As one madly in love with the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, I suppose I had no choice in the matter. Upon hearing of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, I knew it would join The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia on my list of mandatory reading. I hoped to discover yet another writer capable of immersing my imagination in spiritual themes by whisking me off to other worlds. As our earlier Finding God books have shown, fairy stories carry us away to places our more sensible inclinations might avoid. In the process, we are caught off guard by truths we’ve known our entire lives—even to the point of boredom—with an infusion of surprise and wonder.
As I read Pullman’s series, I was not disappointed. He clearly has the gift and knows how to weave spiritual themes into the fabric of a well-told tale. And yet I don’t remember when an author’s work has left me more disturbed.
Like his fantasy-genre predecessors Tolkien and Lewis, Philip Pullman lives in Oxford, England. Although he has never achieved the scholarly merits or academic status of either man, he did teach part-time for several years at Oxford’s Westminster College before dedicating himself to writing full-time. So while only on the fringe of the academy, Pullman’s imagination has fl ourished in the city many consider the capital of fantasy literature. And it shows. His brilliant craftsmanship betrays a love for some of the most infl uential British authors of all time.
Like the men who gave us Bilbo Baggins and Queen Lucy, Pullman has written books that have sold millions and millions of copies. In fact, they have emerged as one of the most widely read fantasy series produced in the past decade, trailing only Harry Potter in popularity among adolescent readers. Pullman’s books are so popular, in fact, that New Line Cinema chose His Dark Materials as its fi rst major fantasy fi lm series to follow Peter Jackson’s blockbuster trilogy The Lord of the Rings.
Similar to the writings of Tolkien and Lewis, His Dark Materials is carried along by profoundly spiritual undercurrents that, at times, overpower plot and character. It would be difficult to read his series without tripping over Pullman’s overtly religious agenda, which, in my mind, was where the similarities between Pullman and his famous Oxford ancestors end and my concern over his growing influence began.
As we examined in Finding God in The Lord of the Rings and Finding God in The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a world that bubbles up from solidly Christian theology. Masterfully subtle in his approach, Tolkien pioneered a genre of literature that allows the author to carry readers on to a stage where themes such as good over evil and heroic self-sacrifi ce can be encountered. By no means trite or cute, the world of Tolkien contains disturbing images and oppressive shadows. But in the end, light breaks through in what he called “eucatastrophe,” thrilling our hearts as the bright surprise of redemption overtakes the ominous cloud of darkness. Millions of readers have enjoyed themes rooted in Tolkien’s Christian faith, though most of them have no idea of the true source of their pleasure.
C. S. Lewis also used fairy stories to help readers encounter God, most notably in his seven Chronicles of Narnia tales. Inspired by the writings of his predecessor George MacDonald and influenced by his love of ancient mythology, Lewis used an approach similar to Tolkien’s—though much more overt. While the Narnia stories are not allegory, they do grow out of a central supposition. Suppose there existed another world, peopled by animals rather than human beings. Suppose that world fell, like ours, and had in it someone who was the equivalent of Christ. Aslan entered Narnia in the form of a lion just as Jesus came into this world in the form of a man.
Based upon this notion, Lewis created a fantasy world that depicts the central theme of our real world—redemption through the incarnate God’s death and resurrection. As we explained in Finding God in the Land of Narnia, the magical part is that this mythical Christ somehow draws us closer to the Real Christ. Why? Because, as Lewis would say, a fantasy tale has none of the “stained glass and Sunday school associations” that diminish one’s sense of wonder.
So Philip Pullman stands in good company in using the genre of fantasy literature to carry spiritual themes. His inventive brilliance rivals that of J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, who are also master storytellers and creators of other worlds. Why, then, did I find his series so disturbing? Because, unlike Tolkien’s works of Christian imagination or Rowling’s relatively innocent fun, many of Pullman’s spiritual undercurrents run in direct opposition to the God of Christianity.
Some have gone so far as to call Pullman “the most dangerous author in Britain”1 because his trilogy presents a universe in which rebellion against a tyrannical “Authority” is encouraged, the church is depicted as an oppressive institution that suppresses truth and freedom, and “his dark materials” (a concept borrowed from Milton’s Paradise Lost, regarding Satan’s rebellion) open our eyes to the “truth” that we came into existence out of our own energy rather than being created by some illegitimate, decrepit deity.
Despite Pullman’s obvious vitriol against the orthodox Christian faith, however, some believers find themselves agreeing with many of his characterizations and attacks against the organized church. In some ways, the “God” he seeks to murder deserves to die. The question we must ask, however, is whether his plot ultimately targets Jehovah Himself.
If it does, what are we to make of the hints of a familiar moral center within the series? For, as we will explore throughout this book, Pullman can’t entirely get away from a spirituality he seems eager to escape, due to a “spiritual impulse” he both acknowledges and shares.
The religious impulse [is one] which I would characterize as the impulse to feel awe, wonder, a sense of mystery, a sense of delight in being alive, and in being a part of this great, extraordinary universe. That I can’t gainsay and I wouldn’t gainsay because that’s something that I feel myself. It’s a very important part of what makes us human beings; this sense of wonder and delight and mystery.2
Truer words have never been spoken. Our sense of wonder, delight, and mystery attest to our humanity—the very part of us most connected to God because it refl ects His image—Imago Dei. That’s why Pullman’s “spiritual impulse” has compelled him to offer unwitting tribute to the very God his work intended to attack.
A person only casts a shadow when standing near the lamp. Pullman may have turned his back to the light, choosing to see only the extended form of his own dark shadow. But the story he tells strongly suggests the existence of an illuminating bulb we Christians know as the light of the world. A light, says the apostle John, that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5, esv).
One reason Jim and I chose to write this book is to help parents navigate the His Dark Materials cultural buzz certain to engulf their children when the stories make it to the big screen. As with the Harry Potter phenomenon, nearly every child will likely want to devour these books as the stories’ characters hit movie screens and Happy Meals. Moms and dads need to understand the initially latent but eventually overt attacks against the foundations of Christian belief beneath the core story line. To that end, we hope this brief overview proves helpful.
But we also intend to treat Pullman’s series with the respect it deserves as well-crafted art containing much beauty. Our book tries to help readers reflect on rather than replace experiencing Pullman’s own works. To this end, we begin each essay with an imaginative paraphrasing of a scene from His Dark Materials, followed by our thoughts on its significance to the underlying spiritual themes of the series. We consider not just Pullman’s troubling agenda, but the often inspiring inference of an imagination engulfed by the very light it can’t bring itself to face. An imagination that touches truths the author himself might wish to reject.
In that spirit, we invite you to join us as we seek to discover the light behind the shadows cast in His Dark Materials.