Have you ever wanted to read a book for the longest time and never got around to do it? Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials holds a special place in my heart, as it was recommended to me by a very dear friend more than a decade ago. Why didn’t I read it for all this time? Various reasons, but finally this past summer I decided to give in and immerse myself in what I can only define as the most tantalizing reading experience of 2016.
If you’ve ever read fantasy book series such as The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, you will definitely understand how truly immersive fantastic worlds are: they just suck you in and take you for a spin. No wonder this is one of the most loved books of the past century, listed on every must read list you can get your hands on! It’s a great read for kids and adults alike, even though it does have very different levels of comprehension and analysis according to the reader’s proficiency in science, philosophy and religious studies.
The story is divided into three books: Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass in some countries), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, and tells the adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her companions in their mission to ultimately save the universe. The plot is complex and lengthy and you can find it elsewhere, but the point is that as the storyline progresses, the whole universe unfolds like a fractal: the more you delve in, the richer and deeper it gets.
When I set out to write this review I was a bit uncertain of what to write: the only useful thing I had to say was “Read it. It’s awesome!”. I found the moral grounds of the trilogy deliciously solid, because although the story is definitely fantastic, it is based firmly in positive values like friendship, honor, love and loyalty, which reverberate across the pages in the actions of several characters, however (apparently) distant from the main plot line. The infringement of these values in the form of treachery or outright betrayal is always punished by leveraging the characters’ bad behavior against them. It’s a universe of definite moral balance, where nothing happens for nothing, which I think is a great thing to teach to young children. It’s one of those books that one feels very strongly about, one way or the other: it’s like a litmus test, you never know how those around you truly feel about it, and it always makes for great conversation.
There has even been a sad attempt at a movie transposition for the first book, with an outstanding cast and a terrible execution. I would never have imagined that a Christmas fantasy movie could freak out Christians to the degree that it did. And here’s where it all gets interesting: people are scared of this book. So scared, in fact, that while some would love to see it burn, others frantically write essays and articles in the attempt to expose the author’s alleged propaganda for atheism, or publish guides directed to Christian parents on how to talk about the books and movie with their children. Just think of the despair of a Christian parent trying to explain the eternal love between two angels who are, presumably (at least in the books), male!
Many of these scared fanatics have criticized the lack of factual accuracy regarding the Magisterium in the books, completely disregarding the fact that the church depicted in this fantasy world is not the Catholic church, nor any other church on Earth for that matter. One must remember that the plot line is fantastic in the most strict sense of the term – we’re talking about a book where a boy cuts slits in the fabric of the universe to open doors to other worlds using a magical knife! However, the dynamics of power and control are quite familiar to anyone who has ever read a newspaper or has a minimum of knowledge of the Catholic Church’s history. Presumably what makes Pullman’s writing so scary for Christians and Christian parents in particular is that it shows a Church that is very similar but not quite the one that has been blindly instilled in young children, which makes it easier for them to analyze, criticize and – most terrifying of all – reject.
When searching for articles criticizing the book, author and movie, you will find almost two million results in English against a little more than 42K in Italian: an interesting indicator of the fact that Catholics worldwide are even more indoctrinated than in the country that hosts the Vatican City. I read dozens of these articles so you wouldn’t have to, and here are a few selected bits that caught my eye.
“Pullman’s most dangerous error concerning the Church is probably too subtle for younger readers to spot. Because the trappings of Catholicism have been retained by an essentially Calvinist belief system, the story suggests that theological differences among Christians are meaningless. What matters most to the Church is power and control over the masses. This is Karl Marx’s old canard that religion is the opiate of the masses, repackaged for children.” – I’ve read this a number of times and I still can’t understand why that should be a bad thing. Perhaps it is, if you’re trying to teach your children a version of reality that denies (or simply silences) centuries of history and philosophy.
But wait, there’s more: here are two of the most terrible, horrible sins of His Dark Materials, according to a Christian scholar.
- Endorsement of relativism as an acceptable system of belief
- Depiction of the Catholic Church as evil, and religion in general as obscurant
Again, I have difficulties understanding why this should be a bad thing. They’re both true, which makes the Christian desire one of forgetfulness (forget the massacres, rapes, invasions and killings perpetrated by the Catholic Church, forget the children abused by priests even as you read these lines, forget the money laundering and criminal involvements of the Vatican). A veil of silence that Philip Pullman dared to raise using an artifice of fiction, a connivance that His Dark Materials has destroyed by making children ask questions, so many questions!
I sometimes wonder if these parents ever read the Bible to their kids, and I mean the whole thing, not just the bits and pieces that they like and make for cute illustrations. They say that the Bible is the longest book Christians have never read, and in the vast majority of cases it is true. If ending a plague by making a gift of magical golden hemorrhoids or the idea of forcing your daughter to marry her rapist are OK for you, then the story of His Dark Materials should be OK as well.
Another strong critique is against the “daemons”, animal embodiments of inner-selves, that make the story “too endearing and likable” for kids, who would therefore be more prone to accepting the teachings of the book. I’ll leave the absurdity of that claim to itself, but I confess I completely lost it at “I must impute to the His Dark Materials series, whether in novel or film format, an NC-17 rating for its power to destroy one’s worldview.” Why not? Why not accept change, discussion, why not admit that maybe we’re wrong and that our worldview actually deserves to be destroyed in order to make a better one? These people are so afraid that their kids’ castles in the air will come crumbling down that they’re willing to deny, lie, hide and justify anything. A book that is capable of destroying such a mindset, I call “brilliant“. An author who is able to make kids think with their own brains and recognize abuse and horror when they see it, I call “hero“.
Bottom line, read it. It’s awesome.