Image: John Martin, ‘Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council’ (c. 1823–1827) – The Bridgeman Art Library (images.bridgeman.co.uk)
This article is an extract from my book, Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Philip Pullman. See more articles relating to Pullman and His Dark Materials.
Philip Pullman was sixteen, studying for A-Levels, when he first read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, first published in 1667.He immediately fell in love with it:
‘I found it intensely enthralling, not only the actual story . . . but also the landscapes, the power of the poetry and the extraordinary majesty of the language.’
Paradise Lost is a landmark in the development of English literature. No one had written this kind of epic poem in English before. It’s a huge poem written by a blind man as he witnessed the failure of a dream. Milton had supported Cromwell’s Protectorate, and passionately opposed the restoration of the monarchy. In that context, Milton wanted to remind people of why the world was in the state it was: life is a mess because it’s a fallen world, and it’s fallen because there is an enemy both of God and of humanity. Milton retells the story of the first three chapters of Genesis, focusing particularly on the actions of Satan in rebelling against God and instigating the Fall of Adam and Eve. It opens in hell where Satan, once a great angel named Lucifer, and his rebel army are licking their wounds after their rebellion was defeated. They decide that their best strategy is to take revenge by sabotaging the new world which God has created. Satan finds his way to the Garden of Eden – Paradise – and spies on Adam and Eve. He becomes jealous and decides to corrupt them. Having failed to get into the garden once, he enters a snake so that he can gain access undetected by the angel guards. Once inside, he tempts Eve to eat the one fruit which is off-limits to them. Adam follows suit and they immediately become aware and ashamed of their nakedness. Sin and Death, Satan’s children, learn of his success so they build a bridge from hell to earth. Now under God’s judgment, Adam and Eve are banished from the garden. The archangel Michael explains to them the consequences of their sin for the world, and also the reality of a coming saviour who will rectify the relationship between God and his people. Angels guard the entrance to prevent Adam’s and Eve’s return.
These themes of rebellion and fall are of enormous importance to Pullman. Given his love of Paradise Lost from his teenage years, it is no surprise that he eventually wanted to work it into a story. Dark matter was going to be a major part of his trilogy, so when he was scanning Paradise Lost for a phrase which would make a good title, ‘His dark materials’ leapt out at him. Milton’s story of the angelic rebellion against God is the most important element in the backstory of His Dark Materials. Lord Asriel is explicitly attempting to conclude what he sees as unfinished business. The trilogy never addresses the question of what has happened to the character of Satan. Pullman’s alternative ‘creation myth’ casts the Sophia – Wisdom – as the instigator of the initial rebellion. This seems to be because Pullman has taken Milton’s story and mixed it with the Gnostic ideas of Sophia. In any event, Satan’s role is shared by both Lord Asriel and Mary Malone, whom we meet in The Amber Spyglass.
Asriel plays the Satanic role of rebel leader, though this time the rebels are not just angels. King Ogunwe says:
This is the last rebellion. Never before have humans, and angels and beings from all the worlds, made a common cause. This is the greatest force ever assembled. (The Amber Spyglass p. 222)
However, we don’t learn any of this until early in The Subtle Knife. Perhaps because of this, Milton’s influence on the latter two volumes of His Dark Materials seems more obvious than it does on Northern Lights. We begin The Amber Spyglass knowing that the great conflict is drawing near. When the storm does break, the focus is so much on the characters we have been following that the great battle is little more than a rather blurred background. We hear nothing more from the battle once Will and Lyra have escaped into the peace of another world.
Mary Malone, meanwhile, plays Satan’s other role of tempter, in the gentle world of the ‘mulefa’. In a clever twist, Pullman has another character sneak into the world in an attempt to sabotage the second Fall which is about to happen. Since Pullman unequivocally sees this second Fall as the right thing, the ghastly Father Gomez is perhaps more analogous to Satan’s sabotaging of Paradise than Mary Malone is. Pullman has turned upside down Milton’s sense of who the good guys are.
In interviews, Pullman loves to quote William Blake’s comment on Milton:
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels and God, and at liberty when of devils and hell, is because he was a true poet and of the devil’s party without knowing it.
Blake felt that Milton’s description of Satan in Paradise Lost was much more sympathetic than his description of God, though unwittingly so. Shelley and Byron later took up this idea themselves, as has Pullman, who enjoys adding that, ‘I am of the Devil’s party and I know it’. The problem is that this reading of Milton focuses too strongly on the first four (of twelve) books of Paradise Lost. Pullman in fact only read Books I and II when he first encountered it and formed his basic opinions. The other eight books (especially Books V–VIII) significantly reverse the picture. Satan is portrayed in heroic terms in Books I-IV: he boasts about his part in the battle against the forces led by Michael, claiming to have almost defeated them. But in Books V and VI, we discover that he hadn’t even come close to this – Milton is deliberately undercutting the heroic ideals. During the battle, an angel, Abdiel (like Balthamos, he is ‘not of a high order among angels’ – AS p. 12) confronts the vastly more powerful Satan and strikes a blow which makes Satan stagger back ten paces. The rebel angels are amazed and furious ‘to see / Thus foil’d thir mightiest’ by a humble foot soldier. Later, Satan meets Michael in combat. Michael’s sword, ‘temperd so, that neither keen / Nor solid might resist that edge’ (the inspiration for the subtle knife?) slices right through Satan and wounds him deeply – his first experience of intense pain. Rebel angels rush to his defence and carry him back to his chariot where, Milton tells us:
there they him laid
Gnashing for anguish and despite and shame
To find himself not matchless, and his pride
Humbl’d by such rebuke, so farr beneath
His confidence to equal God in power.
C.S. Lewis says that Satan undergoes ‘progressive degradation’ during Paradise Lost:
He begins by fighting for ‘liberty’, however misconceived; but almost at once sinks to fighting for ‘Honour, Dominion, glorie and renoune’ (VI, 422). Defeated in this, he sinks to . . . ruining two creatures who had never done him any harm, no longer in the serious hope of victory, but only to annoy the Enemy whom he cannot directly attack . . . This brings him as a spy into the universe, and soon not even a political spy, but a mere Peeping Tom leering and writhing in prurience as he overlooks the privacy of the lovers, and there described . . . simply as ‘the Devil’ (IV, 502) – the salacious grotesque, half bogey and half buffoon, of popular tradition. From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake – such is the progress of Satan.
Given Milton’s Christian faith , it seems much more likely that Milton initially wanted his readers to sympathise with Satan so that they see the attractiveness of rebellion against God, and how willingly we are led down that route, so that we see more clearly God’s mercy to us.
Quotations from The Amber Spyglass are from the paperback edition published by Scholastic (London) in 2000.
 Philip Pullman in an interview with Charles N. Brown at the Lexicon literary convention in Oxford, August 2000. An edited version appeared in ‘Philip Pullman: Storming Heaven’, Locus vol. 45:6 no.479, December 2000.
 It comes in Book II, line 916
 The myth is never made explicit in His Dark Materials, but Pullman developed it and wrote it down as he went along. It has not been made public, although Pullman has divulged some parts of it in interviews.
 Blake, William: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in Yeats, W B (ed.) William Blake Collected Poems (London, Routledge, 2002) p.165
 Vulliamy, Ed: ‘Author puts Bible Belt to the test’ in The Observer, 26 August 2001
 Milton, John: Paradise Lost, Book VI, line 200
 Milton: Paradise Lost, Book VI, lines 327–343
 Philip Pullman says that ‘Lewis is a contradictory sort of character for me. I loathe the Narnia books, and I loathe the so-called space trilogy, because they contain an ugly vision. But when he was talking about writing for children, and about literature in general, Lewis was very, very acute and said some very perceptive and wise things. As a critic . . . I rate him very highly, but I do detest what he was doing in his fiction.’ (Spanner, Huw: ‘Heat and Dust’ in Third Way, Vol. 25 No. 2, April 2002 pages 22–26 (www.thirdway.org.uk/past/showpage.asp?page=3949))
 Lewis, C.S.: A Preface to Paradise Lost (Oxford University Press, 1960) p. 99