We have more in common with him than he might care to admit
Discovering Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, as a child, was for me a moment of genuine wonder and awe. Not since CS Lewis had a writer shaped such a complete, immersive and – frankly – adult world for a child reader. I devoured the books, hooked on the adventures of awkward tomboy Lyra Belacqua but also on the huge, complex and disturbing themes of ambition, religion and human folly that drove her story.
As an adult, finding my way back to Christianity, the books began to trouble me, though. As I tried and often failed to understand the world around me, it was the very things that Pullman warns us against – faith, order, structure – that offered me most sustenance and made the most sense. I fell out of love with his creation, even to the point of denouncing it as clever but ultimately dangerous propaganda.
The knee-jerk rejection of the Church; the ostentatious belittling of the Christian God; the appeals to some higher but less formed spirituality as an antidote to the strictures of organised religion – all of these themes that had once felt so thrillingly grown-up began to feel almost adolescent. Like the teenage communist who goes out into the world and begins to see the failings of Marx’s seductive certainty, so I lost faith in Pullman’s Dark Materials.
Last week, Pullman announced – to the joy of his many child and adult fans alike – that he would be publishing a fourth book in the series. Neither a prequel nor a sequel but an “equal”, The Book of Dust promises to fill in some of the gaps in the original trilogy and add to the already complex mythology that Pullman has created for and around Lyra. Despite myself, I felt a familiar excitement at the prospect of diving once again into her world and I have begun to reread the series. This rereading has made me see new nuance in Pullman’s work.
His books – beautifully written, deliberately dense – betray their author in the way that only really sincere creative effort can do. Pullman, a committed and open atheist, cannot conceal from his readers the deep uncertainty that he feels about religion. The truth is that Pullman, an intellectual and educator moving in many of the same sort of circles as the New Atheists who have dominated much of our public discussions of religion, is about as far removed from the likes of Richard Dawkins as it is possible to be while apparently sharing some of the professor’s beliefs.
Unlike his peers who, tellingly, concentrate on polemic rather than on fiction to convey their beliefs, Pullman is open and honest about how conflicted he feels about God. This shines through in his books. He cannot bring himself to denounce Christianity as wholly false, choosing instead to focus on how misused and abused, misinterpreted and misapplied our faith can be.
Pullman describes himself as a “Church of England atheist”. He grew up listening to his clergyman grandfather’s stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints. Pullman’s books – rooted in the Christian poetry of Milton – are a testament to the power that catechism has over even the most rebellious of minds. God exists in Pullman’s universe – albeit in a different form to that which we would recognise – and humanity finds its salvation and some form of peace in a reconnection with the true nature of that God.
Moreover, truth is central to his writing. The most heinous crime committed in the novels – by Lyra’s mother – is an attempt to use science to redefine human nature, to overturn truth in the utopian pursuit of a world without sin. Sometimes it reads as though Pullman misunderstands the nature of Christianity – believing our religion to subscribe to this false premise – but if that is so then he accidentally captures a great and modern insight about the need for orthodoxy.
Pullman rejects the idea that truth and human nature can be fundamentally reordered by science in order to remove sin and forgiveness from the equation. So do orthodox Christians. That is why we reject the rewriting and recasting of God’s laws. Not because we do not care about human betterment, but because we know that it can only progress from an honest and humble acceptance of who we are and of what God demands, no matter how hard it is. I can’t help but think that, in a story that is often presented as a diatribe against the unbending authority of an inflexible Church, the true warnings here are for those who would choose change and “progress” over truth and nature.
The original trilogy ends with a powerful and truly radical message for children to receive in the modern world – that love does not, after all, “conquer all”. (Spoiler alert.) In order for the central love story to end happily, Lyra must break the laws of the universe and sacrifice its natural order. Unusually for a modern heroine, she finds no way out of this bind. Instead she subordinates her immediate desires and breaks with her sweetheart. This is an unusual, painful and brave twist in a world where we are encouraged always to answer the wants of the heart. It teaches us something hugely important and speaks again to an eternal Christian truth – of ordered love and of natural law – even if the author is reluctant to see it that way himself.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I will buy my copy of The Book of Dust without much guilt and with great enthusiasm. Pullman challenges our assumptions about the Church and Christianity. But he also challenges our assumptions about the difference between faithful people and those who reject religion. Even if he did so unwittingly – and even if in my younger, more simplistic and strident days I was unable to see it – Pullman has created a world that can speak directly to the case for orthodoxy.
He probably won’t like my saying so, but these books are, in their own way, powerfully Christian. I just hope that decades of being lauded as the atheist’s answer to Narnia doesn’t dampen the nuance that gives Pullman’s books such complex credibility.
Max Wind-Cowie is a political consultant
This article first appeared in the February 24 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here