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Review: "His Dark Materials" trilogy - "The Golden Compass", "The Subtle Knife", "The Amber Spyglass" by Philip Pullman

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An epic fantasy trilogy, the first part already a movie ready to launch on December 7th:

The interesting part is the amount of noise the movie has generated in the media, despite the fact that the three books were not as controversial, not even close. But why the controversy?

Apparently, the religious fundamentalists see the movie and, by consequence, the books, as "atheist propaganda", made for the purpose of "destroying religion". This being such a strong claim, it was hard to ignore the whole issue, so I read the trilogy.

Beware, there are lots of SPOILERS in this review!

First off, I am not familiar with Pullman's other works, so whether he is an atheist or not, it's hard to tell. But this trilogy at least, has anything but an atheist ideology as a background. There's a bit of pantheism in it, a bit of animism, a fairly consistent chunk of gnosticism, and bits and pieces of other different religious or spiritual views, smoothly blended together in a view that's surprisingly coherent.

There's a parallel world where people's souls are visible as animal companions, almost like a totem (to use the term in the modern, non-traditional way). There are witches who can fly through the air, polar bears who can speak and are sentient and capable of reason, and angelic beings who are visible yet not quite as solidly material as people. There's a land of the dead surprisingly similar to that in the Greek mythology. And then there's the Dust, present everywhere, the source of consciousness, not quite matter in the common sense but not pure spirit either.

And there's the evil Magisterium, which is a thinly veiled (or almost not veiled at all) symbol for the various churches of the Christian religion. And there's a war waged by man against the Kingdom of Heaven. And there's the Authority, who calls himself the Creator of everything, worshiped by the Magisterium as such, but in reality an impostor. There you have it, the source of controversy.

In a way, this is where Pullman has a view similar to that of genuine atheists such as Richard Dawkins. In one of his books, Dawkins says: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character of all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, blood thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

I can't say I adhere to a purely materialist view like that espoused by Dawkins in general, but that particular quote is spot-on. Open the Old Testament at random a few times, and the matter becomes self-evident. The Authority in Pullman's trilogy is exactly this cruel demonic entity worshiped by the people of the Old Testament, and no holds are barred in exposing its most unpleasant attributes, even if it's usually in an indirect fashion.

Reading the books, I was also reminded of the gnostic religions, the cathars and others, who believe that the god of the Old Testament was, essentially, Satan. Pullman is very close to a gnostic view, except he makes no comments or allusions regarding Jesus, who was considered by many gnostics as an embodiment of the true supreme god (not the fake evil one) who became incarnate to bring gnosis (true knowledge and salvation) to the Earth.

So there you have it. Pullman's books cannot be called "atheist" except by the thelogically challenged. But of course, when one's horizon is reduced to the narrow dogma of a particular "one true god", and when one book happens to expose the dark side of that dogma, that book indeed appears to be "atheist". And of course the critics were mostly silent as long as the trilogy was only a series of books, but started to make noises when the first book became a movie - books imply culture and a minimal intelligence, while probably any monkey can sit in a chair at the movies.

And of course, the critics got so worked up because the souls of the characters in the book, visible as animal-totems, are "demons". Obviously, a lot of listening to sermons and not enough reading does not enable one to perceive the difference between "demon" (evil spirit) and "daemon" (spiritual being acting as a counselor for mortals). But perhaps these are too fine matters for the easily offended.

It is perhaps significant in this context that the trilogy espouses a spiritually progressive view - according to some characters, the Good in this world is increased "if you help everyone else in your worlds to do that, by helping them to learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works, and by showing them how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all how to keep their minds open and free and curious..."

It is not a surprise that this view is not comfortable for the followers of the nasty fellow from the Old Testament.

The storytelling is great, the fictional universe is masterfully articulated and coherent. I don't know whether it will become as popular as Tolkien's trilogy, or more popular, but perhaps such comparisons are meaningless. I was hoping for slightly more than the classic gnostic / pantheist blend, but the metaphysical background is fine after all. Excellent book, and I'm looking forward to see the first movie - judging from the screenshots, it appears to be a pretty faithful rendering of the first book in the trilogy.