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Philip Pullman’s Unorthodox Liberalism

The author’s atheism gets the attention, but his liberal, anti-authoritarian creed is what drives his work.

By Parker Richards | October 21, 2019

In an introduction he wrote to Paradise Lost, Philip Pullman tells the story of an 18th century English gentleman, gout-ridden, barely literate, and blind, listening to some servant or sighted relative read aloud from the poem. Abruptly, the old man bangs on the side of his chair and exclaims, “By God! I know not what the outcome may be, but this Lucifer is a damned fine fellow, and I hope he may win!”

If you need to ask if Pullman agreed with the old gentleman, you’ve never read his work. His Dark Materials, Pullman’s retelling of Paradise Lost from the perspective of a young girl living in a universe of parallel worlds, sees its Satanic figure attempt to establish a “Republic of Heaven” and tear down the authority of the church. Commentary on Pullman frequently dwells on his atheism, but Pullman’s interest in Milton’s Satan is less anti-religious than anti-authoritarian. His Dark Materials and its sequels are sympathetic to faith, and to the faithful, even as they criticize the institution of the church. They are gentle on God (“the Authority”) and gentle on true believers. For that is where Pullman’s interests lie: in the Satan who rebels “against the Throne and Monarchy of God,” not because God is God but because he is enthroned.

Pullman is having a moment. His newest book, The Secret Commonwealth, the second in a follow-up trilogy to the His Dark Materials series, The Book of Dust, appeared on October 3. A joint HBO/BBC production of His Dark Materials will premiere in November. Pullman’s legacy as a novelist seems secure, but his place as a political thinker is less established. The books display a brand of anti-establishment, individualist liberalism that contrasts sharply with the milquetoast progressivism of other children’s fantasy books, including the Harry Potter series (to which his books are sometimes compared). The unambiguous message in Pullman’s books is one of leaving well enough alone: Power vested in religious and political institutions will necessarily lead to oppression, preventing moral self-discovery and the development of individual thought. Pullman’s work is as much manifesto as fantasy, as much credo as bildungsroman—a political focus that may suit 2019 better than 1995, when the first of the His Dark Materials novels appeared.

The Secret Commonwealth takes place about a decade after the events of His Dark Materials, which ended with its heroine, Lyra Silvertongue, and her companion Will Parry overcoming the confines of religious authority in support of knowledge, consciousness, and free will. Lyra is now a student at a small Oxford college. She has become estranged from Pantalaimon, her dæmon, over her newfound interest in popular, incendiary writers who champion rationality over emotion, spirit, and the unseen. (In her world, each person has an animal companion called a dæmon; their form—in Pan’s case, pine marten—is indicative of a person’s nature, and they function as an external extension of personhood.) Meanwhile, the Magisterium—Pullman’s term for the religious establishment in Lyra’s Brytain—is consolidating its power, regaining the authority it lost at the end of His Dark Materials. When the Magisterium’s renewed interest in Lyra forces her to leave her home again, she aligns with others opposed to the Magisterium’s power. And so Pullman’s heroes end up where they always seem to: Opposing the centralization of authority, or, as one agent of an anti-Magisterium group puts it, “on the side of liberalism and freedom.”

But Pullman is also on the side of myth and against certainty. Myths, the unseen truths that lurk at the boundaries of reality, cannot be known for certain. Here we find what seems to be the origin of Pullman’s anti-religious thought: In securing more and more earthly power unto itself, the church is inherently sure of itself, and its teachings, leaving less space for what is by nature uncertain. A strain of authoritarianism, Pullman implies, can come from such surety. Even the best convictions can lead to heinous acts. As an old friend says to Lyra:

The other side’s got an energy that our side en’t got. Comes from their certainty about being right. If you got that certainty, you’ll be willing to do anything to bring about the end you want. It’s the oldest human problem, Lyra, an’ it’s the difference between good and evil.

One needn’t, Pullman reminds the reader throughout His Dark Materials, be a resident of Lyra’s world, with its dæmons and armored bears, to know that. In an ideal liberal world, people with opposing ideologies can voice their opinions without subjugating their opponents. In the parallel world where the Magisterium dominates—where people are disappeared, ideological conformity is enforced, and citizens live in fear of the government—there is one power, and it stems not from God but from his servants.

The Magisterium of The Secret Commonwealth is engaged in a series of incestuous couplings with other powerful interests. The government in London is set against the “counter-modern,” and so aligns with the church. A religious council has corporate sponsorship (from a pharmaceutical firm, no less). A group of churchmen form a favorable view of a colleague upon learning that he has “skill in the world of banking.” Power, Pullman seems to say, seeks out other power and multiples itself. The concentration of authority in a central institution can lead to iniquity, with little regard for the needs, wants, and aims of the people. This is the force that Lyra and her allies oppose. Notably, they have allies among the clergy, and both His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust are littered with people of faith who do good, who offer aid, and who show a Jesus-like kindness. And Pullman used the phrase “the church” more in His Dark Materials. In The Secret Commonwealth, “the Magisterium” (infrequently used in the earlier series) is his name of choice for the various organizations and peoples that make up the religious establishment. It seems to indicate an admission on Pullman’s part: Perhaps religious faith itself was never his target. Power and illiberalism are.

Pullman is fond of reminding his readers that he dislikes J. R. R. Tolkien’s work. Tolkien, easily the most important figure in fantasy literature within the last century, believed in world-building to an almost absurd degree, going so far as to invent numerous languages. Pullman eschews that—the only information about Lyra’s world is what the reader absolutely must know. His resistance to detailed background description works well for a series of books that turns on the ethereal nature of a child exploring the world, as children must do in even the most mundane of realities. But in The Secret Commonwealth, Pullman draws nearer to Tolkien—not in world-building, but in political thought. To Tolkien, history is a progression from a better state to a worse one. “Progress” is rarely for the best; rather, it leads to the destruction of what has always been good in favor of a future thought to be better. (It never is.) Now Pullman joins him. The titular “secret commonwealth” is made up of things that can never fully be known, but also can’t be fully denied. They are the bog-spirits that protect Lyra from her pursuers. They are the witches who live in the deep north. They are the spirits and ghosts of her entire world—including, maybe, dæmons. And the world is losing it. “You don’t hear much talk about that these days,” Lyra is told by a boatman when she asks why people no longer discuss the secret commonwealth. People no longer care.

The Secret Commonwealth’s title comes from a collection of folklore compiled by the 17th-century clergyman and Gaelic scholar Robert Kirk, published well over a century after his death. Pullman’s use of the phrase is instructive. The term refers to Lyra’s England: To Pullman, it is a commonwealth—not a dictatorship. There’s something Cromwellian about it, distinct from the Arthurian Logres of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising fantasy sequence, or to the kingdom-within-a-wardrobe of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. There may be monarchs in a commonwealth, but their ethos is not monarchical—it is a government designed for its citizens, not for the accumulation of power. But a secret commonwealth is still a mythical thing, and myth and government—indeed myth and rationality—have reason to clash.

In a world in which there is a spiritual other that can only be half-seen, the powers within the more immediate world cannot be fully dominant. Even if they rule the temporal, they cannot rule the mythic. It exists beyond them. But if the mythic is no longer seen, is ignored by the rational and sensible, it will effectively cease to exist, becoming another vanquished ideology.

In The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra’s world is undergoing something like an Enlightenment. It’s an era of rational thought, of “chemistry and measuring things,” of young people who have “an explanation for everything.” (And “they’re all wrong,” one character says.) These aren’t Pullman’s people. Pullman wants free thought, but like Tolkien, he also wants to preserve the world in its natural order, which means not dismissing the mythical world that exists a little out of reach. It is, in other words, a world that includes faith—just not orderly faith organized magisterially, top-down.

The Magisterium is surreptitiously backing two philosophers who are paragons of the new, “enlightened” way of thinking. The first praises rationality as the highest virtue. Pantalaimon scolds Lyra harshly for her fascination with this philosopher, who believes dæmons are figments of the imagination and that people should instead embrace rationality and a total rejection of the spiritual. The second philosopher argues that there is no truth at all. This allows the Magisterium to “delicately and subtly undermine the idea that truth and facts are possible in the first place,” as its new leader puts it. If they do so, they can create whatever new truth they want.

The idea that people would be better off without their dæmons underpins the first book in the His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass, which tells the story of a preteen Lyra as she searches for her vanished friend, Roger. He is one of many children taken by church authorities without the consent of their families for a form of Mengelian scientific research. The children’s dæmons (effectively, their souls) are ripped away, literally guillotined off them. And this after they are taken from their families and homes. Pullman cannot have known that, more than two decades after The Golden Compass appeared, the separation of children and their psychological scarring at the hands of the state would become a political issue. But that is now the undercurrent of dæmon separation in The Secret Commonwealth. To tear a dæmon away is a form of psychological scarring, a way for a person to become un-whole in much the same way that victims of extreme trauma lose something of what they had before. “Reason had brought her to this state,” Pullman writes in The Secret Commonwealth of a depressed, self-loathing Lyra, at odds with her dæmon. “She had exalted reason over every other faculty. The result had been—was now—the deepest unhappiness she had ever felt.”

For better or worse, any discussion of Pullman’s political thought must include a reference to J. K. Rowling. The Harry Potter series appeared almost contemporaneously with His Dark Materials and has been more heavily cited in political discourse. But Pullman’s political thinking is much more fleshed out than Rowling’s. The world of Harry Potter is one of an inarguable but vague politics—slavery is bad, and so is racism. A government that rejects obvious reality is undesirable. Dictatorship ought to be avoided. All true enough.

That is not Pullman’s way. His books create a clear vision for a different sort of world. His criticism of entrenched power focuses not on faith and spirituality, but on those who use faith as a whip over others. And Pullman’s ideal is a curious one: It is an anti-Enlightenment liberalism, something that is possibly self-contradictory. Pullman’s work is opposed to centralization and opposed to reason at the expense of all else. There should be mystery and myth in the world, and belief in the only half-seen. He thinks we need the things that go bump in the night.

The Secret Commonwealth has its faults. Pullman’s dialogue is often awkward and stiff, as it is throughout his books. His protagonists are sometimes too clever to be believable. But Lyra herself has grown up well. As a young woman, she is thoughtful and bright—and somewhat less irritating now than as an adolescent in His Dark Materials. Still, the book gives the impression that Pullman likes children more than 20-somethings, like the new Lyra. Perhaps it’s because of childhood’s sense of mystery, its willingness to find wide-eyed belief in a secret commonwealth. The growth of rational thought, what happens when smart young people grow up—maybe that’s Pullman’s real opponent.

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