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Philip Pullman’s War Against the Fanatics

"La Belle Sauvage" expands on the themes first explored in the beloved "His Dark Materials."


God is dead—and Philip Pullman killed him. So claimed Protestants and Catholics alike when Pullman completed his beloved fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, in 2000, and again when New Line Cinema released the film adaptation of the trilogy’s first volume, The Golden Compass, in 2007. “Pullman’s unholy fantasy ensnared me and nearly swallowed me whole,” Stephen Ross of the Christian Research Institute complained in 2007. “Only by God’s grace through my privileged training in the scriptures and Christian apologetics did I emerge from the experience without doubting the truth of the Christian worldview.” For the book’s supporters, this was praise indeed.

Ross’s chief points of contention with Pullman’s book—that the characters murder God and consort with beings called “daemons”—fueled pious right-wing tirades for years, even though they are based on misreadings. Pullman’s child heroes, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, don’t kill God; an angel calling himself the Authority dies when they attempt to free him. Daemons are animal spirits meant to represent the essential characteristics—what we might traditionally call the soul—of their human companions. But accuracy can be detrimental when waging a culture war, and so Pullman’s critics inadvertently proved his larger argument. His great foe is not Christianity, per se. It’s fanaticism.

LA BELLE SAUVAGE by Philip Pullman
Knopf, 464 pp., $22.99

In this respect, his new novel, La Belle Sauvage, is not an addition to Lyra’s universe as much as it’s a clarification of themes that were first explored in His Dark Materials. Once again, the heroes are children; adults are either complicated moral actors or outright villains. The Magisterium, Pullman’s proxy Roman Catholic Church, is tightening its stranglehold on intellectual pursuits in response to a world-changing scientific discovery. Its agents—inquisitors in all but name—are determined to find and kidnap an infant Lyra, who is already a subject of prophecy and import. Separately, a madman targets her for his own reasons and she is rescued, eventually, by the book’s young protagonist, Malcolm Polstead, and his companion Alice Parslow. The trio embark on a treacherous river adventure in the novel’s titular boat, and find refuge thanks to a combination of endurance and luck.

Many familiar characters are back: In addition to Lyra and her daemon Pan, her explorer father Lord Asriel and her villainous mother Marisa Coulter make appearances. So does Dust, an elementary particle attracted to human consciousness and associated, in the teachings of the Magisterium, with original sin. And there is an alethiometer, the eponymous golden compass that communicates with Dust to reveal the truth to those who know how to read it. That we greet these elements of the story as welcome familiars, rather than tired points in the great constellation of Pullman’s universe, is a testament to his gifts as a storyteller. None of his characters are caricatures: There are good nuns and dastardly ones, courageous academics and those willing to sacrifice innocents for what they perceive to be the public good.

Pullman has said that The Book of Dust, of which La Belle Sauvage is the first volume, examines the “question of consciousness, perhaps the oldest philosophical question of all: Are we matter? Or are we spirit and matter? What is consciousness if there is no spirit?” The discovery of Dust throws the Magisterium into dangerous panic, and sets up a related question: What moral responsibility does consciousness bestow upon us?

The central conflict in La Belle Sauvage pits freethinkers against fanatics, which is not simply a conflict between atheists and believers. Pullman is too savvy to indulge in the kind of simplistic polemic that propels the celebrity of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. Instead, Pullman is principally interested in examining how people respond when they confront some new reality of the world. Malcolm Polstead begins the book as a good-hearted, budding intellectual trapped by village life and the quotidian expectations of his parents. By the end, he’s helped kill someone in self-defense and is headed for a career as a scholar—always an esteemed vocation in Pullman’s books.

But Malcolm’s first friends are nuns, not philosophers. These nuns are part of that very system—the Church and its various enforcement arms, like the Consistorial Court of Discipline—that Lyra and Will fought in His Dark Materials. “It was hard to understand, but the Consistorial Court of Discipline was on the same side as the gentle sisters of Godstow Priory,” explains Pullman’s omniscient narrator. “They were both parts of the Church.”

The only time Malcolm sees the prioress, Sister Benedicta, “truly distressed” is when he asks her about this apparent discrepancy. “These are mysteries we mustn’t inquire into, Malcolm,” she tells him. “They’re too deep for us. But the Holy Church knows the will of God and what must be done. We must continue to love one another and not ask too many questions.”

To an atheist, this may seem anti-intellectual, even an admission of cowardice. But Sister Benedicta is a more complicated figure than this scene suggests: When the Church’s enforcers arrive at her priory to take the infant Lyra away, she refuses to surrender. “You are going to go away, and you are never going to come back,” she tells them, and tears up the warrant her own Church granted them.

Malcolm is a burgeoning atheist, but his loyalty to Benedicta and her order never waivers. In Pullman’s alternative universe, fanaticism and free inquiry cannot coexist. But faith and free inquiry are not necessarily at odds.

In turn, irreligiosity does not guarantee enlightenment. Benedicta has a secular counterpart in the character of Hannah Relf, an Oxford University scholar employed by Oakley Street, a secret government agency dedicated to protecting scientific research from Church repression. Relf studies the alethiometer and dissents, quietly, from the Church’s authority. Her work for this secret agency is dangerous, certainly not suitable for children, but through chance she ends up recruiting Malcolm. Relf feels guilty about this, a feeling not shared by all her fellow agents. Oakley Street’s leader, Lord Nugent, even recommends using Malcolm as bait to ensnare a pederastic Church agent. Relf quashes his proposal, but becomes disillusioned: “And she saw Lord Nugent in a new light too: under that patrician calm and friendliness, he was ruthless.”

For Pullman, consciousness is not only power, but a form of responsibility. A sly class element informs his world: Those individuals born with power are, in the main, not heroes. Lord Asriel should be one, but he’s a largely selfish character who only redeems himself in a final heroic act in the third volume of His Dark Materials. Pullman introduces Lord Nugent as a sympathetic liberal crusader, only to reveal that he’s ready to use a serving boy for bait.

Children have the least power of all, and crimes against them are the greatest offenses. In His Dark Materials, the Magisterium’s evil nature becomes apparent in its attempt to separate children them from their daemons—an act equivalent to a lobotomy—to harness the resulting energy for its own ends. In La Belle Sauvage, the Church infiltrates schools and transforms children into snitches. The fault, in Pullman’s framing, sits with the Church because it has all the power. Religion is not the problem, not really; rather, it’s the way power is concentrated, then wielded against the vulnerable. When children must be heroes, it is because adults have failed them.

Like Pullman’s original trilogy, his new book is a bildungsroman, and it is a violent one. His Dark Materials is famous for the way it treats that mysterious process known as growing up; as something to be celebrated, along with the accumulation of knowledge, experience, and other variants of what the Church would call sin. But Pullman’s adults speak of childhood in reverent terms, the one stretch of sacred innocence to which we are all entitled. Adults are also childhood’s custodians, which means it never stays innocent for long. In the world of La Belle Sauvage, growing up is a tragedy. It is in ours, too.