In a bone-picking mood, I will sometimes imagine that I have a problem with the English writer Philip Pullman, best known for the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. I don’t like the flavor of his frequently expressed atheism, for example; I find it peremptory, literalistic. (The idea conveyed by the great mystic Simone Weil, that “absence is the form in which God is present,” Pullman has characterized as “cheek on a colossal scale.”) And I don’t like his polemical sideswipes at J. R. R. Tolkien: “There isn’t a character in the whole of Lord of the Rings who has a tenth of the complexity … of even a fairly minor character from Middlemarch.” In fact, now that I think about it, these are two sides of the same coin. Just as it seems like bad manners not to send the odd beam of gratitude, however agnostic, back into the heart of light and the source of your own being, so does it feel ungracious when Pullman bashes one of the prime creators of the imaginative space in which he himself—as a best-selling fantasy author—is operating.
But then again: Who am I to tell Pullman how to existentially orient himself? Besides, his anti-God-ness and his anti-Tolkienism are of a piece—twin facets of a moral and aesthetic position that he has taken the trouble to explain to us, over the years, with some thoroughness. (I recommend Daemon Voices, his 2017 collection of essays and critical writing.) The panorama of Christian doctrine has no more resonance for him than Middle Earth, “a place that never existed in a past that never was.” Storytelling, for Pullman, is a way into our world—not out of it. He loves folktales and fairy tales for their clarity and everydayness; he loves William Blake; he loves what we might call the Luciferian or deity-defying side of John Milton. He even, in a cranky and rather beautiful way, loves Jesus. (We’ll come back to that.) But he hates the bloody Church.
You’ll pick this up quite quickly when you watch the first episode of HBO’s new dramatization of His Dark Materials. A body called the Magisterium holds a centuries-long dominion over the earthly realm. It spews doctrine; it crushes heresy; it circumscribes knowledge and inhibits discussion. Its priests are everywhere, like secret police. It’s also stealing children.
This is English dissent, closer to 1984 than The Hobbit. An amped-up, totalitarian version of the Catholic Church is running the show, twisting your mind and smashing your dreams like Metallica’s “Master of Puppets,” and the stage is set for a good-versus-evil face-off between dogma/censorship and the heroic spirit of free inquiry.
The latter is represented by the swaggering Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), who bursts into the hushed scholarly precincts of Jordan College, Oxford, with a severed head in a cooler and some photographs that appear to suggest the existence of Dust—a mysterious, elemental substance secreted by the universe in response to human consciousness.
The Magisterium abhors the idea of Dust; Dust interferes with the top-down distribution of celestial power. “This kind of heresy is of the highest priority to the Magisterium,” hisses a hollow-eyed cleric to his snaky enforcer. “I shall take it to the cardinal.” “Yes, Father,” says the snaky enforcer.
His Dark Materials is a kind of romance of unbelief. In the North, in the shimmering bands of the aurora borealis, reality becomes transparent; other worlds are glimpsed, worlds beyond the reach of the Magisterium. The North means knowledge, which is the story’s glittering magnetic pole. Young Lyra, the foundling heroine with urchin tendencies, yearns instinctively to go there.
In Pullman’s fiction, Lyra’s choice is to travel, to investigate, to think freely—or to have her spirit be mangled by the ghastly devices of the Magisterium. In the real world, our world, there is of course another Church: the Church of Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day, of radical advocacy, of finding Jesus in dispossession, at the edge of society. But this Church, which has an energy quite as emancipated and revolutionary as anything Lyra will find in the North, is not the caricature that Pullman’s romance requires.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Pullman’s 2010 counterfactual retelling of the events of the Gospels, is for me a more fiercely imaginative encounter with Christianity, and a fairer fight. Here’s Jesus, and Jesus is okay—more than okay; he’s a rebel and a trickster and an overturner, in love with the people, a proper republican in the Pullman sense of the word: instinctively fraternal and anti-institutional, spreading his rough-and-ready enlightenments across the horizontal axis.
Pullman’s Jesus doesn’t do miracles—no magic here—but he does change people. The paralyzed man is “so strengthened and inspired by the atmosphere Jesus had created” that he picks up his bed and walks. Jesus’s words are hugely powerful, rendered by Pullman as if in a first-class idiomatic translation: “Those who look at poverty and hunger without concern, and turn away with a laugh on their lips, will be cursed; they will have plenty to mourn about; they will weep for ever.”
But then there’s Jesus’s creepy, truth-twisting brother, Christ. Christ is in thrall to a dodgy stranger who can see into the future. Christ follows Jesus around taking notes, fiddling with the facts where necessary, laying the fake-news groundwork for what will come, what must come, after Jesus has been dispatched by the authorities: the Gospels, the Church, the whole sorry business. “When the records of this time and of Jesus’s life are written,” the stranger tells this lurking Christ, “your account will be of enormous value.”
By the end of his ministry, Pullman’s Jesus is an atheist. “Lord, if I thought you were listening,” he says during the Agony in the Garden, his sweating-blood conversation with an empty heaven, “I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest.” What a lovely, biblical irony—that Pullman’s Jesus-without-God should be wielding, at the last moment, the genuine dynamite of the Gospel.
Is Philip Pullman a secret believer, religious despite himself? Uh, no. No church for him, no pews and no priests. But his medium is the imagination, and the imagination is a mystery: It precedes us and it outlasts us; it surrounds our own little disc of consciousness. The imagination is holy. Pullman knows this and honors it.
“The experience of reading poetry aloud when you don’t fully understand it,” he wrote in an introduction to Paradise Lost, “is a curious and complicated one. It’s like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ.” This is very funny, and also very profound. That thing within us that is not of us; the itch for the clean light of the North; the self-discovering depth in the act of declaiming Milton; the strength, suddenly, to pick up your bed and walk—call it what you want. It’s the Spirit.
This article appears in the November 2019 print edition with the headline “Can Atheism Animate Great Fantasy?”