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His Dark Materials | Study Guide

Philip Pullman

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His Dark Materials | Themes


Dangers of Religious Dogma

His Dark Materials has been criticized as being antireligion and anti-God, but the theme that runs through the series actually has more to do with the dangers of religious dogma and the abuse of power by religious leaders than with rejecting religion and God. Therefore, Pullman is not necessarily suggesting religion and belief in some sort of higher power are bad. They only become dangerous when people subvert the message to achieve their own objectives, when they follow doctrines blindly, or when they use religion to justify immoral acts. As Ruta Skadi says at one point, Lord Asriel "showed me that to rebel was right and just, when you considered what the agents of the Authority did in His name." She thinks of the children at Bolvangar, and how witches in some places were once burned alive. She says Asriel showed her "cruelties and horrors all committed in the name of the Authority," all of which were intended "to destroy the joys and the truthfulness of life." Although Skadi is referring to events in her fictional world, it is not difficult for readers to find parallels in the real world.

The novels do, however, imply that some of what religion preaches is a fairy story meant to placate followers. The Authority, far from being an omnipotent god, is just a mortal being, weak and corrupt. Heaven is actually a prison camp on a desolate wasteland. But even as these images are presented, Pullman does not dismiss the idea that something beyond our powers of comprehension controls the universe. He suggests there is indeed a higher power—Dust, which is the source of life and knowledge. There is also a heaven, both the one people create on Earth and the one into which the atoms of our bodies disperse and our spirits return after death. The message seems to be that people can and perhaps should find comfort through belief in a higher power, but they must not do so blindly. Instead they must also take responsibility for their own lives and the lives of others.

Authority versus Freedom

Pullman's trilogy presents two very different ideas of what freedom means. For the Magisterium, which is the governing body of the Church, true freedom means freedom from evil and sin, and it can be achieved by accepting the will of the Authority and the teachings of the Church. For the rebels, however, freedom is achieved when characters throw off the tyranny of "the Authority" and defy the Church, taking responsibility for their own lives and accepting they will make mistakes and perhaps even suffer as a result.

Pullman delivers this message very clearly in His Dark Materials through his portrayal of the Magisterium and its god. In The Golden Compass the Magisterium, the authoritative body of the Church, is described as having "power over every aspect of life." It is made up of agencies such as the Consistorial Court of Discipline, which condemns as heresy any ideas that do not coincide with those of the Church. As for this Church's god, he is not referred to as a parent or Creator. He is called the Authority and he is a tyrant, using intimidation and punishment to maintain control over the people he rules and championing ignorance as a way to prevent them from questioning his sovereignty. This last technique echoes a passage in Milton's Paradise Lost, where Satan suggests to Eve that God may have forbidden them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge "to keep ye low and ignorant."

Lord Asriel and his rebels, on the other hand, represent freedom in all its forms: freedom of choice, freedom of thought, freedom to learn and grow, and, most importantly, the freedom to disobey. It is this last freedom that causes such consternation for the Magisterium and the Authority. The biblical Eve disobeyed the Authority and in the eyes of the Church brought about Original Sin, which represents not only sex but also symbolizes independent thought and free will. Lyra, prophesied as the second Eve, has the power to replicate mother Eve's act and destroy both the Magisterium and the Authority. All she has to do is "disobey" those in power―something she eventually accomplishes with Will.

Coming of Age

Closely tied to the theme of authority versus freedom in Pullman's series is the transition from a state of innocence to one of experience and knowledge. This is a standard element of the coming-of-age story, but in Pullman's trilogy the journey becomes more complicated and controversial. It is controversial because many of the powerful forces in the series equate innocence with ignorance and experience with corruption. In their eyes knowledge is a gateway to evil.

This is why, from the opening pages of the series, characters are concerned with understanding the phenomenon called Dust. Dust begins to collect around people—both human and nonhuman, like the mulefa—when they reach the age of puberty. The Church therefore sees Dust as the physical evidence of Original Sin, which Mrs. Marisa Coulter describes as "something bad, something wrong, something evil and wicked." The Church leaders do all they can to understand Dust so they can eventually eliminate it. Part of their method is to suppress all independent thought and to condemn as heresy the work of scientists and philosophers who believe Dust may be something far more complex and perhaps even desirable. Knowledge, the Church leaders believe, can only lead to sin.

The rebels, on the other hand, believe Dust is "what happens when matter begins to understand itself." It is a combination of life experience, self-awareness, and knowledge, all critical for human growth. The rebels also believe sexuality and an appreciation of physical pleasure is also an important element if people are to fully mature, ideas the Church firmly rejects. As a result of these two diametrically opposed views, the two sides are constantly at war. As John Parry explains to his son, the fight is between "those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger" and "those who want us to obey and be humble and submit."

The conflicting attitudes are underscored by the way different sides view the story of Adam and Eve and the role Lyra Belacqua is to play in the newest war. The Magisterium and Church leaders see "The Fall" as humankind's great tragedy, the source of all suffering and worldly evil. The rebels, on the other hand, saw the first Eve as the salvation of humankind, the one who made it possible for people to become independent beings who could exercise free will. Because the Authority was able to punish Eve and her descendants, however, her courageous act of disobedience has been vilified. For this reason, Lyra, as "the new Eve," is tremendously important to both sides. Her successful transition to adulthood, in tandem with the defeat of the Authority, would pave the way for a new world in which people think for themselves and the power of the Church is diminished.

Destiny versus Free Will

The theme of destiny versus free runs throughout the three novels of His Dark Materials. Do individuals truly have free will—the ability to make choices and determine their own future—or are their futures predetermined? When Lee Scoresby is told by Serafina that he is already destined to be part of a great battle, he asks, "Where's my free will, if you please?" She responds, "We are all subject to the fates." But then she adds, "We must all act as if we are not ... or die of despair." The implication is that much of what happens to us is beyond our control but we must never stop believing our actions can make a difference.

Will Parry and Lyra Belacqua, for example, both appear to have a destiny. Lyra has been prophesied as the new Eve, but several characters point out she must fulfill that destiny unknowingly. Her choices must feel to her as though they are entirely her own. Some of her decisions result in tragedy, as when she delivers Roger to Lord Asriel. But did she really have a choice, or was that part of a larger cosmic plan to advance the war against the Authority and the Church? Will, on the other hand, makes choices more deliberately. In fact even his name suggests "free will." He is often aware of what he is expected or destined to do—take up the mantle of his father, or become the bearer of the subtle knife, for example. Despite this knowledge, he exerts his independence as much as possible, refusing to obey even the angels when he thinks he sees a better path forward.

It is Will, in fact, who seems to find the best way to deal with the paradox of free will versus destiny. Toward the end of the novel he asks the angel Xaphania what role he is meant for. But then he quickly stops her from giving an answer, saying, "Ishall decide what I do." If he knows his destiny, he says, he will either be resentful because he felt he didn't have a choice or guilty if he rejects what he was meant to do. So he decides he will choose his own path—or at least feel as if he has. When he says this, Xaphania responds he has "already taken the first steps toward wisdom."

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