Several years ago, while studying Milton at Oxford, I decided to hike out to Philip Pullman’s house and ask him to sign my book. I’d read The Golden Compass that spring, and was so taken with it, I immediately started teaching it to my Seventh Grade English students. In my opinion, no Fantasy writer since Tolkein had written with such literary integrity as this Oxford Atheist. I thought it a shame to be so close to someone like that and not try to meet him.
The catch is that I am a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk. I joined Saint Louis Abbey in 1996 at the age of 25, and have been here ever since, teaching English and Classics in our school. It was my abbot, in fact, who suggested I go to Oxford in the first place. At the same time, however, a monk away from his monastery is in a precarious sort of position, so when I hiked the seven miles to Cumnor and knocked on Mr. Pullman’s door—in full habit, and carrying my psalter in one hand, The Golden Compass in the other—part of me expected a demon to answer (or a “daemon”); I had read reviews of his books which condemned them for being “anti-Christian”, “anti-God”, “anti-Catholic”, and, most notably, “Anti-Harry Potter.” For this last attribute, I could almost overlook the first four. Sitting in his living room with his dogs in a heap at his feet, I found him charming, gracious, and kind.
The simple truth is, I never found Pullman’s books offensive, though I fully expected to. I had heard that his book was permeated by anti-Catholicism, but the “Church” he portrayed in his fantasy series bore so little resemblance to the Church I love, that it was actually difficult for me to relate to my own experience. Frankly, I was willing to grant that, in a parallel universe where the Church granted preemptory absolution and had a “Pope John Calvin I,” certain things might indeed go horribly wrong for the Magesterium. I was well aware that Mr. Pullman’s theological views were crucial to his writing, that he had no love for organized religion, and that he despised C.S. Lewis; but in the end, I felt that—in spite of himself—he had created a true and beautiful work of art. In short, he had not allowed his theological agenda to interfere with his vision. Unlike Dan Brown, who lies to his readers, and Tim LaHaye who patronizes them, Pullman treats his audience with respect and honesty. He doesn’t pretend to write historical fiction, and he doesn’t sacrifice artistic integrity to rhetoric.
Now, I teach 7th Grade English, and over the course of the past few years, I’ve been talked into reading dozens of books in the so-called “Fantasy” genre—from the vapid and offensive “Spell for Chameleon” to the dull and unimaginative “Pendragon”—and all of them were lifeless, puerile, watered-down Tolkeins. Here, suddenly, in the writings of an avowed atheist, I found myself drawn into a unique world of fantasy, where bears built their souls out of steel, and Tartars in dirigibles fought air battles with witches. But what I found most surprising of all were the parts of the book NOT original to Pullman. As he explained to me over tea that Saturday afternoon, much of the theological roots of his fantasy world came straight from the poems of John Milton and William Blake. Thus we find angels at war with God, souls freed from the underworld by a prophesied savior, and (as I explained to Mr. Pullman) for me the most poignant image, a young person who gives up human love and affection for the sake of building a heaven on earth.
Upon Mr. Pullman’s recommendation, I wound up reading William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Frankly, I’m a little embarrassed that I’d never read it before, but I’m equally embarrassed to admit that, in my opinion, Blake sounds like a total wacko. But then, so do Ezekiel, and St. Francis, and John of the Cross, and all the really great mystics. Having read Blake, I have a much keener understanding of what Mr. Pullman was trying to tell me that week in his living room. Above all, he deplores what he perceives to be the Christian division between body and soul, with its inevitable scorn of bodily functions and desires.
But then, Blake was raised on a strict diet of Calvinist rhetoric, and indoctrinated by the Swedenborgian sect, so he can’t really be blamed for rebelling against a form of Christianity that had divorced itself from a eucharistic vision of the world. Catholics are much more reluctant to draw a strict line between body and soul—between “this world” and “the next.” Christ himself, after all, preached that the Kingdom of God was “at hand,” and for the Catholic, the Eucharistic liturgy is literally “heaven on earth.” So those cultures which preserved a eucharistic vision of reality (Roman Catholic, Eastern Catholic, Orthodox…) never did subscribed to the false dichotomy which so offended Blake. The French, the Italians, the Greeks, the Spanish…these are peoples who have always been famously comfortable with their sexuality and with their bodies—famously at ease with the bodily pleasures: food and wine, passion and dance. And this attitude comes out of—rather than in spite of—their religious culture: a culture which feeds BOTH body AND soul at the Eucharist. Only in Calvinist/Lutheran cultures does one find this prudish and desperate repression of bodily desires—an attitude which, even to this day, we label “Puritanical.”
I wonder how Blake’s theology might have changed had he apprenticed himself to, say, St. John Bosco (the juggler, magician, acrobat and educator) rather than Swedenborg—if he had read St. Irenaeus (“The Glory of God is man fully alive”) rather than St. Augustine. And I wonder if Philip Pullman’s understanding of the Church might have been different had he spent more time with Gerard Manley-Hopkins and less with William Blake.
If anything, J.R.R. Tolkein’s reliance on pagan iconography actually had the effect of reviving certain forms of paganism in the Twentieth Century. Similarly, I expect Pullman’s reliance on Catholic imagery might have the opposite effect of that which he originally intended. Insofar as it is art, it will be venerated. Insofar as it is rhetoric, it will be forgotten. And our children may indeed be rescued—at least temporarily—from the largely vapid world of “fantasy literature.”
In the end, because Mr. Pullman’s understanding of the Church is faulty, his rhetoric falls flat; and because he relies so heavily on Christian iconography, the world he has created remains fundamentally Christian. But could he ever have avoided it? “The seed of the divine,” says Justin Martyr, “is present in all things true and beautiful;” so Mr. Pullman, in creating something beautiful, has enshrined the truth in his novel, even if, occasionally, that truth is obscured by some personal ignorance. In the end, one must admire him for having the courage to not allow his religious agenda a pride of place above his artistic integrity.
--Fr. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B.
I received a Christmas card from Pullman. I was proud of the “Catholic” reaction—more lay than Episcopal. He can get mean. His theology is a little used.
 It’s worth noting that, as the trilogy progresses, the anti-religious “message” becomes more explicit. By the end of the book, his rhetoric takes over—few of my students actually make it to the end of the third book, though many of them try.