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.