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His Dark Materials

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His Dark Materials is a trilogy of fantasy books by 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[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 Blake 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[2]

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.

Overall, this church is shown to be a repressive influence, and one which Lord Asriel, one of the major characters of the trilogy, 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.

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.[3] 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,[4] arguing that it merely attacks a false notion of God and that the book's message is ultimately Christian.[5] 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, worshipped as "God", is not in fact the Creator, but a corrupt angel who usurped the throne during an early conflict. Pullman's idea of this "War in Heaven" is partially inspired by John Milton's Paradise Lost. The Creator himself is extremely weak and frail and, when he is liberated from his imprisonment, is unable to survive. 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.

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.[6]


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]

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. Achuka Interview: Philip Pullman.
  3. The Dark Materials debate.
  4. God in the dust: What Catholics attacking 'The Golden Compass' are really afraid of
  5. Wait, you're serious?
  6. Pullman's description bears more than a passing resemblance to ancient Greek notions of the underworldWikipedia's W.svg (especially TartarusWikipedia's W.svg and the Fields of Punishment) as depicted in the OdysseyWikipedia's W.svg.
  7. Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, chapter 37.