Should You Seek “His Dark Materials”?

His Dark Materials, Produced by Laurie Borg, 2019-2022, BBC/HBO.

I first devoured Philip Pullman’s Young Adult fantasy trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, published in 1995-2000 by Scholastic) during high school, which ended up being the ideal age. The source texts for this television serial are deceptively simplistic in presentation but, after having read several years of Catholic theology at the prep school I was attending, the seemingly-heretical volumes were gleefully absorbed at a clip I might otherwise have been bereft of had I consumed them instead whilst occupying the target YA age bracket.

Now comes the concluding third season of this BBC/HBO co-production, one that has been completely faithful to the original trilogy, and I am pleased to report that it is a triumph (not to mention a marked improvement upon the abortive attempt at a cinematic adaptation by New Line Cinema during the initial Lord of the Rings craze during the 2000s that floundered under pretentious miscasting).

The storyline is somewhat complex but I can try to summarize: Viewers follow the adventures of Lyra (Dafne Keen), whose odyssey began in an alternate universe from our own wherein the human soul is externally embodied in talking animals called daemons. Though the narrative began as a seemingly-benign steampunk picaresque at Oxford University, diabolical things rapidly clarified. Alongside talking armored polar bears and high-flying dirigibles captained by a cowboy (Lin-Manuel Miranda), there is the ever-encroaching and theocratic Magisterium, populated by a coterie of totalitarian priests bearing eerie resemblance to the Catholic and Anglican clerics. Lyra’s father Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) has been on a quest to understand the mystical Dust, which has a tremendous importance in this universe (or, as it turns out in Book/Season 2, multiverse) as a kind of amalgamation of dark matter and divine consciousness, which is therefore verboten by these clerics. With the help of two people from our world, the teenaged Will Parry (Amir Wilson) and ex-nun-turned-particle physicist Mary Malone (Simone Kirby), Lyra must wage an interdimensional fight with the Magisterium’s fanatical Fr. MacPhail (Will Keen) and her morally-ambiguous estranged mother, Marisa Coutler (Ruth Wilson).

What makes His Dark Materials so magnificent?

First is its genesis as an explicit rebuttal to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. In a 1998 essay for The Guardian, Pullman excoriated the blossoming of a Cult of Personality that has grown up within a certain right wing sector of Christianity over the past several decades.

…There is no doubt in the public mind that what matters is the Narnia cycle, and that is where the puzzle comes, because there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read. Why the Narnia books are popular with children is not difficult to see. In a superficial and bustling way, Lewis could tell a story, and when he cheats, as he frequently does, the momentum carries you over the bumps and the potholes. But there have always been adults who suspected what he was up to. His friend Tolkien took a dim view of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, particularly disliking Lewis’s slapdash way with mythology: ‘It really won’t do, you know!’ And the American critic John Goldthwaite, in his powerful and original study of children’s literature The Natural History Of Make-Believe (OUP, 1996), lays bare the misogyny, the racism, the sado-masochistic relish for violence that permeates the whole cycle… Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it… In The Last Battle, [the final book of the cycle,] notoriously, there’s the turning away of Susan from the Stable (which stands for salvation) because “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up… I haven’t the slightest doubt that the man will be sainted in due course: the legend is too potent. However, when that happens, those of us who detest the supernaturalism, the reactionary sneering, the misogyny, the racism, and the sheer dishonesty of his narrative method will still be arguing against him.

Pullman’s essay could function as a useful manifesto for his trilogy. Lewis adopted a fundamentalist fervor not unknown for converts of any sort when he became an Anglican communicant and this is manifest in his philosophically-bereft apologetics, such as the rhetorically-enchanting but intellectually-lugubrious Mere Christianity. A bit of context is worthwhile at this juncture: Whilst Lewis was broadcasting the Mere Christianity lectures over the BBC airwaves between 1941 and 1944, Protestant theology was undergoing a revolution that moved in the polar opposite direction of our Tory fantasist. The German theologian Paul Tillich, exiled to the US after the rise of Hitler, was formulating the basis of his Systematic Theology, which forgoes supernaturalism entirely so as to ground the mysteries of Christianity in modern existentialism and an ontology his critics call heretical pantheism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, having been tutored in the Liberation Theology of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. while a seminarian studying in Harlem, was being jailed by the Gestapo for crimes against the Reich. Strains of the American Social Gospel movement had been impacting the Anglican Church for decades. In other words, Lewis and his radio broadcasts emerged as a hearty vote for the most subservient, incurious, and conformist strains of theology known to Anglophone Christendom at that time. (No less than Alistair Cooke described him as a quack.)

The journey of Lyra and Will is the journey towards the beautiful mysteries of adulthood. As we move deeper in the textual trilogy or the televisual seasons, the story itself matures and grows, subtly but without hesitance. Who is it that once said “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”?

A second magnificent aspect of the story is its willingness to grant its readers/viewers a level of intellectual depth and vigor otherwise unknown to the Young Adult genre. Pullman openly dabbles with William Blake’s mysticism, Biblical apocrypha, and John Milton’s eschatology. In a 2014 essay for (again) The Guardian, Pullman writes:

In the opening passage to “Europe: A Prophecy,” Blake recounts how he says to a fairy “Tell me, what is the material world, and is it dead?” In response the fairy promises to “shew you all alive / The world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.” This is close to the philosophical position known as panpsychism, or the belief that everything is conscious, which has been argued back and forth for thousands of years. Unless we deny that consciousness exists at all, it seems that we have to believe either in a thing called “spirit” that does the consciousness, or that consciousness somehow emerges when matter reaches the sort of complexity we find in the human brain. Another possibility, which is what Blake’s fairy is describing here, is that matter is conscious itself.

This is, in a word, the functional reality of the mystical Dust in Pullman’s trilogy. In comparison to shallow phantasmagoric nostalgia in drek like Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, this is manna from Heaven and demonstrates the author has a profound respect for his audience not just as readers but human beings. It continues with the references to Paradise Lost. The title for the serial itself is derived from the poem, and not in a haphazard manner either:

Into this wilde Abyss,

The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,

Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,

But all these in their pregnant causes mixt

Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,

Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain

His dark materials to create more Worlds,

Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend

Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,

Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith

He had to cross.

This passage can easily be read as a summation of major plot points from the trilogy. Furthermore, there is something distinctively complex embedded into the world built by Pullman. His ontology, building outwards from the conscious Dust particle towards its apotheosis in the final confrontation between the forces of Good and Evil (quite literally a battle over whether Heaven should be ruled by monarchy or democracy), is not unfamiliar for those who understand Paul Tillich, the dissident Lutheran pastor who was exiled to America by the Third Reich. During and after Hitler’s ascension, it was a very small minority of clerics like Tillich who had spoken against the ritualistic moral suicide of both the Catholic and Protestant churches that had unambiguously endorsed and supported the Nazi Party. (A not insignificant number of the SS were weekly confessing Catholics in full communion with Rome who never faced censure or excommunication for their crimes.)

While many of Pullman’s critics have accused him of being anti-Christian, it seems instead they have conflated their label with anticlericalism, which increasingly seems to be a requisite component of a healthy civic discourse. Over the past 20 years, we have seen the descendants of the clergymen Tillich and Bonhoeffer opposed uncritically support a disturbing neofascist politics in both the EU and US. Using protofacist arguments about “the family” and “the unborn” (both deeply rooted in a uniquely American Herrenvolk logic), the Tea Party helped push the Reagan Coalition over the finish line in order to repeal abortion healthcare rights and key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

This is deeply relevant to a third magnificent aspect of the serial, its unambiguous rejection of the Calvinist/Puritan strain within Anglophone Young Adult fiction that stigmatizes sexuality and sexual development. The Hero’s Journey Lyra undertakes concludes not with Pullman’s awe-inspiring terminal war between the forces of Good and Evil; instead, the victory is in a restaging of the Biblical Eve’s discovery of Knowledge, another word for romantic love and eros. However, unlike the author(s) of Genesis, who so demonized this component of our humanity forevermore that the purported “Scriptural” mandates are used to curtail civil liberties, Pullman, contra Lewis, rejoices in and celebrates every dimension of our personhood. One of the most beautiful pair of supporting characters seeking to help Lyra along the way are Baruch (Simon Harrison) and Balthamos (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), gay lover angels who have opted to rebel against the Magisterium. (The pair were especially beloved by me when I was reading the books as a closeted queer student in that viciously cis-/hetero-normative prep school I attended.) What is particularly astonishing is that the final novel went to press in 2000, back when there were still sodomy laws on the books in the both the UK and US while same-sex marriage was becoming one of the new century’s Culture War parapets.

If this trinity of magnificence has not already made clear, I would argue that this narrative is perhaps one of the most important works of Christian fiction written in the young century. In response to Pullman’s explicit pledge of allegiance to atheism, it seems worthwhile to recall Slavoj Zizek’s aphorism that “only an atheist can be a true Christian.” Bonhoeffer and his mentor Adam Clayton Powell likewise understood the value of this logic after encountering the Church of the Klan and Reich. Pullman’s trilogy is a triumph precisely because it imagines and embodies the emancipatory liberation kernel of the Christian legacy.

Furthermore (and perhaps most scandalous), Pullman’s Dust is in fact in closer alignment with the Judeo-Christian conception of Divinity than the Miltonian-inflected hierarchical orders of angels and Almighty God, which in fact is a heresy imported from the Greco-Roman tradition. Historically speaking, the early Church did utilize certain theological and rhetorical devices inherited from Judaism and Roman paganism. But it was only with the development of English Romanticism (which incidentally saw Milton and Paradise Lost as an antecedent and role model), that the Christian faith took on the character of a narrative of defined characters that conformed with archetypes mimicking the Hellenistic epics. This is precisely where the heresy begins. Christianity holds that Divinity is not an existence, embodied in heroic beings that seem superhuman. Rather, all existence itself is Divinity, meaning all of Creation is a mere component within the larger whole. This insight is what so scandalized Tillich’s critics, insofar as it has a tremendously democratic impulse that indemnifies the institutional Churches and their morbid hierarchies. How odd that this self-described “1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist” ended up authoring perhaps the finest literary rendition of Christian dogma offered in decades?

The television adaptation should not be construed as perfection beyond reproach. The entirety of the television industry these days seems beholden to an aspiration to have their own version of Game of Thrones. Amazon has the teenager version with The Rings of Power, Disney has the tween version with the Willow series, and now HBO has not one but two, a prequel, House of the Dragon, and a YA steampunk variant, His Dark Materials. This long-form television novel adaptation carries its own nuances worthy of discussion. The first seasons of both Dexter and Game of Thrones were quite literal adaptations of the first installments in the paperback serials, sometimes dedicating an hour long episode to a few chapters in the books. In the case of Pullman’s trilogy, it would be impossible to do so. As such, there is a taffy-like stretching that sometimes seems tedious.

However, these are minor quibbles within the context of a tremendously engaging serial worth seeking out.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.