I have just finished reading His Dark Materials, a fantasy trilogy written by Philip Pullman. It’s a delightful series which presents a humanistic worldview, so I thought I’d write a quick recommendation for it here. (Readers unfamiliar with the trilogy may know the title of its first book, The Golden Compass, which was also made into a movie in 2007. The movie didn’t impress me, but the books did!)
The story is set in a parallel universe similar to our Victorian England. In this world, humans have animal companions called daemons – sentient creatures that go wherever their humans go, and are inextricably linked to them. There are differences between children’s and adult’s daemons; the daemon of a child can change shape at will, but then settles into one particular form as the child reaches adolescence. The main character of the story is Lyra, a parentless child who has been raised and educated by Scholars at Jordan College in Oxford. When she finds out that all over the country children of low-status families are being abducted, including one of Lyra’s friends from Oxford, she becomes involved in a quest to save them. Along the way, Lyra learns about a mysterious particle that permeates the universe, called Dust, which may have something to do with the difference between children’s and adults’ daemons. Lyra and her allies also come into conflict with a powerful church called The Magisterium, that wants to destroy Dust and obscure the truth about it.
Though His Dark Materials contains adventures and battles and interesting worlds galore, ultimately the story sends a message about the pursuit of knowledge and the spirit of inquiry. There is a scene near the end where the heroes are told by one wise character to never stop learning, and to keep their minds “open and free and curious.” What’s not to love about that?
Something, apparently – as there has been a good deal of controversy about the books and the movie. A number of Christian groups and representatives for the Catholic Church have called the story “dangerous” and “anti-Christian.” An archbishop in New Orleans wrote that the trilogy poses a “special threat to Christianity”! That’s quite the review, if three books can undo what two thousand years of history hasn’t.
I must say I don’t quite understand the protest. While the Magisterium in Pullman’s books bears a number of superficial similarities to the Roman Catholic Church, the reason they are portrayed as the “enemy” is because they want to keep people ignorant. The Magisterium opposes the values of thinking for oneself and making one’s own decisions, and the heroes of Pullman’s story don’t take kindly to that. Is this message inimical to the Christian religion or to the Catholic Church? I’d say it’s up to them to decide. But so far, the prognosis doesn’t look good. In 2007 when The Golden Compass movie was about to be released, a bishop in Austin had the books removed from every Catholic school in the diocese. If the Catholic response to books that encourage thinking for oneself is to ban them, then I would say they’ve conceded Pullman’s point rather nicely.
PS: Christopher Hitchens wrote a review of His Dark Materials way back in 2002. Readers may want to check it out, as it’s always a delight to read anything by Hitchens. But beware – it does include spoilers!