Philip Pullman's Snitches (Hunting Heretics #1)

As to be expected of a Philip Pullman novel, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage introduces an array of morally ambivalent villains and fiendish secret societies. Of them, the most valuable addition to the universe of His Dark Materials has to be The League of St. Alexander.

The Book of Dust, which came out in October, takes place during the first year in the life of Lyra Belacqua, the original trilogy’s unforgettable protagonist. While for most of the book she herself remains ensconced in her crib, passive and oblivious, the world around her is changing. The secular English parliament shows signs of unraveling, as the Calvinist Church - The Magisterium - rapidly and zealously locks its grip on all levers of state power. Almost overnight, religious symbols show up in streets, and parks, and pubs, while the folks frequenting these establishments vanish.

The Church’s message is unmistakable - and it’s through The League of St. Alexander that it creeps in to schools, too. The League, an upstart, church-funded youth movement, invites young students to join its ranks and follow in the example of Alexander, the League’s eponymous saint. League, the kids are told, has earned God’s love by telling on his own parents, who violated the Church’s laws. The parents were consequently executed, young Alex canonized. A paragon of moral behavior. In keeping with this founding myth, the kids who join The League must stay alert and report on any sign of impiety among their friends, parents and teachers if they are to earn boy-scout honors and help purge the school of its bad practices.

It’s easy to see why joining this tattle-tale brigade can be so attractive. Kids who join discover they’ve been granted enormous power over those who only moments before were their superiors. There is in all of us a taste for vindictiveness, a desire to punish our punishers, and The League of St. Alexander sets it loose before experience and education get a chance to temper it down. All this with impunity. In fact, cruelty gets rewarded, for the kids are told that the more they fink, the higher in The League they’ll rank. And most importantly: The question of what constitutes impiety or heresy is left to the discretion of the kids. Are you sure you want to give us additional homework, Teacher? Overworking your students sounds rather impious to me.

Justice has been outsourced to the mob.

The League of St. Alexander flickers in and out of The Book of Dust’s main plot like a passing shadow. But when observed from the perspective of His Dark Materials, The League’s full significance comes into vision. The Golden Compass starts off Lyra’s own journey fourteen years after the rise of The League, by which time the country will have completed its transition into an ever-watchful theocracy, populated by a generation of young adults raised on the morality of St. Alexander. A generation taught that no freedom is safe from the mood of the mob.

Oxford University, 2010.
Oxford University, 2010.

Years ago, on the very week I finished His Dark Materials for the first time, The Magisterium was rising in my hometown: Gangs of Ultra Orthodox Jews took to the streets of Jerusalem to fulminate against the planned gay pride parade. They burnt dozens of trash cans and blocked the city’s main streets. And within this gridlock of their making, they staged their own parade - a march of goats and dogs and sheep (lest they be accused of subtlety, many of them also carried signs reading “bestial pride parade”). The police shrugged helplessly, and government officials groaned, yawned, and - finally - reprimanded the organizers, not of the riots, but of the original, peaceful parade that would never be. The real crime, concluded the authorities, was the gay community’s insensitivity to religious feelings.

This was hardly surprising. Decades of municipal complicity have taught Jerusalem's Ultra Orthodox that the city belongs to them. Whenever something offends their religious feelings, they need only do like a pampered child and throw a tantrum; mommy and daddy will promptly come to the rescue.

To such a blizzard of pious arrogance and stupidity, Pullman’s words have always been to me a warm shelter: His Dark Materials is a sweeping, unforgiving rebuke of sanctimonious virulence, and a warning against the government that prefers dogma and faith over critical thinking, and confuses the feelings of the crowd with justice.

The perpetual war of Pullman’s universe is between knowledge and its destroyers. The good is the expansion and collection of ideas, the bad is its restriction. Against those destroyers, Pullman, a former school teacher, sets a firm bulwark in defense of everything good and wise and worthy. Unsurprisingly, it’s an academy, Pullman’s stronghold of truth, his hometown, his Oxford.

No wonder it’s a university that protects Lyra for 14 years from the rising Magisterium; no wonder it’s schools that the The League of St. Alexander seeks to undermine.

What a shame, then, that the most convincing simulacrum of St. Alexander’s hysteria can be found today not in Sunday Schools, but in secular universities. (continued in part II)

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