Innocence and Experience: The influence of William Blake on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials

William Blake, God Judging Adam. ca. 1795. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public domain

This article is an extract from my book, Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan's Guide to Philip Pullman. I have edited it lightly to remove the worst plot spoilers, but inevitably I must mention some events towards the end of the trilogy. As far as possible, I have edited these so that the details of what happens are not included.

In the last post, I discussed the influence of John Milton's Paradise Lost on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. However, William Blake’s influence on Pullman goes much deeper than these views on Milton. The extent of his influence can perhaps be gauged from the fact that nine of The Amber Spyglass epigraphs (the brief quotations at the start of each chapter) come from Blake. The American edition, curiously, also has a longer quotation from Blake’s America: A Prophecy in place of the hymn lines from Robert Grant. Pullman says:

I love Blake in the way I love all great poetry – because of the sound it makes, and because of the meanings that follow the sound. I love the Songs of Innocence and Experience, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and some passages from the Prophetic Books.[1]

Songs of Innocence and Experience is probably Blake’s most accessible work. The move from innocence to experience is central in His Dark Materials, but it is important to realise that Pullman doesn’t mean quite the same thing by these words. Blake’s world of Innocence is pleasant, sunny, pastoral – it’s safe. Experience, however, is dark, wild or urban, and hostile. The landscapes of Northern Lights fit more naturally with Blake’s world of Experience than with Innocence (it’s an adventure story so there has to be danger after all). Other landscapes echo Experience in their wildness – from the remote fens[2] of East Anglia, through the dark forests of the north, to the wildness of Svalbard. In contrast, the landscape of the mulefa in The Amber Spyglass feels distinctly pastoral – it’s a gentle, safe world (barring occasional tualapi attacks) which seems to echo the world of Innocence.

Songs Of Innocence and Of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human SoulSongs of ExperienceThe Little Girl Lost [continued]The Little Girl Found (Copy T, plate 35). Copyright British Museum used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license
The Little Girl Lost [continued], The Little Girl Found (Copy T, plate 35). British Museum used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license
But for Blake, it’s not so much the settings themselves which shows the difference between Innocence and Experience – it’s how things are perceived. In ‘Little Girl Lost’ and ‘Little Girl Found’,[3] for example, the lost girl Lyca (the inspiration for Lyra?) and her parents respond to wild animals in opposite ways. She sleeps contendedly while the lion ‘gambolled round’, whereas her parents are terrified until they come to see the lion with fresh vision. It’s perhaps comparable to the ways in which Lyra and the gyptian leaders initially view Iorek Byrnison. Lyra is completely trusting of him, whereas John Faa and even Farder Coram are inclined to believe the story that ‘he’s a dangerous rogue’ (NL p. 189). Similarly, when the alethiometer tells Lyra that Will ‘is a murderer’ (SK p. 29) – which would put most people off – Lyra’s perception is that therefore she can trust him. And when Lyra realises that her enemies perceive Dust as bad, she concludes that therefore it ‘must be good’ (NL p. 397). Perception is also important in, among other things, Lyra’s reading of the alethiometer, Will’s use of the knife, and Mary’s seeing of her dæmon in which she has to maintain a special state of mind combined with ‘ordinary seeing at the same time’ (AS p. 535) – a double vision which Blake strongly believed in .

Violent authority

Which brings us to another key difference. In Innocence, authority is protective; in Experience, it is cruel and repressive. Although Blake’s passionate sense of solidarity with the oppressed leads him to attack several targets (not least commercial interests and the State), it is the Church which bears the brunt of his stinging criticism. Blake portrays it as authoritarian and hypocritical, and he apparently has a deep antipathy to God (at least as Blake sees him expressed in the Old Testament). Like Milton, he focuses especially on the Fall. He often highlights God’s punishment of Adam and Eve, not their rebellion, and seems to put the blame for the rift between God and humanity firmly on God. Blake’s poem ‘Earth’s Answer’[4] portrays God as the ‘selfish father of men’ characterised by ‘cruel jealous selfish fear,’ who makes life on earth ‘dread and drear.’ It sees his punishment of Adam and Eve as an ‘eternal bane’ which puts ‘free love’ into bondage. ‘A Poison Tree’[5] goes further to suggest that God was secretly hostile to humanity, and deliberately set a trap into which Adam and Eve would inevitably walk so that he could blame and punish them.

In his ‘Prophetic Books’,[6] Blake developed an alternative creation myth in which he presented God as vicious tyrant. It may well be that the breadth and complexity of this radical perspective lodged in Pullman’s mind, later resulting in him developing an alternative myth of his own. In these books, Blake has two key characters, Urizen (who represents God) and Orc: ‘On the one side stands Urizen, a violent, destructive tyrant; on the other side Orc, a violent, destructive rebel.’[7] They could very easily be the Authority and Lord Asriel, though Pullman says:

I certainly wouldn't model any of my characters on any of [Blake’s], or on anyone else's for that matter. It would be too limiting. In Blake's own words, ‘I must create my own system, or be enslaved by another man's.[8]

Tyranny and freedom

However, while he may not have modelled his characters on Blake’s, nevertheless his perspective closely matches Blake’s, and he is open about Blake’s influence on him. The parallel between Asriel and Orc extends to the deep ambiguity of character that some people have been surprised at in Lord Asriel. Pullman clearly sees Asriel as on the ‘right side’ – working to establish the republic of heaven by overthrowing the Authority and his kingdom. Yet at the same time he is just as cold and ruthless as the agents of the Authority – he is prepared to go to any lengths to achieve his goal. Like the Authority he opposes, Lord Asriel is violent and destructive and arrogant. Like Orc, he also carries within him the seed of tyranny which would have expressed itself had he had the opportunity. He has the makings of a megalomaniac when he claims to Mrs. Coulter that, ‘You and I could take the universe to pieces and put it together again’ (NL p. 396). And Thorold doesn’t exactly present him as egalitarian in response to Serafina Pekkala’s question about Lord Asriel’s intentions:

You don’t think he told me, do you? . . . I’m his manservant, that’s all . . . He wouldn’t confide in me any more than in his shaving mug. (SK p. 46)

The Chimney Sweeper. Copy T, plate 37. British Museum, Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence.
The Chimney Sweeper. Copy T, plate 37. British Museum, Used under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence.

Blake attacks the church for its complicity in tolerating injustice – in ‘The Chimney Sweeper’,[9] for example, in which a child sweep complains that ‘God and His priest . . . make up a heaven of our misery.’ In other words, the Church promises heaven to us if we put up with misery now. ‘The Garden of Love’[10] focuses on the loss of innocence at the hands of the Church:

I went to the Garden of Love.
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

It starts with the ‘innocent, uninhibited discovery of sexuality between children. However, the speaker is now aware of Church law, and sex is surrounded by bans, punishment and statutes which are enforced by a watchful priesthood.’[9] Now the garden ‘that so many sweet flowers bore’ has at its centre a closed chapel with ‘Thou shalt not’ written over the door. The rest of the garden is full of graves . . .

And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

The feeling of joyless, authoritarian lifelessness is unmistakable. The Church’s repressive attitude to sexuality is something with which Blake takes particular issue. In response, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake orders ‘the cherub with his flaming sword[12] . . . to leave his guard at [the] tree of life.’[13] He wants to return us to the state of affairs before the Fall – a state of sexual freedom which ‘will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.’ Other poems (‘The Blossom’ and ‘The Sick Rose’ for example) make the same point that natural sexuality, free from prudery and religious constraints is something to be desired.

The echoes of Blake are easily discernible within Pullman’s work. Like Blake, Pullman attacks what he sees as a repressive and cruel Church[14] which feeds people a lie about heaven in order to keep them quiet. He rails against a vicious God who imposes arbitrary and unnatural restrictions on humanity – and especially on our sexuality. It’s no accident that Will and Lyra finally express their love for each other in a world where there is no Church, and after the death of the Authority.


Quotations from Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass are from the paperback editions published by Scholastic (London) in 2000.

[1] Pullman, Philip: personal email to the author, 16 June 2004

[2] The ‘lonely fen’ is actually mentioned in ‘Little Boy Found’ in the Songs of Innocence, but since he is rescued from it, the setting seems to belong with Experience.

[3] Blake, William: Songs of Experience in Yeats: William Blake Collected Poems, pp. 67–71

[4] Blake: Songs of Experience, p. 65–66

[5] Blake: Songs of Experience, p. 78

[6] Especially The First Book of Urizen (1794), The Song of Los (1795), The Book of Ahania (1795) and The Book of Los (1795).

[7] Marsh, Nicholas: William Blake: The Poems (Palgrave, 2001) p. 186

[8] Pullman, Philip: personal email to the author, 16 June 2004

[9] Blake: Songs of Experience, p. 71

[10] Blake: Songs of Experience, p. 75

[11] Marsh: William Blake: The Poems, p. 123

[12] A reference to the angel who blocked a return to Eden for Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:24.

[13] Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, p. 170

[14] We will consider whether or not this is valid in chapter 13.

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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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