The third season of His Dark Materials, the television adaptation of British fantasy writer Philip Pullman’s popular trilogy, wrapped up this winter. While the show, airing on the BBC in the UK and on HBO internationally, was looked to as the next big thing in fantasy adaptations—as production companies continue trying (and failing) to replicate the success of Game of Thrones—it stirs interest of a different vein. There’s no multitude of torrid love affairs or cataclysmic battles, but there is a persistent probing of moral, ethical, philosophical, and theological dilemmas.
In the first season (which averaged seven million viewers per episode in the UK), it’s quickly apparent that Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl at Jordan College in an alternate universe’s Oxford, is some kind of chosen one. In her world, people’s souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animals called daemons (Lyra’s daemon is Pan); these daemons shift forms when their humans are children but settle as they reach adulthood. Lyra is thrown on a path of intrigue and mystery when her uncle, Lord Asriel, returns from an expedition to the north, raving about Dust and the possibility of other worlds. His ideas are deemed heretical by the Magisterium, an over-bearing, Vatican-like organization that appears to be the highest form of government.
If the show, as one reviewer said of its second season, “lacks a sense of fun…and escapism,” it more than makes up for it with meaty, worldview-oriented dialogue and drama with import beyond its plot. Those familiar with the man behind the stories won’t find this surprising. At least in literary, religious, and academic circles, Philip Pullman is well-known for his vocal atheism (or agnosticism, depending on which interviewer he’s talking to), his ill will toward C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and his activism in some of Britain’s political wrangling and other social causes.
Pullman’s muscular voice sets him apart from his contemporaries. The likes of Robert Jordan, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling (at least until recent times) have much smaller footprints as social critics. Pullman, however, has no qualms about being the fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread. (In this way, he is more like C.S. Lewis than he’d likely admit.) According to cultural historian Andrew Lanham, his appeal and that of his work “seems to have at least something to do with our hopelessly complicated modern relationship to religion—or, particularly, the war against religion.” Public spiritual expression and devotion to structures of organized religion seem to be shrinking pillars of society. And it’s easy to assume that the TV adaptation of His Dark Materials is a bracing endorsement of mainstream secularism. Interestingly, however, the show’s release in late 2019 did not garner such noisy blowback from Christian organizations or American conservative groups as was generated by the release of Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, the second season of DC’s Preacher, or even New Line Cinema’s attempt at a film franchise with The Golden Compass. Perhaps the burgeoning global health crisis muted focused interest—perhaps such outrage is growing tired—or, perhaps (and most likely), His Dark Materials cuts with a much subtler knife.
While Lyra, played likably and intensely by Dafne Keen, is the protagonist, Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter drive the conflict of the series. Asriel, a scientist and explorer, operates in opposition to the seemingly omnipotent Magisterium as he pursues a discovery forbidden to him: the truth about Dust, which is somehow wrapped up in the idea that other worlds exist. His pursuits are banned because knowledge beyond what the Magisterium has sanctioned threatens their power. Mrs. Coulter, a well-connected and feared-if-not-respected woman, operates from inside (and with sanction from) the Magisterium, leading a cabal of scientists who kidnap and experiment on children. Their experiments are also related to the mysterious substance called Dust.
How characters relate to and interact with Dust is critical to understanding the intellectual framework that His Dark Materials establishes. The Magisterium views Dust as the equivalent of what, in Christian theology, is original sin. Reading from what is presumably that world’s account of the Fall in the first episode, Jordan College’s Librarian tells Lyra, “You will be as gods, and your daemons will assume their true form, knowing good and evil.”
“I’m a god, knowing good and evil,” Lyra recites smartly when the Librarian accuses her of sleeping.
“As gods,” The Librarian corrects, adding, “the Magisterium wouldn’t approve of blasphemy.”
But in season one’s finale, Asriel reveals that the original text reads: “…knowing good and dust.” He tells Lyra that the Magisterium changed the translation of something they were ignorant about to control the masses. Thus, Dust became, in Asriel’s words, “…actual, physical sin raining down from the sky and settling on humanity, infecting our souls with evil.” He adds that the Magisterium has “been trying to convince us for centuries that we are born guilty and that we have to spend a lifetime atoning for the crime of eating an apple…”
Regardless of his claim about the original text, Asriel isn’t concerned with theological fidelity as much as he is concerned with defeating the Magisterium’s narrative—the big story they have constructed to control the world, the story for which they will sacrifice anything. As such, Asriel shares the “incredulity toward metanarratives” articulated by postmodernist philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. As James K.A. Smith explains in his book on postmodernism, Lyotard saw as significant society’s “erosion of confidence in the rational as sole guarantor and deliverer of truth, coupled with a deep suspicion of science—particularly modern science’s pretentious claims to an ultimate theory of everything.”
His Dark Materials interacts significantly with postmodern ideology. While the term postmodern is overused and misused today, it refers to a mode of belief that: (1) rejects the validity of a single, true story that explains the world; and, (2) is suspicious of objective claims to certainty and meaning. Postmodern philosophy is a reaction to the scientism, intellectualism, and human-centered rationality produced by the Enlightenment and has cast a shadow over many fields from archaeology to music to theology.
Asriel, of course, is a man of science, experimentation, and rational discovery. But, in his world, unlike our own, science and religion (at least attenuated religion) are in lockstep. He rejects the Magisterium’s claim to “an ultimate theory of everything” and makes no claims of his own except that free thought and free exploration ought not be punished but encouraged. His dream is for a society where ideas and stories are shared freely and fearlessly, a secular and postmodern impulse.
Yet Asriel isn’t wholly areligious. While his immediate opponent is the Magisterium, his ultimate foe—“the Enemy”—is the Authority, the great unapparent power the Magisterium claims to serve and speak for. He believes, at least, that the Authority is real—real enough to embark, in faith, on a war campaign against him. At the end of the first season, he begs his former lover, Mrs. Coulter, to help him “fight this war and take on the Authority.” After remaining hidden for all of season two, he appears in the penultimate scene, haggard but fire-eyed, declaring to a band of angels, “My fight is not with you. But you are the last obstacle between me and my enemy.”
The Authority is Pullman’s bogeyman (and strawman), an oversimplified supreme being the audience only knows thus far through the cruelties of the Magisterium. It is easy to see the Authority as representative of the God of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, but within the metaphysical framework of His Dark Materials, the two are quite dissimilar. The Authority, per the novels, is simply the first created being—and I’m using created loosely here—who lords his status over other angel-like beings who became conscious of their existence later. He is the same as them; he simply came first.
The question of God, at least as we ask it in the West, is left unaddressed. If anything, the Authority is best likened to the interfering and malevolent lower god of Gnosticism who stands between the material world and access to a higher spiritual nature. In fact, a Gnostic-adjacent cosmogony is apparent in His Dark Materials. The matter vs. spirit disjunction at the heart of the gnostic idea plays out eerily in the show. Either way, the Authority is not the point. He is, in Pullman’s own words, “as light as paper…he has a reality which is only symbolic.”
On behalf of the Magisterium (and presumably the Authority), Coulter leads a group of scientists who attempt to separate children from their daemons, a process called “intercision.” This, the Magisterium feels, is necessary due to their definition of the invisible, spiritual substance of Dust as sin. Dust, as far as they know, settles as children transition to adulthood, prescribing a need to separate children from their daemons (which also reach their final form) before that happens. “Dust is not a good thing,” Coulter tells Lyra. “Grown-ups are infected so deeply that it’s too late for them; [they’re] condemned to a life of sin, guilt, and regret… [D]aemons bring all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings. And that’s what lets Dust in.”
Lyra protests that (of course) experimenting on children is wrong, but Coulter counters by saying, “Every boundary in experimental theology requires the sacrifice of the few for the many.” It is questionable whether Coulter believes in the Magisterium’s agenda, or the Authority for that matter. Her motives, besides the need to prove herself powerful and capable, are clouded. (She is, significantly, the only woman within the Magisterium’s graces.) Yet she pushes forward with the experiments in service of the Magisterium’s metanarrative—even, at one point, capturing Asriel and holding him prisoner. Whether she is a true believer or not is almost irrelevant given the brutalism she permits: the process of intercision is messy, heart-rendingly painful, and leaves children nearly catatonic.
It’s cold comfort for sure, but when Lyra is thrown into the Silver Guillotine (the machine that accomplishes intercision), Coulter’s head scientist, Dr. Cooper, attempts to calm her by implying the significance of her place within a larger story. “You’re part of something great. Try to focus on that,” she says. Whatever the cost, it’s worth it: as one of Coulter’s other doctors proclaims, “Here’s to freedom… We get this right and we will truly free generations from the tyranny of sin.”
Sin. It’s a sticky word. One that’s hard to rid of negative connotations, but His Dark Materials certainly tries. Asriel sees Dust as knowledge or the opportunity to gain knowledge, whether forbidden or hidden. Knowing things, both good and evil, is good. The adage knowledge is power raises its head: the Magisterium is powerful because it claims to know more than the people it tries to control.
Thus, power is (having) knowledge, and Asriel becomes a Nietzschean figure—seeking to uncover whatever hidden impulses drive the Magisterium’s claim to ultimate truth. What are they trying to hide? he repeatedly asks. He would likely align with our world’s Michel Foucault, another postmodern philosopher and historian, who taught (as summarized by Smith):
There is no claim to truth that is innocent; there is no knowledge that simply falls into our minds from the sky, pristine and untainted. What might be claimed as obvious or self-evident is, in fact, covertly motivated by other interests—[typically] the interest of power.
The viewer is primed to embrace Asriel’s aim of unseating the great, oppressive power of his world because, in the Magisterium, he can recognize all manner of totalitarian regimes and dominating forces, from abusive parents to violent dictators.
What Asriel doesn’t yet realize is that, just as the Magisterium wields knowledge as a club, he, too—by aiming not just for the freedom of scientific inquiry and the discovery of other worlds, but for the toppling of the Authority—is beginning to wield his knowledge as a club for the eradication of narratives he finds disagreeable. Anyone with sincere devotion to the Authority becomes Asriel’s enemy as he refuses to allow their narrative the credibility he desires for his own.
This puts him at odds with Mrs. Coulter, who may find the Magisterium distasteful, but who tolerates its story and its crimes for her own ends. She seems, at least, to believe the Magisterium’s line that Dust is sin, and humanity would be better off without it. One gets the sense that her quest is personal, visceral. She is a troubled woman, her inner struggles displayed by her unusual relationship with her daemon. Whereas other human-daemon relationships are affectionate and symbiotic, Coulter repeatedly snarls at and slaps the golden monkey that depicts her soul. She also separates from it for periods of time, something that is painful to other humans. Though it isn’t confirmed, one gets the sense that she has undergone the process of intercision (or something like it), and this may prove her desperation to separate herself from Dust.
For all her intense innocence, Lyra possesses canny insight into the nature of Dust. There’s a scene late in the first season that’s BAFTA-worthy both for the writing and Keene’s delivery. Lyra’s been captured and taken to Bolvangar, the compound where other kidnapped children are forced to await intercision. A doctor “measures” her with a special x-ray like machine.
“What are you taking pictures of?” Lyra asks. “You’re measuring Dust, aren’t you?”
When the doctor rebuffs her claim that she heard about Dust from “one of the other girls,” Lyra says, “You see, doctor, the thing is…I wash regularly. You won’t find any dust on me.”
Lyra rejects the simplistic equivalence of Dust with sin more aptly than most. Early in season two, she tells her new friend Will Parry, “I think it’s more complicated than that. I think bad people think it’s bad, when maybe it’s good.”
However, when talking to Dr. Mary Malone, a physicist in a different world, Lyra recites the Magisterium’s line that Dust is “original sin.”
Dr. Malone scoffs. “I became a physicist so I wouldn’t have to think about things like that.” (She had formerly been a nun.)
“Well, you need to,” Lyra scolds. The Magisterium “thinks dust is evil. But I think what they do is evil.”
There is a bit of useful obfuscation as the show parallels the Dust of Lyra’s world with the dark matter of Dr. Malone’s world. (And we are to understand Dr. Malone’s world as being roughly our own. We “have the appearance of freedom. Twice as many shopping arcades. Half as many places of worship,” one character duly notes. “It’s a culture of consumerism, not faith.”) We wouldn’t say that dark matter is evil, simply that we have yet to fully understand it.
Regardless, the viewer is encouraged to embrace the idea that Dust—whether as sin or as hidden, secret knowledge—is ultimately good. After Coulter once again explains to Lyra why Dust is bad and why she needs to be separated from her daemon, the girl insists that “a life without Pan would not be a better life.” And, in the finale of season one, she embarks on her own “search for Dust.”
Within the framework of his story, Pullman’s views on sin and the Fall may belie the executive producer’s claim that nothing in the show is meant to attack religion. In a conversation with Rowan Williams, then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Pullman says:
I try to present the idea that the Fall, like any myth, is not something that has happened once in a historical sense but happens again and again in all our lives. The Fall is something that happens to all of us when we move from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and I wanted to find a way of presenting it as something natural and good, and to be welcomed, and, you know—celebrated, rather than deplored.
For someone who has claimed to be “of the devil’s party,” Pullman receives more sympathy from the former leader of the Church of England than some would allow. But that sympathy gives way to a more nuanced understanding of the narrative of the Fall as a proper myth. Williams says Pullman’s explanation is “helpful” because
…it reinforces my sense that part of the mythology here was what came from some of those early Jewish and Christian or half-Christian versions of the story in which you have a terrific drama of cosmic revolt. Someone trying to pull the wool over your eyes is the underlying thing, and wisdom is an unmasking.
Here we see the Gnostic cosmogony raising its head again: the great aim of humanity is escaping or defeating a malevolent god-being who lords himself over the material world and is bent on keeping humans away from higher truths and spiritual reality—and, of course, the real god of the universe (if you believe in him). Pullman concurs with this idea, summarizing it as:
The idea that the world we live in, the physical universe, is actually a false thing made by a false god, and the true god (our true home, our true spiritual home) is infinitely distant, far off, a long, long way away from that.
He finds reflections of this demiurgic notion in such popular stories as The X-Files and The Matrix. (By the way, the discussion quoted from here took place in the wake of controversy over Rowan Williams’ praise for the stage production of His Dark Materials in 2004. It is fascinating in other respects; give it a read or a listen.)
Williams registers the heartbeat of Pullman’s tale with a clarity often missed by those steeped in religious, especially mainstream Christian, tradition. We, as humans, have this idea in our heads that, in Williams’ words, “it should have been different, it could have been different.” It’s a universal lament: the world isn’t the way it should be. Whether or not we have the Bible to tell us what the world was like before the Fall, we know that what we experience now is not bedrock reality. It isn’t ultimate truth.
“So salvation,” Williams says, “or whatever you want to call it, then becomes very much a matter of getting out from underneath the falsehood”—the insistence that the way things are is the way they must be. “That’s tremendously powerful, I think, as a myth of liberation.”
And it is. Fantasy, at its core, is a genre of myths about liberation. Pullman contributes mightily to this genre. His stories, to use Tolkien’s words, slog towards “a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.” Whether they achieve that glimpse is another thing entirely.
But there is another side to that myth of liberation, a somewhat darker side. Williams tugs on this ancillary thread to reveal part of what gives His Dark Materials its appeal. It’s not just a blatant tale of overthrowing the unjust overlord; rather, it’s the “charm” of the idea that a person’s will can shape the boundaries and barriers of reality, of what’s right and wrong, of the story that we are participating in. This idea, Williams says, is “what a lot of people feel is owed to them.” He points out that “some of the fascination of the Enlightenment itself, as a moment in cultural history, is the fascination of being able to say we can do without authority.”
One 20th-century philosopher said that the attraction of somebody like Freud is charm. It is charming to destroy prejudice, because we have the sense that this is the real story. Now we’ve got it.
[E]ven the most secularized person very often has problems about the meaning of the body, and it is very tempting—very charming again, I think, very attractive—to say, what really matters is my will.
At its heart, His Dark Materials is a struggle of wills. The Magisterium’s vs. Asriel’s. Mrs. Coulter’s vs. Lyra’s. The rebellious angels’ vs. the Authority’s. And the way this struggle plays out is in a competition of narratives: “Whose story wins?” The point is not “whose story is true?” because the story that wins is the true story. At least until another story comes along and takes its place. It’s extremely postmodern: this grasping for control of the threads of the world—this rejection of John Keats’ “negative capability”—this desire to anchor humanity in its place as the author and finisher of destiny.
Ironically, Pullman himself will not abide this perspective. He says later in his discussion with Williams:
I’m temperamentally against the postmodernist position that there is no truth and it depends on where you are and it’s all a result of the capitalist, imperialist hegemony of the bourgeois… all this sort of stuff. I’m against that but I couldn’t tell you why. I’m rather like the old preacher who was against sin.
It seems Pullman’s work betrays him at every turn. His Dark Materials engenders a philosophy that is at odds with itself. Pullman’s world, as Lanham notes, is “filled with magic but stripped of metaphysical meaning.” Its experimental theology reflects the fractious twenty-first-century worldview.
This worldview is, perhaps, best encapsulated in Dr. Malone’s interactions with Lyra. She makes a passing reference to “negative capability”—a term that comes to us as not much more than a passing reference itself—as she tries to help Lyra understand how to communicate with “shadow particles” (or dark matter) via her supercomputer called “the Cave.”
“You can’t see them unless you expect to, unless you put your mind in a certain state,” she says. “Do you know the poet John Keats? He has a phrase for it: negative capability. You have to hold your mind in a state of expectation, without impatience, and then they flock to your thoughts like birds.”
“That’s Dust,” Lyra says instantly.
But what Dust is isn’t the point. It’s being receptive to whatever is out there that matters. What is sin? Is it good or bad? Is it knowledge? Who even has a right to say? If Asriel’s or Lyra’s story is valid, Coulter’s might also be valid. So might the Magisterium’s. Removing limits on possibility—limits on what might be true—is critical to the framework of His Dark Materials. To quote from Keats’ regrettably brief explanation of negative capability: thinking well means to be “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
The competition of narratives in His Dark Materials is an apt picture of society’s embrace of truth as applicable to the individual who must look principally inward for guidance. But if we accept that competing truth claims are equally valid and that any story can be a foundational pillar, can anything at all be true? Can anything be right or anything wrong?
In Cittàgazze, Dr. Malone meets two girls, Angelica and Paola, who had come to blows with Lyra. “We were trying to kill her, but she escaped,” Angelica says. After a moment’s hesitation, she adds, “Was that wrong?”
“Yes,” Dr. Malone says in an exasperated of course tone.
Cittàgazze is where, at the end of season two, numerous narrative threads are twining into a massive Gordian knot. The city had once been a great center of innovation and commerce. But a society of philosophers and scientists, like Asriel, began opening windows to other worlds with devastating consequences for their own people.
The city is now deserted and bereft of civilization and hope. Spectres, ghostly monsters that came through those windows to other worlds, have devoured the souls of all the adults and driven off the ones they haven’t gotten to yet. A handful of near-feral children, like Angelica and Paola, alternate between hiding in the shadows and roaming the streets, fearfully awaiting their appointment with the Spectres.
Perhaps Cittàgazze is the sort of world that remains when powerful narratives come to blows, when every form of authority is eradicated. Perhaps this is the “salvation” that comes out of the myths of liberation: freedom from every authority and from any particular truth, but to what end?
If Angelica and Paola are any indication, this result isn’t to be desired. Angelica pleads with Dr. Malone: “Can you stay for a bit? Look after us? The Spectres aren’t getting you—you don’t have to go like the others. You can make us have baths and tell us what to do and all that.”
At the end of season two, the audience finds itself where Lyra sat a few episodes earlier: in the physicist’s Cave, her mind in expectation, head bowed, eyes shadowed, her hands open in religious anticipation. But open to what? Within the story’s framework, Lyra is open to Dust, whatever it might be: sin, enlightenment, awareness. And the viewer is open to every story: he is like Cittàgazze, a junction for the narratives being propounded upon him.
The power of His Dark Materials is its willingness to ask big questions, to boisterously experiment with theology and philosophy, to submit itself to postmodern tendencies and refrain from establishing a consolidated narrative—to let competing narratives play out. Whatever errors there are in this approach are to be expected. To err is human; we tell no unsullied tales. In the end, the viewer remains like Lyra, clinging to things she’s been told are wrong, and searching for ultimate truth—which she’s been told doesn’t exist.