His Dark Materials

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Choudhary
1


Anupam Choudhary

November 2
nd
, 2008

AP English Lit, P.3

Censorship Essay


His Dark Materials
: A Polemic
Against

Christianity?

Declared “
fit for the bonfire

by the
Catholic Herald
when first published in
1993
,

Phillip Pullman’s
His Dark Materials
ser
ies has drawn criticism and condemnation
from Christian organizations
across

the Unite
d States and the United Kingdom

(
Cole
)
.
Accused of being “atheism for kids” by William Donohue, president of the Catholic
League of Religious and Civil Rights, the seri
es has been removed

from

the bookshelves

of public libraries in Canada,
Colorado
, and
Texas (
Donohue
)
.

The
Catholic League
argues that a book dedicated to “seduc[ing] [children] into embracing atheism and
rejecting Christianity” should not be read, taug
ht, or shelved in public institutions

(
Donohue
)
. Although it must be noted that a novel cannot legally be removed from a
public library simply for

promoting

secular

views
, members of the Catholic League can
rest easy, for a thorough analysis of Pullman’s
His Dark Materials
reveals that
the series

advocates

for

the very ideals that Christianity stands for
:
compassion

and love.

R
ather
than criticizing Christianity as many critics claim,
His Dark Materials
criticizes the
dogmatic principles that often come h
and in hand with institutionalized beliefs and
ideals.
In fact
,

the trilogy should be shelved at public school libraries

because Pullman

s

feminist position and view
on the search for identity

offer superb
insights

into the
human condition.

In an ambigu
ous flux between the science
-
fiction and fantasy genres
,

Pullman
’s
series reveals

the intertwined stories of two pre
-
adolescent
s
who come

from different
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universes but
share a common link in their possession of artifacts
that

give t
hem
heavenly powers. L
yra
control
s

the “Golden Compass
,


an object that can show any
person
that knows how to properly use
it the truth to all matters, while Will carries the
“Subtle Knife
,
” an artifact that allows him to cut through the fabric of the universe and
open doors t
o other w
orlds. During their adventures,

Will and Lyra realize they are
central figures in a heavenly war between
the Authority

who is represented through
the Magesterium, a
rigid

religious organization that controls all aspects of Lyra
’s

society

and

p
eople
. Adam and Ev
e have been reborn as Will and Lyra, and they

have a
chance to claim th
e fruit of the Fall in Genesis
:

knowledge and wisdom.

Following criticism of
His Dark Materials
by many Christian parents
,

t
he Catholic
League
has accused

Pullman
’s

trilogy

of indoctrinating their childr
en with

decidedly

un
-
Christian thoughts. The organization
argues

that

following the regulations of church and
state
,

a n
ovel advocating atheism

should not be taught or shelved in public elementary
and high schools.

T
he League has an ostensibly
strong

point
;

in
The Amber Spyglass
(the
third installment of the series), Ruta Skadi, a witch who calls for the destruction of the
Magesterium, explains to Lyra that the purpose of “every church is the same: control,
destro
y, obliterate every good feeling"

(
Pullman
67
).
Advancing

the League

s point,
Mary Malone, one of Pullman’s key protagonists insists that
"the Christian religion… is a
very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all" (
The Golden Compass

43).


At first

glace, the Catholic League’s
argument

rings true, b
ut there is a
critical

flaw in
their

assumption

that the novel is advocating atheism and
is
inherently anti
-
Christian
.
A detailed analysis of
Pullman’s series
reveals that it
does not
in fact
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campaign f
or
atheism; instead, it campaigns

to caution
young children and maturing
adolescents of the
adverse

effects of dogmatic, omnipotent in
stitutions like that of the
Magi
sterium
on

society.

Although analogous to the Catholic Church, Pullman’s

Magi
sterium
, a “t
angle of courts, colleges, and councils” is much more than simply a
religious entity (The Golden Compass 17).

Pullman constructs the Magisterium as the
“ultimate political, social, and religious body …. It dictates what can be taught, controls
most of the

world’s governments, and reacts brutally to dissent” (
Freitas 46
).

A heavy
-
weight carrying the authority for an entire society, t
he Magisterium represents all that
can go wr
o
ng if
any
organization


takes too much power upon itself.



Despite the Catholic

Leagues grievances,
Pullman
by no means

created
His Dark
Materials

as an anti
-
Christian novel, and it can only be considered that if one considers
criticizing anti
-
dogmatic works as anti
-
Christian.

In response to criticism of Mary
Malone’s
anti
-
Christian
statement
,

Pullman himself explains that
Malone is simply a
character in a book; “Mary's not me. It's a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work
of philosophy" (

qtd. in
A Dark Agenda
).


In
fact, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan
Williams believes t
hat the series should be taught in

school curriculums. Adding that he
only “hope[s] that teachers are equipped to tease out what in Pullman's world is and is
not reflective of Christian teaching as Christians understand it,” the Archbishop explains
that
th
e novel is “entirely about control” rather than religion
bashing

(
qtd. in
Telegraph.co.uk).

It is surprising

that so many Christian organizations

still attempt to
deny the book a place in public classrooms and libraries when deep analysis (
which

would und
oubtedly be conducted in a classroom setting)

lends itself
best to an

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understanding of the book

as cautionary tale about unregulated power rather than a
polemic against Christianity
.

Classroom discussion

debunks the assumption that
Pullman’s trilogy is abo
ut ‘killing God

and Christianity
’ as many c
ritics
like

the Catholic
League have claimed
,

and it opens up a forum on religion and dogmatism.

The Catholic League’s zealous vilification of
His Dark Materials
also
begs one to
question whether anyone in the org
anization actually read the trilogy.

What in the
trilogy could have unsettled the
Catholic League and the
Catholic Herald
so much to
refer to it as “truly the stuff of nightmares” (
Donohue
).
It is hard to tell because
neither
the
Catholic Herald
nor the
Catholic League chooses to actually analyze the series.
Instead, both organizations have settled on cherry
-
picking quotes from the trilogy and
categorizing
these quotes

as ‘blasphemous’
or ‘offensive’
in their out
-
of
-
context state.
But a
fter reading and a
nalyzing the novels, it becomes increasingly clear that the novel
is not anti
-
Christian. In fact, in many senses, it reiterates the very ideals that Christianity
stands for:

compassion and

love.


As Donna Freitas discusses in her analytical novel
Killing

the Imposter God
, “love … lies at the heart of the ethics of
His Dark Materials”
(93). Rather than relying on cynicism to power his novel, Pullman uses love, a very
Christian

ideal,


to propel his tri
logy


and his ethics


forward” (93).

Both protagoni
sts,
Will and Lyra, fuel their adventures through love and
compassion.
For instance,
w
hen
encountering his father’s ghost in the Land of the Dead
, Will

exclaims that “[he] can’t
choose [his] nature, but [he] can choose what [he] do[es]” (
Pullman,
Amber Sp
yglass
418). He says this under the
standard

of human choice and freedom, but throughout
the series, Will uses his freedom to compassionately help others even when his helping
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hand might endanger himself.

Often, this calls for self
-
sacrifice. When Will
protects his
mother, he confronts callous, teasing children and harsh men searching for his father.
When he chooses to help Lyra retrieve the Golden Compass, he first fights Tullio for the
Subtle Knife. When he chooses to help the ghosts in the Land of t
he Dead, he battles
pernicious harpies. Will
’s

compassion defines him, and h
is f
reedom leads him to
sacrifice.
It is disappointing that such a unifying motif
of compassion and love
has gone
unnoticed and un
-
praised by the Catholic

League and
other Chri
stian organizations, for
t
he power of love will not go unnoticed to children reading a series so rich in excitement
and intrigue.
After understanding that the
His Dark Materials
trilogy has little
malevolence towards religion, one might even venture to sa
y that Christian parents
should endorse the reading of the series for its colorful contribution to two foca
l points
of the Christian faith.

But compassion and love are not the only virtues that Pullman’s trilogy may
instill in its readers.

His Dark Materi
als
introduces an
idea and
archetype glaringly
absent in the ICS curriculum. Almost all the
novels

ICS students read in the Humanities
curriculum (Ex.

Beowulf, Brave New World, The Anthem, Odysseus, The Invisible Man
)
incorporate a male
protagonist
, but a

novel

with a female central character is
seldom

read or discussed.

Pullman purposefully employs a female heroine in
His Dark Materials
to
empower young, female readers and give a female perspective to a genre, fantasy,
known for its male friendly bias.

Pullman himself exclaims that “the best thing from the
point of view of all who care about the story is his awareness that it isn’t about
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computer graphics; it isn't about fantastic adventures in amazing
-
l
ooking worlds;
It’s
about Lyra
.” (
qtd. in Huber)
.

Lyra is born into a sexist
society

in which women are
categorized as second
-
class citizens.
She has been indoctrinated with these values and
“regard[s] female Scholars with a proper Jordan disdain,” thinking of them as “poor
things [that] could never be t
aken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a
play” (67).


Creating
a world exaggerating the issues regarding
current
womens’ righ
ts
,
Pullma
n skillfully juxtaposes

blatant sexism
with the dexterity of the female characters,
Lyra and
Ms.

Coulter
. Lyra, the protagonist, follows her heart
and

often

unwittingly
embarks on wild adventures
that reveal mysteries and save lives
.
On the other hand,
Ms. Coulter
, a clear antagonist in the beginning of the series,

abducts children and
attempts to steal th
eir souls. Pullman uses such strong female roles to show young,
female readers that there is no pre
-
ordained position for women in society.
Too often,
young girls
are greeted by

well
-
manicured path
s

to life
,

seemingly lacking a choice to
slash

their

own
path
s
.
His Dark Materials

offers a view into a world where even in a
palpably sexist society a woman may be good or evil, rebellious or compliant.

Pullman
attempts to explain that young girls may do with their life what they will simply because
they have

freedom of choice. He illustrates this point by “let[ting]

his story revolve
around women: the heroine Lyra, the female tempter Mary, the female rebel angel
Xaphania, Mrs Coulter. Male characters do play a big role as well, but it is in most cases
the fe
male figures that influence t
he story decisively
” (Huber).

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Along with its feminist viewpoints,
His Dark Materials

comments on the
formation of identity in maturing adolescents. This proves very influential because it
relates
to
much
of
Pullman’s target au
diences’
experiences.
Elementary students and
even high school students

are in a constant quest to develop individual identity
,

and
Pullman’s trilogy
helps them understand a stage in life infamous for its confusing nature.
In
His Dark Materials
, Pullman

represents identity through the daemon, the physical
manifestation of a person’s soul in the form of an animal. During childhood, a person’s
daemon may take many forms, embodying their potential, but in adulthood, a person’s
daemon
settles into one form,
representing the formation of a basic personality and set
of values.

In
The Golden Compass
, Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father, explains
to Lyra
that
daemons “
have always settled, and they always will. That’s a part of growing up.
There’ll come a time when you
will grown tired of [your daemon’s] changing about, and
you’ll want a settled kind of form for him” (
Pullman
45).
At first Lyra cannot understand
how she would ever want her daemon to settle as on
e

form because h
er own fluid and
malleable personality

is s
till changing

and develop
ing. B
ut a
s Lyra matures into a young
woman, she finds her father’s words coming true
,
explaining to
Pantalaimon, her
daemon, that “when [they] were younger” she would not want him to “stop changing at
all” but now “[she] wouldn’t

mind much at all. Not if [he
] stays

like this” (
Pullman,
The
Amber Spyglass 213)
. In the world of
His Dark MaterialsI
, Daemons manifest the
maturation of people. The trilogy’s illustration of daemons reveals that Pullman
believes that the transition fro
m an adolescent to an adult is a specific moment in time
rather than a gradual change.

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8


Topics
in
Pullman’s
trilogy

such as the search for identity and feminism offer rich
possibilities for discussion in a classroom setting. Much can be gleaned from

His Da
rk
Materials

if people only take the time to see past the ostensible anti
-
religious themes
the series is infamous for. It is disappointing that

a misunderstanding of the message of
the novels

(
by Christian groups such as William Donohue’s Catholic League
of Religious
and Civil Rights
)

overshadows
Pullman’s superb story
-
telling
and analytical talents.

But
even if the novel is anti
-
Christian as so many accuse it of being, is it still wrong to teach
it an educational setting? After all, is not the best way
to cement a faith in religion to
question it

at an early age
?
And what better setting than in class?

Either way, Pullman’s
His Dark Materials
deserves a place on the bookshelves of public school libraries right
next to
other fantasy
series

such as
C.S. Lew
is’s
The
Chronicles of Narn
ia

and
J.R.R.
Tolkien

s
The Lord of the Rings,

both

bastion
s

of Christian
traditions and mythology
.

In many ways the controversy over
His Dark Materials
reveals an unfair attitude
towards atheistic leaning literature in America
.
A
ssume

for a moment
that

Pullman’s
trilogy is inherently advocating atheism
,
and ask whether it should be banned from
school libraries when
The

Chronicles of Narnia
, a
similar fantasy
laden with deliberate
Christian parallels, lies peacefully in public
libraries across the nation. It reveals a
decidedly anti
-
atheistic stance in American culture that a series superficially advocating
for atheism must jump through hoops before reaching a public library while a series
advocating Christianity through blatan
t symbolism and allegory sits quietly in libraries
across the nation with hardly any complaints.


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Works Cited

Butler, Robert. "The
Dark Materials

Debate: Life, God, the U
niverse
...."
Daily Telegraph

17 March 2004
. 3 Nov 2008 <http://www.telegraph.co.
uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=

/arts/2004/03/17/bodark17.xml>
.


D
onohue, William. "
The Golden Compass

Unmas
k
ed."
Catholic League for Religious and
Civil Rights
. 2007. 3 Nov 2008 <http://www.catholicleague.org/images/upload

/image_200710053349.pdf>.

Freitas, D
onna, and Jason King.
Killing the Imposter God
. San
Francisco
:
Wilet & Sons
,
2007.

Gresh , Lois.
Exploring Phillip Pullman's
His Dark Materials
. New
Yo
rk
: St. Martin's Press,
2007.

Huber, Christina. "Women in
His Dark Materials
."
His Dark Materials.
org
. 2 October
2007. 3 Nov 2008 <http://www.hisdarkmaterials.org/opinions/essays/women
-
in
-
his
-
dark
-
materials>.

Moreton, Cole. "Phillip Pullman: His Dark Materials."
The
Independent

2
5 May 2008. 3
Nov 2008 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles
/philip
-
pullman
-
his
-
dark
-
materials
-
834043.html>.

Pullman, Philip
.
The Golden Compass
. New York: Random House, Inc.
,
1993
.

---
.

The Amber Spyglass
. New York: Random House,
Inc., 2000
.

Rooijen, Ryan. "A Dark Agenda
?
"

His Dark Materials.org
. 23 August 2003. 3 Nov 2008
<http://www.hisdarkmaterials.org/opinions/essays/women
-
in
-
his
-
dark
-
materials>.

Simpson, Paul.
The Rough Guide to Phillip Pullman's

His Dark Materials
. New York:

Penguin

Putnam, Inc., 2007
.

Yeffeth, Glenn.
Navigating the Golden Compass: Religion, Science, and Daemonolgy in
Phillip Pullman's

His Dark Materials
. Dallas: Benbella Books, Inc., 2005.