Monday, January 26, 2009

BOOKS: His Dark Materials

I read the second and third books of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy back to back, so I don't think I can really comment separately on The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I realy enjoyed the first book, The Golden Compass, finding it very creative and an exciting adventure. Finishing the trilogy, I realize that I didn't know the half of his creativity. The adventure kept on moving, keeping me gripped to the end, but the ideas he explores are bold and provocative. What happens when we die? Do we have souls? Does God exist, and is He good? I'd heard that these books were considered heretical by some, by I didn't realize the extent of it. From the point of view of organized Christianity, these books are profoundly heretical, far more so than the Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons, even more than Satanic Verses is heretical for Muslims. The organized church in his book is a corrupt puritanical and power-hungry organization, with names like the Magisterium, the Consistory Court, and the Oblation Board making it a thinly veiled analogy of the Catholic Church. (The fictional church is based in Geneva, so it has Swiss Guards. Just how thin can the veil be?) His account of God, angels, and creation is revealed in the second and third books, and it is shocking. But what is most heretical is that he describes a world in which good and evil exist and people can be moral without needing a creator or an afterlife. Heaven is where we build it. All of this theology (or is it anti-theology?) is not dry philosophical prose, but is integrally woven into a fascinating fantasy of parallel worlds, intriguing characters, and a great battle between good and evil (though it's not always clear who is on which side until the end). One of the parallel worlds encountered is a very creative imagining of an alternate evolution. This trilogy is written as a fantasy for a youth audience, but like the latter Harry Potter books, deals with some dark themes that require a bit of maturity to appreciate. Unlike Harry Potter, where each of those books ended in a safe place, each of these books before the last one ends with things looking rather bleak. (In Hollywood's version of The Golden Compass, they had to twist the order of events to end on a more upbeat note.) But in the end, they really make you think about goodness and truth and self-sacrifice, and the meaning of life. I thoroughly enjoyed these books, but they are not for the theologically faint of heart.

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