The His Dark Materials books by Philip Pullman are an incredible trilogy. I first read them at the age of 13, and they were the catalyst for my final abandonment of my religious beliefs (which I shall discuss in a future blog post). I’ve recently re-read the trilogy; my third reading of the books. This post will largely focus on The Amber Spyglass and the alternative approach to religion which it presents.
The Amber Spyglass can be seen as an utter rejection of Christian values and beliefs. This is obvious by the point Lord Asriel has founded the Republic of Heaven and is waging war against God, but should be obvious even before then by scathing comments towards the church and its hold over power. However it is in subtle allegories that I feel Pullman creates parallels with religion most effectively, which sets him up to reject it and create a new set of beliefs which I would actually like to believe in if they weren’t fictional.
These allegories focus around the world of the Mulefa, which is never named but I believe may symbolise Eden. This may seem a strange comparison considering the imperfections which exist (chiefly the Tualapi) and that, as Pullman explains, this world came to be out of evolution and natural processes, but that’s not the point. A central theme which develops throughout the book is the need to build a metaphorical ‘Republic of Heaven’ in people’s own worlds, where they are, by living full lives and building stories and living in harmony with one another. The world of the Mulefa is an example of this put into practice. They are in harmony with nature, using the seed pods to elevate themselves to a position of dominance, given to them by their ability to travel over the lava-roads and, most importantly, through the seed oil which gives them consciousness. In return their use of the seed pods crack them open and allow the seeds to germinate. They live a rustic lifestyle, taking from the earth what they need and in turn giving to the earth what it needs.
The Mulefa are unique also in their harmony with one another. Two Mulefa are never seen to argue, and everything they do is done in cooperation – such as tying nets which requires two to work concurrently on the same net and in gathering food. There are very little politics in Mulefa society; councils exist and some Mulefa appear to have elevated positions, but every member of the society has a voice and will be listened to.
The Mulefa have their own creation story. They believe the first Mulefa – a female, in contrast to Genesis’ Adam – discovered a seed pod and a serpent told her to put her foot through it to achieve knowledge. This is very similar to the tale of Adam and Eve in Christianity, but where humanity see this as ‘The Fall’ and long to return to the bliss of ignorance, the Mulefa celebrate this event. Christian doctrine goes that as a result of The Fall humanity became alienated both from God and from nature, yet the Mulefa have somehow kept the union unbroken – perhaps due to their different interpretation. This adds to the idea that the Mulefa world is, allegorically, Eden.
It is somehow fitting then that, when Lyra and Will create an exit for the prisoners of the World of the Dead, the world their atoms are scattered into is Eden. There is no Heaven nor eternal paradise, but in becoming one with nature conscious life can reach a form of contented harmony. To reach this state one does not need to sacrifice their lives and freedom for a Deity – this would in fact keep them trapped forever in the World of the Dead. People need to lives worth talking about, create stories, and strive for fulfilment. These are healthy morals, in my view.
Another theme of the entire trilogy is opposition to authority. The head angel is never referred to as God, but as ‘The Authority’, which shows the nature of his rule. The fact that The Authority is a wizened, weak angel needing to be kept in a crystal case for safety, whose existence is scattered by the force of the wind, sums up the futility of his role. All throughout the novel characters are encouraged to question authority, though this most often equates to challenging the church. While this is most definitely a theme I would agree with, it does not seem to extend to other authorities. When the angel Xaphania tells Will and Lyra that every window between worlds must be closed to stop Dust leaving the world, and the Subtle Knife destroyed, they blindly accept it. They have reason to, until Xaphania tells them one window could be kept open, which would be used to allow the dead to continue flowing into ‘Eden’. If one window can be afforded to be kept open, surely a second window would not be the end of Dust either? Surely Lyra and Will are owed the opportunity to be together after everything they have done for the rebellion? I love this book dearly, but this is a major flaw. In accepting Xaphania’s words, Lyra and Will are rejecting Pullman’s message that all authority should be questioned. Clearly, only ‘bad’ authority can be corrupt.
This brings me onto the role of Dust. Dust is an elementary particle which has a symbiotic relationship with consciousness; one cannot exist without the other. The Magisterium fears and hates Dust, believing that it is the cause of all sin. It is my belief that Dust is meant to symbolise sin itself. Christian belief states that as a result of The Fall, sin entered the world. How this happened is not explained, but it is a very similar image to the Dust Mary Malone, Lord Asriel and others see flowing out of the world, out of the universe, into the Abyss. But once again Christian belief is subverted. Where Christians, like the Magisterium, fear and hate sin, the message of The Amber Spyglass is that Dust ought to be celebrated. Dust brings conscious life to the Mulefa, due to keeping the seed-pod trees alive. It does the same for humanity, and all life which is self aware. Once more I agree with Pullman’s message that anything which brings greater knowledge to humanity, be it Dust, the Tree of Knowledge or science, is worth celebrating.
In Christian doctrine God is split into three parts of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. In the universe Pullman has created, life is also split into three parts: the body, the dæmon (soul) and the ghost. Upon death the body and the soul, which are considered the most important aspects, dissipate and become one with the world, but The Authority keeps the ghost prisoner in the World of the Dead. This is contrary to the Christian idea of life after death as being ‘salvation’. Pullman takes the view that an eternal life, whether in bliss, suffering or neither, would not be desirable. It is only through Lyra and Will’s actions that the ghosts are freed from this living death.
One final point I have on trilogy’s attitude towards Christianity is the lack of any criticism, or even reference to, Jesus Christ the Saviour. References to the Magesterium aside, which is clearly based on the Catholic Church, the religion Pullman is criticising could easily also be Judaism. I would imagine this is due to there being very little in Jesus’ philosophy to criticise, other than the acts done in his name. Perhaps even, in Lyra’s world, Jesus never existed, or his doctrines never extended beyond cult status. He is certainly a major omission, but most likely a deliberate one.
As I read The Amber Spyglass I thought this is a religion with such great messages, morals and stories that I actually wished it were true. Dust, Mulefa, parallel worlds, death, authority… The book presents all these themes in ways I believe they should be treated. And the ultimate theme, the idea of creating a Republic of Heaven where we are, ‘because there is no elsewhere,’ is a wonderful message. Basically, don’t squander or waste you life because you only live once and the world is there for the taking. The world is your oyster, if you like. This is a positive message to take upon finishing the book, and my most significant reason for wishing that the beliefs of this fictional story are worshipped across the world in Christianity’s place.