Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked awhile,
Pondering his voyage...
--John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II
In addition to reminding me why I need to read Paradise Lost
sooner rather than later, this introductory quote offers explanation of why Philip Pullman named the trilogy His Dark Materials
. Milton's "wild abyss" of elemental forces--creative, destructive, and pregnant with endless possibilities--wreak playful and beautiful havoc on a number of "wary fiend[s]" primed to cross into unknown worlds and universes. The Golden Compass
gives us a dangerous voyage that take us to the edge, and then over the brink in the final sentences. We have no idea what awaits Lyra, Lord Asriel, and the many complex characters brought to the very limits of human (Witch? Bear? Daemon?) knowledge and experience.
At risk of overstating the book's greatness here, I found The Golden Compass
to be damn near perfect. There's deep theological questioning, unbelievably imaginative world-building, epic scope, a child as savior/messiah/chosen one, memorable descriptions of various places and phenomena (Jordan College, Mrs. Coulter's flat, Iofur's palace at Svalbard, Lord Asriel's opulent "prison" at the abyss' edge, the aurora), talking armored bears, and steampunkiness worn lightly. The combination of bigness and smallness, epic fantasy and atheistic apologetics worked well for me.
A perfect example of Pullman paying attention to detail is the naming of Lord Asriel. Asriel is a Hebrew name meaning helped or led by God. Is God helping Lord Asriel bring down the Church or religion as we know it? We'll see where Asriel's explorations of "Dust" take him. But the idea of God tearing down a corrupted version of "God's House" is interesting.
Then there's Pullman's depiction of the relationships between humans and their daemons. It's as if Pullman wants to reclaim "daemon" from its nasty negative cousin embraced by much of the Christian world. Demons are evil and worthy of exorcism, right? Wrong, says Pullman. He embraces an interesting mix of Plato's vision of daemons as special beings that watch over each individual from birth to death; and Heraclitus' view of each person's character as his or her daemon. While the ancient Church would want to do away with (or "demonize") any semi-deities that threatened to muck up the direct relationship between the Triune God and humankind, Pullman prefers a morally ambiguous view of daemons, linking them to individual character which runs the spectrum from goodish to evilish. So, Pullman's daemons represent the true person, and any attempt to destroy or degrade the relationship between a person and his or her daemon is contrary to human nature. In other words, Church teaching harms people, turning us into a malleable population of docile lemmings or mindless zombies. I disagree with a large portion of Pullman's theological and religious views, though his warning against "disenchanting" the world rings true to me at a deep level.
That's how Pullman got me. I choked up repeatedly while reading The Golden Compass
. The enchanted world depicted by Pullman gives space for daemons, animal and nature spirits, and mystically deep relationships. His world of enchantment--particularly his depiction of the closeness between individuals and their daemons--resonated with me at an empathic level. Our beloved chihuahua Alistair and I are so in tune with one another that we relate like person and daemon. So every time Pullman described the deep anguish felt by daemons and individuals at the threat of being separated, I felt an ache that made me put the book down and scratch Alistair's head. Honestly, I couldn't continue reading for a time! That's what Pullman wanted me to feel, damn him. Mission well accomplished.
And how about Pullman's theological, eccesiological and mythological daring! An all-powerful Calvinist Church able to abolish the Papacy? Tinkering with Bible passages to suit the needs of his story? A discipline called "experimental theology" that looks into the spiritual import of "Dust" and elemental particles? Prohibitions and taboos against human-daemon contact? Witches that live hundreds of years, can't feel cold, wield bows and arrows, structure their life around the anarchist and socialist principle of mutual aid, are politically savvy, and choose cloud pine as their broom wood of choice? Creative ideas separately. But together? Brilliant.
I have no idea where Pullman will take me in the remaining two books of His Dark Materials
. They could suck, or get overly preachy on atheism's superiority to other religious and philosophical traditions. After all, Pullman's been quoted in the Washington Post
as saying "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief" and ridiculed C.S. Lewis' beloved Narnia
series as religious propaganda--ah, those huggable new atheists! But for now, I'll keep the borderline curmudgeon on my "bee's knees" list. Exceedingly highly recommended!