Philip Pullman interviewed at (the other) CT

by Harry on December 1, 2007

Via Lindsey, I see that Christianity Today has an interesting interview with Philip Pullman; the extended interview is at Peter Chattaway’s blog here. Well worth reading. My favourite quote is the same as Lindsey’s (no doubt because I can identify with it pretty well, and it helps explain why I liked HDM so much; though my atheism is more of the low-CofE-veering-on-Methodism kind):

My answer to that would be that I was brought up in the Church of England, and whereas I’m an atheist, I’m certainly a Church of England atheist, and for the matter of that a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. The Church of England is so deeply embedded in my personality and my way of thinking that to remove it would take a surgical operation so radical that I would probably not survive it.



Bill Gardner 12.01.07 at 4:51 pm

Yes. God is a preposterous idea. But you could wake me up in the middle of the night, give me one verse from a major BCP liturgy, and I could recite the rest of it. (Particularly the “truly sorry and humbly repent” stuff.) And I am glad those words are in there.

BTW, this ‘double-life’ may be easier for (US, in my case) anglo-catholic atheists than for low-church atheists. Knowing that the enterprise was absurd was a premise of anglo-catholicism. Did this have anything to do with the presence of a lot of out gay people in that subculture? (Old insider joke: “What does it take to start an anglo-catholic religious order?” “Two gay men and a sewing machine.”)


Tom T. 12.01.07 at 5:23 pm

This phenomenon is common among Jewish people.


engels 12.01.07 at 5:33 pm

My answer to that would be that I was brought up in the Church of England…

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”


Jack Fear 12.01.07 at 6:08 pm

Mm. Every time I hear Pullman pontificate about atheism in general—and his own atheism in particular—he sounds less and less convincing on both counts. What was originally presented as a fearless philosophical stance is, with each new detail, starting to look ever more clearly like a personal grudge.


seth edenbaum 12.01.07 at 6:12 pm

Most ideas are preposterous or are concerned with the preposterous.
Others view our preposterous ideas from a distance but then add preposterous ideas of their own. We tend towards faith (faith being preposterous). Patterns are comforting and patterns of significance are comforting fictions. The only thing that undermines that is a change in context.


Adam Roberts 12.01.07 at 8:26 pm

“Church of England atheist” seems almost tautological.


rm 12.01.07 at 10:24 pm

I’ll go read the interview. But Jack is right about the personal grudge thing. I’ve read others, and I always think he sounds so reasonable in interviews, yet so hateful, preachy, and bullying in the Dark Materials books.

I am not against atheist fantasy — I like Le Guin’s proto-new-agey Earthsea books and the Nietzschean Lemony Snicket books — but Pullman’s are relentlessly propogandistic. He’s willing to sacrifice every other literary quality to preaching his point, and he really tries to trick the reader. His talent with characterization and setting just makes the betrayal worse.

He’s off his rocker when it comes to hating C. S. Lewis, on whom Pullman projects all his own worst qualities. Not that Lewis doesn’t have faults, but that Pullman is the mirror image.

It helps to remember that Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter is a caricature of Pullman . . . he smilingly pretends to have done one thing, but has done another.


rm 12.01.07 at 10:26 pm

Or, prop*A*gandistic, even.


matt mckeon 12.01.07 at 10:43 pm

Actually, Pullman’s rhetoric is stronger in interviews than in his books. He’s an author first, and he creates convincing, engrossing fictional worlds. He’s not sacrificing his artistry for propaganda.


Roy Belmont 12.01.07 at 10:45 pm

Whyever anyone could ever possibly be holding a personal grudge against institutional Judeo-Christianity is ever beyond me. Me and Jack Fear. Unless it would be the virtual enslavement of the human race, that would be a pretty causative thing for grudgeness. Unless it would be the ennabling of alien-symbionts like the egregious Bush, because religion did do that to the world, like it or no Mr. Fear, it was religion what did it, plain and simple.
The personal sexual hamperings, handicaps, and outright cripplings done in the name of the great and mighty Jehovah and his peculiar tastes presumed in that regard – well there’s another grudge-maker of magnitude, Mr. Fear.
And let’s not talk of the squashed fingers of science, flattened under the nasty little feet of churchly wisdom
Extending one’s puny sphere of recognition out to the brutalized races of more dusky hue and distant primitive grace carries one smack up against the burning ghats of indigenous culture the world was for some time witness to, as appropriate and divinely sanctioned. And that whole sorry inhuman mess of heartless colonialism driven goaded fueled and after patted on the head by the Word of the Lord and its designated spielers in the organized Church.
Not to speak for Mr. Pullman, you understand, but merely to place my feet in his shoes and find thus there resentment, disgust, antipathy, aversion, distaste, loathing, repugnance, alienation, disrelish, even jolts and spikes of near-paralyzing abhorrence accompanied by the impractical desire to perform reverse double-anathema upon their whitely sanctimonious smug and delusional heads.
It is a testament to his previously mentioned humility that this hairball of profound resentment is transmuted through the grinding mill of Pullman’s artistic labor into that most human of all artifacts: a gripping tale.
Keep in mind as well that whatever dialog Pullman has now with organized religion, and its myrmidons and and outriders, with his movie on the brink of the verge of entering the people’s real canon, he’s in the position of a sane but unarmed man confronting a psychopathically violent massively-armed blooded mob with a long and arrogantly vivid history of violent response to heresy and atheism such as the rack and the auto-da-fe and throughout its squalid history the employment of many another other festive encouragement toward sanctity.
Grudge-making in a heart with an active conscience, inevitably, and cautionary.


Jack Fear 12.01.07 at 10:56 pm

#7: Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter is a caricature of Pullman

Do you have a source for this, RM? I’d be interested in knowing what beef Rowling has with Pullman. Apparently she identifies as religious, which I find interesting, given that the Potterverse seems essentially godless; there are religious or quasi-religious ceremonies in the wizarding world (funerals, christenings and such), but no one prays, or even says “Oh my God”… sorry, that’s a different topic.

Back to Pullman: What pains me about His Dark Materials is seeing such a talented writer expending such considerable effort to kick around such a blatant straw man. The version of religious faith against which he argues—one which precludes sensual pleasure and the living of a full life—is an essentially medieval, Paulist construction, and bears very little resemblance to the life of faith which, y’know, most of the human race now enjoys; thus, his righteous takedown of same lacks a little dramatic punch.

Watch for my upcoming trilogy of novels, by the way, in which I fearlessly argue that the Sun does not, in fact, revolve around the Earth! Feel free to nominate me for thee Whitbread!


Jack Fear 12.01.07 at 11:00 pm

#10 @Roy: Are you down on God, then, or down on people?


Roy Belmont 12.01.07 at 11:24 pm

Mostly down on people who present the world in forced-choice binaries to which they are the presumed sole licensee, on pain of serious pain and other incommodious and coercive wrangles.
Which is to say, as it were, down neither on “God”, nor “people”, but rather on “your God”, and “you”.


scoresby 12.01.07 at 11:27 pm

Jack: The version of religious faith against which he argues… bears very little resemblance to the life of faith which, y’know, most of the human race now enjoys… I have to ask, have you paid any attention to the US lately? I don’t have a great perspective on most of the rest of the world,and so can’t make particularly strong claims about “most of the human race,” but we certainly still have a serious problem with the kind of beliefs that Pullman particularly attacks, see for example: this post by Maha. Think about James Dobson, the late unlamented Jerry Falwell, etc. Even if it’s been centuries since “serious” theologians directly espoused such beliefs (I personally doubt it’s been centuries), and even if most religious people live full happy lives, it doesn’t mean Pullman is attacking a strawman. Those attitudes are very much alive, as much as we wish they weren’t.
BTW, I second the request for a source about the Lockhart thing. That would indeed be interesting.


Jack Fear 12.01.07 at 11:45 pm

#13, @ Roy: Ouch! And I thought it was religious folks who were supposed to be filled with unreasoning hate for those who do not share their views… [/cheapshot]

I’m going to bow out, here, because I see this heading for an all-out flamewar; I hereby proclaim myself a conscientious objector, not least because I don’t want to derail an interesting thread.

I’ll just say, in the last, that—though I personally tend towards religious faith—I am keenly interested in atheist arguments. Not because I have any interest in trying to disprove them or in (God-shaped hole forbid) proselytizing to anyone, but because most of the arguments around the issue of faith—against and for—bear very little resemblance to my day-to-day experience of same. I’m always looking for a perspective on the issue that I can relate to, simply to wrestle with it. I like to have my beliefs shaken now and then; it happens too seldom.

So I’ve always got of time for a well-considered, objective argument in favor of atheism; but Philip Pullman isn’t making it. And frankly, neither are you.

So long, all. It’s been grand.


scoresby 12.01.07 at 11:52 pm

Anyway, as an atheist who is not entirely comfortable with the label “materialist” the main, broad concept Pullman is attacking seems to me to be authoritarianism. He does obviously go after the specifically religious, and more specifically Christian brand of authoritarianism. Of course the idea that Christianity and all the other religions are mythology not based on fact is quite important to him as well, but I think he’s more interested at least within HDM in promoting ideas that are more like humanism and libertarianism {as opposed to authoritarianism) and general values such as compassion, kindness and so forth.

It’s certainly true that one of his purposes in telling this particular story is a fairly specific message, but I don’t think he’s sacrificed his story for the message.(Although The Amber Spyglass may have some of that. Nothing is perfect, or absolute.)


dslak 12.02.07 at 12:43 am

“The version of religious faith against which he argues—one which precludes sensual pleasure and the living of a full life—is an essentially medieval, Paulist construction, and bears very little resemblance to the life of faith which, y’know, most of the human race now enjoys”

I agree about Pullman creating a simplistic caricature of religion, but this approach is overly optimistic about the place of religion in many parts of the world. You don’t have to be as curmudgeonly as roy to recognise religion is often used as a tool of oppression and marginilisation.


rm 12.02.07 at 1:40 am

Matt, I guess our mileage varies. I found the HDM books increasingly manipulative, and I thought in the third volume Pullman hurriedly re-explains basic parts of his world-building to fix inconsistencies he had sloppily created. It seems to me a story should end in the same cosmos it began in (not the same “world,” to be clear, since multiple worlds are part of the series), but basic storytelling guidelines like that fell away because he was more concerned with chapters of preaching.

Roy, I feel that way about the world sometimes, but I don’t imagine there’s a single cause which, if removed, would eliminate all historical evils.

Jack, I don’t know with total certainty, but fan sites and reviewers have repeated it based on the following:

When asked if any character was based on a real person, Rowling said only Lockhart. She said the model was a person she encountered professionally, that she found obnoxious and arrogant, who took credit for Rowling’s ideas. Now that could have been anyone from pre-celebrity office life, I guess, but the two series debuted about the same time, and have a couple distinct similarities (daemons and patronuses, magic-esque academics). Pullman’s previous series was the Sally Lockhart mysteries. In HP we first meet Lockhart signing books in a bookstore, where he pulls in Harry and tries to glom onto Harry’s greater celebrity. Everyone assumes Lockhart is Pullman, though I guess I could be wrong.

Pullman is a much better writer than Rowling in so many ways, but I prefer her. Non-Christians are not bullied into accepting (or even noticing, necessarily) the pervasive Christian subtext of HP. But the religious, and especially Christian, reader is the direct target of a conversion attempt in HDM. I think both authors are upset with C. S. Lewis, but Rowling has the easier task of re-doing Lewis with less preachiness. Pullman is trying to UNdo Lewis, and he becomes what he hates.

In my own opinion. Of course, please disagree completely. Just my thoughts. We all read with the bias of what we bring in, and I bring Christian belief to my reading . . . but I have no problem enthusiastically putting myself into the atheistic worlds of Le Guin, Snicket, or grownup writers.


Keir 12.02.07 at 2:02 am

Umm, rm, none of Rowling’s ideas are actually that original, so I highly doubt Pullman got his inspiration from her. (And I’m sure that Rowling knows that.)

And, rm? The point of HDM is to attack a certain form of religiousness in children’s books. If you don’t notice the point Pullman’s making, he hasn’t done his job.


rm 12.02.07 at 2:24 am

Keir, mileage varying, accounting for tastes, and so on. I did not say Rowling is original; she said (somewhere I can’t find) that some other person took credit for inspiring her (not vice versa) when, obviously, no influence need be traced in either direction. She apparently found that irksome and may have taken literary revenge. I was answering Jack’s question about my source, not arguing there.

I understood the point of HDM from the moment Lord Asriel walked into the room in chapter one. I objected to (a) the straw targetting and (b) the loss of story for direct conversion attempt, which caused a few bumps throughout but derailed the entire train for me in the third novel. When I read the Snicket books, I took great delight in the subtlety and wit with which the author suggests that his young readers consider the world from an existentialist viewpoint. He remains subtle and respectful of readers even in the volume where a false prophet/god forbids his deluded followers from tasting the fruit of the tree, even though the fruit is their only hope of survival . . . you wouldn’t think such an allegory could be done subtly, but he does it.


I feel bad that I am one of the ones pulling the thread off topic, so I want to say:

That email interview Harry linked to is a really, really good interview. Very much worthwhile and interesting. Thanks, Harry.


matt mckeon 12.02.07 at 3:06 am

“Mileage varies”
That’s a great phrase! I think the level of writing in HDM is much higher then the Narnia books(which have a lot of slapdash scenes and are quite preachy), and the Potter books(compelling pageturners, like the better Stephen King novels). It doesn’t mean that HDM are perfect, the third volume especially, knots together plot elements a little arbitarily.
But in this case, distaste for the author’s beliefs are influencing the reader, not the author’s beliefs spoiling the writing.


rm 12.02.07 at 3:25 am

Or . . . agreement with the author’s beliefs . . . you know.

That’s why I brought up the atheistic children’s books I do enjoy.

I am not interested in telling you how to feel, just in defending my (anonymous) honor. I sometimes teach lit, so I like to think I appreciate works that do not line up with my own personal desires. But saying any more is pointless, so . . . y’all get back on topic and I will go away.


SG 12.02.07 at 5:27 am

rm I for one appreciate your comments. I don’t recall HDM seeming particularly bullying, or allowing his creative talents to be undermined by a preachy and bullying agenda. If anything his central theme was quite unclear at times, being divided between a screed against authoritarianism on the one hand, a kind of anti-parents theme, and the religious thing. I was quite surprised at the end by its bluntness, because I didn’t think he was aiming at his target with anything like the directness of someone like CS Lewis.

Of course I am an atheist, who agrees entirely with Roy Belmont in number 10, so maybe I was blinded to the more subtle problems of the book. And when it comes to “bullying”, just wait to see how he gets treated by the christian right when the movie is released (as Roy observed). It seems quite unfair to atheists generally when religious types accuse us of bullying…


harry b 12.02.07 at 3:45 pm

I loved HDM, with the exception of the 3rd book which was sort of a let down — sort of, because after the other two you knew the final one had to be a let down. And I didn’t find the books preachy or evangelical-for-athiesm, but rather an attack on a very specific variant of Christianity, the anti-this-life variant which seems to be expounded in the final book of the Narnia Chronicles (though not, from what I’ve read, in Lewis’s essays, which seem pretty humane and interesting to me). Its also clear that Pullman knows his Christianity. On the one hand I’m an athiest, so I woudn’t be troubled by it, would I? (like sg). On the other hand I have a lot of respect for (some versions of) Christianity and Christians, so I expected to be more troubled than I was.

Pullman doesn’t come off as arrogant in his writing, except in so far as its hard to believe that someone who does something that well wouldn’t be arrogant about it. On the other hand Rowling seems to be about as nice a person as is possible once one is rich and famous. Almost Michael Palin nice.

rm — I, too, appreciate your comments, and didn’t think you took us off-topic — or if you did, who cares? Thanks.


magistra 12.02.07 at 5:17 pm

I’ve only read the first book of HDM, but the suggestion that it wasn’t preachy seems staggering to me. Sticking in a document obviously modelled on the book of Genesis (as he does towards the end) is not subtle. C. S. Lewis (except possibly in The Last Battle) is far less blatent. I was disappointed that a writer of such obvious imaginative power (more so, I would say, than Lewis or JK Rowling) could do something quite so clunky.


Neel Krishnaswami 12.02.07 at 5:40 pm

I thought that Pullman’s trilogy suffered exponential decay. Each sequel was an order of magnitude worse than the last. The first one seemed like the setup to the best fantasy sequence ever written, the second was excellent and the third merely adequate.

In the first book, it seemed like Pullman was going to redo the revolt of the angels and Paradise lost; cast humanity as the rebel angels; throw in a side order of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor; and do all this with a sober, humange regard for the actual human costs of war. Yeah, I know, but in the first book he really seemed like he could pull it off.

The sequels read to me like he realized how grand his ambitions were and he recoiled in fear. And the books suffer for it.


adam 12.02.07 at 7:51 pm

“the pervasive Christian subtext of HP”

Excuse me? What planet are you from?

The deracinated chistianity of Europe may approve of Potter. Expressed herein are the feeling of the hardier, American variant:


bemused 12.03.07 at 1:20 am

HDM suffered the problems of most good books with sequels, especially trilogies. The middle book doesn’t stand alone, and the last book scrambles to tie up loose ends. The Golden Compass was a wonderful book, and who cares whether Pullman was an atheist while you read it? It is only because the later books have deficiencies that one looks around for other motivations (his anti-religion? his desire to have another best seller following from the first?) Even with the deficiencies, however, I thought the universe he imagined was compelling enough to read to the end, despite believing that the later parts were not the equal of the first book.


SG 12.03.07 at 3:12 am

and btw i think it’s pretty crap to compare books like this with Harry Potter, which is fun and exciting and all that (says someone who hasn’t read past number 3), but isn’t exactly art or anything. Sure crappy art can be treated seriously if it was an early exponent of its field (e.g. the beatles, lord of the Rings) but Harry Potter wasn’t even that. Just a pacy derivative of a highly formalised genre. i don’t really know how it crept in here, except for its monolithicness. ness.


rm 12.03.07 at 3:13 am

I hope you all had a good weekend.

When I used the word “bullying,” I did not mean real-world bullying such as you are concerned might come Pullman’s way. I hope it doesn’t, though I doubt it would include an actual rack or an auto-da-fe on the Oxford greens.

Instead, I meant it to describe my own impression of the author’s relationship to reader in The Amber Spyglass. In my personal impression, Mary Malone’s chapter where she “play[s] the serpent,” and then Lyra’s and Will’s reenactment of the Fall, though understandably motivated (yes, I can understand it), do not show the reader respect. It’s hard to get into why without getting another copy of the book, which I borrowed, and doing a whole close reading, but that was my first-reading feeling. I think Lemony Snicket does a similar rhetorical-fictional argument but keeps his contract with the reader.

Something about how religion in the story is “nothing but” pure oppression for all of human history, but the rebellion is only notionally less oppressive . . . its actual behavior doesn’t convince. I was not satisfied that Roger’s murder was dealt with by means of Asriel’s self-sacrifice. He didn’t do that for Roger, but for Lyra. There was no atonement to Roger, and so the rebellion was begun with a child sacrifice, and I kept thinking “this is The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas in Order to Found New Omelas.”

In contrast, I thought Mrs. Coulter’s development was done very well. Keeping Lyra drugged in the cave was a great allegory for the misguided love that would keep children unnaturally innocent.

I thought it was ironic that the anti-Lewis should be preachy like Lewis. But if you don’t find him preachy, okay.

Regarding the Christian subtext in Harry Potter, dude, look at the symbols. Look at the end of every book, especially #7 where Harry is Jesus. There are three kinds of American Christian readers of HP:
(1) Sane

(2) Puritanically suspicious of literary symbolism, though still in a post-Enlightenment epistemological frame (these are the ones who think it might be unwise to enjoy a story with witches, but not dangerous in the demon-conjuring sense).
(3) Of a different epistemology altogether. Funny thing: the Onion story fooled these folks, and Adam’s link from 2000 only partially retracts its embrace of satire as reality.


Peter Hollo 12.03.07 at 5:55 am

Two comments, one of which was done already, re Jack Fear’s:
…and bears very little resemblance to the life of faith which, y’know, most of the human race now enjoys…

Say what? Most of which human race?
I actually don’t know how to respond to this, but… jebus.

And rm, re:
I thought it was ironic that the anti-Lewis should be preachy like Lewis. But if you don’t find him preachy, okay.

I’m also quite puzzled by this. In quite explicitly wishing to be an anti-Lewis, does Pullman have to be other-than-Lewis in every way? I think it’s quite clear that Pullman wanted to write something that combated Lewis by doing a Lewis, in favour of atheism. It’s meant to be preachy.
I actually didn’t think the first book, or even the second, was too preachy. I’m in two minds about the third book because I relished it so much.


SG 12.03.07 at 6:10 am

I’m disappointed rm, because you have piqued my interest but then backed away in the crucial paragraph. I want to know why the reenactment of the Fall was so bad! I may have to reread the book now because of you!

I also have a vague memory of thinking that the anti-religious rebellion were harsh and oppressive and not to be trusted. I don’t see how this fits in with your view that the book is preachy. Wouldn’t a preachy book make the rebellion all sweetness and light? Shouldn’t we then conclude that the book is not so much atheist as secularist, wanting the child in all of us to be able to explore its own spiritual world, and not trusting any organisational proscriptions on faith? And wouldn’t this be consistent with a world where the existence of the soul is explicitly stated in the form of Daemons? This hardly seems copybook atheism (unless they were clockwork machines or something, I suppose).

Maybe you have come to expect preachiness from the book, and have overlooked the times that it contradicts the main themes one would expect of a fullblown screed?


kid bitzer 12.03.07 at 2:43 pm

“to remove it would take a surgical operation so radical that I would probably not survive it”

probably too obvious to point out how much this resembles the central atrocity of the ‘golden compass’, i.e. surgical excision of children’s souls?


rm 12.03.07 at 3:35 pm

Maybe. I don’t have the book at hand.

Good point, kid.

I thought Roger’s murder should also have been a central atrocity, and instead I thought it was swept under the rug, a regrettable necessity. Roger is a weak-willed cipher in a red Star Trek shirt, so we don’t regret his passing too much once the strong, vital WILL comes in. I may be wrong, SG, which is why I backed away — I’ve only read it once, which isn’t enough to be fair.

But on the preachiness point, Peter, I’m confused right back at ya. In addition to the much-quoted “convincing mistake” line, I remember numerous passages of exposition that Yahweh has provided nothing but propaganda and oppression ever, and there is also the hammered-in point that this is Yahweh Himself, and that He is a Fraud, kids, an Evil Fraud I tell you. And that the rebellion is for freedom. Of course Pullman can do Lewis with a different message, but I thought the preachiness was one of the qualities Pullman hates about Lewis, but I could be wrong; maybe it’s other qualities he hates.

Now, SG, contra my argument, I just realized fully that the rebellion is not what saves the world — Lyra and Will do and they are not in the rebellion. So, okay. But the rebellion is for freedom — I think? — and does require a child sacrifice — so there is my Omelas problem.


Matt Weiner 12.03.07 at 3:56 pm

I just want to say that I’ve agreed with pretty much everything rm has said about HDM (except that I didn’t find Mrs. Coulter’s transformation in the last book particularly interesting either, and I haven’t thought through the Milton stuff in as much detail). In particular, I didn’t find the counter-preachiness of HDM any more appealing than Lewis’s preachiness; I’d rather not be preached at in this way at all.


SG 12.03.07 at 11:36 pm

but rm, lyra and will have the freedom to walk away from Omelas and make their own world, which they take (aren’t they even in another world when they, ah, fall?) Maybe the big flaw in this novel is a failure to delineate the rebellion from the main characters, when perhaps they aren’t synonymous or even very closely related. I would have to reread the book to recall the details, but I’m suspicious you are reading too much into what may be a classic late-season scripting weakness. Maybe the rebellion is just another example of adults manipulating childlike faith, and the children reject it?


Z 12.04.07 at 1:36 pm

I found HDM very ambitious and generally successful in this ambition. The last volume is in my opinion the weakest but I can still feel the chill in my spine as I was reading the last chapter. I do believe that there is a nice message to be heard from these books for Christian praising the kingdom of heaven.

On a very tangential issue, JKR explicitly denied that Lockhart was Pullman and expressed very clearly her admiration for him (see among others J.K. Rowling at the Royal Albert Hall, 26 June 2003 on quick quote).


rm 12.04.07 at 3:38 pm

Z, thank you for the correction. It must have been someone else she was lampooning.

SG, Lyra only has that freedom because the rebellion won it for her. Now, her parents sacrificed themselves instead of continuing the fight, which was not their original plan . . . but it remains true that Lyra is only free because the Kingdom was overthrown, and the Republic became possible because of the hole Asriel ripped open in the universe, and that hole required Roger’s murder. In the first volume, the prophecy seems to say that Lyra is destined to deliver Roger to his fate . . . only in the last volume is her prophesied act revealed to be something else. I don’t think the scripting weakness is a problem wrapping things up, I think it’s a structural flaw. If I found myself in delighted agreement with the underlying views of human nature and the world, I might forgive that fault as a reader, but as a critic I’d still find it a problem. Being who I am, it ruined things for me as a reader too. Roger’s death required a follow-up that was, apparently, never even part of the plan.

Darn it; I didn’t want to be the last one on the thread, but here I am.


richard 12.04.07 at 9:08 pm

I’ll save you from that fate, rm. Am I the only one who sees HDM as particularly satanic, rather than generally atheistic? The tone and concerns are explicitly christian, but the happy ending involves killing god and grabbing the fruit, which is identified as nascent (and fetishised) sexuality. Lyra and Will overcome death through their own actions and judgment, rather than relying on the grace of any other granting entity. Isn’t that rather explicitly the sin of Pride (and almost certainly a reference to Milton)? they don’t free themselves from religious thinking, they become demiurgic power-users of it. I don’t know that Asriel’s rebellion is for freedom: it seems more a coup than a genuine overturning of the system, which even L&W don’t offer (I half expected The Architect from the Matrix movies to pop up and say “this is always happening: everyone Falls”).

I’m with rm regarding the christological elements of HP: it’s writ large, especially at the end of 7. To Adam I can only say that the Earth is bigger than you think, extending even as far as Europe.

As far as the relative artistic merits of HP and HDM are concerned, I don’t think they’re all that far apart. HP is more mainstream in its borrowings and seasonings, but also more consistent. Pullman’s literary stylings may be (usually) a cut above Rowling’s, but he’s no Melville, nor even a Thurber or Chatwin. I’d like to know sg’s definition of art (which includes Pullman but excludes Rowling and only grudgingly includes Tolkein and the Beatles, under the subcategory, “crappy”). I’m also curious about the field, of which Tolkein and the Beatles were (jointly or separately) early exponents.


SG 12.04.07 at 11:41 pm

richard, I am more taken with your view of HDM. It seems explicitly religious to me, though I hadn’t considered the strain of it. That everyone definitively has a soul, visible for all to see, and the great fear of the main character is having it excised (and isn’t Asriel doing experiments on just that? Some good guy…) makes it an unworthy candidate for an atheist screed, in my view. It doesn’t usurp christianity, just rebels. I suppose this is one reason I love the Earthsea novels so much – there is no God, and the cosmology doesn’t demand anything except that one understand the motivations of the characters, even though it is a fantasy novel.

As for my definition of art: I don’t know much about it, but I know what I like.


Roy Belmont 12.05.07 at 7:54 am

richard#39- “Am I the only one who sees HDM as particularly satanic…?”
Given the abundance of humankind at present and given the bogglingly great number of humans who share the Christian worldview generally, and a still pretty big amount of them who, specifically in matters of occult power, like witchcraft, and science, are anxious to have the appearance of a Satanic force confirm the presence of their Saving force by its contrasting presence, and who because of that anxiousness look high and low for evidence of Satanic interference in the slog and toil of already desperate pilgrims through this world of woe, given that specific subset’s still probably at least in the single digit millions I’d say, no, you’re probably not alone in seeing things that way.
As to the relgiosity in Pullman’s trilogy, there’s this flim-flam thing many successful religions run, where if you speak to their actions and dealings in the world and are not supportive there’s a place in the dynamo for your criticizing and resistance – you’re evil.
I was slapped in the face by nuns and Christian Brothers at school, and that figures in my regard of Catholicism and Christianity and the Judeo-Christian pantheon, as well as the education of the young, you betcha.
Anyone raised inside the mission walls of 20th century Christianity, especially those of us like Pullman who are over 50, which is to say most of us over 50 were to some degree, will have that, torn away or atrophied, rhinoplastied or stuffed and mounted like a trophy, it’s there. Rebellion’s about all you get for plot movement if you want to make it art, that or the dry didactic porn of intellectualized utopias. That’s the struggle, especially for the young now, not whether to, but how to rebel effectively. Pullman brings his tale up out of that tension. I don’t see how any artist can work in that light any other way.


richard 12.05.07 at 12:44 pm

re 41: OK, I meant, am I the only one on this thread – obviously, you can find someone out there who thinks absolutely anything you can mention is satanic. They even have a website about it.

Reading his books, I agree that it looks like his opposition is born out of personal trauma, which I suspect is why he’s unable or unwilling to break out of the master narrative. Having never believed in any kind of religion, and having been allowed to set the whole issue down at an early age, I guess I can’t quite see why he doesn’t just walk away in relief, or what he’s trying to do from the inside. So thanks, that’s a useful perspective.


rm 12.05.07 at 2:50 pm

Richard, I must be subconsciously craving the last word . . . no, I just want to say I also see the satanic element as a theme, but I think HDM is satanic within the story, and that the net result of that outside of the story, in reality, is to point the reader toward atheism. A real satanic attack would come waving a Christian flag to “deceive even the elect” . . . ergo, Roy’s experience, and the antichrists of our time George Bush and the Left Behind books. Pullman wears a bright red devil costume, which is too obvious and direct for Satan.

Although as a Christian reader I don’t find Pullman’s Milton-via-Blake-Satan-was-the-hero-of-Paradise-Lost act my cup of tea, I wanted to say that that can be done with good artistic effect, but I found Pullman’s version too manipulative. It seems to me that he presumes an innocent child reader, who is meant to “fall” for real, in reality, in response to Lyra & Will’s fall. He doesn’t ask the reader to consider a way of looking at life as Snicket does; he introduces the reader to sex in thinly disguised metaphor. That’s a bit different from having his characters grow up to be sexual beings, which is Rowling’s way of revising Lewis’s idealization of childhood. That’s what I meant by direct conversion attempt. And by straw target, I meant that he presents a character he calls the real, actual Yahweh, but who does not resemble the God believers believe exists. Roy’s experience of institutionalized abuse is not uncommon, but neither is institutionalized feeding of the poor, visiting of prisoners, etc. Pullman makes this point when he says that good and evil actions can be done in or out of religious contexts, but in his fiction the only face of religion is the evil one. So I think Pullman presents a different argument in interviews than he does in fiction.


SG 12.05.07 at 2:53 pm

maybe because the pressure for atheists to be “balanced” in real life is very great, when we all know that the evils of christianity outweigh its good by a factor of – well, the countless dead to the happy prisoners.


Random 12.05.07 at 7:47 pm

SG, that is an empirically falsifiable claim, and I’m not even a Christian. Better to say ‘I think Christianity is slavery’ and make it clear you’re dealing in your own opinion rather than trying to make historical numbers fit your view, which they don’t.


richard 12.05.07 at 8:27 pm

re 45: eh? How will you provide evidence for the scope of specifically Christian-motivated charity, and on what scale will you weigh it in comparison with murder?

If you’re thinking of the current prison population of the US (an alarmingly high number), it is certainly true that Christian ideals figured in the formation of current penal codes, but how would one evaluate or enumerate such an influence – in particular, what basis would one use for an “unChristian” penal code for comparison? s it

I’m afraid sg doesn’t get off that same hook, either: allegedly religious wars seem often to have whole clusters of causes, and are almost always therefore only partly religious – the proportion of deaths that can be laid at religion’s door is pretty hard to get empirical data on.


Random 12.05.07 at 11:15 pm

I don’t need to provide a positive counterweight. I need to prove ‘countless dead’ isn’t a real number, because that was the level of quantifiable specificity in the argument. Which, you’ll note, I said was specious. This is not really an argument about numbers after all, it’s about anti-Christian prejudice. But just for the sake of engaging at the level of the first jibe, the population of the 20th century was such that more people have died in the past 100 years than at any other time, and most of those murdered were murdered in the name of secular ideologies (but, being a rational person, I don’t blame secularism any more than I blame Christianity for some of its more idiotic adherents). I have no idea how you would come up with the example of the prison population, which is presumably still alive, as a datum for either side.


SG 12.06.07 at 7:26 am

well random, countless doesn’t necessarily mean infinite… unless you have a definite figure for the number of people killed in the conquest of the Americas? And the inquisition? It’s quite a task, counting up all the dead “witches”.

And the difference between blaming, say, the second world war on “secularism” (or any kind of absence of religion) and blaming the crusades on, say, christianity, should be patently obvious. It is also relevant, because many Christians like to claim that their religion is about “goodness”, and don’t like people like Phillip Pullman portraying their religion as evil. Whereas secularism doesn’t characterise itself as any such thing. You won’t hear your average secular British person, for example, saying “secularism is about being a good person”. But you will hear christians saying that about their religion, and demanding “balanced” representation of a religion which caused the Crusades, the Inquisition, the destruction of multiple indigenous populations, the Crimean war, and all the suffering of its own special brand of misogyny, which included some pretty crazy witch burning that almost certainly cannot be laid at the feet of “multiple causes”. Nor can the religious imprimatur for serfdom, or the decision of the National Party in Nazi Germany to pass the Enabling Law in exchange for a deal protecting the Catholic Church’s property and independence.

(And my reference to the prison population was merely a snarky reference to an earlier comment – good christians visit prisons you know, even if a person in Texas might be in prison for buying a dildo, a law passed by good christians…)

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