If you’ve been to the movies lately (or watched much TV), these images from the Dec. 7 film The Golden Compass (starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig) may have caught your attention … and perhaps even whetted your appetite for fantasy and adventure.
Which is, of course, exactly what New Line Cinema is hoping.
To stoke the fires of imagination further, the studio’s early promotional material went so far as to equate this adaptation of author Philip Pullman’s work with The Lord of the Rings. "In 2001, New Line Cinema opened the door to Middle-earth," says one trailer, "This December, they take you on another epic journey." It’s a safe bet, however, that J.R.R. Tolkien wouldn’t be amused by the comparison of his story to that of Pullman (who, coincidentally, also hails from Oxford).
The 1995 book The Golden Compass is the entry point to Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy—a series of fantasy novels aimed at children that loosely draws inspiration from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. This time around, however, "God" gets overthrown and the "Fall" becomes the source of humankind’s redemption, not failure.
These three books, along with at least one (and presumably two more) movies, constitute British agnostic Philip Pullman’s deliberate attempt to foist his viciously anti-God beliefs upon his audience.
A Different Kind of Wardrobe
The Golden Compass begins with a precocious 12-year-old girl named Lyra clambering into a wardrobe to avoid detection … a choice that unwittingly launches her into a universe-altering adventure. (Sound familiar?) Lurking in the wardrobe, she hears her uncle, an iconoclastic explorer named Lord Asriel, describe a mysterious substance called Dust to a group of scholars.
Several events then occur almost simultaneously: Lyra is given a truth-telling device called an alethiometer (the golden compass) and told to keep it secret; she begins to hear rumors of children disappearing without a trace; and she’s whisked into the care of a glamorous but ruthless agent of the church named Mrs. Coulter. Lyra soon discovers that the church is also desperate to learn about Dust—a substance they believe is somehow connected to original sin—and that Mrs. Coulter is spearheading chilling experiments on children in her pursuit of "truth." Specifically, she’s separating children from their dæmons (pronounced demon), animal spirits that physically embody each person’s soul and accompany them throughout life.
As The Golden Compass draws to a close, the forces of good (represented by the church-rejecting Lord Asriel) have begun to array themselves against the forces of tyranny and wickedness (represented by Mrs. Coulter and churchmen who blend the worst of, say, the Spanish Inquisition and Adolf Hiter’s dreaded SS). The battle will span not only Lyra’s world, but many other alternate worlds. In Vol. 2, The Subtle Knife, Lyra meets 12-year-old Will, who comes into possession of a potent blade with the power to slice portals between those worlds. The Amber Spyglass concludes the series, with angels, armored bears, witches, a shaman, a lapsed nun-turned-physicist and other fantastical creatures marshalling their resources against the hated Authority—the "god" whose reign they can tolerate no longer—even as the mystery of Dust is finally resolved.
There are no shortage of parallels between His Dark Materials and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. Lyra instead of Lucy. A wardrobe. Alternate worlds. Talking animals. Cosmic consequences linked to a final battle. Oh, and witches—this time on the side of so-called good rather than evil.
But beyond those superficial similarities, Pullman represents the polar opposite of Lewis. Pullman has repeatedly—and with apparent glee—lashed out at both Lewis and the faith he represents. "I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with a deep and bitter passion," he told one interviewer, "with their view of childhood as a golden age from which sexuality and adulthood are a falling-away."
Such venom isn’t the exception when it comes to Pullman’s stance on all things Christian. He told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, "Atheism suggests a degree of certainty that I’m not quite willing to accede. I suppose technically, you’d have to put me down as an agnostic. But if there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against. As you look back over the history of the Christian church, it’s a record of terrible infamy and cruelty and persecution and tyranny. How they have the bloody nerve to go on Thought for the Day and tell us all to be good when, given the slightest chance, they’d be hanging the rest of us and flogging the homosexuals and persecuting the witches."
Given such ferocious antipathy for Christianity, it’s only a matter of time before those beliefs sneak into heavy-handed sermonettes, delivered by the story’s protagonists, such as this one from a witch: "There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did—not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." Without exception, Pullman characterizes churches and anyone connected to them as agents of wickedness, oppression, torture, murder and malevolence.
A Tale of Two Insights
Still, Pullman wants his readers to believe he’s more interested in telling a good story (and his is engaging at points) than delivering a particular message. On his personal Web site, he writes, "The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain. Anyway, I’m not in the message business; I’m in the ‘Once upon a time’ business."
Don’t believe him.
Not the least because Pullman contradicts himself when he talks about his understanding of how stories naturally influence people’s beliefs. "All stories teach," he’s said, "whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions. … We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts: We need books, time and silence. ‘Thou shalt not’ is soon forgotten."
That is a more honest and insightful statement than the first one.
Therefore, it’s a fair question for those curious about this story to ask what it is teaching. At the most basic level, His Dark Materials is an attempted refutation of the Christian faith: "The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all," says an influential character named Mary Malone, who then goes on to relate her own "testimony" of why she abandoned her calling as a nun.
Other messages woven into this story exalt witchcraft, evolution, divination, homosexuality and premarital sex. Accompanying them are smoking, drinking, occasional mild profanity and moments of visceral violence.
That Pullman’s message is blasphemous and heretical goes without saying. What’s more diabolical—a word carrying with it an original Greek meaning that literally means to separate into two pieces—is the fact that he’s aimed his well-written tale and its messages directly at children. "I wanted to reach everyone," he says, "and the best way I could hope to do that was to write for children." Pullman’s strategy for inculcating his beliefs involves planting these bad seeds in the minds of those who may not have the discernment to understand what he’s doing.
Beliefnet‘s Rod Dreher writes that that’s exactly why he intends to protect his children from Pullman’s poisonous influence. "One expects that religious parents will keep their children away from the [Golden Compass] film. ‘But why?’ the question arises from liberals. ‘What are you afraid of?’ My children losing God, especially before they have a firm hold on Him, that’s what. At some point they will question the existence of God. I did. It’s normal to do so. I want more than anything else I want for my children, even their own happiness in this life, for them to believe in God, who is their salvation. If you believe in God, and that the loss of God is the worst thing that can happen to a person, then you would sooner give your child a rattlesnake to play with than expose him or her at an early age to the work of a man who openly says he wishes to destroy God in the minds of his audience."
Trying to Kill God
Pullman has said unambiguously, "My books are about killing God." But despite a great deal of publicity on this subject, the series never addresses the issue of God’s existence with any real certainty. There is a character who masquerades as God, known as the Authority. But we discover he was simply the first being to evolve—and there’s definitely a heavy emphasis on evolution in this story—out of Dust into conscious existence.
As to whether or not a real Creator is responsible for everything, however, another character says simply, "There may have been a creator, or there may not: We don’t know." Ultimately, then, the story remains agnostic about God’s existence. And with regard to death and the afterlife, Pullman first imagines a dark underworld where all the dead go, regardless of their actions or beliefs. The dead are then released by Lyra, and their molecules are dispersed throughout the world.
Pullman tries desperately to convince us that this vision of annihilation after death is a hopeful one. One of the dead contemplating this fate says, "This child has come offering us a way out, and I’m going to follow her. Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We’ll be alive again in thousands of blades of grass and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was."
If that doesn’t sound much like happily ever after, that’s because, well, it isn’t. In the final analysis, Pullman has nothing of substance to offer when it comes to concocting an alternative to the Christian faith he detests so venomously. Which is why, perhaps, flowery-but-empty passages and promises like the one above seem to echo those of a well-known serpent.
And lest that comparison sound too harsh, the author himself seems quite comfortable with the association. "[English poet William] Blake said that Milton was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it," Pullman has said. "I am of the Devil’s party and know it."