The His Dark Materials Trilogy: Atheism and the Golden Compass

As soon I posted my proclamation that I completed my novel, I received emails asking me to post on the His Dark Materials trilogy. No one (well one person has asked) wants to read my novel. But several people want to know what I think about His Dark Materials. I can only imagine that it has something to do with the eminent release (Friday, Dec. 7) of The Golden Compass. The fact that literally dozens of people actually care what I think about this is heartwarming. And so I oblige. Watch out for spoilers.

By far, the most interesting book of the trilogy was the first one, The Golden Compass. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It takes place in the Oxford of an alternate world, somewhat resembling ours, but really a lot like late 19th century to early 20th century Britain — if science had taken a little different turn. Children are disappearing as an evil group of grownups rounds them up to experiment on them by cutting away their souls. (In this world, one’s soul is on the outside of the body, and one can converse with it — fascinating stuff.)

Lyra (the main character, a young girl maybe 11 or so) wants to solve the mystery of the disappearing children and the mystery of Dust. This Dust doesn’t cling to children, but it does to adults. The group of baddies (the Magisterium — a very authoritarian arm of this alternate world’s church, which resembles the Catholic church in a lot of ways) is taking the children and cutting away their souls to prevent them from getting this Dust on them. The grown-ups have decided that Dust is Original Sin.

Even though Lyra does help save the children, she’s no closer to what Dust is by the end of the book. But she is walking into another world. The book itself offers interesting descriptions of different beings (a polar bear metalsmith and witches) as well as an interesting view of what our world might have been like if things went differently. And I really wanted to know about Dust, too, by the end.

So I kept reading. The Subtle Knife, the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy was also enjoyable. It starts out with a boy named Will who lives in our world. He finds his way into another world and meets Lyra. Together they try to find Will’s dad, who disappeared years before, and decide to try and figure out more about Dust.

This book is where the idea of a war on God comes in. And probably what everyone has started screaming about regarding Pullman. And we learn about Dust. It’s dark matter, but it’s conscious. Okay, Mormons, pull out your thinking caps. Because I’m about to shift this entire story from an atheist framework and a mainstream Christian framework into a Mormon framework. The rest of you, well, you might find this interesting as well.

So as soon as I found out that Pullman’s fictional Dust is 1) dark matter (which is matter that is “dark”, meaning it isn’t detectable by direct means, but scientists know it’s there because of the unexplainable effects it creates in the universe) and 2) conscious, I immediately began equating it with “intelligences.” So of course, thinking back to the Golden Compass, I thought it was stupid to want to prevent the stuff. Of course, as a Mormon, the idea of Original Sin isn’t my cup o’ tea — sorry, Postum — anyway.

Because I love fantasy and science fiction, The Subtle Knife was interesting because it concerns itself with travel between worlds. But I didn’t like it as much as The Golden Compass. And, of course, the Subtle Knife points out Pullman’s issues with God. And, since that’s what you all want to know about, here you are.

The Authority (God) is not the creator in Pullman’s books — he doesn’t actually identify one. Instead The Authority is someone infinitely ancient who set up a religion, and recruited beings called angels to be his followers. He is a bit of a liar, since he claims to be the creator. He also wants everyone to do what he says, and the rebellion of angels came from those who didn’t want to be forced into things. Oh, and angels have extra-refined bodies. You know, corporeal bodies that are different — giving off light. The Authority has a body, too. It’s almost like, in my Mormon framework, somebody got their facts a little mixed up as to who did what. It’s an opposite-world of Mormon doctrine in places.

But over the centuries The Authority has become a recluse. And his lieutenant, an angel called Metatron is running things now. (This is where I started having problems — mainly because as a Transformers fan from back in the 80s, I immediately noticed that “Metatron” is one letter away from “Megatron.”) Just so you know, people can become angels. Metatron was Enoch when he lived on earth. Metatron is the one instigating the war against the different worlds (yes, The Authority is the “god” of multiple worlds), because he wants everyone to obey him, and he feels with The Authority fading out of the picture, people are getting too much free will.

Anyway, the people fighting against the usurper Metatron (I actually identify him with Lucifer), want to make sure that he is destroyed so that they can keep their agency. I mean seriously. Oh, oh, and Lyra is set up as a “second Eve” (this terminology is used in the books) who is going to make a decision that will result in all the worlds receiving agency.

So, by the time I got to The Amber Spyglass, I had pretty much renamed all of the characters in my head so that they fit better with my Mormon narrative. So by the time Metatron is defeated in the last book, and The Authority is released (he is being held prisoner by now to Metatron’s ideas), I was rooting for the kids and their adult allies.

The children end up freeing The Authority from Metatron (he happily dissolves into nothing), and the adults finish off the usurping god wannabe.

Honestly, though, I didn’t enjoy the Amber Spyglass as much. It was really more about tying up all the loose ends, and defeating Metatron. And the end just sort of petered out. But there a couple of things I found interesting: 1) there is a world full of dead people’s spirits, and 2) the Dust really shows up when children switch from being innocent to being more adult-like and accountable.

Pullman’s main issues with God seem to be the age-old problems that people everywhere have, and that cause them to question their faith: Why does a loving God allow suffering? Why do followers of God do terrible things? Why do so many religions use violence try and force others into their ways of thinking?

Pullman thinks God is a tyrant. And those who help him (he picked Enoch, I think, due to the whole being brought up to heaven thing) are perpetuating the problem. However, the god Pullman describes isn’t my God, so I didn’t have a problem with his defeat.

Interestingly, a comment on my last Golden Compass post pretty much summed up my feelings about the whole His Dark Materials thing. NitroMonkee Adventure Team wrote this:

The oppressive, partisan god that will damn a person for having the audacity to be born in a nation without Christianity is no god of mine. The totalitarian god, who would rather have people obey out of constraint than give them the freedom and ability to err–this is no god of mine. If Phillip Pullman wants to kill a belief in that infernal impostor of the Master of Heaven and earth, I support him in that effort. And if, as he himself has said, he is agenda is just to get people to keep reading his books because they’re good…well, I’ll support that too.

Tags: Golden Compass, atheism Golden Compass, His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman,
His Dark Materials trilogy, Mormon framework Golden Compass


0 thoughts on “The His Dark Materials Trilogy: Atheism and the Golden Compass”

  1. Awesome post! I’ve not read the series, but my wife has. She’s been left wondering what all the hubbub is about.

    You knew there had to be at least one nerdy weirdo in every crowd, so here goes.

    Metatron is the name of an angel referenced in the Talmud. There’s a whole lot of controversy surrounding his name, and role, in various religious and occult sources. Some have tried to make a connection between him and Enoch, which helps explain your own thinking about him.

    Okay. I’m done being the nerdy weirdo … for now. ;^)

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