs all else. I actually found Amber Spyglass almost impossible to get through for that reason and that experience was the total opposite then to that of Golden Compass/Northern Lights. I don’t think the fall off in the quality of the writing between the first and third books has been emphasized nearly enough. Pullman just gets a pass for “audacity”.

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