The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Monday, December 3, 2007

A lovely fascist fable, just in time for Christmas
Tom Smith

I read The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife as well.  I would have read The Amber Spyglass, but some kid filched my copy.  The Golden Compass has now been made into a move coming out this week staring Nicole Kidman, and it is quite justly in my view drawing the ire of various Catholic organizations. 

The linked to analysis in the previous sentence does a better job than I will, but any thoughtful person has to recognize that the book is an attempt to malign religion in general, and Christianity and Catholicism in particular.  There really isn't any way you can tell a story which involves the Church (called the "Magisterium" in the book, which is the Catholic canon legal term for the teaching authority of the Church, and for the doctrinal content of what is taught) kidnapping children, taking them to a sinister medical facility/concentration camp in the arctic, and performing bizarre and mutilating experiments on them, and not have it be anti-Catholic.  But it is not as if this is any big secret, either.  Pullman has averred that his His Dark Materials trilogy is about "killing God," who turns out to be an old senile man much in need of offing. 

Now such reliable organs as The L.A. Times are coming out to say it is just more of the same old Catholic intolerance and bigotry that is protesting against the depiction of the Church as a bunch of crazed Nazis.  Pullman has helpfully elevated the debate by calling offended Catholics "nitwits." 

One might complain that had an author written a book about an alternative universe in which thinly disguised Jews tortured children, and, say, manipulated the world through their control of finance, the MSM would find more to protest about.  But in today's climate, especially in the UK, one wonders whether even that would do more than get a few rabbis exercised and earn some positive reviews from the BBC.  (Catholics used to complain that anti-Catholicism was the Antisemitism of the intellectuals, but this was before the intellectuals went back to antisemitism.)

Pullman's trilogy is a work of considerable literary merit, which does not keep it from being pretty poisonous stuff.  Madame Bovary is a really great novel but I suspect that to write it Flaubert had to have been a really twisted guy.  The literary organs are falling all over themselves to heap praise upon Pullman's books, of course, having been nauseated by the success of the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and the Harry Potter series, all of the latter being, in one way or another, powerful teachers of essential bits of the Judeo-Christian world view and virtues, especially for kids.  All of these books I am happy to see my kids reading, and they have all (except 4 year old Mark) read all of them. Pullman, naturally, hates Narnia, and is probably not fond of the other books either.  He appears to have set out to write the anti-Narnia, and to be fair, has done a pretty good job.  Well, if there weren't a battle of good and evil in the real world, LOTR and the rest wouldn't be so entertaining, would they?

The main point of this post, however, is to point out an irony.   The villains in the Golden Compass and sequels are the Catholic-Nazis -- a fair characterization of the book's point, since anytime you have villains running concentration camps with medical experiments, that is psychic charge you are invoking.  But in fact, if you want to experience the flavor that contemporary fascism would have when translated into first rate children's literature, you cannot, in my view, do better than Pullman's series. 

To be fair, I am not saying Pullman is some sort of neo-Nazi.  I think his invocation of fascist themes and memes is probably unconscious.  It is just that similar jobs tend to call forth similar tools.  The European fascists generally and the Nazis in particular very much wanted to cut off the influence and ultimately destroy the Judeo-Christian God and the Church in particular.  They had political reasons for wanting this, but also ideological and (weirdly) religious reasons.  Not all of the Nazis were devotes of the occult, but many of them were, and the ones who were not very much understood the importance and power of building a fascist mythos which could motivate and inspire people.  To put together their ideology, the Nazis pulled out of the great cesspool of European ideas a lot of nasty things that would have been much better left alone, but among them was the idea that Christianity, which they saw as nothing more than a kind of Judaism, severed people from their inner Nature spirit, their pagan, let's run through the woods naked sort of thing.  When Pullman has the Church taking children to camps to sever them from their daemons -- their animal- embodied-soul-mates that every whole person in his alternative universe has -- he is just parroting in kid lit form the old canard you could have picked up in a hundred disreputable places in Bavaria or Vienna in the 1930's. 

Another interesting parallel between Pullman's imaginative vision and that of those you might call the "esoteric fascists" is the blending of the occult and science.  For those of you who don't want to read books on this stuff, think Hellboy.  If you do want to read books, read anything by the very valuable Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke.  In Harry Potter, the magic is at worst morally neutral, often comic stuff.  In LOTR, there is good and bad magic, but the good guys are good for the right reasons.  Narnia, of course, is merely Christianity.  Pullman's picture is a lot creepier.  It is much more like the occult science one comes across reading about the 20th century fascists, with their fascination for both high technology, advanced physics and occult powers.  Call me old fashioned, but mixing together weird physics and the occult just creeps me out.  It makes me think of the "perverted science" that Churchill was right to worry about.  I concede this is a subjective impression.

More obviously, all of this, "eschew Christianity, children, and get in touch with your inner bear!  It is powerful, and not the same sex as you are!" is pure New Age rubbish, which in turns owes a lot to the neo-paganism our jackbooted friends did so much to popularize and, one would have hoped, though vainly, discredit.  Thus here is my larger point.  The anti-modern, anti-religious, and anti-American fervor coming out of Europe  these days, very much including the UK (and some culturally advanced spots in the US), is not what a lot of people seem to think it is.  The Pullman books I view as rather typical.  I think the standard view is to see anti-Judeo-Christianity as an aggressive secularism, that just doesn't want religion shoved down throats of good little atheist children who just want to learn evolution and get into a good university and go on to work in a big corporation someday.  If only it were so.  People have this Whiggish idea that first there was barbarian darkness, then Christianity, which was OK in its ways for civilizing things somewhat, but now it is time to move onward and upward already to a new, cleaner, more hygienic and more rational world, where bad old superstitions are respectfully laid to rest. 

If only history were so orderly and kind.  Unfortunately, the daemons won't stay in their cesspool.  People, or Europeans anyway, keep wanting to shed their clothes and run through the trees.  St. Boniface chopped down Thor's oak tree, but there seem to have been acorns everywhere.  The thought here is like Chesterton's, that when people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.  But "anything" seems to be what sprouts up from what has been laid down, decade after century, on the smelly, and actively decaying floor of bad old Europe.  I mean really, if you have a weakness for this sort of thing, why not just take the little guys camping, and lose the neo-pagan mythos brainwashing?  Just a suggestion.  Nothing like camping to sell you on the virtues of modernity.

No, I am not saying that if your kids go to see the lovely Ms. Kidman (definitely a draw in my case) in the Golden Compass, they will come home to start doing weird science experiments in your basement and start saying that the Christian god should be killed.  Kids are smarter than that, for one thing.  Most of them.  On the other hand, you do not have to be the crazed, rosary clutching Catholic fanatic of Hollywood's paranoid imagination  to think there is something, in fact several things, pretty darn creepy not far below the surface of Mr. Pullman's oeuvre.   My hope is that the movie will bomb, and Hollywood will have to go back to less alluring efforts to corrupt the young.

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Comments

I haven't read any of these books, but from what I have read about them, they sound like they depict a universe inspired by Milton's Paradise Lost, as interpreted by William Blake, who also despised the church--look at The Argument that opens The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which includes this key passage: Now the sneaking serpent walks/In mild humility,/And the just man rages in the wilds/Where lions roam.

Although it's interesting that the Nazis were fascinated with paganism, I think it's a pretty tenuous relationship to these books. When people get tired of hearing vegetarians go on about the evils of meat, they sometimes note that Hitler was a vegetarian, too, and the logic seems as strong.

Posted by: clazy | Dec 4, 2007 5:05:38 AM

Both sides of this argument make the same claim: "My superstition is better than your superstition."

Posted by: Brett | Dec 4, 2007 5:10:16 AM

In fairness, and granting the validity of Mr. Smith's analysis, Northern Lights (later renamed The Golden Compass to fit in Mr. Pullman's trilogy) is a truly great fantasy: magical, mysterious and unexpected. Unfortunately, it seems that these qualities were a distraction from Mr. Pullman's anti-Magisterial aims; The Subtle Knife is skillfully written but this and conventional by comparison, and the execrable The Golden Compass reads like a deliberate attempt at a bad novel, combining loose and faux-portentous writing with an utterly risible plot.

Posted by: sammler | Dec 4, 2007 5:16:46 AM

I am somewhat surprised at the angst this movie is causing. On the other hand, given the outcry about LOTR and Narnia, perhaps not. Nothing ever pleases everyone.

My wife, A Jehovah's Witness, had our two home schooled children read the second book. Then they found the first and third books and read them. She thought it was well done, and only told the kids that there are people who are always complaining about how God needs to be replaced. You also missed that when they rid themselves of the 'Ancient of Days', they set up the 'Democratic Republic of Heaven'. Last time I checked that is a code phrase for the type of authoritarianism we call 'Communism'. Given that the Catholic Church, at least at first, and tacitly, helped the Nazis, then much more explicit helped the communists and socialists, the story to me looked more to be a recasting of the events of the 20th century in fantasy form.

Despite the name, I also assumed he was kicking the Church of England, as there is no Pope that I recall in the story (I only skimmed the books. Having read modern fantasies from the 30s and 40s up through today, I am familiar and bored with 'killing god' stories. Harlan Ellison jumped the shark with Death Bird, and I cannot remember the author, but there was 'Towing Jehovah in the 90s'.)

For another view on this, there is the Bartemious Chronicles, set in world where England is ruled by powerful sorcerers, and is needless to say, corrupt. Oddly, they are also PC. The stories are very dark with nothing resembling a hero or heroine, not even the anti variety. Just people who want power for the sake of Power, or revenge for casual slights.

Posted by: Daniel Safford | Dec 4, 2007 5:20:45 AM

Correction: the execrable final novel is of course _The Amber Spyglass_.

Posted by: sammler | Dec 4, 2007 5:21:11 AM

The problem is the current Pope was a Nazi (in form if not in fact). That is just asking for trouble. It was like the electors left out the symbolic aspects of the job.

Couldn't they have found some one who was active in the resistance?

Posted by: M. Simon | Dec 4, 2007 5:21:39 AM

Ridiculing Christians for protesting this movie has become the favorite sport of Atheists. But try to teach Intelligent Design to their kids and see how they like it.

Posted by: Kyleb | Dec 4, 2007 5:28:25 AM

It's not just that they share expressions of ideology, as with vegetarians. It's that the link in the expression stems from a link in the underlying ideology. The hateful slanders of the church and support for the occult are integral to the thought of both.
While environmentalism has been a constant among nazis and neo-nazis, vegetarianism has not been. It is an extrinsic matter.

Posted by: James of England | Dec 4, 2007 5:29:53 AM

Just FYI, it's not really until The Amber Spyglass that the story runs off the rails. That book contains very little literary merit, because Pullman breaks all the literary promises he made in the prior books. He switches the story from essentially a struggle of man for the right of cosmic self-determination (killing God in that case would have been to allow man to construct his own purpose to life/universe, which is noble in a pagan sense) to a story whose point is that there can be no purpose, which just guts the novels. It's like a debater redefining his terms halfway through but pretending nothing has changed. His own stories are not self-consistent, which drives me nuts.

Posted by: Randomscrub | Dec 4, 2007 5:44:51 AM

I find it sad that Nicole Kidman - who touts her own Catholic up-bringing has a role in this movie.

I also find it down right hilarious that people who aren't Catholic tell those of us who are - what we should or shouldn't be offended by.

Posted by: Renee | Dec 4, 2007 5:47:18 AM

"The current Pope was a Nazi"

Wrong.

Posted by: pst314 | Dec 4, 2007 5:48:44 AM

The weird thing is that these post-Christian Jesus-haters have totally forgotten how awful the pagans were -- infanticide, rape, and brutality were accepted norms back then. These fools want to graft Christian ideals onto animism and call it New Age.

Hey, how about a movie in which crazed fanatics raise their kids to be suicide bombers, with promises of glory and pliant virgins in the afetrlife?

Oh, right.

Posted by: TallDave | Dec 4, 2007 6:11:30 AM

Regarding Renee's comment, I'm a Catholic and I am happy to tell my fellow Catholics to stop the damn whining. If you fear that your children are sufficiently gullible to turn against the Church upon reading stories written by a fervent atheist, you (and they) may have bigger problems than the books themselves.

I objected to the LotR movies, incidentally, but because they were just bad (I am a Tolkien nerd but I would also admit that LotR was in many respects not very well-written). I haven't seen Narnia (but have obviously read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe) and I'd be happy for kids to watch that, too, without expecting that it will brainwash them into Christianity. Additionally, I don't want children to be shielded from the power of the anti-theist and anti-Catholic arguments, both intellectual and emotional, because if they are then they never get to make an informed choice.

I hope any children will make the same choice that I did, but they should be able to make a Free Choice based on full exposure to different viewpoints. That includes seeing slyer 'propaganda' like The Golden Compass and Narnia, incidentally; they'll work it out in the end, assuming they're not stupid (and if they are, as I said before, there are plenty of bigger problems waiting to appear). Finally, no one can believe that American kids are somehow getting a lopsidedly atheist view of life, so there's no argument that this movie is somehow part of a barrage (the 'War on Christmas' should surely feature in a list of the stupidest ideas in recent history). I fear that some modern Christians whine more about the tiniest problem, the smallest perceived slight, than did our predecessors who ended in a lion's belly rather than give up their faith.

Posted by: Adam | Dec 4, 2007 6:15:30 AM

FWIW, I think Glen Cook wrote some of the only sorcery-based novels in which human nature is accurately portrayed: in his Black Company series, sorcerers' sanity, empathy and sense of responsibility are always inversely proportional to their power -- which is pretty much how things have worked for mundane humans in real life.

Posted by: TallDave | Dec 4, 2007 6:26:19 AM

Ah, Glen Cook. Clumsy writing, but great stories nevertheless. His Black Company books probably were quite accurate on human nature -- thinking back, I can't actually recall a single character that would be described as a 'good' guy, although I guess that mercenary soldiers are not generally considered to be polite society's cream -- but I'd say that Steven Erikson is getting there, too, and he can write, to boot.

Someone stop me before I write ten thousand words on fantasy literature.

Posted by: Adam | Dec 4, 2007 6:32:14 AM

My 12 year old son, who loves these kinds of movies, hasn't asked to see it at all. We haven't said a thing to him either way. Frankly, the trailers aren't that damn interesting to me and I am a big fantasy/sci fi fan, and I don't think they are interesting to him either.

This film may do marginally well but I don't see it being a blockbuster.

Posted by: TRO | Dec 4, 2007 6:41:15 AM

+1 for Adam. The Catholic faith is true, and can withstand any criticism. All critics are invited to please step forward, where I expect they shall either be cheerfully demolished or show me some flaw in my understanding of which I was previously unaware. Shielding our kids suggests we aren't confident, and can only postpone the inevitable challenges anyway.

Echoed themes from unpleasant political ideologies are thin bases for labeling the books "contemporary fascism" -- and on a quick read, they're the only bases I see here. Making such a volatile claim without full and clear demonstration erodes credibility.

Posted by: Chernevik | Dec 4, 2007 6:42:39 AM

TallDave - The notion that children are capable of making informed choices about all things is pretty much hooey. I'm more Lockean than that, myself -- and I'd prefer to impose this informed adult choice of world view on my children. The reason is simple: few decisions are fully informed, and children generally lack the capacity to be aware of how little-informed they are. They need to trust elders who are better informed.

This must sound terribly quaint, but I assure you a reductio ad absurdum of the alternative view would be quite simple. It would proceed along the lines of "Well, then, what of a 12 year old? OK, then, how about 11?" Eventually, the simple question "WHY?" would puncture the pretensions about children's capacity for making informed choices.

It's simply wrong to pose that only "stupid" children can't "work it out." Very smart children working with insufficient information (context, experience, triangulation from the world of others) may well not be able to "work it out," or as is more common among children will misunderstand much of what is there to be worked out, and will thus be "working out" a different project than we might imagine.

Let's not be naive about the naive.

Posted by: Scott Marquardt | Dec 4, 2007 6:44:36 AM

great novels; hope the adaptation to film covers the nuances that your lengthy "critique" did not. the children in the story are "tortured" by being separated from their animal familiars, certainly an interesting and viable criticism of the Catholic church which tries to control "animilistic" impulses. Why the need to bring in nazis and claims of anti-semitism? This seems to me to be a completely irrelevant and nonsensical argument against the series, which is neither nazi propaganda or antisemitic.

it should also be noted that among Pullman's supporters is the Archbishop of Canterbury, who recognizes the books for what they are: an attack on dogmatism and criticism of the use of organized religion as a tool of oppression.

Posted by: jw | Dec 4, 2007 6:49:40 AM

The Archbishop of Canterbury may be unaware that the wolf howling at his culture's door is not oppression by his own faith of nascent freethinkers, but a glowering caliphate-in-the-making in the land where his effete religion's influence is a pale mockery of the bogeyman Pullman ridiculously takes it for.

Posted by: Scott Marquardt | Dec 4, 2007 6:56:26 AM

The last novel, while certainly the weakest, refutes your hypothesis. Spoiler Alert:


At the end, having defeated the Kingdom of Heaven - a tyranny of a false god and all the attendant injustice - Lyra focuses her life on building the Republic of Heaven for everyone to share.


So I don't think your claim that the novel/movie is fascist holds water.

Posted by: John Brothers | Dec 4, 2007 6:57:54 AM

Ah, so it's socialist then. Heaven as a People's Republic, instead of a benevolent monarchy.

One wonders whether Pullman is in the least familiar with the horrors of utopian republics in the 20th century. :-\

Comforting that we're left with Mao instead of Hitler.

Posted by: Scott Marquardt | Dec 4, 2007 7:02:09 AM

To adam's comment, I don't think all people are necessarily whining because they are worried about their kids being exposed to an Atheist point of view. I think people are upset because a major motion picture in a country where people respect and are tolerant of all kinds of beliefs is demonizing an entire religious faith in a way that they would not ever think to demonize any other religious faith, culture, race, or ideology. It's 1. the double standard and 2. the fact that some people can't even see or admit that the movie is in fact maligning Catholicism that is so infuriating.

Or at least, that's my issue with it. I do agree with the latter point about modern Christians and the lions.

Re: the actual blog post , thank you for writing it, the "get in touch with your inner bear..." line is great!

Posted by: elisha | Dec 4, 2007 7:04:08 AM

It ain't a very benevolent monarchy in the books, sir. That's rather the point.

Posted by: Ned Raggett | Dec 4, 2007 7:05:45 AM

Re Sammler's comment that "Given that the Catholic Church, at least at first, and tacitly, helped the Nazis, then much more explicit helped the communists and socialists": please! Why do people still believe these Catholic-Nazi lies? One who holds these views has to overlook the countless Catholics who died in concentration camps (note that while 6 million Jews died in the camps, an equal number of Catholics, evangelicals, communists, gays and other anti-Aryans were also murdered), the praise heaped upon the Pope after the war by Jews and others for his defense of the Jews, and work by the Church to protect victims of Nazism, among other things. As for Catholics helping Communists and Socialists, how can anybody claim that when the Church had been condemning communism long before the war? Many Catholic priests and religious were and are actively persecuted by Communists.

Posted by: ZenDog | Dec 4, 2007 7:25:05 AM