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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Messages in Fantasy – Part 3

In my last two posts, I talked about messages found in modern fantasy fiction (Part 1 | Part 2). It’s no surprise that, just like some mythology and fairy tales, writers use the fantasy genre to play with—or convey—morals, ideas, beliefs and objections that they hold.The next fantasy series that we're going to look at places a strong voice for this author's worldview.

Best selling author, Philip Pullman, best known for his fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, lays out a clear Atheist perspective in his books. The first book, Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in America) starts the trilogy off as a nicely paced, intriguing kind of “children’s fiction”—showing no clear Atheistic message. However, toward the end of the book, the reader begins to discover that “the Church” in the story is not a good institution. Also, when the character, Lord Asriel, discusses the story of Adam and Eve from the Bible with his daughter, Lyra, his reading of the 3rd chapter of Genesis (with added terminology to the biblical verses that support the story that Pullman is writing) leads to dialog such as:

“But...” Lyra struggled to find the words she wanted: “but it en't true, is it? Not true like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true? There wasn't really an Adam and Eve? The Cassington Scholar told me it was just a kind of fairy tale.”

Lord Asriel answers Lyra with:

“The Cassington Scholarship is traditionally given to a freethinker; it's his function to challenge the faith of the Scholars. Naturally he'd say that. But think of Adam and Eve like an imaginary number, like the square root of minus one: you can never see any concrete proof that it exists, but if you include it in your equations, you can calculate all manner of things that couldn't be imagined without it.”

Lord Asriel’s analogy using the square root of minus one is what Philip Pullman stated in an interview in regards to his use of angels, ghosts and daemons in his trilogy:

“I was asked at one point, why do I, as a rationalist—a person who believes in reason, and all those things—why do I write about things like ghosts and daemons…

“One way of explaining that, seems to me, to compare it to what mathematicians do with entities that can’t exist; like the square root of minus one. Now, there’s no such thing as the square root of minus one; it doesn’t make any sense—there can’t possibly be such a thing. And, yet, if you include it in your calculations, you can come across all sorts of extraordinary things; like the Mandelbrot Set—extraordinary…infinitely deep and beautiful picture of wondrous complexity, that was there lurking in the darkness before we came across it. And we didn’t come across it, until we included the square root of minus one in our calculations…     

“What I do when I’m talking about ghosts and angels and daemons, and that sort of thing, is much the same sort of thing. I don’t believe in them. No. Of course not. They can’t exist. And yet, when I put them in my stories I can do things with them.” 

By book two of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, the reader discovers that there is a revolt against the “Authority” (God), much like what John Milton writes in his epic poem, Paradise Lost. Actually, one could say that Pullman is kind of rewriting Paradise Lost, showing fallen angels and those that follow in the uprising against the Authority as the good guys. The Church is seen as an institution of the Authority that suppresses free thought and pushes propaganda to keep the Authority in control. In the words of one brief character in The Subtle Knife: “There is a war coming, boy. The greatest war there ever was. Something like it happened before, and this time the right side must win. We've had nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history. It's time we started again, but properly this time...”

In The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the series, the reader finds more of a slower paced and longer book than the first two, and the Atheist view is much more prevalent than before. There are a lot more messages in the dialog of the characters, and different secular ideas mixed into the fiber of the story. The words in this book get a lot more specific, and a lot less subtle.

In The Amber Spyglass, the rebel angel, Balthamos, talks about the Authority, saying: “The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves—the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie.” The book depicts God as a fraud, and “Dust,” which is a main focus throughout the trilogy, as true knowledge and understanding.

Another Atheist view is that there is no life after death; that when one dies, it’s over. Pullman makes this clear in his third book. In The Amber Spyglass, the two main characters, Lyra and Will, journey to the “world of the dead” to find Lyra’s departed friend. When Will asks another character in the story about what happens in the world of the dead, the character, Baruch, says, “It's impossible to say. Everything about it is secret. Even the churches don't know; they tell their believers that they'll live in Heaven, but that's a lie. If people really knew…” While in the world of the dead, Lyra and Will are trying to free the ghosts from the world of the dead, and they come across the ghost of a young woman who had died as a martyr centuries ago. This ghost woman tells the other ghosts around them: “When we were alive, they told us that when we died we'd go to Heaven. And they said that Heaven was a place of joy and glory and we would spend eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss. That's what they said. And that's what led some of us to give our lives, and others to spend years in solitary prayer, while all the joy of life was going to waste around us and we never knew.

“Because the land of the dead isn't a place of reward or a place of punishment. It's a place of nothing. The good come here as well as the wicked, and all of us languish in this gloom forever, with no hope of freedom, or joy, or sleep, or rest, or peace.

“But now this child has come offering us a way out and I'm going to follow her. Even if it means oblivion, friends, I'll welcome it, because it won't be nothing. We'll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we'll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we'll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was.”

There are other direct hits on the Christian religion throughout the story. In another part of The Amber Spyglass, another character, who was once a nun and a scientist, tells the children (Lyra and Will): “I used to be a nun, you see. I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn't any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all.” Later on, a witch tells the ex-nun of her encounter with a female (rebel) angel: “Her name was Xaphania. She told me many things...She said that all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity. She and the rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed. She gave me many examples from my world.”

The His Dark Materials trilogy brings readers into a grand journey in the beginning of the series, but by the third book, the message of the author becomes way too obvious, and way too heavy; weighing the story with more of the author’s worldview than true storytelling. In the short video below, Philip Pullman speaks of his intentions with the series.

In my next post, I will conclude this series on Messages in Fantasy (at least for now), looking at the other side of the spectrum, with messages in the works of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

Inspirations of Fantasy


  1. I thought the same thing, the third book, "The Subtle Knife"...not really all that 'subtle'. He is a brilliant, gifted writer though.

  2. Granted I agree that a writer should not seek to "preach" in a novel, but tell a story, a compelling story, one that makes the reader keep coming back for more.