This is part of a series of posts on the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (henceforth HDM). Spoilers abound.

Having covered the two major flaws in Pullman’s HDM trilogy in the previous two posts, this last post is a disorganized collection of contradictions and loose ends that bothered me after I finished the trilogy.

  1. What is Lord Asriel’s origin? It’s hinted in a few different places that he is something other than an ordinary human, but this is never explained or followed up on.
  2. When did Lord Asriel get the time to build his alliance? He doesn’t get the ability to travel easily between the worlds until the very end of the first book, but in the third book we discover that he is the leader of a vast, trans-dimensional rebellion. When did he find the time to visit all of these dimensions and recruit his allies? This connects with question #1, because we’re led to believe that Asriel’s rebellion has been in the works for centuries or more, which is obviously impossible if Asriel is just a normal human.
  3. How did Asriel discover both that the Authority existed and that he could be killed? This is a counterintuitive combination of beliefs. It would be one thing for the skeptic Asriel to conclude that God/The Authority doesn’t exist; it would be another to discover that he does, and is immortal and indestructible in the way that the Church describes. It’s not at all obvious how Asriel came to believe that the Authority existed but could be destroyed.
  4. Why is the Magisterium afraid of Dust? Why do they oppose research into it? The most that the trilogy offers by way of explanation is the puerile assumption that because Dust is Good, the Church (being Bad) must oppose it. But this doesn’t explain anything at all. In particular, what does the Church think that Dust is? What bad outcome are they trying to avoid? I can’t possibly believe that the Church knew ahead of time that research into Dust could lead to the extinction of the Authority—from the interior perspective of the Magisterium, that would be impossible. We’re left with no motive at all, other than the bad guys being bad because the plot requires them to.
  5. What is the Authority’s motive? How do he and Metatron benefit from their (very weak) control of the world? Furthermore, if the Authority wants to control the world, why does he do it so indirectly through the vehicle of the Church rather than using his legions of angels? This ties into the general lack of a coherent motive for the antagonists in the trilogy. They’re simply evil because the plot requires them to be evil, and because Pullman wants to convince us that their real-world counterparts are evil.
  6. In what sense does Lyra “disobey” in the third volume? Her disobedience was predicted as being a world-altering event from the very first book in the series, but it’s not clear who or what Lyra is actually rebelling against. The “forbidden fruit” that she tastes is presumably her sexual discovery with Will (and I’ve already talked about the stupidity of that particular plot point), but who is there to forbid her from doing that? The Authority and Metatron are already dead. Everyone else in the book is supportive of her. This appears to be another instance of Pullman trying to force Lyra into the mold of a Second Eve against the logic of the story.
  7. The big one: the book’s treatment of God/The Authority is incoherent and self-contradictory. For most of the trilogy, we are told that God exists but is evil, and we need to kill him. After God is killed, Mary has a very long monologue explaining why she doesn’t believe that God exists… which contradicts the fact that we just spent the entire trilogy working against him. But never mind that. Even if we accept that the Authority is not who Mary means by “God”, this ignores that the trilogy is premised on the existence and goodness of Dust. And what is Dust? An omnipresent, all-knowing “substance” of some kind, which is responsible for the existence of conscious life, which has an awareness and motive of its own, which selects, speaks to, and guides the protagonists throughout the story. That sounds vaguely familiar. If only I could remember what people called that BENEVOLENT OMNIPRESENT FORCE WHOSE WILL THE HEROES HAVE TO ENACT. Maybe one of my readers can help me.

All of which comes down to a single recommendation: don’t bother reading the whole trilogy. Read the first book if you must, but know that if you skip the rest you won’t be missing much.

This is part of a series of posts on the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman (henceforth HDM). Spoilers abound.

Pullman’s trilogy is intended as an anti-Narnia, a polemical work meant to critique and satirize Christianity and the Church. He’s stated this openly in several interviews, and he followed HDM with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a fictionalized version of the story of Jesus which makes his critique even more explicit. It’s interesting, then, to note that Pullman’s critique is in fact focussed on an incredibly narrow part of religious life, to the exclusion of the better part of what believers actually experience.

To wit, Pullman treats religion as if it’s entirely about power and authority.

The Church in the world of HDM is a political entity, entirely concerned with maintaining its own worldly status and position. The Church’s moral teachings exist solely to increase the Church’s power. God is renamed “the Authority,” and both him and his archangel Metatron are in the diety business just because they want to boss other people around. The plot of the trilogy concerns the efforts of the protagonists to undermine this authority and get out from underneath the shadow of God’s or the Church’s control.

Let me concede up front that this is not an entirely baseless critique. The Church is political entity, even in our own time, and it has often acted in ways meant to increase its own power rather than forward its supposed spiritual purpose. Furthermore, Christian activism in the US largely contributes to the notion that Christianity is a political platform rather than a spiritual discipline.

But Pullman doesn’t seem to think that there is anything to religion other than power and control, which means that he misses the largest part of what most believers actually experience. (It also means that he writes a book which purports to be an attack on Christianity in which no character ever says a single word about Christ, not even the timeworn cliches of Jesus as a great teacher misrepresented by the Church, etc. In fact, given the differences between Lyra’s world and ours, it’s not actually clear that there ever was a Christ in their timeline.) To put it mildly, my experience of religion is not one that much resembles Pullman’s critique. My knowledge of God begins in beauty, passes through sorrow, transcendence, sublimity, struggle, and (yes) obedience, and ends in silence. My God is the voice that answers Job out of the whirlwind, the fire burning in the unconsumed bush, he who is clothed in darkness, but who will not break a bruised reed. The Authority of Pullman’s books only ever says, “Do as I tell you.” Christ says “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

My experience is not unique. I do not know anyone whose primary understanding of God is that of a distant lawgiver, a powerful being who coerces obedience with the threat of eternal punishment. And to be clear, most of my Christian acquaintances are of the evangelical Protestant or conservative Catholic stripe, precisely the sort of people that Pullman most has in his sights. Perhaps somewhere out there exist Christians who conceive of God this way. But I have never met them.

To critique the Church in the way that Pullman does is to focus only on its most impersonal, institutional, and authoritarian aspects, and to ignore everything else. The Church contains more than bureaucrats and lawyers. It contains saints and mystics, poets and painters, architects and astronauts. HDM does not acknowledge the existence of this mass of people at all. In HDM, there is no one in the Church who is there for any reason other than acquiring power, and no one who bows a knee for any reason other than fear. Pullman is free to present the Church this way if he wants to. But this is so different from reality as to be useless as a critique.

This is part of a series of posts on the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. Spoilers abound.

All of the biggest problems with the His Dark Materials trilogy are in the third volume. As I mentioned before, the first volume was excellent, and the second plenty good. The third one stank to the heavens, and lo, great was the odor thereof. And yet, I could even have forgiven the third volume its many absurdities, if it had not been for the ending.

The climax of the third book, or what should have been the climax, was the death of the Authority. That was handled fine. There was a bit of authorial convenience, what with the protags just happening to stumble across the old bloke in time to open the lid and have him disappear in a puff of air, but that was no worse than many of the other stupid things that happened in that book. No, the part that made me throw the book across the room was what happened after that. You know what I’m talking about. When Lyra and Will get together and…

Let’s give Pullman a little credit here. Let’s assume that he didn’t mean to imply that his thirteen-year-old protagonists actually had sex, even though the scene easily lends itself to that interpretation. (If they only kissed, why put it off-screen?) But still, let’s stop to appreciate the utter idiocy of what Pullman tried to pull off in the ending: the leakage of Dust, which threatens the entire multiverse, is stopped because two kids kiss.

I died of stupid when I read this.

The biggest problem of the third book is that Pullman’s polemical purpose got ahead of his narrative purpose, and this problem is basically what kills the ending. He wants to make some kind of point about sex being awesome and good (and you should totally do it, even if you’re only thirteen), and he has to make good on the prophecies hinted at back in the first book that Lyra would be a Second Eve[1]. So he contrives to have preteen smooching somehow be the solution to the universe’s problems, even though this makes no sense at all given what the rest of the trilogy has told us about Dust. There is no logical reason for Lyra’s and Will’s actions to close up the leakage of Dust. It occurs purely to support Pullman’s polemics, and it violates the logic of the story to do so.

Pullman may have been trying to have the ending operate on fairy-logic or dream-logic, and this might have worked had the rest of the story not been so science-fictional. This is a story in which the “magic” operates on clear principles, and there’s a rational (though fantastic) explanation for everything. The dream-logic by which love can heal the universe clashes with the tone that carries through the rest of the book, and the glaring incongruity instead foregrounds Pullman’s authorial fiat. Plus, what a saccharine, cliched form of fairy-logic this is? Love is what saves the universe? A kiss will heal the tear in the world? This is a plot for a second-rate Disney film, not a significant children’s trilogy with aspirations to something better.

Pullman should have known better.

[1] I should point out that there already was a Second Eve, and she’s known for something kind of different.

I’m finally getting around to fleshing out my thoughts on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which I finished about a week ago. And to start things off on a positive note, I’m going to start by talking about the things that the serious does extremely well.

The first book (The Golden Compass) is great from cover to cover, and there’s almost nothing bad to say about it. The heroine is marvelous, the settings gorgeous, and the world-building intriguing and complete. My favorites have to be the panserbjørne, though: giant armored bears who “make their own souls”. Iorek Byrnison is one of the most memorable figures of of recent fantasy literature, and he rightfully sits next to Aslan in the pantheon of dangerous-talking-animals-who-help-little-girl-protagonists.

In fact, what I remember most about the first book is the colorful, intriguing cast of secondary characters: the witches, the gyptians, and especially the Texan Lee Scoresby. I wished the second and third books had more of that–but then, I wished a lot of things about the second and third books.

Also, it’s impossible for me to talk about this book without bringing up the controversy and hostility the book generated in Christian circles. Some of the criticism was justified: Pullman’s clearly has it out for the Church, and his polemics derail his plot, especially in book 3. (More on this later.) But there was some rather hysterical stuff, especially lines like this: “I pointed out that, in these books, everything we normally associate with safety and security—parents, priests, and even God himself—is evil, is indeed ‘the stuff of nightmares.'” That says too much. Lyra’s actual parents are pretty nasty, but her surrogate parents (the gyptians, and to some extent Iorek Byrnison) are loving and courageous. In fact, there’s quite a bit of Christian virtue to be found in the heroes of the books, and a great many valuable or wise lessons imparted by Lyra’s surrogate parents.

As for the priests and God, that will have to be a separate post.