His Dark Materials as English Romanticism

When the movie The Golden Compass came out a few months back, some Catholic Church groups lobbied to have folks boycott it, saying that Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy — The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass — was anti-Catholic (not to mention anti-JudeoChristian).  I am always against censorship, and, as a Catholic and a professor of English, for me knowledge — not ignorance — is always power.

So, after having read all three (I just finished reading the last one a few minutes ago), I can see why some Catholics call for a boycott: the Catholic Church and the JudeoChristian tradition — especially in regards to Genesis and the Fall of Man — are seen as horrible lies, put forth by an ossified institutional power structure bent on controlling their followers.

But Philip Pullman didn’t make up this interpretation of institutional religion; he got it from the English Romantics, especially William Blake.  For the disciples of English Romanticism, God is a sadistic tyrant and Satan was a noble freedom fighter.  Adam and Eve were just unfortunate patsies in the good vs. evil struggle, of the dignity of material beings.

Hence, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are Byronic heroes — horribly flawed and ignoble according to their society’s moral structure, but individually noble because of their strong, personal will.  Perhaps not coincidentally, the two child heroes are named Will and Lyra — Will for the personal will that can withstand God and Death, and Lyra for “lyre” or “lyrical”, the outward instrument and manifestation of the human imagination.

As an example of contemporary English Romanticism, His Dark Materials is very good.  But as an argument against Christianity or any monotheism for that matter, it is horrible, for it doesn’t do a proper refutation, which is empathetically understanding where the opposing side is coming from.  For Pullman doesn’t do the adherents to institutionalized religion justice — they are either brainwashed stooges or malicious Machiavellians — and actually misinterprets some things, such as what John Milton intended for the role of Eve in Paradise in his Paradise Lost and confusing the Fall of Man with sex (which even C.S. Lewis acknowledged and refuted in his Mere Christianity).

Anyways — it’s a good adventurous read, all three books.  But I would highly recommend folks to study up a little bit about English Romanticism, just to see what message Pullman (perhaps inadvertantly, perhaps not) is trying to put forth to his young readers.  And then, to balance out that pro-secular humanist message, read C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia or Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet (for a pro-Christian series), and then J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (for an example of non-Romantic personal sacrifice of one’s life).  As with any piece of good story-telling, one doesn’t have to agree with it in order to appreciate it.


About lizardqueen

If single-mothering were a paid job, I'd be rich. However, it doesn't, so I write (which doesn't pay the bills) and teach (which does). I'm overly-educated in the liberal arts, but that doesn't hinder my ability to be pragmatic and realistic. YAY.
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2 Responses to His Dark Materials as English Romanticism

  1. lizardqueen says:

    Milton grew on me — being a crazy UD English major helps. 🙂

    And Pullman is really really really Romantic — glorifying the innocence of childhood, the sublimity of wild, unfettered nature (trees, wind, sea, animals), the drive for individuals to find their special genius/ talent through their passions…

    Blake, Wordsworth, and Byron would’ve recognized Pullman as one of their own.

  2. I haven’t read his work, but it seems to me that it reeks of modernism trying to find a mythos.

    Which is fine – but honestly I’m not a fan of Milton either 😉

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