by Dr. Marc T. Newman, Ph.D.
When parents look at the beautiful covers adorning the gift-boxed sets of Philip Pullman’s fantasy series, His Dark Materials, they might be forgiven for believing that these books follow in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. In fact, the publishers are counting on it. The display tables have arrived just in time for Christmas and the release of the screen adaptation of the first volume: The Golden Compass.
What Pullman’s promoters desperately hope is that parents will not get beyond the colorful covers, which appear to depict nothing more than an action/fantasy series filled with talking animals, exciting battles, and a child protagonist. What they desperately fear is that parents will discover the dark and sinister philosophy that unfolds within the pages of Pullman’s work – a philosophy that condones the killing of children to advance knowledge; disparages virtue and glorifies cunning; and which poses the idea that the solution to humanity’s problems is the killing of God. In short, the philosophy that underlies much of Pullman’s fiction is Friedrich Nietzsche’s – a German philosopher whose work was influential with the Third Reich.
Nietzsche’s major philosophical ideas include the Will to Power, the Superman, and the myth of the Eternal Return. While the third idea is hinted at in the last book in the series, it is the first two ideas that fill the pages of His Dark Materials. It is important for pastors and parents to understand these concepts so that they can be prepared to talk about their impact. Briefly, then, I will sketch these ideas, then show how they appear in The Golden Compass and throughout His Dark Materials, and finally demonstrate how these books – aimed at children -- attempt to inculcate Nietzsche’s worldview.
Nietzsche’s View of the Way the World Works
The Will to Power
The main theme running throughout the writings of Nietzsche, gaining full force in his work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is that life is a demonstration of a will to power. Nietzsche rejected external authority, arguing that since all morality is subjective – a mere expression of the will of others – there is no reason why any one morality should be preferred. What marks humanity, Nietzsche argued, is a desire to assert one’s own will, or, in other words, to do that which is right in one’s own eyes.
Dana Villa, the Packey J. Dee Professor of Political Science at Notre Dame, explains that Nietzsche’s belief in the lack of absolute values – a lack of an objectively “true world” – leads to the destruction of “shared appearances” (291). As a result, to the extent that there are any values in the world, they ultimately find their grounding only in the perspective of the person doing the valuing, and in no other. Nietzsche advocated absolute moral autonomy. To illustrate, Nietzsche, in The Antichrist, defines “the good” as:
All that enhances the feeling of power, the Will to Power, and power itself in man…Not contentment, but more power; not peace at any price, but war; not virtue, but efficiency…The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our humanity. And they ought even to be helped to perish. (128)
Nietzsche scholar George Allen Morgan identifies four key “sins” – lust, thirst for mastery, self-seeking, and cruelty – that, under Nietzsche, are revalued as “goods:” lust is the good which draws toward the future; thirst for mastery drives the powerful to exercise their power over lower people; self-seeking is the source of discriminating taste and causes refinement; and cruelty leads to a lusty vitality (180-181). The masterful types will exert their will to power over lower types, and the extent of their mastery will be measured in their ability to do so. Morgan declares for Nietzsche that “True advance is measured by the mass of humanity sacrificed to ‘the growth of a single stronger species of man’”(81). Ultimately, this planned evolution is designed to breed the superman.
In order for Nietzsche’s ultimate expression of the will to power to arise – the superman – it is first necessary to kill God. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche portrays the murder of God at the hands of The Ugliest Man, who chokes God to death on His own pity.
Theologian Norbert Schiffers explains Nietzsche’s position:
With his own instinct for the good, man is strong enough to be ashamed of his belief in the God who alone is good. Even before The Will to Power Nietzsche makes his man with the instinct for the good, his Zarathustra, say that to his eyes and ears God goes against his taste. It is in the power of this instinct and with this taste that Nietzsche says in full awareness: the God of metaphysics, the God of the Moralists, the God, too, of a Christian philosophy – they are dead. (71)
The superman is the embodiment of the will to power and makes up an aristocratic class that rules over Nietzsche’s other two types of people: the higher men and the herd classes (Fowler 157). According to University of Warwick philosopher Keith Ansell-Pearson, such a person, freed from any cultural or theological moral restraints, “is master of a free will, and which gives him mastery over himself, over nature, over less fortunate creatures who have not succeeded in achieving sovereignty” (278-279).
With the “repressive” moral power of the dead god removed, the superman is free to express and develop his will to power. The superman stands atop the hierarchy of humanity. To those not yet among his peers, even to those of the “higher men” he would be a being fearful to behold. “Since man must become ‘better and worse,’ a superman will possess the ‘evil’ urges to maximum intensity; his kindness would be terrible; the best of us would call him a devil” (Morgan 175). It is Nietzsche’s supermen – filled with will to power – that seek the death of God in His Dark Materials.
Bringing Nietzsche to Narnia
His Dark Materials are fantasy novels aimed at the youth market. They tell the story of Lyra and Will, two twelve-year-old children who are major actors in a titanic struggle between God and humanity. The first book, The Golden Compass, seems to deliberately borrow from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. In both books, the action begins when a little girl hides in a wardrobe. Both books contain magic and talking animals. When we are introduced to Lyra, she is living at Oxford University – where Lewis went to school and, later, taught Medieval Literature while composing the bulk of his books. It is also the university from which Pullman received his bachelor’s degree. Lucy, in The Lion The Witch, and the Wardrobe, rides on the back of Aslan, the Great Lion. Lyra, in The Golden Compass, rides on the back of Iorek, a great armored bear.
But when it comes to morality and redemption, the worlds created by Lewis and Pullman could not be farther apart. Lewis’ world is infused with Christian imagery. Within The Chronicles of Narnia a reader would encounter everything from Creation and Fall, to the death, burial and resurrection of Aslan (the Christ figure), to discipleship, and even The Second Coming and the End of the World. The central idea of Narnia is that there the children can learn to know and love Aslan, so that later, when they have grown up, they might more easily recognize Him (as Jesus) here.
In His Dark Materials, Pullman has crafted a world in which the most natural thing would be to desire the death of God. Pullman stated, in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, that “My books are about killing God.” Like Nietzsche, Pullman needs God to be dead in order to liberate humanity from what Pullman deems a repressive, absolutist morality so that people will be free to be themselves – by which he means to follow their human nature, to be what nature intended them to be without supernatural interference or restraint.
The human embodiment of this oppression is The Church. Pullman cleverly constructs his ecclesiastical universe so that Catholicism and Protestantism can be derided together. He accomplishes this by having John Calvin, in this alternative universe, elected Pope (GC 30). Calvin moves the papacy to Geneva, and then the office is dissolved upon his death, though the institutional structures – such as the Magisterium and the General Oblation Board – are maintained.
The Church is filled with power-hungy zealots. Its leaders are greedy abusers of the poor. As an institution, it is to be feared. The archbishop is described as a “hateful old snob” (GC 84). The Church operates the General Oblation Board which lures children from the streets, and then spirits them away to a place where they become the subjects of an frightening blend of medical and theological experimentation in which their externalized souls are separated from their bodies. Pullman’s world is populated by Christians who are inquisitors and witch burners. When the reader reaches the third book, The Amber Spyglass, Pullman introduces a priest, Semyon Borisovitch, who is described as fat, with dirty fingernails, a soiled cassock, and a long, unkempt beard. He is a drunk, his place reeks of tobacco. Pullman stops just shy of revealing Semyon as a pedophile when twelve-year-old Will comes knocking at his door: “The priest kept leaning forward to look closely at him, and felt his hands to see whether he was cold, and stroked his knee” (AS 98). Later, after plying the boy with vodka, the priest hugs Will “tightly” while apparently praying for him. The scene is written to appear creepy, and to build mistrust. And if there is any lingering doubt, Pullman has Mary, an attractive character, tell the children that “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all” (AS 441). If these are God’s representatives, then God must be a fraud, unworthy of our allegiance.
Will to Power and the SupermenThese are Role Models?
The Nietzschean heroes of His Dark Materials who are tasked with toppling God include Lyra and Will, and by the end of the series, even Lyra’s parent, Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel shed what at first appears to be “bad guy” status to become the first martyrs in the battle to destroy the Kingdom of Heaven to replace it with the Republic of Heaven. Other heroes include Iorek Byrnison – an armored bear whose kingdom has been usurped, and Serafina Pekkala, the queen of a clan of witches. As Pullman draws out each character, it is clear what he finds compelling about them: their rejection of God and the absolute morality God represents, and their will to power. Here is a brief sketch:
Lyra, as her name suggests, is a notorious liar – and she benefits by it. Ma Costas, a gyptian boat wife, tells Lyra that it is a compliment in their culture to be considered effectively deceptive (GC 112). Lyra maneuvers through the adult world, getting what she wants by manipulation, pretense, and cunning. She occasionally speaks frankly about killing her enemies, or making others do the killing for her (SK 163). She is an apple that has not fallen far from the tree.
Will does not appear until the second book in the series: The Subtle Knife. He is aptly named. Will gets what he wants by determination or force. Will kills people, and threatens to kill Lyra if she gets in his way (SK 61). To get the titular knife, Will must fight the current possessor for it. To the victor goes the spoils or, in other words, might makes right. Learning to use the knife to cut a hole between worlds is Will’s epiphany. Lyra describes the scene as seeing an authority descend upon Will – but that it is Will’s authority; he is creating it. In a confrontation with angels (who turn out to be weaker than humans), Will says, “If I’m stronger, you have to obey me. Besides, I have the knife. So I can command you: help me find Lyra” (AS 11).
Mrs. Coulter, Lyra’s mother, does not ascend to superman status (though she is very close), but from her introduction in The Golden Compass she fits into Nietzsche’s “higher man” category. She runs the General Oblation Board for the Church, uses her charm to snatch children, mercilessly experiments on them, uses sex as a weapon, brutally tortures prisoners, and treats others in the Church as inferiors. She is admired by Lyra for her style, grace, power and passion. Readers are encouraged to applaud Mrs. Coulter’s defection from the Church, and are expected to overlook her many atrocities (Mrs, Coulter never repents of them) once her love for Lyra is revealed.
Lord Asriel, Lyra’s father, is described as an explorer, easily angered and passionate, with “a hatred of priors and monks and nuns” (GC123). He is a man who is not to be defied. He murders Lyra’s friend, Roger, to pull energy from him as part of a successful experiment to build a bridge to another world. Despite that, his raw power excites in Lyra grudging admiration. By the final book, Lord Asriel has assembled a large army that he intends to lead into battle to defeat God – an army favorably compared to the one commanded by Lucifer when there was a war in heaven, eons past. One character notes Lord Asriel’s limitless ambition, “He dares to do what other men and women don’t even dare to think” (SK 47). Loved and feared, Lord Asriel is a Superman.
Iorek and Serafina represent states of nature. Each wants to be left alone to live life as nature intended. The Church has polluted bear culture; the new king of the bears wants to be baptized as a Christian, and wishes to model his kingdom after the humans. Iorek rejects this move with disgust, ultimately fighting and defeating the weaker bear king. Serafina chronicles centuries of abuse by the Church. She explains that Christianity has always suppressed nature and has been against every good feeling. She declares that if a war breaks out, the witches only need to align themselves against the Church and they will be on the right side.
All of these characters embody, to varying degrees, Nietzsche’s idea of Will to Power. They reject any morality as having authority over them. They are people of command. Whether the issue is sexual license, lying, torture, or killing – they all feel justified in doing as they will to obtain their desired results. They serve themselves, and they revel in power. These are the role models that Pullman has served up to impressionable children looking for vacation reading. They don’t even know it yet, but once Pullman hooks them with the sanitized version represented by the screen adaptation of The Golden Compass – a move that will likely lull many parents into complacency about the books – then he will have the freedom to use his fantasy series to pour into their hearts Nietzsche’s terrible lessons.
There is, however, a potential silver lining. Christians can explain that the desire to transcend our own humanity is not, in itself, evil. Nietzsche tried to accomplish that transcendence from below – a weak creature willing itself to power. God, however, can provide it from above. God promises to everyone who comes to Him in faith not some bland sameness, as if we were nothing more than members of the herd, but real true individuality. As Bernhard Welte points out, the Lord has promised to inscribe His name on our foreheads (Rev. 22:4). Welte explains the significance of that promise for believers:
That means that God’s name, that is, the superhuman and divine radiance is inscribed on the human forehead as, therefore, the radiance of man himself. It indicates the authentic superhumanity of man. It does not arise from the self-intensification of the finite will, but much more as a pure gift from above, in the setting of the City of which it is written that it descends from heaven, from God, and therefore cannot be constructed from below. (57)
Watch for the Next Article
The Golden Compass: Sexualizing Children in the World of His Dark Materials