Thursday, April 02, 2009

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

[I'm cheating by doing 3 books. His Dark Materials is a sequence of 3 books called Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass].

I first read Northern Lights as a teenager, when it was first published in the mid 1990s. My school librarian gave it to me, saying she knew I'd like it. Of course I'm sure she thought she was just doing her job. I ended up as a school librarian (was I inspired by her knack of picking me decent books?!) and spending a year reading it over and over, writing 20,000 words about the sequence for my MA Children's Literature dissertation. Luckily it is the type of story you can debate for hours upon hours in pubs with people like Andy G and never get bored.

It may seem a little strange that I'd pick this book (really it's only in 3 parts because the book would be too big otherwise. And Pullman probably couldn't afford not to publish it in bits) to write about on this blog. Many Christians have heard of Pullman and his work in the media - Peter Hitchens calling him 'the most dangerous author in Britain'(1) and the Catholic Herald condemning the books as 'the stuff of nightmares' (2).

So surely I don't agree with anything Pullman is saying? Actually, yes. He raises interesting points about the Crusades, witch hunts, the way Christians can think they're right about everything, the way Christians can think only Christians can be decent people, the corruption of power within the church, the outdated views, this either / or position between religion and science. Things like that which I have encountered growing up in the church, things that I'd also like to criticise the church about sometimes!

Whether Pullman sat down one day and realised before he began what an epic he was writing is hard to say. It depends which interviews you look at. On a very basic level, it's just a good story, although I don't say that in a dismissive way. It's not like he has written a mediocre story into which he decided to cram all the things he hates about the church into. He says, quite rightly when people try and pigeonhole him, that 'I'm not making an argument, or preaching a sermon or setting out a political tract; I'm telling a story... My intention is to tell a story - in the first place because the story comes to me and wants to be told.' (3)

And whilst you can sit and analyse how he portrays the church as The Church in his books, with its evil followers, servile priests, endless rival factions and evil leaders going about chopping out people's souls at puberty to stop them sinning, or his portrayal of a dictator God, who he refers to as The Authority, as a senile, Gnostic angel who's so decrepid he blows away like a dandelion, or the afterlife as a meaningless holding pen for ghosts which is a bit fat lie the church tells people so they'll behave, it's not that shallow. He wrote an amazing story, one with characters who are good, kind, brave, exciting, awe-inspiring. It's a story with adventure, fantasy, multiple universes, deep relationships. It's a story where you meet armoured bears, gyptians, people whose souls are manifested as animals, witches, spies who fly on dragonflies, children who battle against the odds to save the people they care about. It's the kind of thing you read, and you feel that it's true, it resonates, in the way that characters experience and what they say. Pullman wrote a story which contains echoes of classic mythology and Christian tradition.

It's one of those stories which reminds us how inseparable our culture is with the power of story - and that in fact 'the story of the Fall is the key story of contemporary children's literature'(4) if not of our whole culture. When he said in his acceptance speech for winning an award for NL he said 'Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever" he had a point. Whilst I'm obviously not dismissing the 1o commandments [disclaimer!], our culture, whether we're looking at the Bible or other traditional oral tales, is based on stories. And fantasy is a genre which takes us away from our normal surroundings, to then reflect back on them. 'Trues fantasy' as Natalie Babbitt says, 'aims to define the universe'. (5)

Children's author Gillian Cross (she of The Demon Headmaster fame) nailed it when she said 'when it [HDM] is most truly a story, it is close to the central insights of Christianity'(6). Pullman wants to take all the good stuff about being a Christian, but manage it ourselves, without the need for God. Ultimately it can't work, but that doesn't mean the story doesn't work. This is a book that inspired me to really look at what being a Christian meant, more than any "Christian" books I have read.

(1) The Mail on Sunday, Jan 27 2002, p.63
(2) The Times, Oct 18 2000, p.12
(3) 'Heat & Dust' , Third Way, April 2002, p.23
(4) Neil Philip, Signal, 37, Jan 1982, p.21
(5) RN Lynn (1989) Fantasy Literature for Children & Young Adults: an annotated bibliography, NY: RR Bowker.
(6) Books for Keeps no. 140, May 2003, p.11