Back in April 1996, readers of all ages eagerly embraced the U.S. publication of The Golden Compass (Knopf), the first novel in His Dark Materials, a planned fantasy trilogy by noted British author Philip Pullman. In that book, Pullman sets his adventure in an alternate world, a place where every human has a shape-changing animal daemon by his side, a creature that serves as an outward manifestation of the person's soul.
The first book also introduces young orphan Lyra Belacqua, the brave heroine who navigates this world, not yet knowing that she holds the key to settling questions of theology and science that have plagued humans since the beginning of time. The sequel, 1997's The Subtle Knife, added new layers of plot and more characters, and further developed the idea of the Church as a force that seeks to sever each daemon/soul from its person.
Pullman fans have been eagerly anticipating Book III, The Amber Spyglass, for the past three years. In late July 2000, one Seattle bookseller even predicted, "I think by fall everyone will have forgotten about Harry Potter. The Amber Spyglass will be the big book for Christmas." This past October 10, the long wait came to an end.
Judging from reactions from both fans and critics, Pullman seems to have delivered on his promise of a fully realized trilogy, tying up all the loose ends of an intricate story. But in doing so, he has also presented an explicit and potentially controversial message, a radical take on the accepted ideas in Judeo-Christian theology. Early on in The Amber Spyglass, Pullman's characters reveal that God (here called "the Authority") is a liar; in the story, God is the first angel formed of the mysterious Dust and was never the creator of all things as purported in the Bible. The Christian religion is said to be "a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." Late in the story "the Authority" appears as a feeble and senile old man, far from a divine being. With this thought, the "His" in His Dark Materials takes on a whole new meaning.
Interestingly, Pullman's bold theological musings have hardly raised an eyebrow. The author went on a U.S. bookstore tour in October and, according to Melanie Chang, the Random House publicity manager who accompanied him, Pullman's arguments in The Amber Spyglass drew no negative reactions. "One or two people asked about it," Chang said, "and Philip responded quite eloquently, pointing out that his writing is not anti-religion, but that he emphasizes the beauty of the physical world rather than a spiritual world. I think people have accepted it as a thought-provoking book as opposed to a provocative one." For Joan Slattery, executive editor of Knopf Books for Young Readers (and Pullman's editor here in the States), the issues of theology that appear throughout the trilogy never raised any red flags for her. "We did have a complete manuscript of The Golden Compass when we acquired the trilogy (as Compass was published in the U.K. first). Clearly we knew that Pullman was inspired by Paradise Lost and that there were theological aspects to the book. But no, at the time, we didn't know exactly how it would play out." As Slattery puts it, "Theology and the portrayal of the Church take a bigger role in the third book. But I think it all fits into the underlying theology or myth Pullman had created for the trilogy. It's like Genesis was to Paradise Lost; it's his ordering of the universe. If it had not felt like part of the story, it would have jumped out at me."
Slattery is pleased and perhaps a bit surprised that much of the positive feedback is coming from teachers and librarians. "I was just at NCTE (the National Council of Teachers of English conference) and many of the people there had read the book and were thrilled by it," she commented. In addition, Slattery noted, "We got a short but extremely positive review in the Christian Science Monitor. I think people recognize that this is the kind of book that can be read on many levels. It is a book about love and living in the moment, about doing good with your life and doing good for others. That's the uplifting message that I have as a response to anyone who objects to the book."
To date booksellers have not reported problems with the book either. Judy Geck, children's book buyer at The Ruminator bookstore in St. Paul, Minn., commented, "I was anticipating a lot of trouble, but it just hasn't happened. People have strong opinions about the book, but they are not bashing it or trying to censor it."
The Ruminator hosted Pullman during his tour earlier this fall for an event that went "really well," Geck said. During a question-and-answer period, she said, "Pullman brought it [the controversial element] up himself. He was surprised he hadn't been nailed by the press."
University Bookstore in Seattle was one of two stores that, ironically, held their Pullman events in churches. "We normally rent out a building on campus," said Lee Anne Zwinkel, children's book buyer for the store. "But 950 people attended the event, and the largest room on campus only holds 750." Zwinkel said that her store sold about 400 books the day of the event and that Pullman easily signed 800 books or more while he was there. "The only comments we've received were from people who just loved the book," Zwinkel remarked. "When we suggest the series to people who don't already know it, we say that the books deal with a different view of religion. Anyone who might take offense with that usually just lets us know they're not interested."
Sue Carita, a bookseller at The Toadstool in Milford, N.H. (one of 100 stores to win 10 print-on-demand copies of the book from Random House) commented, "When you read that genre, you're ready for those ideas. You are able to accept it whether you personally believe it or not."