Fantasy League Round 23: The Dark Side of “His Dark Materials”
His Dark Materials is a fantasy trilogy written by Philip Pullman between 1995 and 2000. A film adaptation of much of the story of the first book, The Golden Compass, was released in 2007 with a star-heavy cast.
The series is a coming-of-age narrative with two main characters, Lyra and Will, set across a number of parallel worlds forming a multiverse. It covers a wide variety of themes but most prominently the problems with authoritarian religions in general and current main-stream Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism in particular (the title is a deliberate reference to and stab at Milton’s Paradise Lost). I had heard of the series when it was originally published, but hadn’t read it. A while ago, I was having a discussion about the problems with the Narnia series – both Lewis’ blatant promotion of his particular religious ideas in them, and the sexist and racist patterns in them. One of the other people in that conversation suggested that I should read Pullman’s work. So I borrowed copies of the books and of the movie.
The anti-religion themes from the books are toned down significantly in the movie – so much so that many fans of the former objected to the latter, but nowhere near far enough to prevent various Catholic organizations (including the official Vatican newspaper) as well as Methodist and Southern US Baptist groups from condemning the film and variously calling for boycotts. In the end, the film made back a bit more than 2 to 1 on its $180 million budget; profitable but not enough that New Line was persuaded to produce the rest of the planned trilogy (based on reviewing various movie franchises, only a first film that brings a return of 3 or more to 1 is likely to get a sequel).
I personally can agree with some of Pullman’s ideas as regards religion. Humans do a great many evil things for the sake of religious beliefs (as well as for many other reasons). And if one of the various different characters labeled as “god” in the texts that became the Hebrew and the various Christian bibles actually existed, such a god would be something to be fought rather than worshiped. I say that none of those gods exist (MWB- Rachel would disagree with me on the last two sentences).
But I’m not going to write more here about the portrayals of religion and of irreligion in fiction. Nor am I going to talk about the implausible similarities of parallel worlds that are fundamentally different from one another, or about the misrepresentation of scientists and science, or about the complete misapplication of the technology that makes portals between alternate universes, or about the historical impossibilities of events in the series that nominally happen in our world. That’s because there are a lot of other problems with His Dark Materials. Pullman went after authoritarian religion, but he promoted or at least included-without-challenge several other authoritarian social structures and different sorts of bigotry. Most prominent are sexism, classism, and racism. In addition, there is homophobia/heteronormativity in the background.
So here is some of the dark side of His Dark Materials:
Lyra comes from a parallel world that is both dramatically like our own – Christianity exists, England exists, and Oxford exists – and dramatically unlike it – humans have magical companions called daemons that are equated with their souls, intelligent polar bears rule Svalbard, and witches fly long distances across northern Europe. But Lyra’s world is also horrifically sexist.
Due to a troubled family history (why does the main character always have a troubled past?) Lyra spends most of the first 12 years of her life living at Jordan College, one component of Lyra’s-world Oxford. She is looked after by one woman, a housekeeper, and tutored by assorted scholars – all of whom are old white men. Female scholars do show up, but they are excluded from Jordan College and are not even allowed in some of its common areas when they visit. They are also described in incredibly sexist and demeaning terms – “poor things, they could never be taken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a play”, “dowdy female Scholars who smelled of cabbage and mothballs”. Female characters who present in currently-stereotypically-feminine ways (in dress, in possessions, in occupation) are also portrayed badly, described with language like “with dangerous powers and qualities such as elegance, charm, and grace”.
And this extends to the other groups we encounter beyond the Oxford and London upper-crust. A large number of children, including one of Lyra’s friends, get kidnapped for secret evil experiments. A group of their parents plan to rescue them, with Lyra’s assistance since she has the special power of being able to use the titular Golden Compass / alethiometer. But the leadership of the group, all of whom are men, roundly and explicitly rejects the proposal – made by more than one character – that some of the women whose children have been kidnapped should be part of the group that is going to try and save them. And this is not presented as the horrific sexism that it is. Not cool, Pullman.
The intelligent polar bears who live on Svalbard are also sexist. We only encounter male armored bears as characters; and there is a passing mention that one of their leaders has several wives who are kept isolated. And then there is the sexism/gender essentalism of the witches in the books. These witches are not Lyra-world-human: they do not suffer from cold, they can live to be a thousand years old, they can fly, and their daemons have skills that those of humans in Lyra’s world do not. But apparently they are always female, and always attracted to human men, and if they have children they are always either human men or witch women.
And finally, consider Lyra’s parents. Her father, Lord Asriel, starts as a junior nobleman of Lyra’s England, makes some money, and becomes a scientist and explorer. He has a consensual affair with Lyra’s mother, Mrs. Coulter, who becomes pregnant. Without telling her husband, Mrs. Coulter gives birth to Lyra, sends her to live with her father, and pretends that the child died immediately after being born. Mr. Coulter hears about this. He decides to kill Asriel “to avenge the violation of his wife”. Asriel takes Mr. Coulter’s gun from him, shoots him with it, and then laughs his head off. Notice how Mrs. Coulter as a person with agency has been entirely erased from this? That is incredibly harmful sexism.
Mrs. Coulter is ambitious for power, and cast primarily as a villain because of it. Okay. But she’s described as “not being able to get [power] in the usual way” – the usual way apparently being marrying a powerful man (or being a man). And her primary strategy is to seduce her male adversaries, who are apparently inherently unable to say no, and then back-stab them. Again we see blatant sexism, presented without apology.
This all could be excused as Lyra’s world being a pretty ugly place. Except that it isn’t presented as such, and the sexism continues into the scenes in our world. An our-Oxford physicist, Dr. Malone, shows up, who is a woman and apparently used to lead a particle physics research group. But in descriptions of the contrast between our-Oxford and Lyra-Oxford, women are described as “dressing like men” rather than “not always wearing long skirts”. And the pattern continues into the other worlds Lyra and Will spend time in. Massively uncool, Pullman.
In Lyra’s world, the shape your daemon takes is seen as diagnostic of your personality and of what role you should play in society. The shapes of childrens’ daemons are not fixed until puberty, but if you’re that age and your daemon is a dog, you’re going to be a servant. If it’s a wolf, you’re going into the army. If it’s a seagull, you’re going to be a sailor. And if you’d rather be doing something else, too bad and suck it up. This is very harmful – especially in a coming-of-age book. How many real people have their self-concept and actual goals fixed-for-life by age 12-14?
Classism is pervasive in the plot as well as in the world-building. Lyra is the child of aristocrats, so clearly she’ll be the one with the special magic powers and will be lording over the other kids on the playground at age 8. Lord Asriel is a nobleman who likes to order around everyone he meets and force or trick them into doing what he wants them to – and while some of what he does is condemned, a lot of it is presented positively. This is particularly offensive because Asriel’s goal is to destroy Christian-Bible-god / “The Authority” / The Authority’s Regent and the social structures that pay service to it in all of the multiverse. Apparently, the ends justify much of the means – even if those means are unnecessary and gratuitously self-serving, be they coercing the bears to build him a deliberately inefficient base for his work in Svalbard to open the bridge between the worlds or murdering a child because it was the first way he thought of to open a doorway. And supposedly, only an English aristocrat could possibly unite forces from dozens of worlds against The Authority’s army.
And, again, this extends into the scenes set in our world. Will Parry can’t just be a boy whose father disappeared while doing support work for a research trip in the Arctic. He has to be the son of a former major in the Royal Marines, who was pretending to not know about what the scientists on that expedition were actually up to and exploited the opportunity to access a portal from our world to Lyra’s world, out-perform the local scientists at their own game, and to gain magical powers.
Closely associated with the classism, we have racism – both intra-human racism and Fantastic Racism.
For the humans, in addition to racism coming directly from classism, Pullman falsely attributes trepanning (making a burr-hole through the skull without damaging the brain) as a mystical/ritual practice of a number of groups, including the “Tartars” – presumably the old romanization for the Татарлар/Tatars. But that’s both a wrong attribution and an offensive misunderstanding. Trepanning has been used medically for a very long time. It’s one of the oldest recorded surgical procedures, and is still used to relieve pressure on the brain from epidural hematomas. Ritual trepanning was practiced quite frequently among some Magyar groups before the 9th century CE and is currently advocated by a few dangerous quacks, but never was particularly popular among the Tatars or the various groups that have been conflated with them. This reeks of not doing the research.
More serious are the “gyptians”, a group in Lyra’s world that live as traveling merchants/traders and are generally poorly treated by the rest of society – again, without this being presented as a bad thing. Given the history of persecution the Roma have been subjected to, anyone who creates such a fictional group and calls them anything at all close to “gypsy” is perpetuating harmful social stereotypes.
And then we have the Fantastic Racism, most dramatically for the bears. Their king at the start of the first book took control of Svalbard from the previous one by treachery and poison – uncool. He is killed in single combat by the rightful heir. The monarchy and you-kill-it-you-bought it is not good, but let that pass for now. The king seeks to import human technologies and practices to Svalbard: building stone buildings rather than ice ones, developing the mining industry in addition to smelting steel, sponsoring visiting human researchers, and so on. He also wants to acquire a daemon, like a human, and to become a Christian. These all are presented as bad things, and promptly reversed after his death – the buildings are immediately torn to pieces. It’s played as “You’re bears! Don’t try to be human!”. There is a potential good message there – something like “you don’t need to be like everyone else”. But it is conflated with the horrifically racist/classist line of “these people can’t possibly do what real people do”.
The mufela (not-entirely-unlike intelligent elephants on rollerskates) from the third book are not portrayed as badly as the bears are, but Pullman still has his human characters doing the outsider-white-person-saves-primitive-people line and so there is a bunch of racism there too.
This is less in-the-reader’s-face than the others, but it is still there. All but two of the characters are apparently heterosexual women and heterosexual men (or heterosexual intelligent bears) – and across the three books, there are enough characters whose orientation is specified that we would expect this to not be the case. A significant fraction of humanity has been erased. The two non-heterosexual characters who do show up are non-human angels, Balthamos and Baruch. Pullman was pulling from the Catholic versions of angels; so they don’t have gender or sex in any of the human senses of the word (although some of them were once human, and apparently retain some association with whatever gender they had then).
There is a brief mention in the books of a single human who is ambiguously gay. He is described by Lyra as “solitary” and “one of those rare people whose daemon was the same sex he was” (Pullman says he “doesn’t know what that means” and invokes death-of-the-author). If the man with the unusually-gender-assigned-daemon is indeed gay, then apparently in the society of Lyra’s England he’s unable to be with whoever he’d want to be with. And if gender-of-daemon is supposed to be gender-of-people-you’re-attracted-to, what happens to humans in Lyra’s world who are anything other than strictly heterosexual or strictly homosexual? Again, all of this could simply be negative aspects of the world Lyra comes from – but it is never flagged as such in the series.
The Bottom Line
I could go on with more examples, and possibly add a couple of other forms of bigotry that Pullman promotes in the books, but this post is already long. Suffice it to say that I am not impressed by the series, and do not recommend it to anyone. If you want fantasy media that challenge religious ideas and harmful social structures, there are far better options. None of the bigotry in the series is anywhere near unique to Pullman – much of it is pervasive in both media and society. But it is particularly distressing to see blatant bigotry and authoritarianism on display by someone who is nominally calling out the wrongs of an authoritarian organization. It doesn’t make the calling-out wrong, but we should not excuse anyone who promotes dangerously wrong ideas.