Phillip Pullman, “His Dark Materials”

“Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
OF neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked awhile,
Pondering his voyage…”

– John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II

So begins Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The books of the trilogy – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass – compose some one thousand pages. The epic fantasy narrative takes the reader through many different worlds and characters. Textures, colors, shapes, and moments that make up HDM provide a highly sensual experience as one reads. At the same time, the intellectually and philosophically challenging material requires you to engage fully and spiritually with the text.

What’s it about?

[Spoilers ahead. Also, please read the comments to follow the evolution of this post.]

Rather than laying out the tale as it progresses, I want to reflect on the story as a whole.

Simply put, the overarching theme of the tale is “Dust”. In every parallel universe, Dust is the perfect confluence of matter and spirit; it is beautiful and anonymous, emotive and omnipresent. Dust exists in every world, and came into being when the first creatures became cognizant of themselves. Thus, Dust is most attracted to the moment when “innocence becomes experience”; it avoids children whose souls have not yet become fully formed, and is instead drawn most to adults.

Underneath the scope of Dust, the whole trilogy is concerned with a deep, deep conflict. On one hand, the Authority (God) has long boasted that he is the creator of all things. Subservient to his will, authoritarian and dogmatic churches control the world. In an Oxford parallel to ours, one such example is the Papacy; in the tale, it has now become a complex web of church-driven governmental agencies and offices (“the Magisterium”).

Underneath the Magisterium, a secret and covert agency (“the General Oblation Board”) seeks to control the mystery of Dust. Because Dust does not settle on children, the GOB severs children from their souls, and therefore prohibits Dust from being involved in their lives. This creates soulless, mindless, empty, obedient slaves. Directly responsible and keenly interested in this process, Mrs Coulter is the nemesis of the tale.

On the other hand, Lord Asriel is a rebellious, imaginative, innovative explorer. As a rebel and experimental theologian, he works for no one. As the tale begins, his mission becomes clear: he wants to break out of his own world, destabilize the Authority and the churches below it, and establish a new “republic of heaven” freed from dogmatic slavery. His relationship with Dust is mysterious, but it seems that he wants to simultaneously protect Dust and use it to his own advantage.

Caught in between these two opposing forces, Lyra (of the parallel Oxford) is the daughter of Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel. Through complex circumstances, she becomes the possessor of a magical golden compass, a mysterious dial that tells her the truth through intense meditative engagement. As her ally, she becomes friends with Will, a troubled and passionate young man from our own world. Through equally complex circumstances, he comes into possession of the Subtle Knife, a knife that can cut a window into any of the millions of parallel universes.

Using these two tools, Lyra and Will must race to stop the Authority, end the dogmatic rule of the Magisterium, eliminate the GOB and save children’s souls. Above all, they must protect the Dust and restore the worlds it enriches. With the help of polar bears, witches, a Texan zeppelin operator, ghosts, harpies, gay angels, and Lilliputian spies, the pair zip through multiple universes and survive countless harrowing adventures.

In the end, Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel both fail in their respective missions, but the Dust and all the worlds are able to be restored to a safe, vibrant, protected future.

That’s the set-up for the book. I laid it all out up front because I wanted to lay some solid groundwork for discussing themes of the text.

What did I think of it?

As far as a fantasy narrative is concerned, HDM is incredible. It’s fast, dramatic, beautiful, vibrant, and colorful. The characters and emotional themes are engaging and well-developed. Love, courage, life, sex, death, environmentalism, post-colonialism… all of these themes and more race across the pages and into the heart as one reads. I could barely turn the pages fast enough to keep up with my desire to continue the tale, and when it was finished, I was very sad to see it completed.

No, it is not as a literary piece that I’d like to discuss HDM. Instead, I am interested in the philosophical and theological picture that emerges.

On the one hand, there are definite things I love about the tale:

1. Dust. Dust is a beautiful, mythical, ingenious concept. It fits beautifully with how I feel about the way the universe works. I have always believed in some kind of universal undercurrent that eddies and flows about our lives, connecting and withdrawing from everyone and everything at once. Pullman’s depiction and emphasis on Dust is a masterstroke.

2. Pullman’s anti-dogmatic vision. The crusade to save Dust and restore the natural order of the world requires the rejection of corrupt, abusive power structures in church and government. I totally agree with Pullman’s views in this regard. I am especially in favor of his views on a “republic of heaven”. Ultimately, there can’t be one, because goodness and light is inside all of us! Spiritual truth is, simply, wherever we are!

3. Pullman’s vision of hell and heaven. Now, he never comes right out and states his vision. (It is a fantasy story after all, not a metaphysical treatise.) However, a certain vision of hell and heaven does emerge in the tale, and this is my interpretation of it. Simply put, hell is what happens when you did not love life enough. If you cannot provide a personal story full of love and passion and joy, you will not be able to pay your way to heaven. But if you can, you can travel and climb your way up to the light – and when you reach it, your soul becomes selfless and one with every atom in the universe. With a transcendent joy, you come out into the light of a beautiful pasture of trees and clouds, and immediately you become one with every dewdrop, sunbeam, leaf, sigh, tree, kiss, and moment in this universe. I think that’s beautiful.

So, there’s this deep metaphysical groove. Dust, freedom and spiritual truth for all, hell and heaven as the natural consequences of love and connectedness… it is an incredibly touching, valuable, beautiful thing.

But there are certain things I don’t like, and certain cultural and theological views that remove a lot of the joy from it for me.

1. Pullman is anti-Catholic at best and anti-Christian at worst. I know that’s a pretty strong thing to say. But Pullman’s key focus is essentially that “the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake” (as one of the characters puts it.) He places God in the exact same blame as the authoritarian and dogmatic churches of this world. He actually depicts the death and uselessness of God in conjunction with the collapse of the Christian churches of the tale. He uses the medieval doctrine of original sin – a late Christian concept and arguably irrelevant to many Christians today – as the weapon of the Authority, the Magisterium, and the GOB. If priests and nuns are shown, they are either abusive or outright murderers. It is a vehemently anti-Catholic and possibly anti-Christian tale, without question.

2. Simplistic view. Even the anti-Catholic sentiment I wouldn’t mind so much, as long as he held an equally zero-tolerance policy towards all other religious traditions as well. (If he did, then HDM would become a unique metaphysical and spiritual approach to a non-theist worldview, a la What Dreams May Come, which would actually be pretty cool.)

But he doesn’t do that. On the contrary, other religious traditions and cultures are only brought in as direct support for his anti-Christian message. Vaguely Inuit shamans, vaguely Tibetan Buddhist tulkus, vaguely Jewish Biblical characters, and vaguely Romany nomadic communities are all brought in as support for “the good guys” in the tale. None of these religious and cultural traditions are explored in any depth; they are simply marshalled as exotic and otherworldly alternatives to authoritarian dogma. It is a very one-sided, very stereotypical view of indigenous, Buddhist, Jewish, or Romany communities. And those are just the few I can remember off the top of my head!

Concluding thoughts?

I obviously don’t know this for sure, and I’m clearly only speculating here. But ultimately, Pullman seems like the sort of person that came to hate Christianity and therefore became an atheist. In that context, anything non-Christian may be marshalled as support for a non-theist message.

It especially sucks because his whole metaphysical worldview is so cool, and so inspiring, and so beautiful – but he doesn’t let Christianity come to the table to enjoy it. I feel like if he’d done any reading or research into the early Christian community and the original message of Christ, he would recognize that God and Christ would support him!

But of course, this would require separating God and Christ from the contemporary Catholic church, which seems to be something Pullman is incapable of doing. I guess that’s the biggest shame of all. Authoritarian and dogmatic churches have robbed the Christian tradition of its ability to be seen as loving, progressive, and open-minded.

As far as an epic fantasy narrative, it’s a fantastic read and an incredibly enjoyable thrill ride. Hell, even the symbolism and mythology is highly compelling and addictive. Even as a non-theist philosophical worldview, it’s raw and beautiful and inspiring. But if you’re looking for respect or appreciation for different religious traditions, especially Christianity, please leave His Dark Materials on the shelf.


5 Responses to “Phillip Pullman, “His Dark Materials””

  1. Adam Zagoria-Moffet Says:


    I’m stalking you theologically through the endless weaving ‘tubes’ of this internet thingy-ma-bob.

    So – although I haven’t read the series, you definitely make me want to. But I wonder, isn’t it possible to successfully argue for a theistic, yet markedly non-Christian world view? I don’t know if Pullman does it, but there’s certainly a good argument to be made against Christianity, if only on the basis that it has gone largely hand-in-hand with many of the world’s historically oppressive forces. It itself has done tremendous damage throughout its relatively short history, but also its tended to pair with entities just as destructive (colonialism, imperialism, authoritarianism, etc).

    Obviously Pullman demonstrates a pretty base interpretation of religion, and certainly, like everything, there’s much more than there seems. But is it possible to accept his argument as one against dogmatic, authoritarian religion, and not quite Christianity itself. I honestly don’t know, having not yet read the books, but from the sound of it, the examples of spirituality that he uses to illustrate what he sees as positive religion are all very very non-dogmatic and syncretic (Native American spirituality, judaism(s), Romani/Sinti beliefs, etc). Considering the examples you gave here, it sounds possible that Pullman’s beef is really just with authoritarianism in religion, and he just uses Christianity (which, granted, if forced to generalize, typically embraces hierarchical and vertical power structures) as an example of religion gone wrong?

  2. Andrew Warnes Says:

    Pullman’s Dark Materials are meant to be the antithesis to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which Pullman detested, saying it was child indoctrination being one of the lighter criticisms he leveraged against the series. The books (as I understand them) is very much an attack on Christianity. But not without good reason.

    It’s also a good idea to take a look at the relationship series has with Milton’s Paradise Lost. Dust is very much Pullman turning Milton’s work on it’s head.

    As for his usage of other religions, keep in mind that God himself his absent from the series; instead we have the Authority. It’s important to bear in mind what the distinction between them is. Understand what he’s trying to say with that distinction, and you have a fairly good idea why other religions are left of the hook, and what he’s trying to say about the nature of Christianity.

    As a Christian, I personally think this series should be required reading. Christianity brings a lot of good to the world, but Adam is right, Christianity is tied to a lot of atrocities that have happened in the last two thousand years, and it has distanced a lot of people. If one is to truly understand and appreciate the religion, one has to be able to understand the very legitimate and real feelings people have against it. Otherwise attempts to build understanding and respect between beliefs are severely limited.

    It is a mistake to take Pullman’s Dark Materials as simplistic. The story and philosophy is rich and complex, and his arguments raise some very legitimate concerns. Find answers to the questions he poses; your faith will be stronger for it.

  3. aprilpalo Says:

    Hey guys!

    Thank you for the comments, and thank you for taking the time to read my review. Unfortunately I can’t give a very full-length response at the moment, but I just wanted to respond to a few points.

    Above all, I want to agree with Adam (“It itself has done tremendous damage throughout its relatively short history, but also its tended to pair with entities just as destructive (colonialism, imperialism, authoritarianism, etc)”). I also agree with Andy (“Christianity is tied to a lot of atrocities that have happened in the last two thousand years, and it has distanced a lot of people. If one is to truly understand and appreciate the religion, one has to be able to understand the very legitimate and real feelings people have against it”).

    I agree that it’s very important to recognize the faults of a given tradition and authority, and I think it’s important for everyone to be able to come to terms with that.

    That being said, though, I want to respond and clarify that I don’t think Pullman’s overarching views are simplistic. I think he’s definitely put a lot of thought and intention into the worldview he advocates and the philosophical questions he raises. So, I agree that it is very “rich and complex” and I agree that it raises valuable questions. When I said “simplistic” – I only meant in the context of other religious traditions and ways of life. They seemed flat and stereotypical to me, and I didn’t quite extract the same depth of meaning Adam suggests. Perhaps I should have clarified that in my post.

    But it sort of brings me to my next point – why Christianity is on the hook. Andy, you mentioned that he drew a distinction between the Authority and the figure of a genuine God. Maybe I misunderstood, but wasn’t he pretty clear? The “ancient of days” and so forth? He came right out and said “My book is about killing God.” Am I taking this statement too literally?

    In the end, I guess I just struggle with the idea of a blanket indictment of the Christian tradition. Call it out for its dogmatic approach and authoritarian history, yes. Demand a renewal and reconsideration of interpretation, absolutely. Absolutely, yes, completely. No need to think I don’t understand that. But reject the whole concept, reject God (as I believe he does), and leave other religious traditions unscrutinized? I’m not too sure about that.

    It’s entirely possible that I’m missing some of the complexities here. I didn’t read it with an eye for Milton or Lewis, because I didn’t find that out until after I’d finished it. (His dislike of “Chronicles” wounds a little; “Chronicles of Narnia” have always been very dear to my heart, especially now as a religious scholar/person. But anyway…) At any rate, though, it’s realistic to expect that I didn’t draw all the proper meanings out of it.

    Thanks for making me think.

  4. Andrew Warnes Says:

    In the book, the Christian God, the Authority, isn’t the creator of the world, or really a god in any sense. He’s simply the first angel to come into being, and therefore claims to be God, and requires servitude by all other angels, and worship by all religion. I.E. Christianity as the One True Faith.

    At the very least, all of the examples of other religions in the books operate with little to no evangelism; whereas many within Christianity say that conversion is the most important part of religion. When he’s targeting God, he’s directly attacking that part of the Dogma. He’s saying that Christianity is a religion that, by nature, disregards other faiths without any respect for them, and forces itself to be the center of religious thought. I would say that if you look at the history of the religion, his criticism is pretty legitimate.

    I wouldn’t read His Dark Materials as an attack on Christianity. We’re too big an organization, there are too many divergent paths and different perspectives. Rather, it as a criticism of the worst in Christianity; a criticism of the abuse of power, the subjugation of faiths and peoples, and culture, of small mindedness and xenophobia. But you already know that’s not the only side of the religion. I wouldn’t still call myself a Christian if it was.

    On a happy note, it’s good to realize that his Theology ends up being more agnostic then Atheistic. No one in his world knows if there is a real god; no one knows how the universe came to be. He stops short of making the message truly Atheistic; he still does let us wonder.

  5. aprilpalo Says:

    Ah – okay! I was interpreting Pullman as saying, “The figure you know as God isn’t really God. Therefore we should get rid of him/it.”

    With a little more explanation, it’s becoming clear that what he really means is: “The figure you know as God isn’t really God. Therefore, it’s time to stop submitting your authority and prejudice to him, and start enacting your own faith… under whatever creator there may be, somewhere.”

    In which case, while definitely agnostic, the zero-point of the text really does become about the authoritarian nature and history of the Christian structure – which explains why other religious traditions require less exploration.

    Hmm… I think I get it a lot more now!

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