Recently, I reread Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy, “His Dark Materials,” with great enthusiasm. I first came across these novels in 2005 and found them mesmerizing. I read them again 10 years later and found them as gripping as ever in every sense.
In his lecture in 2000, Pullman argued that the most serious threats facing human civilization today were the destruction of the ecological environment, the tyrannical power of big businesses and nuclear power states. He went on to add that the scariest was the clash between Christian and Muslim fundamentalists. Pullman remarked that these religious fundamentalists threatened us by saying, “We know the truth. If you don’t believe in the truth we know, we’ll kill you.”
In his seminal novels, Pullman boldly argues that monotheism lies at the root of all of humankind’s tragedies. The monotheists believe that there is only one god and all those who believe in other gods are pagans who deserve contempt and death. This “either/or” mentality has led to the massacre of scores of people since medieval times, as have the clashes between Christian and Muslim fundamentalists.
Pullman contends that pantheism is better than monotheism because, unlike the latter, the former does not antagonize or kill others. Nor does the former threaten people with an imagined and invented hell. Pullman maintains that in pantheism even death is not presented as something scary or tragic, but is portrayed as a natural phenomenon that enriches other living things by returning our bodies to nature as dust.
In “The Amber Spyglass,” the final book of the trilogy, the church authorities dispatch an assassin to eliminate a person they think is a renegade pagan, just as in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” Pullman points out that it is this extreme self-righteousness that has killed so many innocent people in human history.
Pullman’s critique extends to even Lord Asriel, a key character in the trilogy who fights against the self-righteous church authorities. Lord Asriel believes that he is doing the right thing. In reality, however, even he could be accused of self-righteousness; in order to obtain energy to find a window to another universe, which is necessary to fight against the church, Lord Asriel sacrifices a boy’s life for the greater cause. Pullman points out that Lord Asriel makes the same mistake as the church authorities with his self-righteous attitude.
One intriguing element in the trilogy is the “daemon.” In the main setting of Pullman’s novels, human beings are always accompanied by daemons, “the animal embodiments of their inner selves.” Appropriately, daemons alter their physical forms freely when humans are young, but have a fixed form when the humans reach adulthood. When young, your soul is flexible, but when old, it hardens.
Likewise, when she is young, Lyra can instinctively operate an alethiometer – the “Golden Compass” that gives the first novel its name -- a device that tells you the truth. When she grows up, however, she loses her ability to use the machine as she loses her innocence. This implies that when you you’re your innocence, you cannot find the truth because you have lost your compass that will guide you in the right direction.
In ancient Greece, the term “daemon” had a positive meaning. Socrates thought that a daemon was a combination of one’s conscience and one’s guardian angel. In his novels, Pullman points out that Christians began condemning daemons as evil because they believed in salvation through Jesus Christ, not through one’s conscience or guardian spirit.
Another captivating thing in Pullman’s novels is the window to another universe. When we are disillusioned with this world or the reality, we want to create a window to another world in our imagination, which is a realm of fantasy. Pullman says that if we go to another universe, our life span is limited to only 10 years. In order to enjoy full longevity, we should return to our own world and close the window once and for all.
The problem is that windows to another world or fantasy create “specters,” like those in the books, that take our souls away. As a result, the more windows there are, the more specters we face. Thus the protagonist Lyra and her boyfriend, Will, close all the windows to the other universe except for one, through which they can come and go, enjoying their full span of life. However, when they realize that the souls suffering in hell need a window to escape and return to nature, they give up the window for them. They sacrifice their love for the greater good of the lost souls. This is what Pullman calls “a republic of heaven,” one which we need to build in this world.
Rereading Pullman’s trilogy, I could not help thinking about my people and my country. “Can we not be self-righteous and sacrifice ourselves for others so we can build a republic of heaven on this peninsula?” Unfortunately, I am not quite sure I can say “yes” right now. I just hope the day will some soon when I can say “yes” without hesitation.
By Kim Seong-kon Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. -- Ed.