I’ve been teaching Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (the work is the first in his Dark Materials trilogy) in my British Fantasy class and, like a number of academic scholars before me, have found myself drawn into the author’s conversation with Milton’s Paradise Lost and the poetry of William Blake. I can’t begin to do justice to all the complexities here but I have some thoughts on how problems in his religious thinking have some negative ramifications for his story, delightful though much of it is.
I read the trilogy for the first time over winter break and, while I enjoyed it (especially The Golden Compass), I became somewhat suspicious when I heard that the author had approvingly quoted Blake’s famous assessment of Paradise Lost:
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.
To which Pullman added,
Blake said Milton was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it. I am of the Devil’s party and know it.
Anyone who has ever taught Paradise Lost knows that most students are of the devil’s party from the get-go, as was I when I first read it. To quote my college English professor Davis Taylor, “Of course Satan is attractive. He’s the archangel, for God’s sake!” But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Milton himself has fallen for him. Or rather, yes, Milton probably has fallen for him, the way we fall for any powerful character that we have created. But then (and this is what Pullman fails to do) he examines what that attraction means.
It helps to think of Paradise Lost as a rhetorical trap, which is how Stanley Fish in Surprised by Sin sees the poem. If we are attracted by Satan’s dazzling rhetorical displays, it’s because we are susceptible to grand gestures and superficial glitter. Or as Fish puts it, when we are lured by Satan, we display the weakness of Adam and Eve and repeat their fall.
In the course of the Puritan revolution, Milton must have witnessed a number of Satans, charismatic political leaders who professed love for the commonwealth but were really driven by (or sidetracked by) pride and power. Maybe he himself even fell for some of them, just as we continue to fall for smooth talking politicians today.
Returning to Pullman, his Satan figure is Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father. Asriel’s commanding presence ensures that he gets his way in all things: like Lucifer in the opening books of Milton’s poem, Asriel engages in impressive pyrotechnics, his words move multitudes, he assembles a large army, and he crosses a vast abyss to go toe to toe with the almighty. To accomplish this latter feat, he sacrifices a little boy who is Lyra’s best friend. And yet, rather than helping us see—as both Milton and Blake help us see—the ultimate emptiness of such soaring ambition—Pullman admires him to the end. Which I guess means that the author really is of the devil’s party.
Pullman has us cheering for Asriel at the end through authorial sleight of hand. Not as powerful as God’s regent Metatron, Asriel gives himself up to take him down. Metatron is committed to imposing monotheistic religion on the universe and, through his sacrifice, Asriel opens the way for the loving pantheistic vision of his daughter. Nothing in the trilogy has prepared us for the turnabout from supreme egotist and heartless leader (remember the sacrificed child) to selfless republican and lover of humanity. Although his stated goal is to replace the Kingdom of Heaven with the Republic of Heaven, it seems more likely that, if he were to prevail, Asriel would become just another tyrant. “The iron fist crushed the tyrant’s head/And became a tyrant in his stead,” writes Blake.
Religious themes aside, if you’ve read the trilogy, think of how confusing it becomes. You can’t figure out if Asriel is a good guy or a bad guy and why those who really are good guys (say, the witches or Will’s father) are telling the child protagonists that they should support him. Sometimes it seems a case of “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend.” For that matter, how are we supposed to feel about Lyra’s mother, who earlier has been engaged in Josef Mengele-type experiments on young children but who in the end joins Asriel in the heroic self-sacrifice? It’s all a muddle and it’s caused by—as I see it—Pullman’s failure to move beyond an adolescent identification with Satan and to appreciate what Milton is really up to. It’s as though Pullman is railing against a God that he’s disappointed in but goes no further. Or put another way, while it may sound edgy to say, “I am of the devil’s party and know it,” one can’t remain a party member if one wants to arrive at a deeper understanding of sin in the world or how to fight it.
Milton, by contrast, takes up this challenge, redefining heroism from the vainglorious Satan to the repentant Adam and Eve. Satan, in the end, is stuck in his egotism as he is stuck in his snake’s form. (Put in Pullman’s terms, it’s as though his daemon has settled into a snake), Adam and Eve, though far quieter characters, learn to step past blame and pride and forge a loving relationship. They do the truly tough work.
I think Blake and Pullman have one legitimate complaint about Milton but it’s a problem that Milton had from the moment he chose his subject. When one turns God into a character, one diminishes God. Thus the God of Paradise Lost is a thin abstraction, one who does little more than explain the rules and the consequences for breaking them.
Pullman’s God isn’t much better. He is the first angel born when matter comes to know itself, and He exploits His primacy, telling the other angels that He created them. In Pullman’s vision (unlike in, say, Blake’s), there is no distinction between God and the repressive church. For Pullman, human belief in God, not human misappropriation of God, is what leads to barbaric acts.
Returning to Milton, just because he creates a vibrant Lucifer doesn’t mean that he is of the devil’s party. It’s just that, with regard to God, he ran up against theology, which trumps creative energy (Blake’s objection). It’s what occurs in the Narnia Chronicles at those times when C. S. Lewis sounds like a Sunday school teacher (see my post on the subject). This is a flaw but one that Milton rectifies. Though he may give us a one-dimensional depiction of God, he then goes on to provide a three-dimensional picture of living a godly life. After being informed of Christ’s future sacrifice, Adam movingly declares that he will henceforth put all his trust in God’s love:
Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the only God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truth’s sake
Is fortitude to highest victory,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;
Taught this by his example whom I now
Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest.
Given the catastrophes we have witnessed in the poem and that Milton himself experienced in his life (political hopes dashed, imprisonment, blindness), this is a powerful place to end up. Pullman’s ending lacks this power. We’re glad all the old guys are gone, clearing the world for the children, but what their struggle has meant is never clear.
Pullman is best when he’s offering us archetypal discovery journeys involving animal guides, supernatural aids, tyrannical fathers and suffocating mothers. God help us, however, when he ventures into cosmology.