Friday, December 07, 2007

His Dark Materials

I haven't read Pullman's "His Dark Materials". This, brilliant, article makes me rather disinclined to change the situation, or go and see the new film:

"You see, the problem with the message method of storytelling is that you have to stop the story to preach the message. The STORY here required that God be an evil Tyrant, as evil (at least) as Sauron the Great, as cunning as Fu Manchu, as mad as Emperor Nero. The story required an all-powerful Goliath to be fought and overthrown by the bravery of a boy with a knife. The MESSAGE required that the Christian God be depicted, not merely as a tyrant, but as a false and shallow and idiotic creature: the Wizard of Oz, nothing more than a puppet-head and a loud voice controlled by a scared little carnival man behind the curtain.

So the story required that the god-killer be at least as impressive as Milton's Lucifer, who, no matter his flaws, certainly has the dramatic stature and the majesty to attempt deicide. Jack the Giant-killer is an impressive character precisely because Giants are big and impressive. But the message requires that God be not merely unimpressive, but despicable: he cannot be an honorable foe, or even a strong one.

Mr. Pullman started with a story, a Paradise Lost version where Lucifer was the good guy facing impossible odds by defying an unconquerable god; but he ended with a message, where there are no odds because there is no god, merely a drooling idiot. So all plot logic flies out the window: the drooling idiot cannot be and could not be responsible for Original Sin or the Flood of Noah, or the Spanish Inquisition, or whatever crimes God should have been accused of, because he cannot do anything, any more than the puppet head of the Wizard of Oz.

The story required that Asrael be guilty of terrible experiments on children, but that his crimes be necessary in order to discover the secret of the dust and undo the evils done by the Christian God, which have to be much greater than any merely human crime. But the message required that the human condition be merely materialistic, and that there could be no God, and therefore no crimes.

A good story would have shown all the innocent people from Ethiopia, Australia and China tormented in the fires of hell, merely for the whimsical violation of the Christian rule that they are sons of Adam not baptized by a messiah of whom they never could have heard. The writer would only need to show us one ghost, dead of sudden disease as a child one hour before his baptism, being crushed forever between the red-hot plates of a coffin of heated iron spikes, while crying for his mommy, in order to arouse the proper indignation. The crimes of God have to be, for such a story, cosmic crimes. Jehovah has to be shown as a being powerful enough to stop the wheel of reincarnation, which otherwise would have eventually saved all living spirits through many lives of learning and growing, in order to establish an arbitrary paradise and an arbitrary hell. The story of that crime ends when Christianity is overthrown, and the reincarnation cycle which will one day save all people from all suffering is reinstated. (Not to spoil the surprise ending, but this is not so far from the idea that Ursula K. LeGuin handled with such artistic adroitness in THE OTHER WIND, a sequel to her "Earthsea" trilogy.)

But the message cannot be Taoist or Buddhist or even New Age Spiritualism. Mr. Pullman's message is atheist. He cannot have a reincarnation be shown as a better alternative to hellfire, because he does not believe in reincarnation any more than he believes in hellfire. In order for his message to prosper, materialism has to be the order of the day. All the ghosts of the lordly dead, the honored ancestors to whom the pagan shrines are adorned, also have to be false. The ghosts in a Pullman fantasy world have to be bored, and dissolving back into matter has to be the only ecologically sound proposition. It is a boring and undramatic resolution, unconvincing to the point of idiocy, but it is the only one his message would allow.

The message did not allow Mr. Pullman even to list crimes of which the Christian God was accused. If there was a scene where this was done, I missed it. If Jehovah in the story had killed a child or kicked a bunny, I as the reader would have relished the scene of an overdue vengeance being visited on him: the Vengeance of Prometheus for the injustices of Heaven!"

Compare this to the picture of Tolkien's work built up here by Spengler in a superb review of Children of Hurin. I don't agree with the philosophy Tolkein is advancing - I actually think the West is missing pagan heroism and I'm not a Christian - but it has none of the narrow mindedness of the simplistic "there's no God, stupid!" atheism that Pullman appears to be advocating. Tolkein's work has far more depth to it which makes the fact that Pullman "once dismissed the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an "infantile work" primarily concerned with "maps and plans and languages and codes" rather pathetic.


Matt M said...


The universe of 'His Dark Materials' is deist rather than atheist - God (in the traditional sense) set things in motion, then retired for some unknown purpose (though I suspect it has something to do with giving us free will). The "Authority", whom Asrael sets out to destroy, is an angel (self-formed from "dust") who has set himself up (through lies and manipulation) as overlord of the universes.

Given the existence of a creating God, the supernatural and non-material souls (plus afterlife), it takes an incredibly distorted reading of the books to see them as in any way "atheist".

The trilogy is anti-dogma and anti-authoritarianism, not anti-religious. The fact that so many commentators seem to confuse the two is quite telling.

Anonymous said...

It's a great pity that these wonderful, subtle, and beautiful books have been reduced to this level of sarcastic argument. It would be a shame if you chose not to read them. Pullman's "message" is considerably less preachy and more nuanced than you might think.

Wolfie said...

Agreed. Thanks for the link to the great Children of Hurin review.

I did not find Pullman nuanced at all.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone's going to get any satisfaction from reading Pulman if they go in earnestly scrabbling for the ultimate 'meaning', the philosophy behind it, especially if they do so purely out of a desperate eagerness to 'disprove' its logic or dismiss its power. To get to the meaning in a book - in any art - you have to actually engage with it and enjoy it for what it is (in this case a fantasy story) and let it come to you through the experiences of the characters.

I've just finished Northern Lights. It's a good book, and it's foolish to suggest that Tolkien's monovoiced characters and heavy-handed symbolism are more nuanced.

Personally, I've resisted reading it because I'm not that interested in a genre whose father figure and guiding light never rose above leaden prose, and I consider the debate about God to be closed - I don't think I've ever seen a pro-religious argument advanced that has ever amounted to more than clutching at straws and trying to bolster cripplingly weak logic with an aggressive attitude.

But I was finally convinced to give it a go, and it's clear to me that anyone who isn't desperate to prove a point and who has any sense of literary judgment can hardly deny it's a very well written book that shows a lot of daring, imagination and contains a lot of truth, as well as food for thought.

I'm not going to go round enthusiastically recommending everyone read them to everyone I know, but neither am I going to stand for agenda-laden fools offering baseless and stupid criticism.