Challenged Books: His Dark Materials

The American Library Association helpfully informs me that His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman’s 1995-2000 fantasy trilogy, is commonly targeted for challenges because of ‘political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence.’ These books are an unabashed challenge to Christian ideology and so it’s not terribly surprising to see them targeted for banning, because they don’t really make much of a pretense of neutrality. They want to challenge readers and they do, questioning ideas about sexuality and original sin and an assortment of other things.

The political and religious viewpoints of these books are closely tied together. Pullman does not pull any punches when it comes to slagging on Christianity in interviews and elsewhere and these books make a clear counterpart to another beloved series aimed at young readers, The Chronicles of Narnia, where we are reminded that girls are to be punished for their sexuality and people should remain pure and innocent forever if they want to go to heaven. Pullman pretty much blew that right out of the water (although I would argue that being condemned to live in different universes is a pretty hefty punishment for love).

I know that Christian readers can get a lot out of these books because I’ve talked about them with Christians. One area where these books provide room for exploration is in talking about the repressive history of the church, and the abuses of power committed by the church. Instead of hiding these things, people could bring them out into the open and contrast the hidebound, bureaucratic, very rigid approach of the church with the actual teachings of Christ and the way that He lived.

Much of what Lyra and Will do is, after all, very Christian in nature if you believe that Christianity involves living by the words and deeds of Jesus. They are willing to make immense personal sacrifices to benefit others, they see the fundamental humanity and goodness in people, they believe in interdepedence and supporting each other. And it appears that some Christians are responding to that, looking at the books as a critique of highly dogmatic approaches to Christianity.

Seeing violence cited as a reason for bans sort of confused me, because while violence is present in the books I remember it being at a relatively low, and thematically appropriate, level. Yes, people die, sometimes violently, but these scenes are not gruesome and Pullman does not linger over them for shock value. More of the violence is against organised religion as an entity; these are books with characters who explicitly want to start knocking down metaphorical walls to liberate people. Lyra leading people out of the underworld is, in her own way, committing an act of deep violence against the way that many people think about the afterlife.

I was surprised more people don’t attack the books on the grounds of sexuality, especially since Lyra and Will are relatively young. Then I found out that the US editions were redacted to cut out some of the more explicitly sexual content, and it made more sense. This is a book where Lyra is a very sexually aware person, and I can see a lot of people feeling threatened by that. That Lyra should not only discover her sexuality but find it pleasurable is the sort of thing people tend to get up in arms about when it comes to books young people are reading. We wouldn’t want young women learning that sexuality is not dirty or frightening or wrong, after all.

His Dark Materials cracks at a lot of bright lines people like to draw. Characters deal with philosophy, religion, and spirituality, sometimes in the same breath, in a book that merges a lot of complex concepts. Many book bans seem to centre around fantasy, apparently under the belief that readers cannot tell what is real and what is not, or might be led astray by books with characters like angels and talking bears and daemons. Thus, I was surprised to note that most of the book challenges I found didn’t invoke the fantastical worlds in the book, and the complex worldbuilding Pullman put into it, as a reason to keep the books out of young hands. Apparently that’s reserved for the likes of Harry Potter (which we will be talking about later this year, I suspect).

Pullman, in interviews, has expressed some sadness that his books aren’t subject to more banning attempts. I guess he expected to raise more of a stir with them than he did. He was overshadowed by a number of very popular young adult fantasy series that came out around the same time. I guess even book challengers can’t keep track of everything. It would be interesting to know what would have happened if Harry Potter hadn’t come out, as I suspect the Pullman trilogy would have become much more popular, forcing it into the public eye.

People who feel threatened by the content in these books might want to take a closer look at it. I think His Dark Materials would actually make a terrific assignment for religion classes, providing students with an opportunity to talk about the themes, and Pullman’s mistake in confusing organised religion with all expressions of Christianity and Christian thought. Pullman talks about ‘killing God’ in the finale of the books, apparently not realising that he wasn’t killing God so much as an idea of him;┬ámany Christian readers actually agreed with a lot of the content in the books, and would be more than happy to see a radical reapproach to the way people practice religion, talk about God, and express their faith.