On the His Dark Materials series
Show Me, Don't Tell Me
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is obviously indebted to the Christian story and derives much of its form from it. But rather than trying to write a modern Christian allegory in the fashion of C. S. Lewis, Pullman attempted to write an anti-Christian allegory based on a revisionist interpretation of Paradise Lost in which Satan is the hero. Pullman has made no secret that he intends his story to be offensive to Christians, and in this he succeeds (after all, to offend, it is sufficient to communicate one’s desire to offend). But, his scorn for the Church aside, the religion to which Pullman’s novel is opposed is such a caricature of real Christianity that most Christians would join him in rejecting it. At his best, his storytelling even advances Christian themes and values.
Pullman’s best is very good, and not offensive to Christians. It’s when he tries to propose anti-Christian themes that he violates the rules of his craft. I am not proposing a mere tautology here, where Pullman’s writing is good when it is Christian and bad when it is atheistic. I think it is obvious that religious orthodoxy itself is not a guarantee of good writing, nor is religious heterodoxy a necessary indicator of bad writing. Rather, I want to propose neutral standards for writing a great fantasy story, standards that I believe Pullman would accept, and which, if met, would be the mark of great literature. I’ll then show that His Dark Materials falls short of these …