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His Dark Materials

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His Dark Materials is a trilogy of fantasy books by British author Philip Pullman, written for older children and teenagers, but also popular among adult readers. The original trilogy consists of Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Some characters have reappeared in the short stories Lyra and the Birds (published as Lyra's Oxford) and Once Upon a Time in the North, and Pullman is currently working on a longer sequel or collection, The Book of Dust.

The trilogy has developed a strong cult following, but has also acquired increasing criticism from many Christian fundamentalist groups and some Catholics, especially after the movie adaptation of The Golden Compass[note 1]. This backlash focuses on the "killing God" aspect of the story, often misrepresenting it, and on Pullman's atheism. Some more moderate Christians, including the Church of England's Archbishop Rowan Williams and Catholic authors Jason King and Donna Freitas, have spoken well of His Dark Materials.

While the trilogy is popular with atheists, the series draws heavily on the mythology of William BlakeWikipedia and Gnosticism.

Controversial themes[edit]

I'm trying to write a book about what it means to be human, to grow up, to suffer and learn. My quarrel with much (not all) fantasy is it has this marvellous toolbox and does nothing with it except construct shoot-em-up games.
—Philip Pullman[1]

Spoiler Warning! If you haven't read the books yet, what the hell is wrong with you? This article doesn't cover the plot in much detail, but does give away a lot of things that happen at the end, so please read the books before you read this section.


The world of Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass) is dominated by a single theocratic Christian church. In their history, an alternate version of our own, the Reformation-era schism between Catholics and Protestants did not occur. Instead, John Calvin became Pope and moved the Papacy to Geneva. Consequently, a single church structure still dominates the Christian world, headed by a ruling council known as the Magisterium. Science is largely monopolised by the church and is known as "experimental theology". Hypotheses which do not fit into the ruling theology are branded as heresy. This authoritarian control of scholastic inquiry sets the stage for the main conflict that Lyra Belacqua finds herself in, as Lord Asriel, one of the trilogy's central characters, draws the ire of the Church leadership for researching the existence of parallel universes. Concurrently, the Magisterium is conducting illicit "research" of their own, trying to understand the parallel universes and the mysterious "elementary particle" that pervades all of them, believing it to be a physical manifestation of Sin. Throughout the novels, the Magisterium attempts to work their growing understanding of these mysteries into their theology, and goes to extreme lengths to use this knowledge to strengthen their control.

Overall, this church is shown to be a repressive influence, and one which Lord Asriel seeks to overthrow. As the conflict unfolds, in The Subtle Knife, another character expresses Pullman's conception of religion and government.

There are two great powers," the man said, "and they've been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.
—Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife, chapter 15.

The Christian church from our own world is not depicted in great detail, although the portrayal of Mary Malone, a scientist and former nun from our world, expresses some of Pullman's views on asceticism. Near the end of The Amber Spyglass, Mary recounts how she had devoted her life to Christ, but a moment of tenderness and attraction made her realise how foolish it was to throw her life away hoping for salvation in Heaven, rather than seeking true happiness here on Earth.[note 2]

The Church of England's Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has praised His Dark Materials as a thought-provoking exploration of themes of faith, power, and humanity.[2] Roman Catholic authors Jason King and Donna Freitas wrote a favorable study of the books entitled Killing the Imposter God and Freitas defended the film version as well,[3] arguing that it merely attacks a false notion of God and that the book's message is ultimately Christian.[4] However, Pullman has described himself as both an atheist and agnostic, and the majority of the book's more vocal fans are in that category as well.


Pullman's depiction of God and the ultimate downfall of Heaven is the aspect of the novels which has most attracted the ire of Christians. In Pullman's portrayal, the repressive authority of the church on Earth echoes a repressive "Authority" in Heaven. This figure, worshiped as "God", is neither a Creator nor any other kind of supreme being, but rather the first angel to come into existence, as is explained to some of the main characters by other angels in the latter half of the story.[note 3] Nonetheless, this first angel declared himself to be God to all other angels and conscious beings that came after him throughout the different parallel universes, which led to the creation of various religious institutions devoted to worshiping him and enforcing his desires, including the Magisterium in Lyra's world and the various Christian organizations in ours. By the time the story within the books takes place, the Authority has aged over countless millennia and has become extremely weak and frail, and has passed on control of the Kingdom of Heaven to a regent angel, who ultimately usurps his power and imprisons him. Eventually, the Authority is freed from his imprisonment, but things still do not turn out well for him.

In His Dark Materials, Lord Asriel's ultimate goal is to create another war in heaven, overthrowing not only the Earthly power of the church, but the tyranny of "The Authority" itself. Pullman's idea of this "War in Heaven" is partially inspired by John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Ultimately, the novels are ambivalent regarding whether any deity exists at all, even though at least one character voices their belief that they don't. Thus, this aspect of the story isn't as much to do with "killing God" as it is to do with overthrowing an impostrous celestial dictatorship run by the ultimate fraudster, though this might not be much of a difference in real life.[5] Not that anyone would know this if they just listened to Bill Donohue blather on about Phillip Pullman's "atheism for kids" agenda, rather than actually read the books and see for themselves.[6]

Themes of the afterlife are also explored in The Amber Spyglass, as Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry journey to "the land of the dead". Far from being a paradise, it is a place of imprisonment and suffering, where the Authority keeps people living on permanently without either their bodies or their daemons (the passionate parts of their soul). Ultimately, the dead are liberated from this land by Will and Lyra, and allowed to merge peacefully with the universe.[note 4]


Pullman explores the subject of Adam and Eve throughout the story, with Will and Lyra taking on their roles at the climax of The Amber Spyglass. This aspect seems to have escaped much of the criticism of the religious right. Pullman's message seems to be that, in choosing the fruit of life (love and sexuality), Adam and Eve (or Will and Lyra) actually redeem humanity, rather than condemning it to sin, as the church would have us believe.

Pullman's message of humanity is actually a positive and inspiring one. Instead of seeking salvation through some lofty Kingdom of Heaven, "we have to build the republic of heaven where we are".[7] This aspect has been censored in some editions.[8]

British version:

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She found a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster. She had never been on a roller-coaster, or anything like one, but if she had, she would have recognised the sensations in her breast: they were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued, and deepened, and changed, as more parts of her body found themselves affected too. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn't known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on. She sat trembling, hugging her knees, hardly daring to breathe, as Mary went on...

American version:

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn't known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt the other doors opening deep in the darkness, and lights coming on. She sat trembling as Mary went on...

See also[edit]


  1. This is despite the fact that the film really, really played down the anti-religious aspect of the books, making it more anti-authoritarian in general (which meant that the film was also hated by hardcore fans of the book), probably because fundies don't read any books except the Good one.
  2. See The Amber Spyglass, chapter 33
  3. See The Amber Spyglass, chapters 2 and 5.
  4. Pullman's description bears more than a passing resemblance to ancient Greek notions of the underworldWikipedia (especially TartarusWikipedia and the Fields of Punishment) as depicted in the OdysseyWikipedia.