What's Wrong With His Dark Materials

It isn't that Philip Pullman's trilogy is anti-Christian (though obviously that doesn't make me favorably disposed to it). Nor is it that the saga is badly-written; Pullman is, of course, an immensely talented writer, as anyone who read The Ruby in the Smoke could have told you even before The Golden Compass made him world-famous. No, the problem is that the wheels come rattling off the storytelling wagon in the third volume (The Amber Spyglass, that is), thanks to a combination of preachiness and terrible, terrible plotting. In his great essay on the series, Alan Jacobs blames this squarely on Pullman’s atheism, suggesting that "powerful alternative versions of the biblical narrative can only be told by people who are themselves passionately theological." I was persuaded by this argument, but I didn’t realize how persuasive it really is until I read this critique (via Jeffrey Overstreet) by the fantasy writer John C. Wright, which lays out, piece by piece, how the story Pullman should have been telling, and seemingly set out to tell, was undone by the message he was trying to push. An excerpt follows below the fold:

The plot promised us that the republic of heaven would overthrow the heavenly kingdom. This magnificently blasphemous idea should have been something like Ancient Rome among the clouds, Senators draped in constellations and crowned with glory, with newly-immortal men voting on issues of heaven and hell, debating the destinies of stars and nations, weighing issues of fate and incarnation and reincarnation, meting out rewards and punishments for the quick and the dead, and ending with Jehovah hanged for a tyrant or sent to the Guillotine, while Cain and Ixion and Prometheus and Sisyphus, and all the dead drowned by the Deluge of Noah or the wars of Joshua, stand around hooting [and] throwing fruit. Instead the tyrant dies by falling out of bed.

… 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.

… 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. …

Read the whole thing; it’s well worth your time. As Wright notes, the hook of His Dark Materials - that “the universe is run by a mad God who has to be destroyed” – could have served as “the ultimate in paranoid conspiracy thriller concepts.” Such a thriller needn’t have been any kinder to Christianity than Pullman’s trilogy turned out to be; indeed, if anything, it would have been more hostile still. But it would have been, quite literally, a hell of a better story than the one he ended up telling.