“Ooh, heaven is a place on earth”: Looking back on His Dark Materials
Much belated post for leonineantiheroine, crossposted from my other blog. Apologies in advance for the rambling. For years I’ve tried to sum up why His Dark Materials was so influential on me and this is really just the first real try at it.
“…I set out in a lordly manner to offer you heaven and earth. I find that all I have to give you is Oxford—which was yours already. Look! Go round about her and tell the towers thereof.”
—Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night
What with the last Harry Potter movie coming out and occasioning a lot of sentimental tributes to the franchise, I’ve been thinking about the books that, for me, were formative in the way Harry Potter was to a lot of people. I mean Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, of course.
If I were to re-read it now (haven’t got the time, unfortunately) I would probably be frustrated with Pullman’s portrayal of religion as authoritarian, anti-intellectual and theologically crude. In fact I would call it a caricature if I hadn’t grown up in a small town where a good many people practised a religion just like that.
HDM meant a lot to me as a Jewish kid who had just moved to a very Christian town. This may surprise you, but I was a huge nerd—no good at sports, disliked parties (and later on, drinking), ignorant of mainstream pop culture…So I ended up hanging out with a lot of fundy kids who weren’t into that either and tended to nerdiness themselves, and I came to be familiar with the kind of Christianity called born-again, or fundamentalist, or evangelical. I didn’t have the language to talk about it then, but now I would call it Calvinistic, Manichaean, puritanical, anti-science, and worst of all, smug.
Even though I didn’t believe that myself (and a lot of my friends didn’t, but after all were still living under their parents’ roof), that was the discourse that permeated our environment and shifted our ideas of what was normal and what was unacceptable. It was very much focused on the afterlife and on the stain of original sin, and the goal was to be “in the world, but not of it”. These concepts are completely alien to Judaism, and in HDM I saw values closer to my own. Focus on the here and now rather than the world to come; the beauty of the physical world and sensual pleasure; the interpretation that the Fall was not a bad thing—all of these I associate less with atheism than Judaism. (Philip Pullman would probably be horrified.)
Which isn’t to say HDM has no really subversive elements, because I think it does. Its true slant is anti-authoritarian and very often it’s children defying adult authority, like when Lyra engineers the escape from Bolvangar in the first book—one of my favourite parts. (If Harry Potter had been like HDM, they would have broken out of Hogwarts in the first year!) And in hindsight I very much appreciate the sympathetic portrayal of Baruch and Balthamos, two angels in a deeply loving homosexual relationship. (Rowling dropped the ball on that one, too. No, retconning Dumbledore doesn’t count.)
As for the part in The Amber Spyglass where they
kill God help God die…on first reading it passed very quickly, later on the penny dropped and I was like ZOMG THEY KILLED GOD, and now I’m back to thinking it’s a big deal, but not actually anti-religious. Yeah, I know—but the idea of killing God, or that God is dead, isn’t new to theology, as I’ve only just started to learn. Like when James Hal Cone writes that if God is not on the side of the black community, if God could just as easily be the white oppressor, they must kill God. And all the grappling people did after the Holocaust, radically reimagining what a God could be like in such a world—many people concluded that there wasn’t a God, or God had turned his back, or God had died. The idea of the Abrahamic God being killed or dying in a literal sense doesn’t stick together; I think it’s like in Plato’s Euthyphro, the argument that justice must be above the gods. We must kill the notion that things are just because God says so; that there is a God who can make things just by decree.
So HDM leaves the door open for a creator (who is distinct from the universe’s God) or a deist or impersonal God, or pantheism (but what doesn’t leave the door open for pantheism?). And I think the Abrahamic God could even slip in there, because even this god is more than just an angel among angels, as Pullman imagines—once again a result of his simplistic theology, and the weakness of perceiving God primarily as a person. “Not a tame lion,” like they say in The Last Battle!
…Which is funny, because I think HDM works very well as an anti-Narnia. Just look at how Pullman reverses the perception of the Fall. In the Narnia books, as the children lose their innocence they get too old for Narnia and are effectively banished. Aslan exists in their world, they’re reassured, but under a different name. That’s right, instead of going on magical adventures with Aslan you get to wake up early on Sundays and go to church. Sure, he gets across the sadness of falling from grace, but I’ve got to say Lewis doesn’t make growing up and getting religion seem very tempting either! :D
Now, in HDM there’s sadness and loss, yes. Daemons become fixed; Lyra loses her ability to read the alethiometer. But there’s also the joy of moving on to something bigger and grander. “You read it by grace, and you can regain it by work,” Lyra is told, and it actually sounds like a wonderful way to spend your life. And there is also the honour that comes with growing up—the responsibility to make the world a better place. You can make Growing Up and Being Good feel really repressive and boring, as certain Christians do. But you can also make it feel beautiful and enticing, like an adventure waiting to happen. And in the end that’s what I got out of His Dark Materials, and why—rants about theology aside!—it is still so incredibly valuable to me.