First, a little background. The fantasy trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) is clearly ultra-critical of the corrupt Church, called the Magisterium, a malevolent organization in Pullman’s series:
“For all its history,” [a friendly witch tells young protagonists Lyra and Will] “it [the Magisterium, the Church] has tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. . . . That’s what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”
– from Book 2, The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman
Yes, in person, the author, Philip Pullman, is indeed an atheist. He wrote the series, by the way, not for a youth audience but for a general audience (“I write books for whoever is interested. When I write a book I don’t have an age group in mind.”). And indeed, he based his tale on some remix of themes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and much of its complexity will be lost on young readers.
So . . . how dangerous are such stories, if read by young readers (or adults, for that matter)? Pullman himself has said:
All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by.
Here are my questions.
1. Do stories question authority?
2. Do stories tell you what to think?
[No. But they may offer ideas and voices you may not have considered or heard before.]
3. Do readers bring their own values to stories they read?
[Yes, of openness or belief, wonder or conviction.]
4. Do stories change the world?
[If the ideas they offer are accepted into the hearts and minds of enough people.]
5. Are stories dangerous?
[If they introduce ideas and voices that cannot be stopped.]
6. Should young adults read stories like The Golden Compass or other challenging tales?
[My answer is yes, whether they have minds of openness or belief, wonder or conviction.]
Many stories challenge ideas. How often, for instance, do stories and books for young readers contain dunder-headed or threatening adults? Does that mean that those stories are anti-adult? More accurately, they encourage young readers to think twice, and compare what they see in real life to those fictional tales that exist beyond their own experience.
When I read boarding-school books like Catcher in the Rye, or A Separate Peace, or the Harry Potter series, do I believe that boarding schools are just as depicted within each book? No, I simply compare the stories to my own experience. (I went to an American East Coast boarding school called The Lawrenceville School, just down the road from the ivory towers of Princeton University.)
If I watch a movie like The Stepford Wives, do I conclude that suburbia produces zombies? No, it just creates a fictional idea, one I can test against my own experiences.
If I read a fantasy book, or see a movie, where a religious authority called The Magisterium is corrupt or weak, I simply consider it as an idea, in fiction, to compare with my own beliefs.
Minds of young readers are not so malleable or gullible that they swallow everything they read or are told. As much as adults, and perhaps more so, they are constantly looking for signs that what they see or feel is true or false. Hollywood’s tinsel values do not carry the day, nor do the halls of book publishing.
Parents and friends and mentors hold greater sway . . . to the extent that they have enough integrity that subversive stories don’t shake weakly poured foundations, don’t expose false wizards of oz behind the curtains of authority.
Real integrity and true ways and deep convictions are far more powerful than the delightful veils of fiction.
At the end of Book 3, The Amber Spyglass, Lyra sums up things well:
“No one could [build the republic of heaven] if they put themselves first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard . . .”
As a message, that’s not a bad one. But we all need to take those ideas into our own homes and hearts, and see what fits.
Fantasy stories may reflect Truth, as I’ve suggested in my book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature. But I don’t believe they create it. As often, their purpose may be to challenge it, to look at it askew, so we check twice to see if the Emperor does indeed have fine new clothes . . . as we’ve been told.