More on Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials

I wanted to follow up on the discussion of Philip Pullman and the His Dark Materials series below. In an article in The Weekly Standard entitled The Devil’s Party (no longer available online to my knowledge) Alan Jacobs discusses Pullman and his attempt to turn the Creation story on its head. Since it is no longer online, I wanted to give you an overview of what I consider Jacobs devastating critique.


Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College, understands that we are dealing with a first rate writer in Pullman. He describes the trilogy as having marked Pullman as “a writer whose talent puts him in the league of Tolkien, LeGuin, and Alexander.” Jacobs also asserts that the ability to create “what Tolien called ‘secondary worlds’ – complex environments sufficiently like our own to be recognizable but sufficiently different to generate excitement and wonder” is consequential because books of this nature “offer not just a story but a wrold, and the lesson they teach is not just a moral but a worldview.”

Jacobs believes however, as does Moloney (see previous post), that Pullman’s worldview hampers his storytelling:

Whichever party readers support in the ancient contest between God and Satan, they will be disappointed to see how often, in the Amber Spyglass, the tale’s momentum is interupted by polemic. Pullman’s anti-theistic scolding consorts poorly with his prodigious skills as a storyteller. In immagination and narrative drive, he has few peers among current novelists. for such gifts to be thrust into the service of reductive and contemptious ideology is very nearly a tragedy . . . Pullman the storyteller has also been cheated – by Pullman the village atheist.

Jacobs takes his critique beyond mere storytelling, however. For Jacobs, Pullman’s talent masks a fundamental dishonesty. Pullman’s worlds are just as manichean as the fundamentalists he despises, the roles are just reversed:

One sees a number of unequivocally evil people in these books, and one sees a number of Christians, and these are always – always – the same people.

As I mentioned in the previous post, in the end Pullman’s worldview hijacks his entire narrative. It is not just his anti-religious views either, but his politics as well. Jacobs notes that Pullman’s entire conclusion is tied up in a romantic view of humanity that refuses to see the reality of the last 100 years; refuses to admit the tragic, if unintended, consequences of so many idealistic crusades:

This sentimental refusal of historical understanding leads directly to the Manicheanism of Pullman’s moral vision: closed versus open minds, tyrants versus liberators, the vicious Church versus its righteous opponents.

Jacobs then applies the coup de grace:

The luminously gifted Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogyis a work so imagainatively potent that it has already inspired thekind of loyalty given to the secondary worlds of Tolkien and other fantaists. But a story so thoroughly sentimental and manipulative doesn’t deserve that loyalty. Pullman’s readers shouldn’t overlook the deception, concious or unconcious, that lurks at the heart of his beautiful, misbegotten endeavor: “The rhetorcian would decieve others,” as Yeats once put it, “the sentimentalist himself.”

As a final note, I might add that the previously mentioned Moloney has a different take:

The Christian myth has such a powerful hold over our narrative imagination that it is probably impossible to write a believable epic, especially one about the Last Things, without relying on it extensively. Pullman challenges the most fantastic and yet most persuasive parts of the Christian myth—Creation, the Fall, Sin, Death, Heaven, Hell—and one credits him for gumption. If his alternative were more compelling, I would recommend parents keep their children away. (Pullman has just signed to do a “reference work” called The Book of Dust which will lay out the creation myth in full, and thus probably won’t be appropriate—or interesting—for children.)
As is, I can fairly characterize His Dark Materials in this fashion: imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for two thousand years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.

For what it is worth, I think Jacobs is much closer to the mark.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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3 Comments

  • I heard that Pullman’s trilogy was bought for the movies since LOTR and Harry Potter have done so well. Does anyone know if it’s beeing made?

    I’m curious to see how they handle the third book with its bizarre upshot and didacticism.

    I haven’t read the series, but have read about it. I don’t mind an author taking pot shots at Christianity or even trying to reverse reality in a new way (see Philip Dick), but I do mind a polemicist using fiction or art for propaganda. It rarely succeeds. Even Orwell begins to suffer now. Do we really want to read Animal Farm again or 1984?

    Brave New World seems to hold up better, I think.

  • Thanks for the Pullman article. Valuable.
    Pullman’s Dark trilogy, by the way, is now a smash hit play in London.