Dealing with religious themes and beliefs, as the Christian ones in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, which is the first book of the trilogy His Dark Materials, is always a delicate matter. Based on the freedom of opinion, every author has a right to express his feelings and thoughts in a book, how controversial they might be. However, the Christian Church and a lot of its supporters, especially the Catholic ones, feel offended and affronted by the trilogy and Pullman’s turning the Christian myth upside down.
The inspiration was a work Pullman has loved since his teens: “Paradise Lost. ” (Laura Miller) This essay seeks to concentrate on the theological debate that arose with the publication of the book and came to its climax with the movie The Golden Compass, released to movietheatres in december 2007. After sorting out the history of childrens literature, it concentrates on the religious themes in Northern Lights and its debate in the Catholic church and finally compares the story of Lyra Belacqua to the series of fantasy novels The Cronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.
The first kinds of literature for children and teenagers were edited works for adults, as the first known example from the Antique were the Ilias from Homer. In the Middle Ages Aesops stories were formulated as fables for children to educate them and to teach them moral and behaviour but also to accept authorities (e. g. The Turtle and the Hare). At the same time the very few students of convent schools learned to read and understand the Bible. An also well known source of stories were fairytales as the ones collected and written down by the brothers Grimm in the early 17th century.
These fairytales were not exactely written for children as they were very brutal (e. g. Hansel and Gretel). With the change of industry and economy in the late 19th century children’s literature also started to change. It became fantastic and children, for whom it had become obligatory to go to school by this time, started to read just for fun (e. g. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll). Childern were also taught to believe in wonders such as fairies (and in themselves). With the beginning of the 20th century a new branch of childrens literature was explored, the anthropomorphic ehaviour of animals. Beatrix Potter was the first and best known author for this branch in the UK. Her love for the nature created little rabbits and ducks, dressing and behaving like humans (e. g. The Tale of Peter Rabbit). After this periode children’s literature became a whole new big market which expanded very quickly into all kinds of genres like Science-Fiction, Drama and Romance. Philip Pullman’s first book Nothern Lights of the trilogy His Dark Material published in 1995 is set in a parallel universe, which is very similar but still so different to ours.
It is a church-burdened world, in which the Reformation led to consolidation, not schism, and the Papacy was moved from Rome to Geneva by John Calvin. (Laura Miller) In Lyra Belacqua’s (12-year old protagonist, growing up as an orphan at Jordan College in Oxford) world every person carries a little animal called d? mon around, which is the physical manifestation of their soul. Once seperated neither can really exist. After she learned about Dust and her uncle Lord Asriel left for another scientific tour to the North, Lyra gets to know wonderful Mrs Coulter and gets invited by her to London.
In Lyra’s untroubled life suddenly everything changes: children start to disappear, her uncle seems to be held in the North by the panserborne (armoured polar bears) and she discovers that her admirable Marisa Coulter is involved in the organisation named General Oblation Board, who steal the children away, Lyra decides to escape from her and accompany the Gyptians on their way to the North to save the children and rescue her uncle. On her way she becomes friends with an aeronaut called Lee Scoresby, an outcast panserborn called Iorek Byrnison and a witch called Serafina Pekkala.
After being captured by the Goblers (General Oblation Board members) and brought to their station in Bolvangar, she nearly got an intercision (being cut from ones d? mon). With a little help from her friends she can escape and save all the children. In Lee Scoresby’s baloon they take off to Svalbard to the panserborne, where Lyra tricks the bear-king and Iorek gets his rightful position back as the king of the panserborne. Philip Pullman is a self-confessed atheist and this becomes obvious in his His Dark Materials trilogy.
He confesses: “I don’t profess any religion; I don’t think it’s possible that there is a God; I have the greatest difficulty in understanding what is meant by the words ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’. ” The whole trilogy is like a negative portrayal of the Catholic Church and the whole Christian story. Pullman puts his atheism into fantasy. He is the writer atheists would pray for, if they would pray. In his fictive world, religion is mass deception; God is a grizzled, tottering liar; his prince-regent a kind of devil; and the servants of the Church as corrupt as they are tyrannical. Bernard Schweizer) In Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass the body of the Catholic Church is taken as an example for the almighty, negative dominating control in Lyra’s world, which is obsessed with sin and its eradication. They claim to fulfill the will of God. “In both the book and the movie, the evil institutional force is called the “Magisterium. ” In real life, the Magisterium is the teaching body of the Catholic Church, i. e. , the pope and the bishops in communion with him. So there is no doubting Pullman’s desire to paint the Catholic Church as evil. The whole Magisterium and its members are afraid of Dust, which is a substance bound to Lyra’s world. Its particles, which can only be seen with a special camera or spyglass, surrounds every person grown out of childhood and symbolizes the adulthood and the sins they gain with it. It seems also to be connected to the Aurora Borealis as it streams out in the North. By cutting off the d? mons from the children they try to prevent the Dust particles from settling on the children. The Church is afraid – even this is an insult. That is the reason why the Church in Lyra’s world pays for Bolvangar and the investigations the Goblers enquire there.
The whole idea of Dust is a thorne in the side of the Church. In the Catholic Church dust is the origin and the end of every living creature: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. ” But “Pullman [.. ] uses the concept of Dust in order to disturb traditional Christian hierarchies [… ] namely, the value-laden binaries of innocence-experience, good-evil and spirit matter that lie at the core of the Fall myth. ” Even the sacrifice of innocent children is justified in this matter. Just like it was with castration. The sexual organs of little boys were taken just for other people’s amusement. A castrato keeps his high treble voice all his life, which is why the Church allowed it: so useful in Church music. ” The General Oblation Board with Marisa Coulter on top behaves like the Inquisition and takes control of investigating Dust in the name of the Church. Bernard Schweizer compares: the solving of the mystery of Dust, “these omnipresent particles” by the Church in Lyra’s world, to the Vatican having the only nuclear weapon arsenal in our world. The Church in recent times, Lyra, it’s been getting more commanding. There’s councils for this and councils for that; there’s talk of reviving the Office of the Inquisition, God forbid. John Faa) The political system is theoretical. There has never been a reformation and Calvin, who was against Catholicism in our world, was the last pope in Lyra’s world. Lyra, the Prophet, seeks to save the world from a power which appeares to be God, whom she is going to kill in the third book of the trilogy The Amber Spyglass. “She is destined to bring about the end of destiny. ” When the new world begins and Lyra exchanges her first shy kiss with a boy – she represents a new Eve. This will mean the end of the Church, Marisa, the end of the Magisterium, the end of all those centuries of darkness! Lord Asriel) When the movie The Golden Compass was released in December 2007 a whole new debate arose. The Catholic League, New York, warned parents to watch the movie, which is actually only a light version of the book. They were afraid that the parents would get unsuspecting after the nice movie and give in to the childrens wishes to buy them the trilogy His Dark Materials as a Christmas present. This would be irresponsible of them, because the children would read it and believe, what Pullman tells them: the Catholic Church is evil.
The League also felt offended by Scholastic Corporation, the publisher of the trilogy, who professed “a belief in High moral and spiritual values,” and states its stands square against “discrimination of any kind on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, age, or national origin. ” Obviously except when it comes to Christians. Pullman’s trilogy might be to children’s literature what Richard Dawkins is to science: “Both of their writings express a negative opinion of Christianity and its institutions that falls little short of hatred.
The difference is that Dawkins uses every opportunity to publicly proclaim the perceived dangers of faith, whereas Pullman has cloaked his convictions in the drama and delight of an award-winning children’s series. ” This is a very harsh accusal considering Dawkins is called “Darwin’s Rottweiler” for being a radical atheist and agressive secularist. “Pullman’s number-one enemy is C. S. Lewis, author of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia. It was Lewis’Christianity, and the success he had in conveying his love for his religion to children, that convinced Pullman to write the anti-Narnia series. He turned the Christian story in his fictional stories around, whereas C. S. Lewis intended to retell the Chistian story many years before. In Lewis fantasy series The Cronicles of Narnia, written from 1950 to 1956, we can find all the children’s literature elements from the last centuries: anthropomorphic behaving animals (beavers, fox, wolves), fairytale creatures (the white snow which), elements from the Greek mythology (fawn, centaurs) and the almighty ASLAN the lion, who clearly represents Jesus.
He created Narnia through words with a song, he sacrificed himself for a boy and came back to life and he always shows up when someone is in bitter need. C. S. Lewis intended to teach children Christianity on a level they could understand. He treated children like children. He invented a system, for children, of understanding the Christian beliefs. Even though his novels are not exactly reliable the Catholic Church is fond of Lewis. The League praise it as the one important and stubborn surviving pocket of Christianity.
Pullman’s inspiration for His Dark Materials was Paradise Lost by John Milton but soon the fall of man, the main theme in Milton’s poems, “crept into the novel”. Just as Lewis, Pullman takes the Christian story and its mythology very serious. You can see this in little details like the name of Lyra’s uncle/father Lord Asriel. In the Christian mythology Asriel is a hebrew demon and the son of Manasseh. Even though I am Catholic and my parents used to raise me as a Christian, I think an author should have the right to manifest his beliefs or even unbeliefs in a book.
He should be allowed to write about whatever he wishes to. Due to the obvious hints given by Pullman concerning the atheism and the anti-Christian-story, I can relate to the disgust of the Catholic League. Northern Lights is written in a way that contains two different stories. One story for children, full of creatures, fantasy and adventures, but there is also another story, a deeper one. A story, which shows us a fascinating world how it could be. Totally different but still almost the same as ours. A power-seeking, investigating and corruptive world – sounds familiar?
An amazing book. I enjoyed both parts of this books and can just encourage everyone else to read it as well and judge about the debate on their own. It will not take longer than three days. 2070 words Bibliography: Pullman, Philip. 1995. Northern Lights. London: Scholastic Ltd.. Catholic League. 2007. THE GOLDEN COMPASS – AGENDA UNMASKED. www. catholicleague. org/images/upload/image_200710053349. pdf [acessed on 02. 11. 08] Gribbin, Mary & John. 2003. The Science of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. London: Hodder Children’s Books. Hall, Stephen S. 8. 08. 2005. Darwin’s Rottweiler – Sir Richard Dawkins: Evolution’s fiercest champion, far too fierce. DISCOVERmagazine – Science, Technology, and The Future. http://discovermagazine. com/2005/sep/darwins-rottweiler [acessed on 02. 11. 08] Hitchens, Peter. 27. 01. 2002. This is the most dangerous author in Britain. The Mail on Sunday. Kleingers, David. 26. 11. 2007. Gib dem Seelenaffen Zucker. KulturSPIEGEL 12/07, SPIEGEL Online. http://www. spiegel. de/kultur/kino/0,1518,521290,00. html [acessed on 02. 11. 08] Lenz, Millicent & Scott, Carole. 005. His Dark Materials Illuminated. Detroit, Michigan: Wayne State University Press. Miller, Laura. 26. 12. 2005. Far from Narnia. Philip Pullman’s secular fantasy for children. The New Yorker. http://www. newyorker. com/archive/2005/12/26/051226fa_fact [acessed on 02. 11. 08] Tucker, Nicholas. 2003. Darkness Visible. Inside the World of Philip Pullman. Cambridge: Wizard Books. Yeffeth, Glenn. 2005. Navigating The Golden Compass. Religion, Science&D? monology in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Dallas, Texas: BenBella Books, Inc.