I read ‘His Dark Materials’ by Philip Pullman after reading an interview in which he said that his books were a reaction against the religious messages in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’. According to him, Tolkien’s books are ‘trivial’ and ‘infantile’, and fail to answer all the big questions. After reading HDM, I feel that Tolkien answered the big questions much better than Pullman did. (I haven’t read anything by C. S. Lewis.)
Is there a God?
As an atheist, I never found LOTR particularly religious. Eru Iluvatar created Middle Earth with his angels, but he never seems to have a role beyond that. He never interferes with whatever’s happening in the world, much less the actions of individual beings. Nobody worships him and there is no religion for people to fight over. Evil flourishes and good people suffer, like in the real world.
In HDM, there is no real God, but an imposter angel directly controls the world through the evil, dictatorial Magisterium ( the Church). I don’t support organized religion, but I think that if Tolkien divided his characters into good and evil, Pullman did exactly the same. I don’t recall coming across any redeeming qualities in any of the characters who worked for the Magisterium. We always know exactly which side we should be rooting for.
What happens when we die?
In LOTR, the elves have immortal souls, so they are reincarnated after they go to Valinor. Men, on the other hand, have the ‘gift of mortality’, which probably means that they cease to exist when they die. In the movie, Gandalf tells Pippin about a paradise that awaits him after death, but I think he was just trying to give Pippin some courage before the battle (because only Eru knows what happens to mortals when they die). In general, everyone who does the right thing in LOTR is following their own conscience, and not hoping to be rewarded with a place in heaven.
In HDM, all the people who die are trapped in a ruined, overcrowded city for eternity, in spite of having obeyed religious authorities in hopes of going to heaven. Terribly depressing, isn’t it? Of course, the protagonists, Lyra and Will, come to set them free, so that the dead souls disintegrate into atoms and become one with the universe. (That was the saving grace of the final book .)
“Tolkien is not interested in the way grown-up, adult human beings interact with each other.”
There are a lot of adults interacting in LOTR, so I think he means the lack of sexual content. Such things were probably not described in mainstream fiction in Tolkien’s time. If anyone wants to read about Aragorn and Arwen ( or for that matter, Frodo and Sam) having sex, I’m sure they’ll find good fanfiction on the internet.
I think Pullman and the Church give too much importance to an obsolete method of producing kids. The Bible made it the origin of all sin, while in HDM, the world is saved by a make out session between two 12- year-olds.
Tolkien had more progressive ideas about gender equality.
The main female character in LOTR is Eowyn ( Arwen was only a footnote in the books), who shows that women have as much spirit and courage as men. She defies everyone ( including Aragorn) to go into battle and ends up saving her uncle from a Nazgul. She stands up to him even after he threatens to torture her and boasts than no living man could kill him.
“But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”
And Aragorn did not have to save her from an orc in the book.
In LOTR, females don’t have to act like males to be considered strong. The elves don’t even have well-defined gender roles. Galadriel, one of the most powerful beings on Middle Earth, is the essence of feminity, and she’s wise, gifted with foresight and strong enough to resist the temptation of Sauron’s ring.
The main protagonist of HDM is Lyra ( derived from ‘liar’), whose chief talent lies in telling lies. You see, she’s Pullman’s version of Eve. She is independent and resourceful in the first book, but as soon as Will appears in the sequel, Lyra takes a back-seat and starts following his orders like pet dog. Apparently, he’s the only one capable of making intelligent, logical decisions. The LOTR heroines may be too flawless to be human, but why does Lyra have all the stereotypically feminine flaws like dishonesty and impulsiveness?
Mrs. Coulter is powerful only because she uses her sexuality to ensnare and manipulate men. Serafina Pekkala and the other witches may seem powerful but they spend centuries pining over their dead human lovers, and finally die of grief. The only decent female character is the physicist, Mary Malone.
Considering that Pullman was actually trying to write a series to counter the sexist ideas in the Bible, I think he failed to do what Tolkien did more than 50 years ago.
As much as I enjoyed reading ‘Northern Lights’, with it’s daemons and Dust and armoured bears, I will probably not be rereading it again and again, the way I read LOTR.