There’s a lot of fantasy fiction that I enjoy in spite of its religious themes – C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. But sometimes I’m in the mood for fiction that takes an explicitly atheist and humanist point of view, which is why I’ve lately been rereading one of my favorite series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.
The first book in the series, The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights outside the USA), is set on an alternate Earth that seamlessly combines magic and steampunk technology. In this world, every human being is accompanied everywhere by their daemon – an intelligent, animal-shaped spirit that’s the outward manifestation of their soul. Children’s daemons can change shape, but during puberty, a person’s daemon settles on a fixed form that’s reflective of their personality.
Pullman’s heroine, Lyra Belacqua, is a street urchin growing up in the care of the Scholars who live and work at Jordan College, part of the University of Oxford in that universe. The book begins when she discovers that her uncle, the stern and dangerous Lord Asriel, is mounting an expedition to the Arctic that has something to do with the discovery of an elementary particle called Dust, which is strangely attracted to human beings. The discovery of Dust has touched off a frenzy in the Church, which in Lyra’s world is a powerful and ruthless theocratic organization. In her quest to follow in her uncle’s footsteps, she becomes entangled with a memorable villain, the sweetly sadistic Mrs. Coulter, who’s working with a church body called the General Oblation Board that’s performing sinister experiments on children.
Despite its fantastical contours, Pullman’s universe is richly and vividly textured, conjuring one fantastic sight after another. There are angels, witches, heroic gypsies, steampunk spy machines, balloon-riding Texan aeronauts, and the author’s most spectacular creation, the panserbjorne: intelligent, talking, armor-wearing polar bears that rule over the kingdom of Svalbard in the far north and live by their own peculiar, savage code of honor. Lyra’s friendship with one of them, a bear named Iorek Byrnison, forms a major arc throughout the second half of the book.
The sequel, The Subtle Knife, concerns a boy from our Earth named Will Parry who accidentally comes into possession of the most dangerous artifact in the multiverse, a knife that can cut doorways from one world into another. The trilogy wraps up with The Amber Spyglass, which tells of the truth about Dust, Lyra and Will’s shared fate, and a cosmic war against the trilogy’s main villain, “the Authority”, an angelic tyrant who stands behind the church and falsely claims to be the creator of all things. Yes, the overarching plot of these books is a revolt against God – and the protagonists’ stated quest is to create a democratic “Republic of Heaven” encompassing all the worlds of the multiverse.
Although HDM is nominally a young-adult trilogy, I found it very adult in its plot and outlook, especially its treatment of sexuality and its elegiac, bittersweet ending. There was a movie made of the first book in 2007, starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. It did reasonably well at the box office, but the sequels were never made, which is just as well. As much as I love the books, they’re probably unfilmable without watering them down beyond recognition. Can you imagine Hollywood greenlighting a movie where the primary villain is God?
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