Very Dark Materials, Indeed

A little over four years ago, I wrote an article for this paper which I called "The Proper Use of Magic."

It related to the imminent release of the third Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban, based on the book of the same name.

I had just finished reading a series of aimed-at-adolescents books called His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman, and I was struck by both the glaring similarities, and the startling dis-similarities in that series, and several other magical-children stories I had enjoyed over the years. I thought, in light of the soon-t0-be-released The Golden Compass, a movie based on the first book in the Dark Materials series, I would dig up that article and share it again.

Based on its trailers, the movie promises to be gorgeous, thrilling, populated with fascinating characters both real and animated - and released just in time for the Christmas holiday movie-going season. (I was amused to discover that what is clearly called "The Church" in the book has been changed to "The Magisterium" in the movie - in case you didn't know, they're the bad, really, really bad, guys.)

So, here is the article!

What would happen to it if someone re-told the same story every twenty years?

Exactly what you'd expect: the story would maintain its essential features, but it would change (subtly or not) to reflect the values, ideals, and flavor of the time in which it was written. This may, or may not, constitute an improvement. A story that people find generally acceptable when told "under the influence" of one particular time might take on a very different aspect when reincarnated at a later date.

It may come as a surprise to fans, but Harry Potter isn't the first magical kid to use both his heretofore unknown powers, and his own human decency, to save the world from the dark forces of evil.

With only 31 days, 12 hours, 31 minutes and counting (as of this writing) until the release of the third Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban, and because J.K. Rowling's aimed-at-adolescent blockbuster series has sold over 170 million books, been translated into 55 languages and distributed in over 200 countries, I got to thinking recently about the many times – to the delight of millions of readers over at least 5 decades – the theme of magical-child-against-evil has been explored in books aimed at the 9 – 13 year old reader. And I got to wondering how, with all the re-examination, the story had fared.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the recent Harry Potter phenomenon has been both its enormous popularity and the swirling controversy surrounding the books.

As you probably know, in spite of its superstar status with the kids, many parents have been disturbed that Harry Potter, for all that he is an ordinary child in most respects – he's kind of skinny, wears glasses, he's an orphan, and he doesn't seem to excel at much of anything – is also a wizard-in-training. Hand-selected to attend Hogwarts, a school for witches and wizards, Harry is seen by some as engaging in practices that have overtones of the satanic. And since the adventures in the books, however fantastical, do end up doing mortal injury to some characters, the violence quotient is also of concern to some peaceable parents.

According to one concerned writer, Michael O'Brien, whose article "The Problem with Harry Potter" was published on the website Lifesite ( ), "While (author J.K.) Rowling posits the "good" use of occult powers against their misuse, thus imparting to her sub-creation an apparent aura of morality, the cumulative effect is to shift our understanding of the battle lines between good and evil. The border is never defined." He argues that evil is real, and that we are in danger when we trivialize it, or toy with it (even if fictionally), all the while condoning this occasional use as long as the ends can justify the means. Other writers have gotten more fundamental, if you'll forgive the pun, and simply quoted Christian scriptures which outright forbid traffic with the occult.

Why this is fascinating to me is that of all the series I'll mention in this article, the Harry Potter books are certainly not the most religiously coercive or heretical. And while the Harry Potter series is clearly humanistic, it's cheerfully humanistic, compared to at least one of the other series, which is aggressively, even angrily, so. Harry simply does (or tries to do) the right thing because of his internal moral compass (the same reason the bad characters do bad); each major character in the books faces moral choices; there is no God or book of rules that helps; and Harry and his friends have "the power" inside themselves, rather than being granted it by some outside force. All in all, it's a reasonably accurate reflection of the way we, as a culture, view moral decision making today: you make your decisions based on that moral "voice" inside you, not according to social niceties, religion, or even a "by your leave."

But before we go any further – on to the books!

The first series of its type that I read (and actually as an adolescent, though I confess to re-reading the books periodically) was C.S. Lewis' immortal Chronicles of Narnia, a 7-volume series, written in the 1950s, that tells the story of several English children whose parents for various reasons are not around, and who, left to their own devices, discover a magical world in which they become very important people, ultimately bringing about the rescue of the world and humankind. The books have been in steady publication since the 50s, are still on library shelves, and won "the coveted Carnegie award."

Next: a series I did not read as a youngster, but only recently, is The Dark is Rising sequence of 5 books by Susan Cooper. In this series, written between 1965 and 1977, four children (one of them an orphan, the others separated by circumstance from their parents) find a map to The Grail in a remote village in Wales and must use all their (erstwhile unknown) magical wiles to defend it, and humankind, from the rise of evil. Again the books have been in continuous publication since 1965 and can be found in the library. These books won "the coveted Newbery Medal."

Finally, the series which inspired this article with a sudden "Aha" moment is the 1990s His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman (soon to be made into a motion picture). In this series of three novels, two children (one an apparent orphan, the other with a mother he must leave in the care of a neighbor) find their way among alternate worlds in which the forces of good and evil are waging war – but which side is which? These books have inspired a surprising number of fansites on the Internet, and won "the coveted Whitbread Prize."

Oh, and one final point of comparison: all three of the series (as well as Harry Potter, of course) were written in England – an odd but possibly not inconsequential co-incidence noted by more than one reviewer. Again, Michael O'Brien notes: "In the late 19th century there appeared in children's fiction a trickle of books that began the process of redefining Christian symbols and the presentation of occult themes in a favourable light. Until then, witches and sorcerers, an important element of traditional fables and fairy tales, were consistently portrayed as evil. With the advent of the occult revival (which entered the West primarily through certain British writers involved in esoteric religion) more and more material appeared that attempted to shift the line between good and evil. The characters of the "white witch", the pet dragon, and the wise wizard became familiar figures."

Examining the books, an archetypal plot pattern is clearly visible: the hero is/are a child or children, no parents (or missing parents). For the most part, the adults that figure in these books are one of two things: a) wicked or b) magical and c) usually some more distant relation, such as an uncle. The children are startlingly ordinary until the sudden or chance discovery of magical powers, or until they stumble upon a magical world or tool. A struggle between the forces of good and evil is on the point of beginning, and our children must do battle against it or see the world(s) lost to the evil Witch/Force/Authority/Chaos.

Needless to say, it is obvious why such tales would fascinate a child (particularly an adolescent) and why they continue to fascinate well into adulthood. And it is the depth of the fascination, and the power of the stories to engage the imaginations of emerging young people, that has both alarmed and delighted parents around the world.

I have to establish up front that each of the series is imaginative, well written, compelling to a fault (you can't wait to get to the next book) and shows a clear understanding of the adolescent mind and heart. Taken on their most basic level, all of the books are excellent adventure stories, with lively, intelligent characters, and well-paced, page-turning action. On that score, parents everywhere rejoice that their children will not only want to read, but will stay up late with the proverbial flashlight-under-the-covers to finish any one of these books.

Where the problem arises, and what has ignited the controversies, is the differences from series to series in worldview and philosophy informing the central struggle between the forces of good, and the forces of evil. And my theory is that the differences are as simple as the consequences of telling the same story every twenty years: each series is a pretty good mirror of the changes in the way our world views and makes moral decisions. The difference between The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials is an accurate and telling reflection of the ways in which the values we hold as a society, and the way we derive those values, have changed between 1950 and 1995.

Let's back up to The Chronicles of Narnia. These books were written in post-war England , at a time when the world was trying to find its feet again; when a terrible evil had indeed been unleashed upon the world, and when a victory, apparently of "the goodies," had been just barely managed – and at an enormous price. Particularly for England, picking up the pieces was not an easy feat, and the sentiment of "it should never happen again" ran high.

C.S. Lewis was a deeply religious man, and wrote extensively, movingly, and convincingly about Christianity. His Space Trilogy, which among other things, retold the Adam and Eve story (this time with a positive outcome) made sense for me, for the first time, of the temptation story, and of the petty nature of evil. The Chronicles of Narnia is a retelling of the mythos of Christianity, setting the action of the story in the fantasy world of Narnia, and embodying the God of Christianity (in all his natures) in the Lion, Aslan.

In these books, three children stumble into the world of Narnia, where animals talk and which is trapped in perpetual winter – without even Christmas to relieve the cold and bleakness. The children learn that Narnia is under the control of the White Witch, who seduces one of them with Turkish Delight (candy). The noble Lion Aslan is (in a tear-inducing scene) ultimately humiliated and then killed, but is later resurrected and returns in splendor, placing two of the children upon the throne of Narnia. There are further tales, in which we meet the Puddleglum, ride on the ship the Dawn Treader, meet Prince Caspian, and which reflect the ongoing struggle of mankind of stay true to its salvation, even to the final battle in which a false God – Tash – is held up as just "another form of Aslan."

The Chronicles of Narnia has been variously praised for its imaginative skill, values, and moral accessibility, and damned for being religious proselytizing for traditional Christianity. In truth, the books are a product of a time when Christianity was the norm in western nations, when the world still believed that divine intervention was a possibility, and when the idea that there was a benevolent power (God) that existed apart from (but for the good of) mankind was a comforting thought. There was an absolute "good," and an absolute "evil," and choosing sides was the defining moral act for each individual. This is not to suggest, however, that the Narnia books are simplistic: the children have to make painful decisions, and good is not saccharine or easy. There is a certain almost cold certainty about what is the right thing to do, and the price one will pay to do it.

Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising cycle introduces us to three children who are vacationing in Trewissick, Wales, with their Great-Uncle Merry (Merriman Lyon, get it?). Discovering a treasure map, the children embark on an adventure that ultimately leads them to The Grail, and the beginning of a battle between the forces of evil (The Dark) and The Old Ones (The Light) over the future of mankind. While the struggle is monumental, the day to day life of the children is populated with everyday events, like family meals, games played in the attic on a rainy day, the dog down the street, and an assortment of odd and quirky characters.

Again, to understand what compels the values, remember the time in which these books were written: the earthy, mystic late 60s and 70s, with the period's fascination with the re-examination of myth and legend, and the genuine possibility of "Magick." In this case, the legend being examined is the Arthurian story: Merlyn, The Grail, the six signs (wood, bronze, iron, fire, water and stone), and the kingdom which co-exists with our world, and can be faintly detected in the shimmering light of dawn and sunset, when the veil between the worlds is thinnest.

While the books deal with questions of good and evil, and while The Grail is supposed to have been the cup used by Jesus at the last supper, the good and evil here are the good and evil of legend rather than faith. This explains why (despite validating "pagan" beliefs) these books have escaped heated discussion about the impression they make upon young minds. Again, that suits the time of their writing just fine: a little bit of this philosophy and a tincture of that, blend it all together and what you come up with will probably offend no-one, and be pleasing in some way to just about everyone. Cooper's moral choices are not necessarily easy for her characters, but good has dignity and strength and nobility; bad is seductive and deceptive and wheedling. It's still fairly easy to know on which side you want to be.

Phillip Pullman wrote His Dark Materials at around the same time as the Harry Potter books (the 1990s), and while they have not had the stellar impact of the latter, the series has a solid and growing popularity that have led to plans for a film, and which has inspired passionate online discussions on fan websites.

Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry live in parallel worlds, but because of some magical machinations, there are holes in the fabric between them (which Will can eventually manipulate thanks to a magical knife he acquires). Unfortunately, the life-force of the universe, Dust, is also leaking out of all our worlds thanks to these openings.

Lyra and Will embark on a series of dangerous adventures involving an armed Polar Bear, "gyptians," witches who ride on birds, tiny people who ride on dragonflies, and the evil Gobblers (which just happens to be a play on General Oblation Board, an arm of The Church) who eat the souls of adults. Ultimately, Will and Lyra must sacrifice their budding love for one another to save the universe.

While the books are being read – and evidently adored – by modern children, parents have evidently not read the books, or perhaps the press only takes note of parental concern over what their kids read when the book's author is rapidly becoming a billionaire. In any event, Pullman's books are far more out-spokenly anti-establishment and far more complex and morally challenging than the Harry Potter series – and yet it's Harry Potter that has excited the concerned attention of traditionalist parents, clergy, and teachers.

While the Narnia books have been criticized for delivering the Christian story and ethic in the guise of talking animals and wicked witches, fast forward to His Dark Materials and you find a series which delivers an unvarnished anti-church philosophy, which the author has openly admitted.

One review I read of the books put it this way, "Having been drawn in and enthralled by the first volume, I was wounded by the way the story turned mean-spirited and malicious, confusing the church's historical missteps with the love of Jesus Christ and condemning both." Pullman is unapologetic: "The Authority (the Church in His Dark Materials] is the God of the burners of heretics, the hangers of witches, the persecutors of Jews, the officials who recently flogged that poor girl in Nigeria who had the misfortune to become pregnant… - all these people claim to know with absolute certainty that their God wants them to do these things. Well, I take them at their word, and I say in response that that God deserves to die."


Admittedly, the case Pullman makes has some merit – at least, to the post-modern mind. His depiction of the good versus evil question is, if less satisfying, more realistic than in any of the other series: for most of the books in this series, you aren't totally sure which is which. Good seems sometimes harsh and unattractive. Evil is seductive and desirable. Neither one is pure or unequivocal (as is the case in all the other series), and in order to do "the right thing," Lyra and Will end up having to make an enormous personal sacrifice – there's no "happy ending."

And isn't this, in fact, the way we have begun to view the world around us? The institutions we'd love to trust and depend on cannot always be trusted and depended upon; sometimes "doing the right thing" has unexpected negative consequences; sometimes, in order to effect a "good" outcome, one finds it necessary to commit small (or not-so-small) acts that on paper are "bad;" sacrifice is a complex and uncertain choice; happy endings happen in fairy tales.

One can only wonder how the story will be told in 2020.

I guess the moral – no pun intended – of the story is: it's probably a really good idea to read the books your kids are reading. That way, you'll be able to talk with them about what they're learning, and help them put the ideas (some of which are sophisticated indeed!) into a perspective you can live with. And you may just be pleasantly surprised at how much fun these books can be to read!


Lassie said…
I read your column "Very Dark Materials Indeed" in this month's Table Hopping, and it was just so excellent. Your columns are always so well written and thought provoking, I feel like running right out and reading the books immediately. (and I have read quite a few at your recommendation.) Table Hopping is an odd place for your column. This little rag has cleaned itself up a bit, discovered Spell Check, and has some interesting articles and reviews (except for the ever-weirder ravings of Doug Brode). Anyway, keep up the good work, I plan to check out The Golden Compass (book) after this holiday cr*p if finally over.
E. L. Fay said…
You should DEFINITELY check out Diane Duane's Young Wizards series. I've only read the first three books, but the third, High Wizardy, is absolutely breathtaking. Think Harry Potter meets Hyperion meets Paradise Lost with a dash of Star Wars. (I included a passage from it here.)

I got The Golden Compass for my little sister, but it's been a while since I've read it. She said she actually didn't understand all of it (she's 13), so I think it really is a good idea, like you said, for parents to sit down with their kids to discuss their favorite books. The philosophical density of Pullman and Duane's novels really makes them great reading for adults as well.

Popular Posts