Gods Forbid We Talk About Sex

Every year, I make a point to re-read one of my favourite book series’ of all time: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Consisting of three novels (Northern Lights — entitled The Golden Compass in the US — The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), this series marketed for young readers and young adults is a brilliant literary reversal of John Milton’s classic epic poem, Paradise Lost, even taking its own series’ title from the same poem:

Into this wild Abyss
The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave–
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,–
Into this wild Abyss the wary Fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.

I love this series. I’ve loved it since I first picked it up back when I was in elementary school. However I often find it difficult to talk about this series without needing to acknowledge the…notoriety this series holds with many (usually religious) societies and people. One publication actually called the His Dark Materials the “stuff of nightmares Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 7.42.09 PM.pngand worthy of the bonfire.” Wow. Them’s fightin’ words — and, for the record: I think book burning is the stuff of nightmares and demonstrates nothing more than a level of ignorance and hatred so great, that there are not enough superlatives in the world that can, in any way, encompass it.

Bringing it more close to home, I can speak from experience the reactions that even seeing someone else reading this series can have upon the intolerant. While I spent my childhood in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York, my young adulthood was spent in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. Now, when I started reading this series in New York at the tender age of around nine or ten, nobody bothered me about it. But come the age of seventeen-ish, when I picked up this book to re-read it? I got spewed with quite of bit of religious diatribe and verbal vitriol, a lot of it from people who hadn’t even read the books.

But despite all that, I don’t want to talk about the issues various religious groups have with these novels, or even the ridiculousness I have experienced over the years when people see me re-reading Pullman’s trilogy — you may take those as you will. Instead, what I want to discuss is the more insidious form of censorship that this series has experienced in North America: the invisible kind of censorship. I say invisible because, unless you were to own multiple versions of the series, or happen to like looking at books’ Wikipedia pages (as I do), you might not have known that several lines in the North American publication of the third novel in the series, The Amber Spyglass, were censored by the publishers. 


CAVEAT EMPTOR: This post will contain spoilers for the His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, specifically details relating to the character arc of the protagonist in its concluding novel, The Amber Spyglass. You have been warned.

I’ll acknowledge that, sure, at first glance, the idea of only a few lines of a novel being censored (as opposed to, say, entire paragraphs or chapters) might not seem that bad, but I think that the excising of these lines is close to criminal. It damages the integrity of the story that the author intended to tell. Not only that, I, personally, cannot stand in favour of censorship of creative media.

So now I’m sure you might be wondering: what exactly were these lines that the publishers excised, and why were they cut? Well, believe it or not, they actually have nothing to do with all of the religious controversy surrounding Materials — oh no, all of that content was preserved in its entirety by the publishers (quite right, too). Instead,blake_paradiselost_butts2.jpg the few lines that were cut by North American publishers deal with the incipient sexuality of the protagonist, Lyra Belacqua.

As I stated before, this series is a kind of reversal of Milton’s Paradise Lost. This blank verse epic poem contains the Biblical story of the Fall of Man, including: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from Eden. Basically, he wrote his own adaptation of the book of “Genesis” to make it more epic and interesting to read, and much of what people think they know about the story of the Fall is probably from Milton. For example, “Genesis” does not explicitly identify the Serpent which tempts Eve as Satan, whereas Milton’s poem does — Satan, formerly known as Lucifer, is arguably the protagonist of the poem, so his presence as the Serpent makes a lot of sense. Not only that, but Milton’s Eve is a far more active player than the Bible’s: she’s unwilling to be wholly submissive to Adam and displays for more innate intelligence and curiosity about external ideas through a desire for knowledge, especially self-knowledge and self-awareness.

See where this whole incipient sexuality is coming into play? The whole point of the temptation of Eve was the loss of innocence and awakening of one’s sexuality: the transition from childhood/adolescence into adulthood as a result of self (including sexual) awareness. That is what “original sin” is, for all intents and purposes. In his novel, Pullman takes this and, in a way, flips it on its head. In his own words:

“This so-called original sin is anything but. It’s the thing that makes us fully human.”

Thus, the transition of Lyra into adulthood through her sexual awakening is crucial not only to the plot, but to the character: it completes her maturation as Pullman’s “Eve.”

Care to see how Pullman wrote this? The changed lines are italicized below:

“As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She found a stirring at the roots of her hair: she found herself breathing faster. She had never been on a roller-coaster, or anything like one, but if she had, she would have recognised the sensations in her breast: they were exciting and frightening at the same time, and she had not the slightest idea why. The sensation continued, and deepened, and changed, as more parts of her body found themselves affected too. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on. She sat trembling, hugging her knees, hardly daring to breathe, as Mary went on…” (from “Marzipan” chapter, The Amber Spyglass UK Edition)

Scintillating stuff, right? Of course, if you’re like me, you’re rolling your eyes and going, “Hardly.” Not to say that the writing isn’t beautiful, but that it’s hardly what I might call scandalous. But, to compare, let’s take a look at the bowdlerized North American edition of that same passage:

“As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and she turned the key, she felt the other doors opening deep in the darkness, and lights coming on. She sat trembling as Mary went on…” (from “Marzipan” chapter, The Amber Spyglass US/Canada Edition)

That’s a fairly significant difference.

Again, on the outset it’s not very many lines, but that’s more than enough to make a serious change to the intent of the novel. In the North American publication (which I’ll call the “NA Version”), the sexual awakening of Lyra is masked and unexplained; if you didn’t realise what was going on, you’re likely to totally miss it. Unfortunately, I fear that was the idea. The UK publication (which I like to call the “true version”), while still keeping the language coded and, for lack of a better term, fairly chaste, wants the reader to realise what is occurring. Pullman clearly wants to make a point that children grow up.

220px-But536.1.4.wc.100Le gasp! What is this nonsense? Children grow up?!? They actually experience sexual desires?!?

Yes, dear publishers, they do. Children grow up into young adults, have sexual and emotion awakenings, stirrings, and urges, etc. It’s a part of life. Now, C.S. Lewis may have had a serious fear and aversion to this aspect — we’ve referred to the “Susan Problem” in a couple of Book Table episodes — but Pullman is trying to make a statement with his inclusion and time devoted to this physical, emotional transformation: it’s alright. As he stated before, this very maturation is what makes us “fully human.”

Transition into adulthood and the awakening of such sexual feelings can seem pretty disorienting to lots of young people. I think that Pullman not only handles the subject well, but kind of offers a small comforting pat to all of us awkward children and young adults who might have been really confused by what was happening. By excising — or, more accurately, censoring those few beautifully-written lines, publishers remove that comforting pat and directly threaten the integrity of this important plot and character point.

The one question I can think to ask is: why?

Despite my own attempts to understand and justify this act in my head, I simply cannot fathom why the publishers chose to censor those lines. I mean, in terms of literature that is marketed — though not always intended — towards young adults, most of those novels deal with sex/sexuality/sexual awakenings, in some way. Harry Potter deals with it; hell, Twilight has whole freaking sections devoted to sex itself in its final novel! Yet those novels remain intact.

Of course, Harry Potter and Twilight have also all been banned or challenged by various organizations, schools, and libraries. But I’m not talking about schools and libraries…I’m talking about the publisher itself. Scholastic made the conscious choice to engage in invisible, preemptive censorship.  And this censorship of which we are unaware caters to the primitive, close-mindedness that would seek to throw the His Dark Materials onto the pyre alongside Harry Potter and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and countless other titles that have been condemned as “inappropriate” for younger readers — as something from which children must be sheltered and “saved.”

I fluctuate between disappointment and rage at Scholastic for what they did to the North American edition of The Amber Spyglass because I find it deplorable. And, yes, I acknowledge that, had I not investigated for myself, I would not have discovered their and never would have known what I was missing — the saying “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind — but that doesn’t make it any better.

It doesn’t make it right.

Because the only justification — and it is a flimsy one, at that — that I can come up with to possible explain and justify the actions of Scholastic is the age of the character in question: Lyra is approximately thirteen years old at that point in time in the novel. Were the publishers uncomfortable with the thought of a girl experiencing some kind of sexual self-awareness and awakening at thirteen? At, essentially, going through puberty at thirteen?

Because, if that’s the case, then why is there a bloodydamn market for books (fiction and non-fiction alike) garnered towards that very subject and demographic?!?


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