Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Philip Pullman

Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Philip Pullman
by Tony Watkins; published by Damaris Books, 2004 and IVP (USA), 2006

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is rightly acclaimed as a modern classic. Pullman creates alternative worlds that fascinate and delight, and has built up a loyal army of readers. He has been described as the 'most significant', but also the 'most dangerous' author in Britain. Who is Philip Pullman, and why have his books provoked such a wide variety of strong opinions?

Tony Watkins explains what makes His Dark Materials such a magnificent work of fiction. He explores the
influences that shaped Pullman's writing and the major themes of the trilogy, including daemons, Dust and Pullman's perspective on God.

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Book contents

Preface

Part One: The Storyteller

1. The once upon a time business
2. Philip Pullman: places and people
3. Storytelling and other stories
4. His raw materials

Part Two: The World(s) of His Dark Materials

5. Northern Lights
6. The Subtle Knife
7. The Amber Spyglass
8. Beyond The Amber Spyglass

Part Three: Shedding light on dark matter

9. Dæmons and growing up
10. Dust, sin and the Fall
11. Consciousness, wisdom and the second Fall
12. Truth, integrity and the alethiometer
13. The Magisterium and the Authority
14. The republic of heaven
15. Once upon a time lasts for ever

Bibliography

Appendix: The science of His Dark Materials

Reviews

Philip Pullman’s acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy, a sweeping retelling of Milton’s Paradise Lost and the biblical Fall, has caused great controversy among Christian readers. Watkins, a self-proclaimed Christian and managing editor for the Damaris Trust’s CultureWatch Web site, offers a perspective on Pullman’s work that is anything but dark and is sure to enlighten the debate among Christians. The book is divided into three parts, the first a walk through Pullman’s life and background and the second an overview of the major dimensions of each book in the trilogy. It is not until the third section that readers will find what they are really looking for: a critical evaluation of major themes and story dimensions such as dæmons, sin, and the infamous “death of God”—an assessment that is smart and wisely restrained. Watkins’s critical appreciation of Pullman’s trilogy will surely appeal to a Christian audience, but will reach well beyond this market to a general readership looking for a solid, substantially sourced, and well-written analysis of this beloved work of literature.
Publishers Weekly, 15 March 2006


This is indeed a thinking fan's guide! Tony Watkins delves sympathetically and seriously into Pullman's fiction. He provides a readable and fun way into the theological and philosophical questions, while showing integrity towards the stories themselves.
David Wilkinson, Principal, St John's College, Durham, and author of The Power of the Force: The Spirituality of the "Star Wars" Films and God, Time and Stephen Hawking


As more of these guides to His Dark Materials are published, its good to see that they're covering more and more material. Dark Matter by Tony Watkins (published by Damaris) is the first of the books to really go in depth into the more controversial issues raised by His Dark Materials. He looks at the series from the perspective of a Christian who deeply enjoyed His Dark Materials, and is willing to tackle some of the questions that Pullman raises. While some of the earlier guide books have presented just the facts about the books, just going through and reciting the storyline without adding much commentary, Watkins has provided some excellent analysis that will be insightful to new readers and long-time fans alike. There are extensive footnotes throughout the text that are useful in following up on some of the information and quotes he uses, as well as an appendix on the science in the trilogy . . . Some readers might have expected Watkins to condemn parts of the trilogy because of his Christianity, but he is successful in portraying both his enjoyment of the story as a whole and his respectful disagreement on a few issues which are all handled tactfully.
BridgeToTheStars.net review (leading His Dark Materials fansite)


As described on the back cover of Dark Matter, Tony Watkins is a "speaker, trainer, and workshop leader for the Damaris Trust," a Britishbased Christian interdenominational "organization that helps people relate contemporary culture and Christian faith." Dark Matter is an original, book-length treatment of His Dark Materials. American readers who are accustomed to a certain belligerent and hectoring tone from any interpretive work that identifies itself as "Christian" will find Watkins' candor, cosmopolitanism, and generosity to be inviting and appealing. Perhaps tellingly, Damaris describes itself on its Website (damaris.org) as "a centered rather than a bounded organisation." Watkins begins by confessing to the reader in his preface that "I am not presenting this book as the definitive way to read Pullman's work so I don't expect you to agree with everything" (8).

Dark Matter contains fifteen chapters divided into three sections-"The Storyteller," "The World(s) of His Dark Materials," and "Shedding Light on Dark Matter." An appendix on the science of the trilogy and extensive bibliographic notes conclude the book. Although an index would be a valuable addition to this book [Note: there is one in the UK edition], Dark Matter provides its readers-general, student, scholarly-with a helpful, appreciative, and well-informed discussion of Pullman's complex work, its sources, and the public and academic reactions it has engendered. Like Frost, Watkins has benefited from interviews and conversations with Pullman himself, and he succeeds in answering the question he poses at the beginning of his book-"Why does Pullman's work excite people to such strong feelings?" (13) On the whole, Watkins achieves his goal of providing informed and insightful literary interpretation as well as a Christian perspective on the trilogy.
From Douglas Haneline. “The Elements of His Dark Materials: A Guide to Philip Pullman’s Trilogy, and: His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy, and: Shedding Light on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy His Dark Materials.” The Lion and the Unicorn 31.3 (2007): 285-289.


Review of Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Philip Pullman, by Tony Watkins (Damaris, 2004) and The Devil’s Account: Philip Pullman and Christianity, by Hugh Rayment-Pickard (DLT, 2004)

There has been a lot of talk recently about atheism.  This usually flares up around Christmas, when the sight of cribs and Christmas lights inflames secular humanists to incandescence.  But this year it was made worse by the controversy stirred up around an article by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in response to the tsunami disaster.  His article raised the question of whether such disasters make people doubt their faith.  The consensus seemed to be that it did not, given that bad things have been happening to good people all through history, and indeed faith seems often to have been strengthened by affliction.  But faith in what?  Faith in whom?

Philip Pullman, responsible for the “death of God” in the third volume of his best-selling trilogy His Dark Materials, has been praised by Dr Williams for forcing Christians (and others) to consider more carefully what exactly they mean by “God”.  The Ancient of Days who in The Amber Spyglass dies “demented and powerless”, blown away on the wind, is basically the conventional “idea” of God, now deservedly passing away as the long Age of Authority gives way to the age of maturity.  In terms of the mythology of the story, he is the first of the Angels (made of “Dust”), a demiurge who succeeded in deceiving those who came after into believing that he was God, until the youngest Angel, Sophia, discovered the truth and was expelled from heaven.  The subsequent angelic rebellion against the lying Authority proceeds through the temptation of Adam and Eve right down to its climax in Spyglass, when the attempt to impose a new Authority is finally defeated.

The two books under review praise Pullman as the brilliant storyteller and fantasist for our times that he is, yet both succeed in exposing the shoddy thinking and anti-Christian fanaticism that spoils these admittedly fascinating tales.  Tony Watkins does the job in more devastating detail in a text of 300 pages, while Hugh Rayment-Pickard’s book offers a more “bite-sized” critique.  Unfortunately the latter does nothing to correct the longstanding misinterpretation of an article in The Catholic Herald which Pullman gleefully but falsely alleges called for his books to be burned.  (In fact it reinforces the story by repeating it on the cover.)  Anyone interested in the true story of what the article said – actually in defence of Harry Potter – would be better advised to read page 15 of Dark Matter, with its more careful documentation.

Pullman’s use of words such as “Magisterium” and “Oratory”, and his portrayal of the Church in his alternative universe as a child-murdering institution dedicated to repression – and furthermore capable of giving “advance absolution” to an assassin – signals an attitude to the Christian Church of our own world consistent with his links to the National Secular Society.  It is not his atheism (or agnosticism) that should concern Christian readers, but rather this animus against the Church, which echoes the view being promoted in other contemporary best-sellers such as The Da Vinci Code.  It is a kind of hatred that leads him to exaggerated the sins and mistakes of Christians down the ages, separate them from the virtues and great achievements, and lay the whole mess at the door not just of Church leaders but of Christian theology.

As Tony Watkins and others  have pointed out, the “theology” of Dark Materials is a kind of postmodern Gnosticism, inverted into materialism by way of quantum physics.  Will and Lyra, the young heroes of the story, “children-no-longer-children, saturated with love” after their own Fall from innocence, having previously liberated the dead from a shadowy afterlife into union with the blades of grass and the raindrops, reverse the flow of life-giving Dust from the multiverse, clearing the way for a “Republic of Heaven”.  There is no transcendence, only a celebration of the physical world and its spiritual forces, which are also, ultimately, physical in some mysterious way.  Dust is the most spiritual thing in the world of His Dark Materials, being the basic substance of self-consciousness (confused by the Magisterium, therefore, with sin), and yet it is clearly made up of elementary particles – although what its true origin may be, and how it speaks truth through the alethiometer, is still to be explained.

Having immunized his young readers against the Christian worldview, and inverted the myth of Genesis, Pullman leaves us with a selection of Christian virtues – freedom, benevolence, kindness, courage, and above all love – floating without apparent foundation.  He would say they need no foundation, that the affirmation of life and experience and complexity and freedom is valuable in itself.  Rowan Williams is quite right in saying this will (and should) cause us to think more deeply about what we believe.  Christians, too, should affirm these things, and these two books make a strong case for thinking that we may in the end be able to do so more coherently than Pullman himself.

Stratford Caldecott, ‘Philip Pullman's Day of Judgment’, Catholic Herald, 21 January 2005


I came across this book last year, about the time when there was a brisk trade in writing counterblasts to Dan Brown’s The da Vinci Code, and I found it a welcome contrast to the almost hysterical attacks on Dan Brown’s perceived attempt to rewrite the history of the early Christian Church.

Philip Pullman is of course an open atheist, and the Magisterium, the version of the church in His Dark Materials, is an extremely oppressive institution. However Tony Watkins, the author of this scholarly review of Pullman’s trilogy, established a friendly relationship with Pullman, and this book includes a lot of material obtained in the correspondence between them.

Watkins explores the background to Pullman’s career as a writer of children’s fiction before he turned to writing the Dark Materials trilogy. He then gives a thorough analysis of each of the books, before examining themes which run through the trilogy: daemons and the process of growing up; dust; the workings of the alethiometer; the Magisterium (Pullman’s name for the church,) the Authority (Pullman’s name for a curiously mortal and fallible God); and the Republic of Heaven, which Lord Asriel is seeking to establish as a replacement for the rule of the Magisterium. The book concludes with an appendix on the science of His Dark Materials; Tony Watkins was educated as a scientist, and taught mathematics and physics before moving to work for the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship.

This book is not light reading; however, if you have read His Dark Materials, the time reading Dark Matter will be well spent, for the insight it gives into Pullman’s world view, and the analysis of the themes of His Dark Materials.

Ian Park, ‘Friends of Newbury Library Newsletter’, Issue 29, July 2006.

Articles and resources by Tony Watkins

Resources on His Dark Materials by Tony Watkins. For much more depth on these issues and more, see my book, Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Philip Pullman.

Click here for articles on Pullman by others writers

Resources on Pullman's other books

Articles and resources by others

These links are to articles about Philip Pullman written by others. Many of the links are now dead as this list dates from about 2004. However, I'm leaving the links here as you may be able to find the articles via the Internet Archive

General sites about Pullman and His Dark Materials

Random House pages on Philip Pullman

Bridge to the Stars - leading fansite

HisDarkMaterials.org - leading fansite

Philip Pullman in his own words: interviews and articles he's written

Philip Pullman's own website

Peter Chattaway's extended email interview

'Heat and Dust', Third Way, April 2002, pp. 22-26

Achuka interview

The Devil in Philip PullmanDaily Telegraph, 30 November 2007

'Identity Crisis' - on the religious hatred bill, first published in The Guardian, 19 November 2005

'The Dark Side of Narnia', The Guardian, 1 October 1998

'My Golden Compass sets a true course', The Sunday Times, 2 December 2007

Reviews, critiques and other articles

Beliefnet blogs about Philip Pullman, including contributions by myself, Donna Freitas, author of Killingthe Imposter God and others

'Craig claims Golden Compass is not anti-Catholic', The Guardian, 28 November 2007

'Golden Compass Author Pullman on Catholic League's Claim That the Film is 'Bait' to Lure Children to His Novels'

David Byers, 'Catholic boycotters are "nitwits"', The Times, 27 November 2007

Ciar Byrne, 'The Church vs the cinema: Philip Pullman's blasphemous materials?', The Independent, 28 November 2007

Peter T. Chattaway, 'The Chronicles of Atheism', Christianity Today, December 2007

Helena de Bertodano, 'I am of the Devil's party', Daily Telegraph, 29 January 2002

Donna Freitas, 'Reluctant Theologian', Newseek, 24 November 2007

Donna Freitas, 'God in the dust - The Boston GlobeBoston Globe, 25 November 2007

Lev Grossman, 'Sympathy for the Devil', Time, 29 NOvember 2007

Julian Joyce, ''Golden Compass author hits back', BBC News 29 November 2007

Maev Kennedy, 'He is one of the greatest storytellers of all time, and he's here among us, writing now. It's just thrilling to be around', The Guardian, 30 November 2007

Melanie McDonagh, 'What all directors pray for', The Times, 28 November 2007

Laura Miller, 'Far From Narnia', The New Yorker, 26 December 2005

1. Michael Nelson, 'For the Love of Narnia', Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 May 2005

Jeffrey Overstreet, The Golden Compass: Questions I've been asked, answers I've given

Hanna Rosin, 'How Hollywood Saved God', Atlantic Monthly, December 2007

Vanessa Thorpe, 'Religion row hits Pullman epic', The Observer, 14 October 2007

Jennifer Vineyard, 'Golden Compass Angering Christian Groups', MTV News, November 2007.

Jennifer Vineyard, 'His Dark Materials Writer Starts Fantasy-Book Beef', MTV News, November 1, 2007

© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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