Heaven, Neverland, Paradise: All Lost
THE DEFENDANT: The Amber Spyglass, part 3 of the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. See also Shannon’s reviews of The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife.
THE VERDICT: Pullman himself has no idea why Harry Potter gets in trouble while his own books fly under the radar. As he says, “The people who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven’t got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”
THE CHARGES: “political and religious viewpoints,” violence, sexuality, and an overall attitude that morality is relative. By my count this book includes killing God, destroying hell, insinuating that heaven cannot exist, and touches on topics like cannibalism, euthanasia, intelligent design, evolution, child sexuality, and then there are some gay angels thrown in there just in case the rest wasn’t enough. In some publications a paragraph describing Lyra’s sexual awakening was removed.
THE REVIEW: Where to even begin? I guess I will start with the character Mary Malone.
Mary Malone is a nun-turned-scientist. This alone is enough to warrant a bit of suspicion from anyone on the God side of the God vs. Science rivalry. The fact that she is childless, husbandless, and has a history of living in sin would certainly raise some more red flags for any parent hoping to raise god-fearing, conservative children. According to a sizable portion of the American Republican base, Mary Malone should be an empty shell of a human being, miserable at the hollowness of her own existence. According to Pullman, she is the person who is most qualified to teach Lyra and Will about living meaningful lives. Mary is wholly unconcerned about living with a man, and then leaving him when their lives no longer comfortably coincided. This way of thinking is exactly how traditional marriage gets destroyed!
She tells the children about several romantic entanglements from her past, with no regret that none of these relationships lasted. Yet, she clearly values these experiences. She left the church because she realized she wanted romance to be a factor in her life. At the core of her decision to leave the church was her desire to take part in earthly pleasures, but Mary is not portrayed as an amoral hedonist. She is also not jaded or empty; she is completely in awe of life and the universe. In short, she is exactly what particularly rabid Conservative Christians insist Atheists can never be. She has purpose, she has meaning, and she has a moral code. Mary Malone very believably portrays that Heathens can be People too. If you are the kind of parent that wants their kids to believe the bible is the only way to find meaning and morality, you do not want your kids to be exposed to this character.
Mary is easily one of the less threatening parts of this book to conservative Judeo-Christian values, though. God is portrayed as a senile, powerless entity who is simply being controlled by the person who has been in charge of PR for the last few millennia. He is helpless, he is scared, and the book expresses in no uncertain terms that the best thing for him is to be allowed to die. Lyra and Will attempt to free him, but he is so frail that the slightest disturbance kills him. He dies with a grateful smile on his face.
Portraying god as powerless is generally considered a risky move. Killing God? Definitely worse. Euthanizing God? Pullman is just showing off at this point.
A large portion of the book focuses on Lyra and Will trying to reach “the land of the dead” (lets, face it, it’s “Hell”). Once there they find not fires and brimstone but hopeless apathy. The only thing that ever happens is psychological warfare from winged harpies that remind everyone of the worst things they ever thought or did. Everyone longs for the time where they had bodies with senses to interact with the world. Without bodies, they all just sit around with nothing happening. Lyra, Will, and a considerable amount of the ghosts feel that oblivion would be a better option than the purgatory that exists. Will cuts an opening into the living world from Hell, and when the ghosts pass through they die a true death, disintegrating into the air with smiles on their faces.
For all the hope that people worldwide get from the idea of an afterlife, this one little YA novel does a pretty solid job of removing any desire for one. There are so many brilliant, beautiful philosophical concepts enclosed in just a few chapters here, it makes my head spin. What if the meaning in life was to collect experiences worth telling about? How much joy can be gained from a life without a body to sense the world with? Is a joyous afterlife possible, and if not, would oblivion not be the better choice? What meaning would consciousness have if it never ended?
I am going to be perfectly honest here: I experience these chapters the same way I have heard people describe the experience of reading religious texts. I want the passage about what will happen to the ghosts when they leave Hell to be read at my funeral. This book effectively turns atheism into not just a moral code but a beautiful and poetic one. For all the people who believe morality comes from God and want their children to believe so too this is a serious problem.
Killing God and destroying Hell are just the appetizers, though. The climax of the book is when it is revealed that The Fall in Eden was not a sin but the greatest event in history. It is when consciousness and sentience began. It is the kind of point that almost seems obvious in hindsight; doesn’t everyone know that the fruit came from the tree of “knowledge,” and its effects were giving Adam and Eve “awareness?” In any other context knowledge and awareness are considered good things.
In the book Lyra and Will are told several stories about past loves Dr. Mary Malone has had, and in hearing about love they realize that they feel it for each other. The time and place of their realizing this happens to be exactly right to initiate a butterfly effect to stop Dust (particles of awareness) from flowing out of existence.
Here is where things get a little bit awkward. The book only ever describes the children kissing, and any young readers would assume that is the end of it. The author himself has said that when he was writing the book that is all he intended; a kiss between two people who have suddenly discovered what love is, and that they feel it for one another. However, older readers seem to feel that this scene is depicting sex between characters who cannot be older than 13, and indeed are probably younger. With how many times Pullman explicitly waxes poetic about the benefits of having a body and senses, it becomes harder to believe an instance that has been compared to The Fall in Eden for three books is no more than a kiss. Add in the fact that a few pages later Lyra and Will are clearly described as sleeping in each other’s arms, well, it is certainly understandable if anyone gets the impression that this book is both depicting and advocating for child sexuality. There is even a portion of the book that has been left out in certain printings:
“Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She found a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster. She had never been on a roller-coaster, or anything like one, but if she had, she would have recognized the sensations in her breast: they were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued, and deepened, and changed, as more parts of her body found themselves affected too. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on. She sat trembling, hugging her knees, hardly daring to breathe.”
For better or for worse, Pullman is clearly, but tactfully, describing a sexual awakening.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, Pullman inserts several anecdotes that are clearly only there to push the boundaries of standard morality. Iorek Byrnison, the sentient armored bear, comes across the body of his fallen (human) comrade when he is close to starvation. Iorek decides that his friend would have wanted him to live, so he eats the body. Pullman just depicted a sentient being willingly feasting on the flesh of another sentient being, guilt free!
He also created the characters of Baruch and Balthalmos, two male angels who are passionately in love with each other. What’s more, the book explicitly states that angels are non-corporeal, which means their love is based purely on affection and not sexuality. When Balthalmos dies, Baruch’s heartbreak is so violent it would be difficult for readers not to pity him. If someone believes that homosexuality is nothing more than misguided sexual impulses, they absolutely do not want their children to read about two gay angels who have been together for millennia and cannot bear the idea of life without each other’s company.
Iorek’s starvation plot goes nowhere, and could have easily been left out of the book completely. Either Baruch or Balthalmos could have easily been written as female. Pullman very deliberately chose to put these little touches in the book, and they only add to the overall theme that morality is relative.
The His Dark Materials series pulls a bit of a bait and switch. It starts off with magic talking animals, just like so many other fantasy stories aimed at kids, and by the end is talking about philosophical ideas that could make college professors wax poetic for hours. The label “Young Adult” could not be more appropriate for this series. In fact, I think Pullman has succeeded in writing a series that actively aids readers in the transition from being “young” to being “adult.” If a child in Lyra’s world were to read this series, I wouldn’t be surprised if their daemon settled on its final form by the end.
This series spends a lot of time asking difficult questions, and is unapologetic about portraying morality as being full of grey areas. Lord Asrael, the great leader of the holy war, commits a child sacrifice in the first book. The master of Jordan College tries to murder Lord Asrael, but is portrayed as having very valid reasons and struggling with deciding how to bring about the best outcome. This is just not seen often in YA novels; good is good, bad is bad, or if nothing else, once the good guy reveals they were evil all along they stay evil.
Pullman depicts people making tough moral decisions, and acknowledges they have the right to struggle with all the facets of the issues they face. I cannot think of something more important for young adults to encounter. As kids reach the age where they have to start acting autonomously more and more they need to know that most problems are not black and white. They will see multiple sides to every issue, and there may be times where there is no right answer, and that is normal.
Pullman himself is British. I know far less about the religious climate in Britain than I do in the US, but in the US approximately 75% of the country adheres to some form of Christianity, 10% adhere to other faiths, and 15% claim no religion at all. Because of the overwhelming majority held by Christians and the relative silence of the non-religious there is a lot of suspicion directed at Atheists here. This is largely due to the impression that people without religion do not have a moral code. I can think of no better example than Mary Malone to show that Atheists and other non-Christians are not necessarily bad people or inherently scary. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if 15%-25% of the US population was not viewed as dangerous, amoral sinners? Any book that promotes understanding between groups should not only be welcomed but promoted, and not banned.
But then what about the blatant anti-Catholicism that runs rampant through this series? I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that the Catholic Church needed to take a good hard look at itself at the time these books were being published. The parallels between intercision and the church’s sex scandals that were surfacing in the nineties are striking. The Catholic church absolutely was committing horrors against children for decades, and that is an accusation that needed to be laid at their feet. If these books made anyone stop and question the infallibility of that institution, good. If the church felt that any of the insinuations in this series rang a little too true, then they had an obligation to correct themselves. Change does not happen by ignoring the problem, which the church did for years and Pullman was not willing to do so himself.
That all being said, I do feel that this series suffers from not having any strong examples of relatable, trustworthy members of the Magisterium. I would have liked to see a little more of Pullman’s moral relativism there. I don’t think I had a reasonable right to expect as much from someone who has been quoted saying “I hope the wretched organization will vanish entirely,” though.
The issue of child sexuality is a difficult one. As I said earlier, even though Pullman has stated he only ever intended a kiss between Lyra and Will, I completely understand how anyone could believe more is insinuated. I struggle with this, because I do believe that age of consent laws are important and that sexuality is too important to be trifled with. Yet, I believe it is foolish for anyone to claim that children don’t feel sexual impulses, or even romantic love. At its worst, though, this book depicts a sexual act motivated by unconditional love between two people who have reached mental maturity, as signaled by the settling of their daemons. With how much effort goes in to teaching young people to be afraid of sex, or with how much damage sexual abuse can do to a young person, I can easily see how an example of a loving, consensual act could be a good thing for a young person to encounter.
Let us assume for a moment that the age these books were intended for is 13. That is pretty decidedly the age where kids stop being “kids” and begin settling into the adults they will become, just like the daemons settle on a shape. They begin to gain autonomy, have opinions of their own, and develop an understanding of what is best for them without having to rely on an adult to tell them. A thirteen-year-old would meet Lyra when she is still in Oxford and feel superior to her when she is playing silly childish games, relate to her when she acts autonomously, and envy her when she is labeled as “the chosen one” like most protagonists in YA fiction. Then they would meet Will, who is clearly swamped with responsibilities he is not quite prepared for, and a thirteen year old would relate to that as they feel added responsibilities entering their lives.
What better role models could children be given? So many times kids are told to enjoy childhood, don’t grow up too fast, and adulthood is hard. Pullman posits that it is great to be a kid while you actually are a kid, but growing up is both good and right as well. What is to be gained by scaring kids off from the idea of adulthood? It is high time that someone stood up to Peter Pan, and Philip Pullman is the right man for the job.
Pullman states that his book is not a treatise, but a story, and opinions expressed in it are that of the characters he created. But lets say for a moment that he DID intend this book to be a moral guide. Is it really so terrible to give children the role models of Will’s responsibility, Lyra’s selflessness, and Mary’s passion for life? Why not live life as if you have to “build the republic of heaven where you are”? The series ends with the message that life is meant to be lived to the fullest because you only get one, but do so responsibly. I fail to see how this message can do anything other than help society.
Trackbacks / Pingbacks