Philip Pullman used to be more of a cause than an author. But he has lost his way

Some years ago I said that Philip Pullman was the most dangerous author in Britain. He pasted the cutting on his study wall and boasted publicly that he would see that the words were printed on the covers of future editions of his books. They never were, perhaps because his publishers thought that such an endorsement might repel the various aunties, godparents and grandparents who sustain so much of the Christmas and birthday present part of the book market. In any case, I now formally withdraw the title I once bestowed. If his latest book is anything to go by, Mr Pullman is no longer dangerous at all.

I was kinder than I wanted to be to his Dark Materials trilogy when I first read it. The opening book, set beguilingly in an Oxford like and unlike the one I know and live in, had a certain imaginative power, and so did its successor. But the third seemed to me to have much more propaganda than joy in it. I could not imagine any normal child reading it with pleasure, though I could easily imagine an atheistical north Oxford parent pressing it on his progeny with hope in his heart.

And here was the problem. Mr Pullman had become a cause more than an author. Everyone praised him. The National Theatre dramatised his trilogy. His first book was adapted into a film (which was not a great success). Mr Pullman’s anti-Christian position, rather than his work, became the issue. It was notable, and remains so, that the praise and worship are concentrated on his most explicitly anti-God writing, and tend to ignore his many other books. Yet there is also a paradoxical hesitation to acknowledge just what a missionary he is, while going on about his supposed genius.

On page one of Section “C” of the Washington Post, on February 19, 2001, Mr Pullman was quoted by his interviewer, Alona Wartofsky, as having said: “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” Yet I have seen British writers shy away from admitting this, by saying that Mr Pullman (who has never denied the statement nor pulled back from it) only “reportedly” said this. No, he said it beyond doubt and no reader of his work should be unaware of it.

Recently, he has taken to attacking other children’s authors for their nostalgia. Well, Mr Pullman is not himself free of nostalgia. His child characters talk remarkably like Richmal Crompton’s “Just William” Brown, a creature of the 1930s, and his hero, Malcolm, lives in a pub whose menu is itself a wallow in a stodgier, more comforting past, with parents whose attitudes towards child-rearing are those of my childhood and Mr Pullman’s, a mixture of kindly authority and freedom.

I genuinely cannot work out what sort of country Britain has become in his parallel universe. It is free and not free, modern and not modern, by turns. It has helicopters but apparently no telephones. There is a deadly secret service run by the wicked church, but it seems astonishingly inefficient. There is also a fanatical Christian youth league, named after a St Alexander unknown to me, which encourages schoolboys to spy on and denounce dissenters.

This sounds remarkably like the Soviet cult of Pavlik Morozov, canonised by the Soviet authorities for denouncing his own parents to the police, and then being murdered by his angry grandfather. The story (based on a lie) has always struck me as the single most un-Christian feature of the whole Stalinist horror, with its blatant attack on the commandment to honour thy father and thy mother.

But Mr Pullman has otherwise softened a little towards the Christian faith, as his latest story, La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One, contains several perfectly pleasant and even rather admirable nuns (though there are some nasty nuns elsewhere, to make up for this).

Ah, the story. It’s meant to be exciting, with chases, floods and rescues. I found it slow-moving and didactic, often defying the good rule that the author should show rather than tell. I have also never fully understood how Mr Pullman combines his loathing for the Christian story with his love of the supernatural. There are, for example, a wicked fairy and a river god in this book.

He has made a special, laborious effort to equip all his characters with his famous “daemons”, talking animals which shift their shapes during childhood but embody their adult characters, who follow them closely around like imaginary friends, and have conversations with them. I have two problems with this. If such things existed, wouldn’t a belief in a divine purpose be almost impossible to avoid? And surely, once you’ve equipped a character with a “daemon” that is a three-legged hyena which likes urinating aggressively in public, you’ve removed any ambivalence about his character.

Somewhere in the midst of his great flood, Mr Pullman has lost his way.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the November 3 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here