Join my substack - Very Public Secret Society

His Dark Materials Reflects Our Deeply Questioning Age

The third season of His Dark Materials, the television adaptation of British fantasy writer Philip Pullman’s popular trilogy, wrapped up this winter. While the show, airing on the BBC in the UK and on HBO internationally, was looked to as the next big thing in fantasy adaptations—as production companies continue trying (and failing) to replicate the success of Game of Thrones—it stirs interest of a different vein. There’s no multitude of torrid love affairs or cataclysmic battles, but there is a persistent probing of moral, ethical, philosophical, and theological dilemmas.

In the first season (which averaged seven million viewers per episode in the UK), it’s quickly apparent that Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned girl at Jordan College in an alternate universe’s Oxford, is some kind of chosen one. In her world, people’s souls exist outside their bodies in the form of animals called daemons (Lyra’s daemon is Pan); these daemons shift forms when their humans are children but settle as they reach adulthood. Lyra is thrown on a path of intrigue and mystery when her uncle, Lord Asriel, returns from an expedition to the north, raving about Dust and the possibility of other worlds. His ideas are deemed heretical by the Magisterium, an over-bearing, Vatican-like organization that appears to be the highest form of government.

If the show, as one reviewer said of its second season, “lacks a sense of fun…and escapism,” it more than makes up for it with meaty, worldview-oriented dialogue and drama with import beyond its plot. Those familiar with the man behind the stories won’t find this surprising. At least in literary, religious, and academic circles, Philip Pullman is well-known for his vocal atheism (or agnosticism, depending on which interviewer he’s talking to), his ill will toward C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, and his activism in some of Britain’s political wrangling and other social causes.

Pullman’s muscular voice sets him apart from his contemporaries. The likes of Robert Jordan, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling (at least until recent times) have much smaller footprints as social critics. Pullman, however, has no qualms about being the fool who rushes in where angels fear to tread. (In this way, he is more like C.S. Lewis than he’d likely admit.) According to cultural historian Andrew Lanham, his appeal and that of his work “seems to have at least something to do with our hopelessly complicated modern relationship to religion—or, particularly, the war against religion.” Public spiritual expression and devotion to structures of organized religion seem to be shrinking pillars of society. And it’s easy to assume that the TV adaptation of His Dark Materials is a bracing endorsement of mainstream secularism. Interestingly, however, the show’s release in late 2019 did not garner such noisy blowback from Christian organizations or American conservative groups as was generated by the release of Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, the second season of DC’s Preacher, or even New Line Cinema’s attempt at a film franchise with The Golden Compass. Perhaps the burgeoning global health crisis muted focused interest—perhaps such outrage is growing tired—or, perhaps (and most likely), His Dark Materials cuts with a much subtler knife.

Read full article at Mere Orthodoxy.

Back to Top