Praise recanted

In my mostly positive review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I mentioned reading the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass. Regarding that novel I said:

I read Book One of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, "The Golden Compass," during my flight to Atlanta, and I was completely engrossed. It is just the right length for the story (399 pages); is fairly free of dead spots, deus ex machina moments, and long-winded, incomprehensible explanations; and I dare say that Pullman has created a more detailed, expansive universe than Rowling (heresy!, Potter-ites exclaim). As soon as I finished the first book, I was eager to get my hands on the second one and begin reading right away. In fact, I’m ready to blind-buy the whole series based solely on the strength of that first book.

I didn’t end up buying the entire series, but I did read the next two novels in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Unfortunately, the superior quality of the first book does not carry over well into the others. While I found a great deal to enjoy in The Subtle Knife, it established a central narrative arc which began to trouble me, and which was not at all mentioned or convincingly foreshadowed in The Golden Compass. It involves a certain character’s war against the Authority (definitively identified in The Amber Spyglass as the Judeo-Christian God) and an attempt to pull down the Kingdom of Heaven, with the rebellious angels thrust out of heaven before Earth’s creation leading the charge. The Amber Spyglass took that arc to its natural conclusion; in other words, mission accomplished. The world is now a better place, apparently.

It is quite clear to me now (through post-publication essays and interviews, some of which even contradict each other) that Pullman’s trilogy was intended to be a response to Christian-themed works such as C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series; indeed, all faith-based systems acknowledging a Creator God come under attack here, but particularly Judaism and Christianity. What really bothers me is just how far off the mark Pullman’s interpretations of Old Testament scripture are. I mean, if he really wanted to write a grounded critique of Judeo-Christian belief, he should have avoided the utterly laughable connections he draws here with (for instance) angels, God, and particularly Enoch, who in this series is renamed "Metatron," is consumed with the lust for power, and was appointed Regent over the universe by the Authority because the latter apparently got too old and feeble and decided he was unable to manage it on his own. Hmm, I must have missed that part in Genesis. It’s goofy, goofy stuff.

It’s especially clear that Pullman views Christianity as a sorry substitute for "truth" and "wisdom" by his utter contempt for it. In fact, there isn’t a single intelligent (or for that matter, uncorrupt) Christian to be found anywhere in this series. The lack of a balanced portrayal of the Christian issue simply destroys the credibility of Pullman’s argument. Pullman may just be doing what Lewis did with Narnia, namely, presenting one worldview to the exclusion of all others. But to that I respond: if you intended to respond to Lewis, why didn’t you do his work one better instead of merely replicating its weaknesses?

All of this is rather sad, really, as I found so much to love in these books. The two central protagonists, Lyra and Will, are among the most complex and fully-realized young adult characters I’ve ever encountered in literature. I loved being with them throughout their epic journey. And the ending to their story is perfectly bittersweet. What a shame, and an awful waste really, of such memorable characters in the service of shoddy storytelling.

I have a feeling that Pullman devised the central arc of his trilogy after he wrote The Golden Compass. For one, his explanations in later books for events from that first book feel shoehorned in rather than organic extensions of Compass‘s plot threads. For another, his brief preface at the beginning of Compass, which indicates the settings for the two books to come, is later proved false. Knife and Spyglass are nothing like they were said to be. I would love to know what his original plan was, if one apart from the present course was devised.

At this point, I don’t think it was such a great idea to turn these books into movies- at least, if the filmmakers intend to completely preserve Pullman’s intent. Once audiences catch on to what’s happening in The Subtle Knife, they will revolt in such large numbers that it would be highly unlikely for The Amber Spyglass to get bankrolled.

And if it does – whoo boy, do audiences have a surprise in store for them.

The Golden Compass9/10

The Subtle Knife7/10

The Amber Spyglass5/10

2 Responses to “Praise recanted”

  1. It’s been a while since I’ve read Narnia (or The Golden Compass) and I haven’t read the other two books (knowing only what you’ve told me), but it seems to me that Lewis and Pullman are very different in their handling of the subjects. With Lewis, there are Christian overtones, but it is not an attack on any other worldview. The attack is on evil, on those who lust for power/complete control. Pullman, however, not only presents his own worldview (ie people are better without religion “holding them back”), but then proceeds to turn Christianity into a twisted “straw man”–making it clear that he is referring to Christianity, yet conveniently changing so many details that it is easy for him to “take it down” in his books. So, though they both present a single “viewpoint,” I would say a major difference is that Lewis writes from his worldview, while Pullman attacks the worldview of others.

  2. I have to agree with both Bryan and Cassia! I find it to be such a shame when a talented writer sacrifices his story for his politics. And on that line, a truly talented writer should be able to blend the two without sacrificing quality. Again, the Amber Spyglass was a book that I trudged through out of desire to see how the trilogy ended (disappointing!) rather than interest in the continuing story itself. My bad.

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