Spoilers below.

Halfway through His Dark Materials, I heard rumors. By the books’ end, people were saying, the characters would kill God. But I was a kid, and like all kids, I wanted to be good. I wasn’t interested in killing God. The extent to which I had been harmed by the Church was a deadly boredom Sunday mornings. Not a scarring experience, I mean. Add to that, I wasn’t brainy enough to care about metaphysics or Milton (Materials riffs on Paradise Lost). All I wanted were page-turners. Which these were.

This series of three books, by Philip Pullman, begins with The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK). Lyra, a mischievous tween, discovers that the Church has hatched a sinister plot to retain control of everything. The ensuing adventure involves a highly coveted truth-telling compass, clans of erotic witches, warring bears, and a knife so subtle you cannot see its blade slicing from one world to another. Pullman writes impeccable action sequences — chases, battles, sudden shifts of allegiance and geography. I remember the opening sequence of Book II, The Subtle Knife, and the thrill of realizing we were no longer in Lyra’s world but our own, where instead of magic there were mental illnesses, suburbs, and science labs. The shift was so unexpected, so hair-raising, I would never forget it.

Ultimately, though, I didn’t finish; that God would be murdered was too dizzying. I abandoned the books in my parents’ attic and rarely looked at them again. Occasionally I would go up there and flip through. Doing so was like grazing hot metal. Only when I was older did the nagging wonder get me. What could be in those final pages? How would these endearing children kill God? And why? God, in my understanding, was merciful, kind, an ever-present comfort; God rarely acted in the way I expected or wanted but had a plan, I believed, in any case.

Armored with adulthood and HBO’s new series to beat, I finished The Amber Spyglass last week. I respect and agree with many (usually religious) critics of the series. These are not perfect stories, and some of the last installment is clumsily rendered. There is a stubborn, out-of-key assertion that “the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake,” expressed by an ex-nun now-scientist who believes sexuality and Christianity are incompatible. Even so, belief remains: dreams, “night pictures,” communicate messages; and the aforementioned scientist contends with elements beyond her wildest imagination. Ideologically speaking, questions remain, and the death of Authority (God) answers none of them.

Despite all this, the experience was thrilling; the books, so many years later, have recaptured me. In a fitting twist, His Dark Materials became its own forbidden fruit, the pages I couldn’t stop turning.


The books describe a universe not only of humans and talking animals but also of shamans, angels, ghosts, and more. Folklore, mythology, morality, religion, philosophy, physics — all of it is here. In the same way, Pullman’s characters are wonderfully multifaceted. With one exception (the saintly anti-saint Mary Malone), its characters’ complexity is the series’ most consistent feature.

Lyra is at once daring and vulnerable, deceptive and ingenuous. The villain, Mrs. Coulter, is cunning yet caring; she is both an agent of the patriarchy and also pulls their strings. The larger-than-life Lord Asriel — anagram of Israel, i.e. “wrestles with God” — is brave yet power-hungry, an inept father and the most admirable warrior in the multiverse. When you least expect it, enemies become allies: in Pullman’s Armageddon, readers will cheer for characters they once feared. There are falls and redemptions, perpetually. “People,” one character says, near the end, “are too complicated to have simple labels.” To which Lyra replies immediately, “Yes.”

All of which is noteworthy not just for its artistry. It is also, I think, the key to the series’ sincere disillusionment with both the Church and classic fantasy: less a matter of theology than of anthropology. What is man? And what is innocence? Experience?

For his answers Pullman draws from Blake, who draws from Milton; to varying levels each correlates innocence and experience with the pre- and post-Fall human soul. Pullman, of “the Devil’s party,” firmly values “experience”—heightened consciousness, physicality—and figuratively savors every bite of forbidden fruit. Even within this framework, though, his sense of it is beautifully collaged. Innocence and experience are not diametrically opposed. Most importantly, they are never manipulated, controlled, or restrained. Characters live between poles and are advocates for and adversaries of both, not to mention ignorance and intelligence, consciousness and compulsion, and, most loosely, good and evil. In everyday life, these abstractions seem far afield from your classic fantasies where there are valiant men with white beards and singularly evil witches. The complication in Pullman’s fantasy, and our real lives, exceeds the occasional misbehavior of Edmund Pevensie, for example. Human beings have the capacity for great good and for extreme, heartrending damage. There is darkness in all of us, and also light, and the distinction between these can be easy to misapprehend or ignore altogether.

In our world, the Church has often pulled the latter card and too easily reduced actual people to good and bad. Especially: it reduces itself to good, and in every age, this has been an injurious oversight. It is also contra the message of Jesus, the “Good Man” who said no one is good but God alone. But do we believe him? (For more on Pullman’s relationship with Jesus, see his 2004 dialogue with Rowan Williams, as well as James Parker’s analysis in The Atlantic.)

If Materials’ “polemic” overlooks anything, it must be this Jesus and his death and resurrection, which are not criticized but evoked — possibly unintentionally — during Lyra and Will’s descent into Hell. Along the way, in great anguish, Lyra is stripped of her daemon (her soul), and her greatest strength, deception, becomes powerless. Only then, with all her “virtues being burned away,” does Lyra begin telling the truth. And the guardians of Hell swoon. Lyra, they say, “spoke the truth…and it was nourishing…it was feeding us… We had no idea that there was anything but wickedness.” They open a gate for the children’s escape. Truth-telling presents a way forward.

Truth and deception are the pillars around which His Dark Materials revolves. In Paradise Lost, a fallen angel declares that “Heav’n resembles Hell,” and Satan admits, “All good to me is lost; / Evil, be thou my good.” Likewise, in Pullman’s universe, evil calls itself good, and all warring factions claim righteousness no matter their grounds for it. The Authority’s angels exhibit pride and mercilessness, and their obsessions are destruction and possession. They revel in strength, “relish combat.” The Magisterium (the Church) deploys assassins, resembling authoritarian atheist regimes as much as the most corrupt expressions of the Church. The rebels, by contrast, value emancipation and the dignity of life — importantly, children lead them. And even then, as the children “kill God,” they are only trying to help the poor guy. (He is not Creator but a deceptive angel, sickly, light-as-paper.) In Pullman’s vision, Authority’s end is also an emancipation — a release. In other words, what prevails in this godless spin is mercy. What prevails is what atheist John Gray refers to as “the religious idea of redemption.” In Pullman’s Armageddon, the forces of Good carry the day.

So aimed at the heart of the Christian God, Materials’ arrow misses, and not narrowly. It punctures instead agents of corruption, repression, vengeance, and power, who wear garish masks of divinity and, despite their own sins, insist on the importance of innocence. Better yet is the method by which this happens. Were Materials a screed, it would fail. But it is not. “If I wanted to send a message,” Pullman once said, “I would have written a sermon.” Luckily, instead, we have a story. And grace is the lifeblood of stories. Grace, in everyday terms, is the real deal, the stuff that brings you to tears.

Which brings me to Mrs. Coulter who, in The Amber Spyglass, becomes my hero. Not enough commentary has been dedicated to this fascinating character who does a complete 180. And like all 180s, it comes with a heavy skepticism from onlookers, and like all 180s, that doesn’t matter. She risks her life on multiple occasions to save her daughter. To destroy the Regent of the Authority, she deceives him: “I wanted him to find no good in me, and he didn’t. There is none. But I love Lyra. Where did this love come from? I don’t know; it came to me like a thief in the night…” Later, she says that compared to all the wrong she has done, her love is the size of a mustard seed, and yet that mustard seed is all that matters. Perhaps with this language, Pullman is mocking us. I didn’t feel that way. I felt like weeping. I felt like Pullman was taking what is most powerful from the biblical text and giving it as a gift to his readers, through his most compelling character. Mrs. Coulter’s feeble pivot comes about mysteriously, from a place she does not understand or know, and despite its smallness, it redefines her completely. Her final move is to leap with all her heart at the evil archangel, pulling him with her into an abyss. Who does she resemble except nearly everyone in the New Testament? Paul, the self-righteous persecutor, who in a flash is converted; the enchanting Mary Magdalene, redeemed; even Jesus himself, plunging into the void to save his beloved.

Meanwhile, the end is iffy. All signs point to a “Republic of Heaven,” sans Authority—but are we really to believe that a new one would not surface? You need only glance at history — Mao’s Republic, Jamestown, “Wild Wild Country” — to see that every manmade Utopia ends in dystopia, and in every atheism, theisms appear.

Knowledge — as with experience — seems, for Pullman, an unquestioned good. But in His Dark Materials, the distinction between knowledge and truth is not always clear. Knowledge can be used for manipulation, power, outwitting one’s opponents; education, too, can be painful, and there are limits to what it can offer. But truth is about depth, and meaning. According to Gray, “Scientific inquiry answers a demand for explanation. The practice of religion expresses a need for meaning, which would remain unsatisfied even if everything could be explained.” For the author’s rejoinder, I suspect I will have to keep reading: I have not yet cracked The Book of Dust.

But with Materials alone, there is a message to be heard: you cannot preserve innocence by restricting experience, to say nothing of experience itself, which can be wonderful and terrible and often both at the same time. That was my experience, at least, reading these books, which I did eventually read. No level of foreboding could prevent me.

For many, the biggest question has been, and continues to be, what will children learn from His Dark Materials? Hopefully not just that the adults are arguing. Hopefully they will understand that the important things are not really the reputation of John Calvin and the limits of science and where do the atoms go when we die. All interesting stuff to be sure, but hopefully they will not stop reading. Hopefully this is one of many epic adventures they experience. If so, they will soon discover that the important things are the same in Narnia and Middle Earth and Planet Earth and everywhere: love, mercy, friendship, grace. Perhaps, too, they will discover that Authority can offer itself in Submission, Deity in Humility, God in Love. But thank the Lord for Philip Pullman, who has reminded us that whether now or later, one day, experience will be had. And when that day comes, let us be unafraid: It is for freedom Christ set us free.