Monday, December 3, 2007

The Devil’s Party

First Things has put online a review essay by Alan Jacobs of Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy. The film of the first book in that trilogy, The Golden Compass, is upon us, and there has been much discussion of the quality of Pullman's books [it is generally agreed that the books are very well written] and his agenda in writing them. Some have even argued that they can be read as conveying a Christian message. Pullman himself once said "My books are about killing God."

If the film proves to be very successful many who have not yet read the books will do so. Alan Jacob's essay was written for The Weekly Standard in 2000 soon after the final book in the trilogy was published. The full essay is very informative and can be found here. Excerpts:
.... One sees a number of unequivocally evil people in these books, and one sees a number of Christians, and these are always—always—the same people. Everyone associated with the Church is cruel, remorseless, and only rarely less than murderous. Conversely, everyone outside the Church is blindingly righteous, Lord Asriel being the only partial exception. (And his most indefensible deed proves to be the inadvertent cause of—in the narrative’s terms—an immeasurably great thing.) These decent, compassionate folk regularly denounce religion and God, while the monsters who run the Church utter scarcely a word in their own defense—just to make sure that no reader comes to a conclusion Pullman doesn’t want.

These anathemas are almost comically overt, but Pullman also employs a more insidious method, which becomes available to him through the multiple-worlds device. In The Amber Spyglass, a character named Mrs. Coulter says of the Church, “Killing is not difficult for them; Calvin himself ordered the deaths of children”—upon reading which, I thought, “No, he didn’t!” But then I remembered that Mrs. Coulter is from Lyra’s world, and in Lyra’s world the Reformation took a different course (as can be inferred from a reference to “Pope John Calvin” and his decision to move the papal seat to Geneva). This is a nice trick: Other universes become places where Pullman’s enemies can be made to do any imaginable evil, so that he can better justify his hatred of them. Meanwhile, who knows how many readers go away from this book believing that John Calvin massacred innocents with the callused enthusiasm of King Herod?

Omission serves Pullman’s purposes as well. In the whole trilogy there is just one reference to Jesus Christ, whose teachings, character, and influence do not, after all, fit well with Pullman’s picture of Christianity. And how many people, especially young people, know enough about Christian doctrine or the biblical narrative to realize just how deceptive Pullman’s treatment is? How many will know, for instance, that the sin of Adam and Eve had nothing to do with their love for each other, despite Pullman’s contentions in The Amber Spyglass that the Authority wants a world of ice-cold celibates and that erotic love is a form of rebellious creativity? ....

If Christianity, and religion in general, are what Pullman is against, what is he for? Well, he’s in favor of open minds; he thinks we must choose between loveless God and godless love, and we should choose love. Events near the story’s end suggest that positive energy in the world, the Dust, is produced by specifically erotic love. Mary, that admirable tempter, asserts, “All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them.” ....

The luminously gifted Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a work so imaginatively potent that it has already inspired the kind of loyalty given to the secondary worlds of Tolkien and the other great fantasists.

But a story so thoroughly sentimental and manipulative doesn’t deserve that loyalty. Pullman’s readers should not overlook the deception, conscious or unconscious, that lurks at the heart of his beautiful, misbegotten endeavor: “The rhetorician would deceive others,” as Yeats once put it, “the sentimentalist himself.” [the essay]
FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » The Devil’s Party

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. I will gladly approve any comment that responds directly and politely to what has been posted.