The A. V. Club‘s Noah Cruickshank responded to their “AVQ&A” feature, this week asking what popular culture artifacts pull a bait-and-switch on their audiences, answering with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I’ve been meaning to go back and re-read these books this summer, so I’ve been thinking a little bit about the books’ connections to Milton and others. Here’s what Cruickshank wrote:
I don’t think anyone who finished The Golden Compass thought that the next two books in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy were going to lead to the death of God (or The Authority, as he’s called in the series). The first book is a beautifully written, classic piece of fantasy, with witches, talking polar bears, and a hefty dose of world-building. But what began as a story about a young girl in a single magical world became an epic story about destroying the corrupt power of a single deity over all worlds (including our own). It’s heavy stuff, but Pullman wasn’t interested in just telling a story for young readers; he had a theological point to make. Pullman is a noted atheist, and His Dark Materials isn’t a religious work, but a humanist one. Plenty of fantasy series have religious overtones (The Chronicles Of Narnia is my favorite example, but Twilight is chock full of allusions to Mormonism), but usually they’re pretty obvious from the get-go, not themes that dawn on the reader halfway through. The three books work beautifully in tandem, and His Dark Materials is one of my favorite series in any genre. But I do feel like I got hoodwinked. I don’t mind that the books are a kind of counter-allegory to Paradise Lost, but it seems to me Pullman was a little coy about his intentions.
One of the things I really appreciated about His Dark Materials is its quite the opposite, that it was pretty clear that the book was moving in somewhat Nietzschean directions from the outset with its critique of the church, and that these directions made the meshing together of Milton, with elements of Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and The Everlasting Gospel in the final book even more stunning. Perhaps it is that I read these texts though the lens of Altizer, that these connections would make sense, and I thought that Pullman’s His Dark Materials created a Nietzschean fantasy series that eclipsed, for example, James Morrow’s Godhead trilogy, at least in terms of contributing to a conversation about radical theology.
That being said, is reading His Dark Materials really making a point about atheism? Perhaps I want to read radical theology into the texts, because a radical theology reading of Pullman seems to “make sense” rather than appear to be a “bait-and-switch.” What do you think?