Cthulhu and the Dreaded Questions

I have avoided using the word “atheism” in this project for a reason.

In some ways, it is far too narrow a term to do the job necessary. There are many kinds of people that look to science for answers, draw inspiration on variants of Darwin’s theory, and prefer naturalistic explanations for what goes on in the world around us. Some are rationalists, while others embrace intuition. While some certainly do disbelieve in any sort of God, others are for more open to a wide range of supernatural beings and phenomena. Some are even churchgoing Christians. Of course, many don’t really give greater religious or philosophical issues much thought, simply absorbing the vague habits of the culture around them. And for many, applying a religious/philosophical label like “atheist” entirely misses the point. Political or social and entertainment subcultures have far more significance to some people than metaphysical views, however important those views may be in grand scheme of things.

But when we talk about Cthulhu, we have to talk about atheism. This eldritch star-spawn derives his entire character, all his dread and primal horror, from the fact that to humanity, he can only be perceived as a divine being. Almost as disturbing as the tentacle elder being himself is the existence of his worldwide cult, that most ancient of devil-worshipping religions. When talking about Lovecraft’s ancient aliens, you can just be talking history. H. G. Wells can be about time and biology, and X-Men can be about race and politics. But when you speak of Cthulhu, you are dealing with theology.

The Call of Cthulhu is Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s signature work. It forms the central piece of his mythology, and the title creature has become emblematic of cosmic horror in the popular consciousness. But far more than being a masterpiece of its genre, this story is a commentary on the origin and nature of human religion. It is that very commentary which inspires cosmic dread, which leads the characters to label the denizens of their world and the evidence of their presence not merely horrors, but “blasphemies.”

The tale, published in 1928, begins in the winter of 1926, just a few months after it was actually written. It follows the unfolding explorations of a man into the unknown, after the death of his great-uncle, George Angell, a professor of Semitic languages. Among Professor Angell’s belongings he finds a strange bas-relief, freshly made but in a style that hinted at great antiquity. Accompanying this is a bundle of rambling notes and newspaper clippings, chronicling some investigation his great-uncle had made in the year immediately preceding his death.

The papers quickly reveal that the bas-relief comes from an artist who sought help from the Semitic professor. He had been experiencing odd dreams recently, visions of a strange city with inhuman architecture, and the distant sound of alien syllables being chanted by terrible voices. He reproduced this bas-relief from his dream, and hoped that the professor could help interpret the mysterious hieroglyphs inscribed on it, beside the depiction of a monster originating from no known mythology.

At first, Professor Angell dismisses the young man as an eccentric, but when he mentions that the most commonly chanted phrase in his wandering nightmares is “Cthulhu ftaghn,” the scholar’s interest is immediately engaged. He asks the artist to keep him posted on these dreams, which continue throughout the month of March, stopping abruptly on April second. By this time, the professor has established that sensitive people throughout the world have been having these dreams, though not often ordinary people or scientists. It is as if some psychic presence is making itself felt on those more equipped to sense it.

Our protagonist then follows his great-uncle back to 1908, to a meeting of the American Archaeological Society. There a New Orleans policeman presents a small statue made of odd material to the consideration of the assembled academics. They pass it around, trying and failing to guess where it might have come from. The figure itself is remarkably like what Professor Angell would later see on the bas-relief—a creature compounded of a dragon, a man, and an octopus, though far more alien and dreadful than any of these.

One anthropologist discloses that he has seen a figure very like this on an idol he found in West Greenland. It seems there was an evil cult within a certain tribe of that region, long feared by the other native peoples. He recorded their rites, from human sacrifice to certain strange ceremonies passed down over generations. Though it was difficult to record the words of this dark liturgy in Roman characters, he did manage to take down one phrase which startled the Louisiana detective, who had heard the same thing chanted in the swamps of his own region.

                “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Prompted by the others, the Inspector—Legrasse was his name—offers the translation given to him by one of his prisoners: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Following this revelation, Legrasse recounts his story of an expedition into the swamps of Louisiana to arrest the members of a voodoo cult accused of kidnapping and murder. In the depths of the bayous, close to an evil lake where monsters resided, they came across a dreadful ceremony. Devotees danced around a circular bonfire, in the center of which was the idol. Around them were hung the bodies of those they had stolen, and as they chanted strange words, it seemed inhuman mouths chanted back. The raid was largely successful, and the captured members of that cult describe to him a religion far darker than voodoo.

“They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.”

This terrifying picture points to beings from beyond this world, strangers to the earth and humanity. These being, worshipped as gods, were beyond death, still capable of psychically influencing living men. Chained in some inexplicable manner by the movements of the stars—a force greater even than them—they would one day be liberated with the aid of their dark priest Cthulhu, and the undying cult that served him.

This is a radical recontextualization of religion. Gods worshipped by ancient cults are revealed to be nothing more than powerful beings from beyond the little realm which is familiar to us. Though subject to other forces in the universe, they are immeasurably greater than man, influencing him in ways his primitive science cannot begin to fathom. Though they bear no kinship to man, and their purposes are utterly different from our own, mankind still worships them as gods, still renders them religious devotion and unflinching service.

On the one hand, this is a radical demythologizing of religion. Rather than being a way of life inspired by an encounter with the truly transcendent, it is merely the superstitious worship of a stronger creature by a weaker, either ignorant of the danger the greater being presents, or out of a quite probably vain hope that useful creatures will be allowed to live. In the same way that man worships Cthulhu, dogs might worship men, and ants might worship dogs. This is no elevated contact with the Creator of the universe, no insight into the meaning of existence, the purpose of life. This is a move of self-preservation on the part of inferior life-form afraid of a superior one.

But just as it takes religion out of the context of the truly supernatural, it places it in the context of a new mythology. This world is once again a realm where all beings struggle to survive, often against each other. There is no transcendent judge, no transcendent standard of justice which might survive the brief life of humans on this planet. But there is delusion, a sort of ignorance and superstition trying to curry favor with what mankind fears and cannot understand. That is religion in The Call of Cthulhu—a lie inspired by fear.

But Lovecraft does not set forth some heroic alternative. There is no optimism in his world, no redemption from the terrifying vistas that surrounded a humanity beleaguered by monsters on this little island in the void. No, while he might look down the Eskimos and “mixed-blooded” cultists of the Louisiana swamps, he cannot exactly propose an alternative to their superstition—other than ignorance.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

In some ways, Lovecraft is the Calvinist of materialism. He does not promise that our own effort can save us, does not allow that the human spirit might be capable of dealing with the darkness in the world. No, instead he offers us the hard truth. Regardless of what we wish, the universe is what it is. It is not centered on us, does not take into account the feelings or petty presumptions of mankind. It is far vaster than the little patch we live in, and the rules of its operation are merciless and without exception. Of course, unlike the Calvinist, Lovecraft offers no salvation. There is no election in his world, and the ironclad laws have nothing to do with standards of behavior, only the grinding of eons and great forces against the thin edifice of our existence.

The Call of Cthulhu is a profound tale skillfully told. The masterful way Lovecraft layers and interweaves the narratives of our protagonist, his great-uncle, the artist, the anthropologist, the inspector, and others, keeps the reader constantly off-balance, switching from one view to another. But always those multiple views are driving at the same chain of evidence, towards the same inevitable conclusion. It builds from abstract philosophizing and the quiet dealings of an inheritor with the estate of a relative, up through rising action, from nightmares, and then a chilling police raid, and ultimately to a terrifying encounter with a monster on the edge of reality. It is no wonder this quiet New England writer has had the impact he did.

Christians would do well to learn from this insight into one potential materialist worldview. From this perspective we can see why some atheists find it so easy to dismiss believers, to simply not engage with the questions or ideas that Christians or other religious people have to offer. Confronted with such a view of the world, how could you not desire to drown your own fear of the uncaring universe, of the ultimate void, in easy ignorance and self-deception? To such a person, religion looks childish, the inability of weak people to confront reality like an adult. Have not many Calvinists treated broader, softer evangelicalism in much the same way?

Still, it is critical to keep in mind that this view does not represent the attitude of all who subscribe to a naturalist and evolutionary view of the universe. It is far different than the optimism of much of mainstream popular culture—utterly different from the sunny progressivism of Star Trek or the X-Men. The X-Files unmistakably fit in this scientific and Darwinian milieu, but is infinitely more hopeful, and far more human. Even the first season of True Detective, a show that confronts these themes more powerfully and directly than most, ultimately ends with a note of redemption and humanistic optimism utterly absent from The Call of Cthulhu. And as a result, all of these can have a far different perspective on the meaning of religion, and its place in society.

The Call of Cthulhu is a startlingly clear example of why I believe this project is important, why Christians need to examine deeply the stories told by those who hold to different worldviews. Not only can we gain a greater understanding of those people, and a greater sympathy—something essential to an evangelical attitude—but we can also gain a greater understanding of how stories reflect the deepest and most profound beliefs and longings of a culture.

Here we see the terror of certain understandings of reality, but also the refusal to ever actually give in to reassuring lies. There is a profound maturity, a profound adultishness present in this confrontation with the indifference of the cosmos. But in that terror and maturity we also see the love of something else, of a world that man can be at home in. In that longing for a world that Lovecraft believes does not exist, we see the incredible meaning and power of the Christian Gospel. If it is in fact true that a Creator does exist, and if it is in fact true that man is his special creation, and that all the suffering in the world is ultimately to be destroyed and all that is good is ultimately to be redeemed—that is a far more profound and joyous Gospel in light of such a dark alternative. If that is the case, then we ought to value our faith all the more—and we should also be more conscious of the value it might have for others.

Of course, all this is under the assumption that our faith does in fact conform with reality, that we are not just trembling ants grasping superstitiously at whatever might deliver us from the terrifying world round about. And to justify that assumption, we have to be willing to honestly confront the questions that trouble both us and our neighbors. Naturalism and Darwinism are not competitors to be shouted down—they are questions that must be answered. If we are right to offer the answers we do, then we must know how those answers address the questions—and we must not be afraid to ask the questions.

Of course, not every person has time to mire themselves in a thousand scientific, metaphysical, and exegetical issues. But as a community, as Christ’s body, we cannot stifle such discussions. Some among us must actually be willing to sincerely engage in them, to think and write and speak about them. We cannot all be philosophers, apologists, and theologians, but we are, as a community, called to be salt and light. Some among us must deal with them.

So, as someone interested in stories, I offer this investigation. If we delve deep into the mythology of the society we are a part of, we can learn what their concerns are, see the things they hold dear and the questions they struggle to answer. Perhaps in doing so we will find a way forward in our cultural engagement, either as apologists and evangelists, or else as storytellers in our own right. If The Call of Cthulhu is the product of Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentism, then what is the product of a writer who sincerely believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? There are few riddles more worth answering.

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At the Mountains of Madness

There are few modern myths so exciting as the journey of discovery. The thrill of blazing trails into some unknown land, a land from which no rumors have come, of which no stories are told—such a thrill is only matched by that wild moment when one discovers the ruins of some ancient and vast civilization, so glorious past that has lain undiscovered for eons.

H. P. Lovecraft lived on the tail end of this era. Few truly unknown civilizations were being uncovered in the 1930’s, but the British empire had reached its zenith at that point, carrying back rumors of the distant east, of Tibetan lamas, and the highest mountains in the world. Rumors drifted back of yetis, and of Shambhala. The first successful expeditions to the north and south poles had already taken place as well, and with the advent of both submarines and airplanes, man began to push himself to greater heights, and more profound depths.

But Lovecraft, being Lovecraft, took this theme of discovery and made it terrifying. Though many of his stories deal with curious scientists and scholars, At the Mountains of Madness is perhaps the closest he comes to Indiana Jones. It begins with a man named Professor William Dyer of Miskatonic University in Arkham, Massachusetts informing us that he is publishing this account of his expedition to Antarctica only to dissuade another expedition, the Starkweather-Moore expedition, from daring to enter that frightful region. With great reluctance, he begins to recount what proves to be a uniquely disastrous and horrible journey of discovery.

The Miskatonic University expedition consists of twenty-five men and fifty-five dogs, four airplanes, and some modified former whaling ships. Their voyage is already a long one before they reach Antarctica, and they are not long there before their drilling into the bedrock of the icy continent yields intriguing results. One of their number, Professor Lake, decides to lead an advance group of the expedition farther into the mountains, with Dyer and the others to follow after. We have already seen these mountains in exploratory flights, and there is something strange and foreboding about them. They jutted higher into the atmosphere than the fabled Himalayas—at the time of Lovecraft’s writing, Mt. Everest had not yet been summited—and their slopes bore oddly regular geometric shapes, artificial in appearance.

Lake sends back reports of the things they find there, including strange creatures deep in the rock, at a depth that defies contemporary understanding of the geologic timescale. They are simply too old. And what is more, they are a strange blend of animal and plant, perhaps even fungus. Their barrel shape and starfish heads are unlike anything ever seen, and their bat-like wings prevent the scientists from categorizing them as some form of sea life. At any rate, while six of these strange creatures are wrecked, the bodies of the other eight are in pristine condition, having endured countless eons without decay.

Already Lovecraft is playing with the limits of human knowledge, taking the best of our science at a time when we are most proud of it, and punching holes in it. All it takes is a few strange specimens and our whole account of the history of life on earth is wrecked. For now, though, Lake is excited. To him, this is not a setback, but the beginning of a scientific revolution for which he will get credit.

Things soon take a turn for the worse. Dyer loses contact with Lake’s party, and goes forward to investigate. He finds the camp destroyed, the bodies of men and dogs horribly mangled. One man in particular, and his canine companion, bare unmistakable signs of having been dissected. Books, largely picture books, are found lying open around the camps, and various articles have been fiddled with. Outside, there are six mounds, under each of which are buried one of the six damaged specimens. The other eight are nowhere to be found. The explorers try to pass this off on a man named Gedney, who is missing, and they assume has gone mad.

Disturbed, but not quite deterred, Dyer and his companions fly deep into the titular mountains, into a vast city of odd, yet strangely familiar architecture. They set out into the city, exploring its fabulous ruins. The whole thing appears to have been hastily abandoned, emptied of everything mobile, and most of the shutters closed. On the walls they find remarkably clear pictures which tell a startling story about the inhabitants of the city, creatures which resemble the Elder Things of the dreadful Necronomicon.

It seems the Elder Things were a highly evolved species, capable of flying on their bat-like wings through space and sustaining themselves on distant starlight. Through the vast reaches of the black abyss they came to an empty planet, the Earth as it existed not long after the Moon separated from it. It was empty, barren of all life. The Elder Things settled there, but they were in need of servants, of slaves to do their hard work for them. And so they experimented, creating a variety of lifeforms, animal and vegetable. Some proved to be good for food, others for other purposes. Last of all, they created their slave race, the Shoggoths. These fulfilled their needs, and other beings were allowed to escape their notice, where unchecked evolution worked on them, and they began to grow more recognizable. Among these was a vaguely simian creature, unmistakably human in certain ways, which served as an entertaining joke to its careless creators.

This radical relativization of humanity is truly startling. Man is not the descendent of gods, or even of some noble lineage of creatures struggling its way up through eons of Darwinian combat to achieve dominance. Man is a buffoon, a byproduct of the leftovers of experiments of a race that is foreign to this planet, and whose concerns are alien. Indeed, it is terrifyingly clear that these Elder Things are far more highly evolved than mankind, both biologically and technologically far more advanced than the scientists could ever fathom.

If this does not seem so startling in a culture that, for the most part, eagerly accepts unguided evolution and countless millions of years of bloody struggle for survival, think how it must have felt to a society still largely in the grip of an explicitly Christian worldview. Merely being told scientific facts means little. One can still imagine man having some sort of special place in the universe. One can still believe our apparent dominance over the other known lifeforms is somehow natural, the way things have always been, and should always be. Lovecraft denies us this. Man is not special. Indeed, as we will see elsewhere, not even the Elder Things have some sacred or unique place in the cosmos. Even our accidental creators are not the most powerful entities on the scale of being.

The next step deeper into this world where man is no longer at the center comes with a subtle but profound reimagining of Lovecraft’s mythos. Out of the stars descends Cthulhu and his octopus-like spawn, to challenge the dominance of the Elder Things on the planet. These new creatures drove the Elder Things down into the sea, and took the land for themselves. After eons, peace was made. Then, suddenly, the lands in the Pacific, included the fabled city of R’lyeh, sank into the sea. The Elder Things alone ruled the Earth once more, except for a nameless fear of which they did not speak.

At first glance, this may not seem so radical. In earlier stories, however, Cthulhu appeared to be a dark god, perhaps from another dimension, some plane of reality humans could not fathom. His influence was psychic, and the whole story had occult overtones. The terror it inspired came from the fact that despite being so alien, he was so near, and had so profound and subtle an influence on the humanity he threatened. Now, however, he is truly alien. Any mystical or semi-divine properties he had are placed back in a decidedly naturalist, evolutionary context. Cthulhu and his spawn are merely another species struggling for survival, and not invulnerable, though certainly strong beyond the reckoning of men. We may perceive him as a god, but he is on the same scale of being we are, though unutterably high above us.

But when Cthulhu goes to sleep beneath the waves, this does not mean the dominance of the Elder Things is assured. Over generations they forget their old methods of creating and manipulating life, and become dependent on the Shoggoths that already exist. And, as all things wish to survive, to control their own destiny, the Shoggoths grow restless under the iron tentacle of their masters and revolt. This rebellion is swiftly put put down with atomic weaponry, and from that time forward they are tightly controlled.

Still, the struggle of the Elder Things is not over. Out of space descends another race, the half-fungus, half-crustacean Mi-Go, first mentioned in The Whisperer in the Darkness. As part of their campaign, the Elder Things attempted to launch themselves into space as they had done countless times in the past. Something, however, had changed, and in the millions of intervening years, they had forgotten the secret, The Mi-Go were victorious, driving the Elder Things back into the sea, from which they retreated to the last remaining free continent—Antarctica.

In this account of repeated assaults on the alien civilization, always from their point of view, Lovecraft seems to be evoking a certain measure of sympathy for the terrible creatures. Despite their wildly inhuman aspect, and despite the terrible implications of their existence for the human race, they have a will, they have a personality. They fight, they struggle for survival, they explore, they experiment, they build great civilizations. And they are, after all, our ancestors in some sense of the word. Lovecraft even compares the matter which composes them to the exotic, almost phantasmal stuff of which the Cthulhu spawn and Mi-Go are made. The Elder Things are, in a grander cosmic sense, very like us.

This impression is confirmed in dramatic fashion not long after. The explorers realize that the Elder Thing civilization, undergoing a slow decline into decadence, found itself unable to withstand the increasing cold of the Antarctic region. They descended into a deep abyss, where they built a new city. The carvings on the wall showed the explorers how to get there.

They set off at once, deep into the bowels of the city. They uncover the unmistakable signs of travelers having recently gone before them. Eventually they find a camp in which are items taking from Lake’s advance party. Here, covered by a tarp, they at last find Gedney and the missing dog, both remarkably well preserved, in the manner of specimens kept for scientific study. Suddenly, they are interrupted by a loud noise. They realize quickly it is the squawking of penguins, but of a variety which are pale, eyeless, six-foot monstrosities, adapted over eons to life underground. What, they wonder, could have disturbed them? What could have driven these chthonic creatures up to these shallow regions?

They descend once more, through vaster, stranger subterranean regions, until at last they come to a part of the tunnels where the art has a new, alien quality, like some barbaric imitation of what went before. Forms appear in the darkness, on the floor of the tunnel, and they explorers recognize them. They are Elder Things, crushed and warped, and each missing its starfish head. The ichor oozing in pools around them indicates that the kill was recent. After a moment’s recollection of the carvings seen higher up, Dyer realizes that the creatures have been killed by Shoggoths. He is caught up in a sudden rush of sympathy.

            Poor devils! Alter all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them – as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter dig up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste – and this was their tragic homecoming. They had not been even savages-for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch – perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defense against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia … poor Lake, poor Gedney… and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last – what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!

This horrified response reveals in a startling way Lovecraft’s own values. What matters is not how the creatures look, how monstrous they seem. No, these were scientists, creatures of intelligence and persistence, bravely facing the incredible. They were explorers, creatures of curiosity and rational thought. And in Lovecraft’s mind, that’s what counts. That’s what makes them men.

But the horror that consumed them is not far behind. An insidious piping issues from the depths, and up rushes a wounded Elder Thing, the shambling, protoplasmic bulk of a Shoggoth hot on its trail. Dyer and company turn and run, fleeing from the same peril that now threatens what not long before had seemed to them a monster. Now they have a common enemy, a mass of viscous, bubbling, sentient slime, barreling down the narrow tunnel like a freight train, eager to run them over. They move as fast as their legs can carry them, and the Elder Thing is unable to keep up. It is consumed. Soon they find themselves running alongside panicking penguins, and then bursting forth into the outside air. Some dumb luck, some fortuitous chance, has left their pursuer far behind them, perhaps having taken a wrong turn. They rush back to the plane and ascend into the thin air of those high mountains, free from the horrors of the deep.

Yet the nightmare is not quite over. Thought those Antarctic mountains were higher than the Himalayas, they were not Earth’s highest. The carvings of the Elder Things told of a range far higher, one just beyond that great polar range, shrouded in perpetual mists. Until now that translucent covering had shielded them from view, but now one of Dyer’s companions looked back, and saw beyond the thinning mists to those highest peaks, and what lay beyond them. What he saw drove him mad.

Lovecraft does not tell us what was seen. He gives us hints, speaks of Kaddath, the colour out of space, the original, the eternal, the undying. Whatever it is, the man who saw it will not say, though we know he is the only member of the expedition that has read entirely through the Necronomicon. There are good guesses to be made, but all we know for certain is that it was mystery deeper and more terrible than anything they had yet seen in those mountains of madness.

This is significant. Dyer’s expedition has plumbed the depths and uncovered things which shattered our preconceived notions of reality, yet not even this is the end. There remain darker, vaster, more maddening mysteries still, so far beyond the comprehension of mankind as to be unutterable. Our scientific inquiries, our journeys of explanations, all our great victories of rational thought come to nothing in the end. The universe was not made for man; it is not interpretable by him. We are a grim joke, an accident of experimentation irrelevant to our makers, themselves now doomed. Why should we expect to be able to understand what is out there?

From first to last, At the Mountains of Madness is dedicated to dispelling the illusions humanity has about its own place in the universe. In a naturalist world, there is no god or pantheon or primal force to give our existence meaning. We are no more unique or special than the monstrous spawn of distant stars—and they themselves are not privileged. Calamity may descend on them as on any other creature.

Note Dyer’s reaction, however. It is one common to other protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories. He warns us away. He does not ask us to seek to alter our precarious position in the cosmos—that is impossible. He does not point us to outside help, either. In an ultimate sense, there can be none. All lifeforms are independent of each other, are bound together by no purposeful cosmic order. They are all engaged in a Darwinian struggle for survival, and all—so it seems—subject to eventual destruction. Nor does he ask us to come to terms with this knowledge. It cannot help us. He simply asks us to accept our position. Humanity must embrace its ignorance, for it is the only thing capable of keeping us from going mad.

There are, of course, other takes on evolutionary naturalism. Some are far more optimistic. This, however, is inspired by the same facts, the same set of beliefs. Here is a world without any supernatural reality. Here is a world where life develops primarily via natural selection. For Lovecraft, the implications of such a world are unspeakably horrific.

At the Mountains of Madness is a stunning Lovecraftian tale, and it has had an immeasurable—if not widely acknowledged—effect on the popular consciousness. In the near future I want to explore those effects, tracing the influences of this and similar stories, such as The Shadow Out of Time, on fringe science and Hollywood. Lovecraft’s legacy there is an enormous one, and he is to be credited for determining the shape of much of popular evolutionary naturalism. Stay tuned for the next step on our journey.

Explorations in Modern Mythology

Reality inspires fantasy. Love poetry exists because lovers exist. Adventures are recounted because people encounter and overcome peril. Real horror exists in the world, twisted men and monsters. So we tell stories about them.

But when we delve into deeper beliefs, into ideas more profound and more fundamental to how we see the world, our stories take on themes more powerful and more resonant than those of the average daydream. When we speak of life and death, of the purpose of existence, of the laws of nature and of human nature, the stories we tell become something else. They become mythology.

Belief inspires this kind of story, whether that belief is true or false, rational or irrational. Every community wants to pass on its deepest wisdom, wants to contemplate the grandest mysteries of its creed. Christians have the canon of Scripture, but we also reach out and spin other stories. Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, the best of medieval romance, Shakespeare, Spenser, even the ribaldry of Chaucer, and countless others all tell stories inspired by their authors’ convictions as members of a Christian society.

Since the invention of the printing press, and of the silver screen, man’s love of telling stories has been given free rein. We have become a culture that is telling stories constantly, film after film, book after book. Never have we seen such a vast number of stories being told and retold at such a fast pace.

The technological advances that led to this boom in storytelling came of age at the same time as another cultural phenomenon. Charles Darwin gave voice to a movement of skepticism that had been growing since the Enlightenment. He provided an explanation for the diversity of life and the astounding suitedness of most species to their environment which involved no divine intervention. Early evolutionary theory swept away the need for what many considered primitive superstitions and replaced them with rational science.

This view of the world which rejected miracles and the divine—a position referred to as philosophical naturalism—and which embraced the principles of natural selection and common descent soon took hold of the scientific community. As it spread among the learned, it emerged into the popular consciousness as a striking picture of the universe, a world of vast distances in time and space, of unimaginable transformations across eons, and a bloody struggle for survival and progress up out of the slime. It struck artists, it inspired storytellers, and a mythology began to grow.

The story of evolutionary naturalism’s place in the popular consciousness is a fascinating one. The ideas of that worldview have captured the minds of such men as H. G. Wells, Joss Whedon, H. P. Lovecraft, Bryan Singer, and Robert E. Howard. It permeates the worlds of Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, The X-Files, much of the comic universes of Marvel and DC, and the first season of True Detective. 2001: A Space Odyssey is nothing if not a meditation on such a universe. Everywhere we look in popular culture, we see philosophical naturalism, accompanied by the fundamental insights of Darwin’s theory (the details have long since evolved in other directions).

Over the past year or so, I have studied these works and others. This has often yielded profound insights into our cultural consciousness, and into human nature in general. It has also revealed many great artists worth revisiting, and stories worth telling. The knee-jerk reaction of many Christians might be to avoid such investigations, but God is the creator of all mankind, and of the world we live in, not just of the church. There is much to be learned in every corner of creation.

At some point after beginning this journey, I decided to post my thoughts publicly, offering something of a guide to evolutionary naturalism in pop culture. It is my goal to draw attention to the ways in which that worldview has inspired stories, the ways in which people have responded to their own beliefs. Human nature has certain laws, certain desires and antipathies, that carry across time and space, that transcend both cultural and national boundaries, and lend their character in striking ways to the most insignificant of objects. In pursuing this line of inquiry, we can learn much, not only about evolutionary naturalism, but about mankind in general.

The first glimmer of this project can already be seen in my posts on Conan and the Marvel Universe in general. In the coming weeks and months, I want to delve into Wells, Lovecraft, The Planet of the Apes, and the works of Joss Whedon. I also hope to revisit Conan in more detail, and other narrative universes as opportunities arise. I hope your interest is peaked enough to join me on this voyage of discovery. It’s been an exciting one so far, and I expect it will lead to many more strange and wonderful places.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian

The Hyborian Age—where all the women were supple and all the men had mighty thews.

The world of Conan is a riot of wildly diverse races, cultures, and civilizations. Roman-inspired troops fight pseudo-Egyptians, there are echoes of Babylon and Persia, grim Celto-Germans, fearsome steppe nomads, and Picts that more closely resemble a caricature of native Americans than ancient British tribes. Speaking of native Americans, there are Aztecs too, or perhaps Mayans, though considering one of their number is named “Olmec,” it’s hard to tell. An Iranistan resembling old Orientalist legends of the Ottoman Empire butts up against a desert filled with Cossacks and a distant pseudo-India. The Far East is out there somewhere, and the jungles, plains, and deserts of “the Black Kingdoms.”

This incoherent mix of cultures from every era and part of the world is engaged in a constant struggle for survival, where only the mightiest races can survive. And race is very key in the story. If you cut Howard, he bleeds with that old style of Darwinian racism that is no longer in vogue among scientifically minded progressives. The darker the skin, the more savage—usually—the person. Peoples’ characters are defined by their bloodlines, genetics having a strange amount of weight in an otherwise Nietzschean, will-centered story universe.

The overall effect is an intriguing one. Are Aquilonians Roman or high medieval France? How did a Mesoamerican people sprout out of what appears to be Egyptian stock? Are the Egypt-inspired Stygian sorcerers actually any different from the Shemite villains Conan meets elsewhere? Are the Cimmerians Celts, or Germans, or Scythians, or something else altogether? What is the difference between the black men whose race makes them little more than animals in Conan’s sight, and the black men Conan is willing to call his friends?

This wild riot is intriguing. There’s always something new—if not terribly so—and each piece of the puzzle is just suggestive enough to make you want to fit them all together, to form a coherent view of Conan’s world. At every turn, however, you are confronted with contradictory bits of information, or some strange new problem that destroys the picture you thought was coming into view. Still, the fruitlessness of the exercise does not diminish its effect. With each new story, you are drawn into the world and wondering at every new and exotic person, city, custom, or creature that comes around the corner.

While Howard’s Darwinian racism is more central to his stories, and expressed in far more violent outbursts than in those of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft, it is qualified in an interesting way. Though Conan looks down in contempt at so many peoples for being uncivilized and barbaric, barbarism is clearly something both Conan and his creator admire. There is something more primal and more excellent about a wild man, a barbarian, a wolf in human form, than in the soft folk of more civilized stock. It is always the city folk who are the first to die, and one particular story makes it startlingly clear that all civilization goes this way. In Conan’s world, the natural state of man is wild barbarism, barely elevated above the animals. That is the place where human excellence thrives, and all civilization must ultimately bow before this fact as it is swept away in the sands of time and only the strong, the wild, the primitive remains. In such a world, how seriously can we take the supposed inferiority of Pictish hordes or Afghuli tribesmen?

Conan himself is an interesting puzzle. Like Superman, he’s impossible to beat, but he is far more cynical than that golden-age American hero. The only law he recognizes is survival, the only good he knows is the pleasure of his own belly—supple women, power, and gold. Indeed, the coldly predatory way he sometimes treats women is shocking, despite Howard’s unwillingness to cross certain lines or his studied avoidance of any entirely explicit sexual content. Conan is a creature powered largely by his lizard brain, made unstoppable by the might of his arm and his rough upbringing in the hills of Cimmeria.

Then again, Conan sometimes does make a moral choice. He saves a woman rather than treasure, goes back to save a newly-met traveling companion rather than fleeing to safety. Sometimes this is waved away with a cynical comment about how it was in his own self-interest in a roundabout way, or the careless acknowledgment that risking his neck like that was a poor choice, one he probably will not repeat. But sometimes it seems like Conan is developing human qualities that have little to do with the primitive pleasure-centers of his brain. There might be some character hiding under all the raw barbarian muscle.

The Lovecraft connection really cannot be ignored. Nods are given to that mythos, certainly, but they share a larger underlying logic. Lovecraft sets out in his work to tear down man’s presumptuously anthropocentric view of the universe. He does so by introducing his characters to inhuman beings of great antiquity, of vast power, and who little notice or care what happens to feeble humankind. Entire civilizations struggled up from the slime before us, many dwell beside us, and many more will outlive us. We are less than a footnote in the annals of cosmic history.

Howard also takes a crack at our anthropocentric presuppositions, but from another point of view. Rather than drawing attention to what gods or monsters might exist beyond the limits of our knowledge—though they certainly do exist in this world—Howard draws attention to our own continuity with the forms of life below us. All too often, Conan stumbles across a race of men that look and act a little too apelike. At other times, he runs across apes that act far too human. Conan himself is often said to have more in common with a jungle dragon or a wild wolf than he does with civilized men. He even knows the name and sign of a god the animals worship but man has long forgotten. Always we are reminded that men are merely beasts, and beasts may be more cunning, or stronger, than men. After all, many races of man have little more intelligence than the apes from which they are descended. The illusion that we are special is constantly dashed.

This is why racism is so prominent in Conan’s world. It’s the entire point. Man is just another beast in the struggle for survival. At any point he is arising from another species of ape, or diverging along two evolutionary paths. Just as the Atlanteans once overcame the other stocks of men in their world, and the Hyborians overcame the new races of men after the Cataclysm, so the “sons of Aryas” will soon wipe out what is left of Conan’s world and a new stock of human will come to dominate the surface of the planet—an event of far less consequence than such a creature might think. History is nothing but a succession of species eliminating its competitors and spreading its seed.

That, by the way, also makes the religion of the Hyborian world a far more brutal thing than in many other settings. There is no reverence among the followers of the gods, except on the part of the weak minded and easily killed. One might expect religion to be a superstition in this world, but it is not. No, the gods exist, but they are just another form of life, one more powerful than man, one that might be persuaded to help him if given the right incentive. The gods of Conan’s age are things to be cynically bartered with in acts barely distinguishable from either the summoning of a demon or the hiring of a mercenary. They are far from holy.

This is what makes the Conan movie so very different from these stories. The racism is toned far down, and the gods, though hardly treated with reverence, do not figure as hugely or as savagely in the darkness behind their sorcerous servants as they do in Howard’s originals. Where the written Conan is essentially an escapist fantasy where we get to follow the ubermensch around as his slays, lays, and plunders his way across an exoticized version of our own past, the film is a more sensitive treatment of the riddle of steel, of man’s heart and will and strength. It also asks Conan what is best in life—and wants you to seriously consider the answer as the film proceeds. While Howard’s stories certainly have some deep themes, it is rare that he explores them so philosophically. He sees, perhaps, far less meaning in life than the filmmakers, and far less wisdom to be gained from contemplating it.

Overall, the original Conan the Barbarian stories are quite a diverting smattering of adventures. Though the language gets a bit repetitive and the world never quite coheres, the zest with which Conan engages his world, the thrill of combat, of survival in dire circumstances, the wonder of strange lands—all can keep the reader spellbound for hours at a time. While I wouldn’t want to spend entire novels in this world, the occasional vacation there is enjoyable. It’s not hard to see how it inspired so many imitators and retellings. It’s quite the ride. Particularly “Beyond the Black River.”

 

Conan’s hand fell heavily on her naked shoulder.
“Stand aside, girl,” he mumbled. “Now is the feasting of swords.”

Marvel, the Gods, and Atheism

Marvel has a tense theology. Let’s lay some quick groundwork before tackling it.

One of the fundamental principles of classical monotheism is the Creator-creature distinction. Imagine a bubble. Inside is all of time and space from beginning to end. At one end of the bubble is the first domino ever knocked over, and all of reality ripples out from that first action, that first moment of creation.

Now, standing outside the bubble, outside of time and space and the chain of causality and reality as we can understand it, is the Creator. The Creator caused everything else to exist, and caused it to exist in the way it exists. But the Creator himself stands outside of that bubble of spacetime. Nothing made him exist. He just exists because that is what he does. He is the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. Among other things.

In a monotheistic universe, all of reality is shaped by the personality and by the will of the Creator. To a very great extent, everything is just mimicking what Dad does. Each thing’s meaning is defined by the meaning he gave it, and its purpose by the intensions he has for it. And because he authored it all, he has authority over it.

In the Marvel universe, and in the imagination of those who deny any such being standing outside and independent of spacetime, this is not so. Puny mortals, superheroes, and gods all exist on a spectrum. There is no fundamental distinction between them.

Take Spiderman. Spiderman has superhuman sense, superhuman reflexes, and cool web-shooters. Your average Joe might be tempted to think his powers were supernatural, even godlike. But set him next to Thor, and there’s no comparison. Thor’s got mojo. He is so clearly godlike in comparison to Peter Parker, earthlings actually worship him. But set him next to Jean Grey (a.k.a. Phoenix), and again, there’s no comparison. So what if Thor is really strong and can fly? So what if he apparently lives for eons? Phoenix is more powerful than death itself. She controls space, she controls time, and she controls the thoughts inside a person’s mind, given a good excuse. Can most of the gods of classical paganism claim that?

And that’s why Joss Whedon’s refusal to let the Avengers bow before Loki makes sense. Sure, he’s a “god,” relatively speaking. He’s got oomph. He has power. But fundamentally he’s no different than any other creature zooming around the Marvel universe. Under the right set of circumstances, he can have all that taken away. Under the right set of circumstances—say, acquiring the Infinity Gauntlet—a puny human as klutzy and awkward and harebrained as Peter Quill might become top dog in the universe. The difference between one Marvel character and another is just degrees of power, which can be won or lost. There’s no real difference in kind.

And that’s why Captain America’s offhand remark that there’s only one God is such a big freaking deal. Perhaps Joss and the producers meant it as an offhand funny remark from a charmingly out-of-date super-patriot, but it has major implications. If Captain America believes that there is still a real God, a transcendent God, someone who stands outside of the bubble and stands as Lord of the whole shebang and judge of the actions of the Avengers and those around them—that changes everything.

In a world where the chain of being is all there is, there’s no reason for Iron Man or Thor or anybody else not to play with morality. There’s no reason they shouldn’t cross a line to get things done, let a few people die in order to save the world. Break a few eggs to make an omelet. The ends justify the means. It all comes down to what you think the greater good is and what you think you can get away with. Besides, if the other guy is bigger than you, and you let something as petty as your qualms about personal freedoms, or the sanctity of life, or whatever else get in your way, you’re going to regret it. There’s no room for that in the big leagues.

But if there is a just God standing outside of that chain of being, then you might be held accountable to him. The ends do not necessarily justify the means. Superheroes do not get a blank check and a free pass when they run around destroying cities or overthrowing democratically elected governments. There is a judge who will see justice done in the long run, and you are not him. And you might guess where I’m going with this.

Marvel’s Civil War plotline is ultimately about this question. In the grand scheme of things, are there limits to the authority of the guys with the supersuits and magic powers? Are they to be held to the standards of common mortals? Is there a God standing outside the universe who presides over the destinies of planets and the fates of the Avengers, or is it all a conflict between different degrees of power in a mechanistic cosmos? If the former, let’s put some brakes on Tony Stark. If the latter… maybe we leave the tough calls up to him. After all, he’s bigger.

Before I bring this in for a landing, let’s bring in another fictional universe. This is why H.P. Lovecraft, the materialist par excellence, is so comfortable with a universe filled with so many gods. The line between atheism and polytheism isn’t one that separates two fundamentally different mythologies. It’s just a question of terminology. If you believe that the world is one vast uncaring void, then maybe some small creatures the universe doesn’t care about worship other, larger creatures the universe also doesn’t care about. The gods of a polytheistic universe aren’t deities in any ultimate or transcendent sense, but they sure do look like it compared to the ants walking around beneath them. The Christian—or Muslim, or Jewish—disbelief in the gods of polytheism is simply nothing like the atheist’s or some polytheists’ disbelief in the Creator God.

And that is why Captain America can still not believe in pagan gods, even after hanging out with one.

Two Kinds of God and Sloppy Argumentation

“Some contemporary writers zealous for God’s unrivaled authority have expressed concern about natural law thinking, supposing that it presents a potential competitor with God. But whether this might be true in a kind of universe where God was a finite, Zeus-like, immaterial extra-terrestrial, and natural law some impersonal surd structuring the universe without an explanation for its existence, it is certainly not true in the theology and cosmology of classical theism.”

This is one thing that bugs me about some discussions concerning religion. People often equate gods like Zeus, Marduk, or Thor with the God of the Bible. But where the former gods are finite–though extraordinarily powerful and relatively inhuman–immaterial extraterrestrials, who exist within the universe and are subject to its laws, the God of the Bible (and the creators proposed by other monotheist faiths) transcends the universe and its laws, standing outside it, and in fact creating and sustaining it.

In other words, God is not Cthulhu, mighty and inscrutable, but ultimately subject to other superhuman forces and the passage of time. He’s not on top simply because he’s got more power, whatever form that power takes. God’s authority comes from the fact that he is author and creator, the one who established the universe and its laws, and everything in it. We belong to him because we came out of his head, and out of his spoken word, not because he’s big and can smash us.

Atheists are free to disbelieve in such a God, but to equate such a transcendent Creator with Cthulhu or Thor and so dismiss him is sloppy argumentation. It’s a category error. You’re talking about a totally different sort of being. To equate the two may work as a joke among already convinced atheists, or as an insult directed at Christians–and other believers in a creator–but it doesn’t work as logic. Disproving one is not necessarily to disprove the other, and to disbelieve in one is not necessarily to disbelieve in the other. Atheists do not simply “believe in one less god” than Christians, they disbelieve in a totally different kind of God.

The quote above is from an article on natural law in the Bible over at The Calvinist International. The site is a great resource for people interested in natural law or historic two kingdoms theology, as well as other topics of interest to Evangelical armchair and professional theologians.

The Subtle Knife

From now on my reviews will be divided into two sections. The first will be short and spoiler-free for those deciding whether to read the book, and the second will be a longer exploration of the book geared towards those who don’t mind spoilers.

Should You Read It?

This series is thoroughly atheistic, designed to be an answer to Lewis’s Narnia. It attempts to be a compelling apologetic, and it certainly is an incredibly entertaining work. If you have a sharp mind and a firm faith, this is an excellent place to learn about telling good stories with a worldview. However, this is not something to raise your kids on. By itself it’s not persuasive, but this is the sort of stuff that can be poisonous over the long haul. Tread carefully.

If You Have Read It

This book is fascinating. Pullman crams it with meaning and commentary on life. But before we get to that, can I just point out that he has some serious problems with point of view? In the first book that was fine, because Lyra was really the only one who did things. Here, however, we’ve got a ton more heads running around and Pullman is intent on jumping through them all. There are ways of pulling it off, but he barely takes a breath while switching POV’s. It’s downright disorienting. I mean, you can easily read past it, but it is annoying. Anyhow, on to the fun stuff.

Lyra and Will

Right off the bat we have a new protagonist. Will Parry is far more competent than Lyra, and Lyra figures this out quick. She falls for him, and she falls hard. It’s actually rather frightening.

Don’t get me wrong, Lyra needed to be humble and look up to somebody. When she realized that Will’s Oxford was so unlike her own, that was something I’d waited a long time for. She had to rely on someone else to be smarter than her, to take care of her, and she had to admit that she simply couldn’t handle things. Sure, she’d had doubts before, but she was nauseatingly arrogant with all the other characters.

But from that point on, the contrast becomes enormous. At every available opportunity Lyra becomes more childish and Will is shown to be more competent. A crisis comes and she rages, distraught, while he calmly considers the situation. Another crisis occurs, and a moment later Lyra chatters happily while Will’s wound continues bleeding and he struggles to keep moving.  She stops using the alethiometer on her own, letting Will call the shots. She apologizes repeatedly for the slightest thing, and repeatedly he accepts. She is mystified by the world, and he explains it to her. I am hard-pressed to think of a single incident in the book where this trend is not followed.

It’s not the degree of devotion and submission from Lyra towards Will which is jarring. Plenty more patriarchal fundamentalists would paint a relationship this way. But an atheist preaching equality and the evils of submission? That’s startling, especially after Lyra is made so much of in the first book. By the end of The Subtle Knife, it’s hard to take her seriously as a sidekick, much less as an independent protagonist.

Kids Are Evil

One of the things Will explains to Lyra is the nature of human cruelty. There is a thread spanning most of the middle of the book involving unwatched children who run about tormenting cats, each other, and eventually Will and Lyra. Lyra is shocked by this, unable to understand how children could be so mean. Like many people today, she had imagined children as a sort of noble savage, incapable of real evil.

Surprisingly, Pullman through Will insists that this is not the case. Children are violently hateful towards anything they find strange or frightening, or anything that harms them. The only thing that keeps them from murder is sheer inability. While I agree with the idea, lover of Augustine that I am, it is surprising coming from the guy who associates enlightenment and original sin, via Dust, with puberty. But Pullman is complex, and sometimes contradictory.

Magical Science

The way Pullman fuses magic and science is fantastic. Somehow he removes the spiritual realm and invests infinitesimally small particles with intelligence. Because these particles are everywhere, permeating the universe like the Force, they can be provoked into acting by apparently magical rites or by complex scientific procedures.

It’s not just the explanation, either. This whole series, but especially this book, evokes the same sense of wonder and mystery with particle physics that we ordinarily associate with enchantment. Then he turns around and treats spells with the same empirical and matter-of-fact manner with which he might treat a scientific experiment. People should do this more often.

The Conceit

As Film Crit Hulk is fond of pointing out, the ending is the conceit. With this book, no kidding. Pullman lays out his whole agenda in no uncertain terms. In fact, it was so starkly revealed the first time I read it that I was sure there was still a twist to come, that he couldn’t be serious. I was wrong, so very wrong. But that is a story for later. For now, we plow onward through the last bits of The Subtle Knife.

Doctor Malone and the Rebel Angels

When Lyra finds someone in Will’s Oxford to help her, it is an apostate nun-turned-physicist named Dr. Mary Malone. She is a rather flustered individual, in a bit of an airheaded and devoutly scientific sort of way. Honestly, I thought her portrayal was goofy, but she goes interesting places.

One of the places she goes is into a direct conversation with Dust. It turns out these intelligent particles have organized themselves into vast structures we know as angels. These angels, who guide Lyra via the golden compass and now Dr. Malone through this machine (and later through I Ching), are rebel angels. They interfered in evolution, turning humanity into a conduit for Dust as an act of revenge against God. And Doctor Malone is going to “play the serpent” for them.

The Setup

In the last part of the book we are tugged along in the asking of two questions: who is Lyra, and what is Aesahaettr?

Aesaheattr, it turns out, is the titular knife. Not only can it cut open portals between worlds, it can kill angelic beings. Which, apparently, includes God. In fact, it seems the only reason the Rebels lost the last war was that they did not possess such a weapon. Now they have that chance.

As time goes on, we also discover that Lyra is the next Eve. There are now two stories running on parallel tracks: the assassination of God and the reenactment of the Fall.

It’s at this point that continuing the series seems ghoulish and downright diabolical. Quite frankly, this book is satanic. It makes God into the enemy and devils into heroes. At least, that is Pullman’s intention.

But this is not something that ought to be too shocking or inherently unfamiliar. In reality there are only two ways of telling a story– on God’s side or Satan’s. In most books, this is veiled and obscured. Paganism hides at the heart of the parable and goes unnoticed. Here it is shockingly and openly blasphemous, but its very explicitness robs it of its teeth. Pullman is honest about the story he is telling, so we can honestly evaluate it. Therefore, onward.

John Parry’s Speech

Will’s missing father–John Parry/Jopari/Dr. Grumman– sums things up as he gives his son his mission in the very last chapter. All of history has been a war between the Authority and the Rebels. Because the Rebels lost the first engagement, there has been “nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history.” It is a battle between “human freedom,” knowing more, being wiser, being stronger on the one side, and obedience, humility, and submission on the other. And this time the Rebels must win.

But John Parry’s speech falls flat. It is itself a glorious piece of propaganda, and not one page later he betrays a man who gave his life for Parry, Lyra, and whatever cause they were defending. Every adult on the Rebel side is at least as cruel as the Church they fight. Until now we have not seen the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Church has been little more than shadows. But these men, those who fight them, are despicable. John Parry stands witness against his own cause.

All Parents Fail

In Pullman’s world, it is dangerous to be a parent.The moment Will recognizes this shaman as his estranged father, the man is struck down by a scorned lover. Our beloved Lee Scoresby, in trying to replace the awful Asriel, dies for Lyra. Nor is it only the fathers. Lyra’s mother is a horrible person, and Will’s is crippled and dependent, unable to be there for him even if she would like to do so. This is a world of orphans, a world where reality is harsh and growing up means being alone. And, in the end, like every other father, God must be proved senile, cruel, or dead.

But this is only Pullman’s negative case. The pain and angst is later replaced with an effort to love in a world without God. I pushed on, hoping to learn how he could present a positive worldview, something that goes beyond the hopeless denial of atheism. As an artist, or an apologist, such an effort is valuable. If you’ve come this far, I urge you to soldier on and see where it goes.