After reading several references to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series as a riposte to the Narnia series, Jen and I decided that we had to read it. I enjoyed the series a lot—probably because I was able to pretend that when the good guys delivered their speeches on the evils of God and the Church, they were characters expressing opinions about other characters, and any correspondence between the bad guys in the book and deities, mythological systems, or religious institutions in the real world were purely coincidental.
I probably should be annoyed that Pullman inverts a Christian rhetorical trope going back (at least) to Pascal’s Wager, i.e., you have to either believe in the Christian God or be an atheist. Lyra’s world, from what Pullman shows of it, lacks Episcopalians and Lutherans, let alone Jews and Muslims; he seems to be agreeing with the Christians about what his options are and merely disagreeing on which side to join. But for some reason, that didn’t bother me while I was reading the book.
There was a detail that did irritate me a little, but describing it involves some minor spoilers, so I’m putting it below the fold…
The villians of the series, except for the priests, are distinguished from the heroes by acting on their sexual desire. The closest thing we have to a love scene is toward the end of The Subtle Knife, where Mrs. Coulter seduces Lord Boreal into giving her information about the knife, and then poisons him before they actually endanger the book’s “Young Adult” classification. (Coulter goes over to the good guys by the end of the series, but she still gets the traditional fate of Loose Women in Western literature, i.e., death.) We are told that Metatron, the most powerful of the angels on the Authority’s side, had sex with numerous human women.
By contrast, Will and Lyra enter the story as preadolescents, and while they fall in love, they don’t have anything more explicit than romantic walks through the forest. John Parry stoically endures years of separation from his wife, and is killed by the witch from Lyra’s world whose love he did not requite. Mary Malone left her religious order because she realized she wanted to the freedom to enjoy the pleasures of this world, but like the Protestant husband in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, there’s no sign she has used this freedom to seek out a lover.
So for Pullman, there’s no heavenly reward for a life of chastity, but you still shouldn’t have sex. Englishmen. Go figure.