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Philip Pullman’s Defense of Free Thought

His new book and “His Dark Materials” on HBO dramatize the difficulty of moral action.

Courtesy of HBO

In his essays and speeches over the years, Philip Pullman has argued that fantasy stories have the power to change their audience and remake the world. His own stories are certainly getting a chance to try. The author of His Dark Materials, the beloved British fantasy trilogy about the adventures of the preteen heroine Lyra Belacqua, was knighted in May for his services to literature. Then, in early October, he published The Secret Commonwealth, the second volume of his new trilogy about Lyra, The Book of Dust. It quickly climbed to number one on The New York Times young adult fiction list. And on Monday night, HBO and the BBC’s adaptation of His Dark Materials, starring Dafne Keen, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a host of other stars, finally aired.

Pullman’s work shares important features with his fellow Oxford writers, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and his contemporaries, J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan. There is the familiar hero’s journey, embarked upon by a child (or a hobbit). There is the mysterious prophecy to fulfill. There is the magic. And there are the wise counsellors and mighty warriors to guide the protagonist on the quest. But where Tolkien, Lewis, Jordan, and Rowling—and even George R.R. Martin, with his nihilistic ice zombies symbolizing Death—all set their heroes the task of defeating a supernatural enemy who embodies evil, Pullman’s villains are human. Their motivations are all too recognizable from our own non-fictional world: petty power squabbles, corruption, cruelty, greed. In Pullman’s novels, as a result, good and evil are sometimes wickedly hard to tell apart.

Pullman’s appeal seems to have at least something to do with our hopelessly complicated modern relationship to religion—or, particularly, the war against religion. Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling all imbue their fantasy worlds with a comfortingly metaphysical moral order. There is always a religious allegory lurking just beneath. Lewis’s Aslan is a stand-in for Christ. Tolkien once said fantasy stories were a way to give readers “a piercing glimpse of joy” into the Christian afterlife. Good and evil are clear, specific forces in these books. Goodness exists as a transcendent moral category, a shining polestar pulling characters toward the light.

Pullman, in stark contrast, built his fantasy world in order to knock down any illusions of an afterlife. He wants to smash religious dogma, not allegorize it. His flawed heroes live in a world without moral certainty, and they battle against religious authority—indeed against the Authority, their name for God—on behalf of free choice and freedom of belief.

In The Secret Commonwealth, this struggle grows both more intense and more diffuse. The book is set some ten years after the end of His Dark Materials, and Lyra, who was around eleven in the first trilogy, has returned home from her adventures to attend college at Oxford. Like most of us at some point in our twenties, she seems to have lost her way. She stumbles, once again, into a quest, with shadowy villains and geopolitical stakes, but it is less clear than her task was in His Dark Materials, and she herself is less naive, less wondrously curious about the world.

She can still read her alethiometer—her golden compass, a truth-telling device that delivers messages from beyond—but where it used to give her a prescient kind of second sight, now it just leaves her nauseous and confused. In Lyra’s world, people’s souls exist outside of themselves, in the form of talking animal companions called dæmons who have the power to shape-shift until they settle on one particular animal form when their humans become adults. Lyra’s conversations with her dæmon Pan were a central feature of His Dark Materials, providing a window into Lyra’s consciousness as she tries to make sense of her complicated world, but in The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra and Pan are bitterly angry at each other, and they barely speak.

Lyra eventually sets off alone on a journey toward an unknown destination. At one point, she thinks back to the events of His Dark Materials: “She thought she’d been certain about things when she came back from the north, but the things she’d learnt during her adventures there seemed so far away now; all that remained was a scatter of vivid impressions.” She occasionally rediscovers her earlier feeling, from the high points of The Golden Compass, of “quiet conviction”—her heroic, prophetic sense “that all was well and that the world was her true home, as if there were great secret powers that would see her safe.” But the mood is fleeting, and Lyra is left to her own devices.

Readers of The Secret Commonwealth may feel a bit like Lyra: This return to Pullman’s world is at once a warm, comforting re-submergence into fantasia and a sometimes jarring, unfamiliar experience. Where the narrative force of Pullman’s earlier novels—especially The Golden Compass and the first volume of The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage—was linear and propulsive, the plot of The Secret Commonwealth is intentionally twisted, even slightly frayed. It meanders, like Lyra’s journey, and we are often left with only hints about the machinations of venal politicians and the possibility of magic lingering in the margins. The story, just like Lyra, is more grown-up, more mature. Moral conviction is hard-won, and it never lasts. The ethical thing to do is to act, but also to keep on questioning what the right action even is.

The epigraph for The Secret Commonwealth comes from William Blake, the visionary Romantic poet who saw Satan as the icon of creativity and ecstatic human freedom. Blake famously said that although John Milton wrote Paradise Lost to “justify the ways of God to men,” Milton was “a true poet & of the Devils party without knowing it.” The title His Dark Materials comes from Paradise Lost, where Milton writes that the unformed matter of the universe lies in chaos, waiting, “Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain / His dark materials to create more worlds.” (As HBO teases in the first episode of His Dark Materials, in Lyra’s world, there are indeed many other worlds.) In The Secret Commonwealth’s epigraph, Blake declares that “Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.” For Pullman, imagination is thus the path to insight, but it is never truth itself. It is only ever an image, a partial belief—one of many truths, one of many possible worlds.

What makes Pullman’s use of fantasy stories distinctive is that they are fundamentally a vehicle for secular truth-seeking. And if his plots tell us anything, it’s that truth-seeking and moral action are always a journey, never a destination. As Lyra sets off on her quest in The Secret Commonwealth, an old Gyptian man explains to her that if she wants to understand “the secret commonwealth,” the hidden færie powers that flicker alluringly at the edges of the world, “You got to look at it sideways,” with “stories.” “Only stories’ll do.”

HBO’s His Dark Materials gets Pullman’s story almost right. The show doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to Pullman’s critique of organized religion. It depicts the Magisterium, the church hierarchy that wields theocratic power across Europe, with all the aesthetic trappings of mid-century totalitarianism: the monumental brutalist architecture, the soldiers in crisp black uniforms, a Greek cross symbol twisted ever so slightly to echo the Nazi flag. The Magisterium’s soldiers ransack libraries looking for heresy and they harass groups of social outsiders with no political power of their own. State surveillance is pervasive and complete.

But the dangers of authoritarianism are only half of the story’s message. The other half is the sheer thrill of rebellion and the pleasures of traveling together with others on a journey to re-discover the world. That’s what the show so far fails to convey: Lyra’s fierce embrace of the liberating—and vertiginous—power of thinking for herself. In the four episodes made available for review, the show largely misses the heart and soul of the books: the biting edge of Pullman’s polemic against authority and Lyra’s exuberant insistence on seeing the world “sideways,” from her own extraordinary point of view.

Dafne Keen gives a truly spectacular performance as Lyra, channeling her winning combination of curiosity, wildness, warmth, and occasional self-doubt. But important secondary characters like Roger, Ma Costa, Lord Asriel, and the Master of Jordan College are given stilted dialogue that reduces them to two dimensions. A number of major plot points seem to occur more because the writers knew that’s what happened next in the books than because that’s what a particular character would do in such a situation. Against this flattened backdrop, it’s a challenge for even Keen’s prodigious—and precocious—skills to convey the rapid activity of Lyra’s mind as she wrestles with life-and-death decisions. And in the end, it’s Lyra’s ardent attempts to do the right thing in a world with no easy answers that really make Pullman’s story shine.

The fantasy world she inhabits is an avowedly secular one: It is filled with magic but stripped of metaphysical meaning. In his 2017 essay collection Dæmon Voices, Pullman writes that God is dead, and that without the King, there is no more Kingdom of Heaven to tell us what we ought to think and do. We are left with the task of building what Pullman calls a more just and democratic “Republic of Heaven” in the here and now. For Pullman, in turn, that means that we have to tell ourselves stories—we have to build out our store of shared myths—in order to work through what is right and what is wrong. We make our own meaning, together.

Pullman’s characters consequently have to feel their way through their quests without ever knowing for certain that what they’re doing is right. Sometimes they make horrible mistakes. And like us, out in the real world, they have to live with the consequences. In the first episode of His Dark Materials, the Master of Jordan College prophesies that Lyra will commit a great betrayal. The consequences of that betrayal will echo through the rest of the series, as Lyra comes to grips with having committed an immense and irrevocable wrong. Yet she remains the moral center of the story, a heroine come to save the world. She is equipped with the supernatural foresight granted by her alethiometer, but still she errs.

In Pullman’s fiction—and hopefully in later seasons of the TV show, as the plot grows more complex—it’s impossible to know the ethical thing to do. And yet characters are forced, by the inexorable march of events, to choose. Morality is both necessary and incomplete. Lyra’s is a fundamentally tragic, if piercingly beautiful, world. Paradoxically, that makes Pullman’s work all the more ethically powerful, all the more emotionally moving, and all the more true. It also makes His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust a particularly sharp provocation for disenchanted times. How many coming of age stories tell us not only to rebel against authority, but also to wage war on the very idea of God? Pullman is most certainly of the Devil’s party, and he knows it.