1995: Two years before the release of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone -- Scholastic published the first of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials (HDM) trilogy.
That book, Northern Lights, and later the entire trilogy, flew under the radar, at least in America, due, in part, to the massive success of Rowling's wizarding series. Pullman himself has stated:
I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak. I'm a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people - mainly people from America's Bible Belt - who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven't got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God. SOURCE
Despite this taunt -- Pullman is practically inviting dissent -- HDM never quite caught on in America, and fundamentalists aren't likely to boycott books that kids (or adults, for that matter) aren't reading. As a result, "America's Bible Belt" continued to focus on Harry as Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass built-up a dedicated following, amassing a few awards [wikipedia] along the way.
Anyone looking for proof that fundamentalist religious outrage is little more than a marketing tool need read no further.
HOLLYWOOD TO THE RESCUE
New Line Cinema, looking to ride the wave of fantasy success reinvigorated by the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, released The Golden Compass (using the Americanized title of the first book) on December 7, 2007 -- the first of three planned adaptations of Pullman's HDM series.
Months before that, Bill Donahue (President of The Catholic League) released the following statement:
Atheism for kids. That is what Philip Pullman sells. It is his hope that 'The Golden Compass,' which stars Nicole Kidman and opens December 7, will entice parents to buy his trilogy as a Christmas gift. It is our hope that the film fails to meet box office expectations and that his books attract few buyers. We are doing much more than hoping--we are conducting a nationwide two-month protest of Pullman's work and the film. SOURCE
The obvious response to Donahue's objection (mirrored by the objections of a few other extremist Christian groups) is to point out that his "atheist agenda" argument is unsupportable by facts: Atheism is an outright rejection of the possibility of God while HDM includes God as a major character - not to mention an entire host of Angels, the concept of "souls" and three-books-worth of the sort of spirituality that flies in the face of true, unflappable atheism.
In other words, if Donahue had bothered to read the books, all of this would have been apparent. On the other hand, if he had read the books, he may have found a few other "agendas" to protest, with far more credibility.
HIS DARK MATERIALS PROMOTES AN UNDENIABLE ANTI-RELIGION (ANTI-DOGMA) AGENDA
This much is obvious and is supported by Pullman, through two of his characters:
For example, Ruta Skadi, a witch and friend of Lyra's calling for war against the Magisterium in Lyra's world, says that "For all of [the Church's] history… it's tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can't control them, it cuts them out." ... "That's what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." ... Mary Malone, one of Pullman's main characters, states that "the Christian religion… is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." SOURCE
HIS DARK MATERIALS ALSO PROMOTES A FALLIBLE "GOD" AGENDA
...not only is God (referred to as The Authority) real in the world of HDM, he's presented as a bit of a fraud: The Authority, as worshipped by the Church (this applies to any of the Churches in any of the worlds of Pullman's multiverse) has long since ceded most of his power to a Regent, the angel known as Metatron -- who lusts for control. Meanwhile, Number One has spent most of his free-time in study, and has withered to little more than a frail old man. When "God" ultimately dies, it's not at the hands of his enemies -- and certainly not at the hands of atheists -- he is destroyed by a gust of wind, which he is too weak to resist.
Pullman describes the scene in an article from 2004:
...he was as light as paper - in other words he has a reality which is only symbolic. It's not real, and the last expression on his face is that of profound and exhausted relief. That was important for me. That's not something you can easily show with a puppet to the back of the theatre. SOURCE
More heretically still, Pullman writes that The Authority (ie, the God of Christianity) and "the Creator" aren't, in fact, the same being, though he never defines who (or what) the Creator was, at least in the books, though he does expand upon the idea in another passage of the article:
...the notion is that there never was a Creator, instead there was matter, and this matter gradually became conscious of itself and developed Dust. Dust sort of precedes from matter as a way of understanding itself. The Authority was the first figure that condensed, as it were, in this way and from then on he was the oldest, the most powerful, the most authoritative.
HIS DARK MATERIALS PROMOTES A SINFUL AGENDA
Atheism aside, the central plot element spanning the three novels which make up HDM is an orchestrated attempt to reenact the Fall.
The main character, Lyra Belacqua, is to unwittingly recreate the Original Sin, essentially playing the part of a second Eve, thereby setting the stage for the events of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, in which two sides square off in an epic battle:
The Church, of course, wants nothing more than to prevent Lyra from completing her task, going so far as to absolve a priest from the sin of her murder, by tracking the person chosen to act out the role of the Serpent, Mary Malone.
The Authority's Regent, Metatron, and a host of Angels fight on the side of the Church, and fear Dust, which they believe to be the embodiment of Original Sin. Members of the Church, known as the General Oblation Board (GOB), conspire to forcefully cut young children away from their Daemans, which, in Lyra's world, are physical embodiments of the human soul. The GOB believe that doing so will preserve the child's innocence, as Dust accumulates more prominently around adults with "settled" Daemons. (Daemons can change form until children go through puberty, at which point they settle on one specific animal.) Failed experiments result in the death of many children, but even "successful" cuts culminate in a zombie-like existence -- neither death nor life.
(Many of these "half-life" beings fight as soldiers on the side of the Church, having no soul, and thus no fear of death - or of murder.)
Lyra's Father, Lord Asriel, heads up the opposition, comprised of the Witch clans, a regiment of Fallen Angels and an army of armored bears which is, in general, the sort of rag-tag crew of sinners that Bill Donahue would be expected to dislike, on principal alone.
For everyone else, choosing sides isn't a simple matter of black or white -- Pullman doesn't make it that easy. Young readers may be especially conflicted throughout much of the series: Ms. Coulter, Lord Asriel, Iorek the bear-king, the witch clans and various supporting characters -- and of course the Church -- all perform heinous and cruel acts to further their cause. Notably, Lord Asriel, a character readers will initially sympathize with, kills Lyra's best friend by cutting his Daeman away, despite opposing the similar act of intercission as it is carried out by the Church.
Throughout HDM, Pullman never endorses these methods, even if he ultimately seems to fall on the bigger-picture side of Free Will.
Ultimately, Lyra and Will are the anchors which alleviate a pervading sense of moral uncertainty, despite the fact that the former is a proud liar while the latter is a self-professed murderer. Leaving aside the actions of those fighting the battles, Pullman provides two characters to cling to -- characters of innocence who are flung into circumstances against their will, and who make choices defensively, rather than offensively. Will and Lyra are largely selfless, though they suffer setbacks when they aren't, right down to the act of consummating their sin and falling in love (thus enacting the second Fall) all the while ensuring that they can never be together. When presented with a loophole which would allow them to stay together, they refuse for the sake of the dead, who need that one possible route as an escape from Purgatory.
(In Pullman's world, Heaven and Hell do not exist. Instead, he describes a form of eternal Purgatory. The "escape route" is created by Lyra, after she utilizes the eponymous Subtle Knife, which is capable of cutting doors between worlds.)
In the end, Pullman celebrates humanistic values and an acceptance of both the good and the bad, happiness and sorrow, as part of living a full and meaningful life. With this in mind, the devastating conclusion to the series is mercifully blunted -- and the concept of "Sin" is embraced, to a degree, as part of that.
In this light, it makes sense that the more extremist pockets of Christianity would object to Pullman's books, at least now that there is a shot at mainstream Hollywood exposure by way of doing so.
"HIS DARK MATERIALS" PROMOTES AL GORE'S "GREEN" AGENDA
The Subtle Knife makes a plot point of a sudden warming trend facing Lyra's world, a trend which is definitely caused by known human, Lord Asriel, after he rips open a massive doorway into a new world by ritualistically cutting the soul from an innocent young boy. (It was a long day.) In doing so, the oceans begin to warm up in his world, and Iorek the bear king is forced to move his tribe to a mountain refuge after his kingdom begins to melt away.
Lyra's companion, Will, describes a similar problem facing our world, caused by humans putting "too many chemicals in the air."
(Pullman provides no hints as to whether Lord Asriel's Intention Craft was designed to be carbon neutral, but it does run on an alternative fuel source that shouldn't drive up the price of tortillas.)
"HIS DARK MATERIALS" PROMOTES A HOMOSEXUAL AGENDA
Once again, J.K. Rowling steals Pullman's thunder: Not long after the release of the Potter finale, she went on record with details of Albus Dumbledore's sex life: Everyone's favorite wizard was gay all along; we just didn't know it.
Meanwhile, Pullman includes not one but two gay characters in his series finale and, as if that wouldn't be enough, they're both angels. Whereas Rowling waited to "out" Dumbledore -- Pullman doesn't save the reveal for a press conference: His characters are gay and, dammit all, they're presented that way as part of his book. To be fair, Baruch and Balthamos are fallen angels (they fight against the Church) and the claim is that Balthumas was female when he was human, which makes him something of a post-life transsexual. Still. Gay angels: HDM has 'em, and they're portrayed heroically.
There are certainly other subversive concepts buried within the pages of HDM (evolution is referenced on more than one occasion) but those outlined above should suffice as a serviceable "Cliff's Notes" of moral outrage -- suitable for both fundamentalist religious organizations and extremist political agendas.
Pullman is unlikely to lose sleep over the possibility of all this extra attention: Each time these concepts are trotted out in an effort to "protect" others from the alleged risks of reading the series, his "fiction" is further validated as truth.
Ultimately, the biggest reason for Fundamentalists to fear Pullman's books, and the movies they have inspired, boils down to the fact that they are written around the conceit that people are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves.
The following links contain useful information about Pullman, his themes and the controversies surrounding the HDM series, discovered during the writing of this article:
A snippet from a thirdway.org interview, providing an interesting counter-point to accusations that Pullman provides no "moral" religious characters throughout the HDM trilogy:
But why is there no light and shade? It's striking that you don't portray the rebels as particularly good – Lord Asriel is as wicked as Mrs Coulter, I would say – and yet the followers of the Authority are monolithically odious, even though you admit that in real life there are decent people among the servants of God.
OK, that's an artistic flaw.
A flaw in the artistry or a flaw in the argument?
I'm not making an argument, or preaching a sermon or setting out a political tract: I'm telling a story. And I accept that if I'd had more time to think about it, no doubt I would have put in a good priest here or there, just to show they're not all horrible.
But there we are. If you're writing a novel, especially a long story of thirteen hundred pages, there are always going to be things you wish you'd done differently. Artistic perfection is not achievable in anything much over the length of a sonnet. SOURCE
Pullman eventually plans to publish a follow-up to the HDM series, The Book of Dust, which "will address the questions about the lack of portrayals of positive effects of religion in His Dark Materials..." SOURCE
Finally, an outstanding (seven page) article from The New Yorker, providing an in-depth look at the themes of Pullman's HDM trilogy: