We have more in common with him than he might care to admit
Discovering Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, as a child, was for me a moment of genuine wonder and awe. Not since CS Lewis had a writer shaped such a complete, immersive and – frankly – adult world for a child reader. I devoured the books, hooked on the adventures of awkward tomboy Lyra Belacqua but also on the huge, complex and disturbing themes of ambition, religion and human folly that drove her story.
As an adult, finding my way back to Christianity, the books began to trouble me, though. As I tried and often failed to understand the world around me, it was the very things that Pullman warns us against – faith, order, structure – that offered me most sustenance and made the most sense. I fell out of love with his creation, even to the point of denouncing it as clever but ultimately dangerous propaganda.
The knee-jerk rejection of the Church; the ostentatious belittling of the Christian God; the appeals to some higher but less formed spirituality as an antidote to the strictures of organised religion – all of these themes that had once felt so thrillingly grown-up began to feel almost adolescent. Like the teenage communist who goes out into the world and begins to see the failings of Marx’s seductive certainty, so I lost faith in Pullman’s Dark Materials.
Last week, Pullman announced – to the joy of his many child and adult fans alike – that he would be publishing a fourth book in the series. Neither a prequel nor a sequel but an “equal”, The Book of Dust promises to fill in some of the gaps in the original trilogy and add to the already complex mythology that Pullman has created for and around Lyra. Despite myself, I felt a familiar excitement at the prospect of diving once again into her world and I have begun to reread the series. This rereading has made me see new nuance in Pullman’s work.
His books – beautifully written, deliberately dense – betray their author in the way that only really sincere creative effort can do. Pullman, a committed and open atheist, cannot conceal from his readers the deep uncertainty that he feels about religion. The truth is that Pullman, an intellectual and educator moving in many of the same sort of circles as the New Atheists who have dominated much of our public discussions of religion, is about as far removed from the likes of Richard Dawkins as it is possible to be while apparently sharing some of the professor’s beliefs.
Unlike his peers who, tellingly, concentrate on polemic rather than on fiction to convey their beliefs, Pullman is open and honest about how conflicted he feels about God. This shines through in his books. He cannot bring himself to denounce Christianity as wholly false, choosing instead to focus on how misused and abused, misinterpreted and misapplied our faith can be.
Pullman describes himself as a “Church of England atheist”. He grew up listening to his clergyman grandfather’s stories from the Bible and the lives of the saints. Pullman’s books – rooted in the Christian poetry of Milton – are a testament to the power that catechism has over even the most rebellious of minds. God exists in Pullman’s universe – albeit in a different form to that which we would recognise – and humanity finds its salvation and some form of peace in a reconnection with the true nature of that God.
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