PHILIP Pullman is one of the most talented and influential of contemporary children’s authors. He’s a powerfully imaginative storyteller, his prose passing that litmus test of appealing as much to adults as to children.
It has taken the BBC a surprisingly long time to catch up with him. Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was first published in the mid to late 1990s. The National Theatre got there years ago, with a dramatisation of Northern Lights.
Why so long for the BBC to adapt them for TV. Why now? Has the Beeb just woken up to the novels’ woke Gyptians’ diversity potential? Has it just clocked the opportunity they give to splash Pullman’s subversive and anti-Christian message across our screens in the run-up to Christmas? Maybe.
The BBC’s adaptation should come with a warning. The corporation’s public commitment to its ‘progressive’, identity politics agenda (set out here and here) means all its output needs examination in this context and not least when the production values are high as with this drama series.
His Dark Materials is a high-quality and persuasive production, the mind-numbingly and overtly virtue-signalling Gyptian scenes apart. No expense seems to have been spared. It has wonderful photography and visuals. The critics have heaped praise on ‘this ravishing’ production.
Dafne Keen, the accomplished 14-year-old actress who plays the soulful and strong Lyra Belacqua, is about as perfectly cast as could be. Ruth Wilson, as the demonic Mrs Coulter, Lyra’s attractive but evil mother, likewise gets her part to a T.
Watching it (three episodes so far) reminded me how powerful the original books were and how much this epic and fantastical tale of parallel worlds and of good pitted against evil captured my young sons’ imaginations when we read it back in the 1990s.
It also reminded me how a tale in which Pullman’s inverts good and evil had managed to do this before we realised the trick Pullman has pulled. At what point did we ‘get’ that, quite unlike J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or C S Lewis’s Narnia, Christianity had been turned into the force of evil? I can’t remember.
But I did wonder how many children growing up in more secular households would appreciate that the presentation of the Magisterium – as a Vatican like Catholic hierarchy – set on controlling science and knowledge while cruelly ‘cutting’ or curtailing human development and freedom was, as representation of Christianity, a travesty?
How many would know that you have to go back to the time of Copernicus to find an instance of the Church so deliberately determining to stifle scientific knowledge. Or that even then it was never for the purpose of harnessing it to their evil ends?
Fiction is fiction and a dystopia based on the Church’s less than salutary moments, hosting the Inquisition and burning heretics to cite two obvious examples, is fair game and fair enough maybe.
But it took me reading Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali’s critique of Pullman in Standpoint last year; which we reviewed here to grasp the way in which Pullman’s subliminal hostility to Christian civilisation and everything it stands for (so typical of our times) guides every facet of his story.
Despite that apparent continuity with Christian writers such as Tolkein and Lewis, with his similar evocation of other worlds – in which the battle of ideas and values mirrors the contestants’ fight for supremacy or survival – and despite Pullman professing to be influenced by the Bible and by Christian hymns in particular – there the resemblance ends. So Nazir-Ali explains:
‘Pullman uses the paraphernalia of fantasy to send a message radically different … he sees religion as a force for coercion and oppression, and organised religion as a bondage from which the human race must be liberated. Thus the “Magisterium” and “the Church” play the role of the villain in his work and the Christian God is singled out for oblivion.
‘It seems appropriate then to see him … as a kind of anti-Lewis: Using fantasy and even allegory to communicate a message very different from Lewis’s … he is not only anti-religion, but specifically anti-Christian and, we may even say, anti-Christ.
‘Behind this lies the notion, common in the West, that while the human Jesus can be admired as a “good man”, his claims about himself and the Church’s teaching about him are to be dismissed as ancient superstition.’
About Pullman’s trite defence that he couldn’t believe in God because of the theory of evolution he had learned at school, Nazir-Ali is scathing, describing it as a ‘naive scientism that ill becomes someone who’s been voted the 11th most influential person in British culture’.
In Pullman it seems we have Richard Dawkins’s literary alter-ego.
Nazir-Ali goes on to address Pullman’s narrow and negative interpretation of Christianity as using the idea of sin to repress us. How can this be he asks when, realistically, the human condition cannot be described adequately without ‘considering the alienation, fear, greed and hatred which exists in and between humans’, and in relation to which our Christian understanding of the need for forgiveness, atonement and redemption is fundamental. It is precisely from the pagan notions and pseudo-science of Pullman’s fantasy that the Bible frees us, Nazir-Ali argues, with its teaching of a just God and the requirement of justice in us.
In the years since Pullman wrote his books, contempt for Christianity has become ever more blatant and widespread, expressed even by the leaders of the Western World. And though the most virtuous of world religions, it is now the most persecuted of faiths. Indeed it is the crushing of Christianity under the imposition of secular moral relativism on the one hand and at the hands of religious zealots of quite another religion on the other, that we need worry about, not fantasy Christian fanatics.
But we can be pretty sure that the equality-driven BBC won’t be inviting Bishop Nazir-Ali on to discuss any of this, to challenge Pullman’s dystopian persecution myth or to ask why the BBC has chosen to add its own gratuitous detail – a fascist iconography – to the sinister Magisterium.
Perhaps portraying priests unleashing a blackshirt army and snarling bloodhounds on to the Gyptians’ craft to hunt out Lyra, was designed to cast Christianity in the most evil light the BBC’s directors could amusingly (for them) dream up?
Hence the warning – not for the scenes of cruelty, although there are plenty of those. But to alert a new generation of children to being uncritically influenced by Pullman’s subversive narrative, one now aided and underlined by the BBC.