Why all this energy and emotion devoted to ‘refuting’ Philip Pullman’s wonderful trilogy? How dull and unimaginative does one need to be to see these excellent novels as an attack on the Church? ’His Dark Materials’ are anti-clerical for sure, and all the better for that, but they are one of the most truly spiritual works of the last twenty years. Pullman has produced a sustained hymn to the concept of the soul, to love and self-sacrifice in the pursuit of good, to the special status of people in the universe, to heroism and individuality. It is an immensely life-enhancing work.
Of course, Pullman excoriates hypocrisy, authoritarianism and the kind of religious observance that diminishes life to a collection of ‘thou shalt nots’. He attacks self-righteousness, sanctimonious cant,and that species of overbearing moral superiority that never admits the possibility of being wrong and which is prepared to destroy individual lives in pursuit of a ‘big idea’.
But let’s focus on the positive. His Dark Materials books are not primarily about being against ideas, but are, rather, about celebrating the wonders of human endeavour. They are astonishingly insightful about the human condition. They teach so much about how to live a good life without being patronising or preachy. They stand on the side of goodness and the struggle to be true to oneself. They are at times incredibly affecting – I don’t see how anyone with a heart can read them without crying at some point – and their power to move lies in the deep underlying emotional truth of Pullman’s vision. Who could be unmoved by Lyra’s love for her father, or for Iorek Byrnison*, *or ultimately for Will Parry (all different, all lost in the end, and yet every one consummated in its own beautiful way). How can anyone experience the astonishing cruelty of cutting a daemon from a child, or Lyra and Patalaimon’s devastation at being separated while she fulfils her oath to save Roger, or Will’s growing realisation that his daemon lies within, without learning something about the meaning of the human soul? Who can fail to be inspired by a being as gorgeous and free as Serafina Pekkala (and what genius to create a name of such beauty)? The flaws and the complexities in the characters, even as they struggle through their lives, are the stuff of good literature from Chaucer to Orwell.
Pullman manages this without falling into the mire of sentimentality that C S Lewis wallows in from time to time. His Dark Materials is a deeper, more mature work than the Chronicles of Narnia, because Pullman’s intention is not to teach or preach but to reveal emotional truth. They fully engage sophisticated adult readers. Pullman’s novels are about moral courage and about doing the right thing in the most difficult circumstances. They make a powerful case for living a rich life way beyond the petty materialism that preoccupies most of us. They are deeply, fundamentally spiritual and they call on us to look into our hearts to find a path that we can be proud to follow. And that surely is a good thing.