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Education Reporter

'His Dark Materials': Dark Indeed
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by Maria Forshaw

With the release of the movie The Golden Compass, it is appropriate to revisit Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials. Children's fantasy novels have been the subject of controversy before (witness the opposition of some groups to Harry Potter), but Pullman's work stands in a class of its own. Pullman has claimed publicly his intention to be the "anti-Lewis" (referring to C. S. Lewis, the writer of the Narnia books) and to "draw children away from Christ."

Should we be worried? Do the books contain pernicious material? Almost as importantly, has Pullman written a classic with enduring appeal? Let's start with The Golden Compass. The first book in the trilogy has much to recommend it; Pullman constructs an elaborate alternate universe with clever historical changes such as a Pope John Calvin; he weaves together a complex web of fantasy, intrigue and apparent heroism, and many people would find his heroine, Lyra, appealing. Though The Golden Compass contains a few troubling hints of anti-Christianity — an oppressive Magisterium (the book uses that word specifically) in control — it is a well-written fantasy novel and one that most readers would not find disturbing.

The real problems start in The Subtle Knife. A character from our universe, Will, acquires the ability to penetrate other universes, and he joins Lyra in her battle against evil forces. These forces reveal themselves as the Church and the idea that we owe God our worship and need a Savior. The narrative takes on an increasingly shrill and hectoring tone and makes preposterous accusations against the Church. Who knew that the Church mutilated children's genitals "so that they couldn't feel"? Pullman made that one up just like the rest of the story. The Subtle Knife ends with witches and fallen angels congregating to storm Heaven and take back what Pullman claims is rightfully theirs. The second installment is a big step down from the first, both theologically and artistically. Pullman's prejudice against Christianity, and against religion in general, weighs down the prose and, worse, reveals itself as the central focus of the series.

The Amber Spyglass features more of the same. Will and Lyra commit fornication, two gay angelic lovers become major heroes, and God, a pitifully decrepit being, is conquered. The story ends with Lyra pledging to help form "the Republic of Heaven."

It is hard to believe that anyone except a diehard atheist could enjoy this series; a recent article in National Review aptly calls the trilogy "His Didactic Materials." But never underestimate the gullibility of teenagers. Scanning the webpages of fantasy enthusiasts reveals a sizable chunk of Pullman fans. They often gravitate to the occult, Wicca, and "the dark side" of the fantasy genre. His Dark Materials probably appeals to such people and to teenagers because of its rejection of authority. The reader gets sucked into the series by the well-done first book and then, if lacking a proper foundation, may take the rest of Pullman's claims on faith.

Fortunately, the movie The Golden Compass has not been a smashing success. The filmmakers have, moreover, toned down some of the more objectionable elements of the book, though they can't do that to the second and third installments without gutting the entire plot. The chief danger of the movie is that it might draw unsuspecting viewers to read the books.

Maria Forshaw is a 2007 graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and an avid reader of fantasy literature.

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