On the His Dark Materials series

Dismembered Starlings and Neutered Minds

By Naomi Wood

Many people, when asked, say that childhood’s most appealing trait is innocence. Associated with purity, with truth and with goodness, innocence is an essential part of all we say we value, something to be cherished, nurtured, protected. In the book of Genesis, innocence was irrevocably lost when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, however, asks not only that we re-evaluate our understanding of what innocence is but also our assumptions about what it means, whether it is, in fact, a quality to be valued.

In a 1997 review of Blake Morrison’s book As If (an account of the pre-teen killers of the toddler James Bulger), Philip Pullman describes in horrifying detail how a gibbon at the zoo caught and tore apart a screaming starling, unemotionally, clinically: “I can’t forget the crackings and snappings, the tough white sinews, the lolling shrieking head, and most of all the curious innocent concentration of the ape.” By describing the ape’s concentration as “innocent,” Pullman highlights another aspect of innocence that few adults consider: its amorality. Although the ape may be said to be innocent in the sense that it has no moral consciousness to offend, its obliviousness does not negate the pain of the starling. The question raised for the human observer is the status of human consciousness, of conscience. When do humans become fully responsible for their actions? What does it mean to be innocent, to have experience? What makes humans human? Pullman’s  …

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