THE CONTROVERSY over Harry Potter is still brewing in the USA. Parents in South Carolina are pressing their Board of Education to ban the best-selling children's stories. "The books have a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil", said one mother, in her deposition to the board. No doubt the books are attracting attention precisely on account of their success: they have sold 30 million worldwide. But if one was going to start banning books, there are numerous candidates that seem to me to be far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry.
The children's market is glutted with tomes a million times more sinister. This is particularly true in the area of fantasy fiction, which appeals to children as they approach their teens.
One such is the trilogy by Philip Pullman, entitled His Dark Materials. The first volume in the series, Northern Lights, won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Award when it was published in 1995. The second volume, The Subtle Knife, followed in 1997, and the third volume is due out next year. The books deal with the adventures of a girl named Lyra, who sets out for the far north in search of a friend who has been kidnapped, and to find the man she at first thinks is her uncle, but who turns out to be her father. His name is Lord Asriel.
Lyra inhabits a different universe from our own. In that universe the Church is an evil institution, the Magisterium an oppressive body (no, really?) At the heart of the story is a perfectly foul woman called Mrs Coulter, creator of the General Oblation Board, which goes around kidnapping children in order to conduct horrible experiments on them in a remote polar station (hence the popular title given to the kidnappers — the "gobblers").
The motive for using children has to do with something called "dust", which is linked to original sin, and settles on children as they reach puberty. The experiments have to do with separating them from their "daemons", a type of "animal familiar" which embodies the soul. Whilst the child's daemon can change shape, an adult's is fixed as a particular creature, revealing the adult's identity.
In the second book the plot thickens. Lyra finds her way through to two other worlds, one of them our own, from which a boy named Will is escaping after having accidentally killed someone, and the third an accursed place infested with "spectres"who roam around sucking the souls out of adults, leaving only the children untouched. Will becomes the guardian of a magical knife, which can cut through the fabric which separates the worlds.
Whilst the children are aided by witches (one of whom is tortured to death by a Cardinal, no less), the mystery surrounding Lord Asriel starts to unfold. It seems he is the leader of an army of angels who are rebelling against the "Authority" (God). They have rebelled before, and lost. This time, with the help of the knife, they intend to win.
Here is how the conflict is described by one of the central characters. "There are two great powers, and they've been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of wisdom and knowledge and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit."
There are many things to discuss in all this, and it is possible that Pullman, who used to teach mythology and story-telling to trainee teachers at a Methodist college, is still intending to pull his neo-Gnostic plot inside out in the third volume. But for now, one central point needs to be addressed. The books, which approach the Harry Potter stories in popularity among the nine-plus age range, leave the average, non-Catholic child with a serious case of conceptual contamination. By co-opting Catholic terminology and playing with Judeo-Christian theological concepts, Pullman is effectively removing, among a mass audience of a highly impressionable age, some of the building blocks for future evangelisation. J K Rowling doesn't do this, for all that she is writing about many of the same themes.
It is interesting that the "dementors" in the third Harry Potter novel. who perform a similar function to that of the spectres in The Subtle Knife, can in fact be fought off. And though Harry's parents have died in a terrible fashion, and the evil entity who killed them is still out there, this is nothing compared to the horror at the heart of Pullman's books, in which evil seeps out of the very things we are accustomed to find refuge in: parents, priests, and God himself. Truly the stuff of nightmares.