Pullman Is of the Devil’s Party

David Craig as Lord Asriel

David Craig as Lord Asriel

Spiritual Sunday

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.

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4 Comments

  1. sue
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Really thoughtful post, Robin. And I agree that when we try to talk about God as a character we can’t do God justice. Perhaps that’s why the Jews don’t even use God’s name. I wonder if that’s why Tolkien doesn’t talk about God at all in the LOTR trilogy. He sense he’d be on thin ice and so doesn’t even go there.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    The more I think about Pullman’s first angel, Sue, the weaker his conceptualization seems to me. Pullman says that angels were the result of the universe becoming self-conscious, his so-called “Dust” being the materialization of consciousness. If the first angel needed to egotistically set himself up over the angels that followed, that would mean that the sin of pride appeared immediately in conjunction with consciousness, which is pretty much Milton’s view of things. It seems that Pullman would be on firmer ground if he saw God as the materialization itself rather than a being emanating from it in this “let there be light” (or “let there be consciousness”) moment. And then, if angels or Adam & Eve or Lyra & Will use their free will to either grow from or pridefully manipulate self-knowledge, then he could see these two alternatives as good and evil. When I reached the end of The Golden Compass, that’s actually where I thought Pullman was going with the story. And then he started doing strange things with Asriel–all because, I suspect, Pullman has anger issues with the depiction of a tyrant God he was fed as a child.

    Putting it another way, we could see plugging into the cosmic energy as positive while blocking it as negative. The Church in the book sees Dust as bad and has different responses to this, from Mrs. Coulter wanting to cut people off from Dust (so that kids would remain in perpetual innocence/ignorance while adults would become unthinking drones) while Asriel wants to stop dust from coming in itself (“if there weren’t consciousness, we wouldn’t have evil”). Blake’s vision, and Milton’s too, is that we can open our ourselves to creative energy or God or consciousness or what have you. (We are flawed beings so we need help, which is where spiritual leaders come in.) Pullman could have opted for this as well. But because he was all set on having a Luciferian Asriel battling with a caricatured tyrant God, his metaphysics went haywire. My students do a better job of exploring what it means to throw your lot in with Milton’s devil.

  3. sue
    Posted February 16, 2014 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    And then, if angels or Adam & Eve or Lyra & Will use their free will to either grow from or pridefully manipulate self-knowledge, then he could see these two alternatives as good and evil.

    This is a great line. I believe that God wouldn’t have wanted us not to use our free will. As beings made in God’s image, free will is something we have in common. But how we use our free will is another matter. If we freely choose to follow God’s lead because we see God as loving, wise and using God’s own free will to send a Redeemer and get us out of the problems we’ve gotten ourselves into because of our free will (much as Will creates spectors by cutting holes in worlds) then it seems we are following Adam’s line of thought in the passage you quoted from Milton.

    If one takes the idea of the bride of Christ seriously, (this seems to be part of the mystic vision Paul is given) then we are to evolve to a state where marriage to God would be of delight to both sides. And so, we would have to grow up. Co-reigning with Christ is another Pauline phrase – where there is no one over anyone, but instead a mutuality of respect and honor and value.

  4. Posted February 19, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    The Golden Compass must be fascinating to teach. I read the book when I was younger, but I’ve been meaning to return to it as an adult. As the book is still on my bookshelves back home, hopefully this will be soon… I’ve bookmarked your post for when I do!

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