Terry Pratchett

Dear Sir Terry,

You showed the world that fantasy, long dominated by backwards-looking escapism, has as much to say about modern society as science fiction does. I had enjoyed one of your children’s books, so after coming across a couple television adaptations a decade later, I decided to give your Discworld series a try. The first book, The Color of Magic, was a blast. I wasn’t hooked, however, until Jingo, which taught me as much about geopolitics and civil-military relations as a semester at Georgetown. (Ok, maybe not quite as much, but it was certainly a better value.)

You helped teach this once cynical and dismissive atheist the value of religion by showing the goodness religious belief can inspire, even as you never ceased to poke fun at pompous or absurd religiosity. Perhaps the most beautiful scene I’ve ever read was when Pastor Mightily Oats, the overeager, literal interpreter of scripture, finally realizes how to save his companion using the words of the prophet – by burning his holy book as kindling.

Belief in your books isn’t passive, but a tool to shape the world. In Hogfather, it’s the ability to believe in the Santa Claus-like title character – basically, to find meaning in stories – that lets us believe in intangible things like justice and mercy. That became how I think of human rights. They exist only because we choose to belief they exist, and the world is a better place for that.

Best of all is the sense of decency that pervades your books – and the reminders never to take one’s own goodness for granted. Like the witches who watch over one another lest one of their number ends up cackling and baking children into pies, we all need good people around us to tell us when we’ve gone too far. Otherwise, we may start to think we’re kinder, smarter, better than other people and that that gives us the right treat them however we want. On the Discworld, as in our own, not everyone is good, but anyone could be good. A goblin. A vampire. An all-powerful dictator. Even an elf.

Thank you,

Philip Pullman

“There are some who live by every rule and cling tightly to their rectitude because they fear being swept away by a tempest of passion, and there are others who cling to the rules because they fear that there is no passion there at all, and that if they let go they would simply remain where they are, foolish and unmoved; and they could bear that least of all. Living a life of iron control lets them pretend to themselves that only by the mightiest effort of will can they hold great passions at bay.”

Dear Mr. Pullman,

I’ve started this “thank you” letter several times because I didn’t really know what to talk about. Your His Dark Materials trilogy stands as a seminal work of my childhood and budding young adulthood. I remember my mum giving me the first two books in a set and, despite being fairly certain I mispronounced at least 50% of the names and terms incorrectly in my head while reading, I was so profoundly swept away by Lyra and Will’s story that I was actually angry when I realised a third book wasn’t already out, especially after that rather mean cliffhanger you left us on in The Subtle Knife. Truly devious.

I didn’t manage to grab hold of The Amber Spyglass until around five or so years later, when I was thirteen. I devoured it amazed that, even after five years, I still remembered all the characters and the story in which they had been a part. Suffice to say that Spyglass rocked me to my core, but in a way that the first two had not, at least, not when I was still a child. I was almost a young adult when I finally read Spyglass and the content of that novel, from Lyra’s awakening to the topic of death and what comes after, of religion and faith (or lack thereof), and of the beauty of life…it still leaves me wholly speechless. It was magical, but in a seemingly tactile way: this was “magic” that I could understand because it wasn’t really magic at all. This was a discussion I’d been trying to have with myself for some time, but didn’t know how to form the words, didn’t know what exactly it was I was trying to figure out.

I admit, I wonder now if my mum would have handed me your books if she’d known all the details of their content. She’s Roman Catholic, you see, and tried to raise my younger brothers and I Catholic as well. While she was never particularly strict about it, there are certainly things related to religion and faith I find safer not to discuss with her. By the time I was being forced through Confirmation, I knew I didn’t belong in her “house of God.” I knew that I didn’t believe, and being forced into such a process where I had to lie and say “I will pledge myself to the Catholic Church body and soul” because “I believe in the Lord, our God, and his son, Jesus Christ” without being allowed any say or chance to escape was enough to make me spend many a night crying myself to sleep. I was told I was just being selfish, that I didn’t know what I was talking about because I was fifteen and how could I possibly know what it was talking about when I was so young…

But I did.

I did know, because two years prior I had read The Amber Spyglass and understood the confusion I’d been wrestling with; and just a year prior I had read your magnificent novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and it felt like someone had taken so many of my abstract, incoherent thoughts and managed to start expressing a large part of them, there, printed in black ink on white page. Jesus in the Garden was a passage I read over and over and over again because it was some of the most beautiful language and profound insight I’d seen put to paper. I pull it out and read it in times of stress. I also flip to your own author’s notes at the novel’s end because your own words, divorced from a fictional narrative, are still incredible. They helped me a great deal when I thought I was crazy for thinking, “But I don’t believe in what I’m being told.”

Because of your books and your words, I was able to begin the process of articulating my own thoughts and feelings about the universe and what it was I believed, no matter what conclusion I eventually came to.

So thank you — thank you so, so much for writing these books and helping to inspire at least this one person to try and articulate the sum of her own thoughts on what she did (or did not) believe.


TBT 04: Religion in YA Literature

Happy Holidays! Members of Backroom Whispering got together just before Christmas to discuss how religion is discussed and used in YA literature, including but not limited to His Dark Materials, Harry Potter, and the Chronicles of Narnia. We had a lot of different thoughts, so we hope you enjoy! Continue the conversation on our Facebook and Twitter pages!

In this episode you heard from:
Moderator: Dorothy | @bwp_dorothy
Akhi | @akhipill
Madeleine | @madnbooks | youtube.com/madnbooks
Rebecca | @rumy91989
Louisa | @otterbewriting
Sara (read by Dorothy) | @fantasticpiggy

The Book Table is a podcast from Backroom Whispering Productions. Our theme music is by Mark Wayne.

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