- Religious Faith and Secular Hope in The Underland Chronicles
Suzanne Collins's series The Underland Chronicles (2003-07) is, like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (1995-2000), an ambitious attempt at an atheist high fantasy.1 Her Gregor is an amalgamation of his Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry: a good, kind child who at the age of eleven crosses through a portal to another world where he finds out that he is (like Lyra) the hero awaited in the prophesies, and (like Will) a warrior who must use violence to help save the people of the world from ferocious enemies who seek their utter destruction. While this pattern also applies to C. S. Lewis's Pevensie children, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter, and others, Gregor shares with Will and Lyra another quest: rejecting faith in the words of a transcendent authority for hope in his own ability to make sense of the world. As in Pullman, this quest is a magnificent failure, but for different reasons: Pullman's attempt to reject religion while retaining the supernatural elements inherent in the genre of high fantasy leave him open to those critics who claim that he is "still secretly in love with both theology and the theological enchantment of the world" (Rayment-Pickard 3);2 Collins's attempt to reject religion by rejecting the supernatural elements of high fantasy leaves her open to a different criticism, that the new world view she offers in its place makes no sense.
The Underland Chronicles is a series of five books marketed to the 9-12 age group. The first volume, Gregor the Overlander (2003), tells the story of Gregor, an eleven-year-old boy living in New York City with an overworked mother, ill grandmother, and two younger sisters—Lizzie, aged seven, and Boots, aged two. His father is mysteriously missing. While in the laundry room of their apartment building, Gregor and Boots fall down an air duct into the Underland, a world full of talking animals, including bats, cockroaches, mice, spiders, ants, fireflies—and rats who are intermittently at war with the humans who also live there. These humans are the [End Page 1] descendants of a group of seventeenth-century English colonists who moved underground and founded the city of Regalia, under the leadership of Bartholomew of Sandwich, a visionary who authored a series of prophecies, five of which refer to Gregor. In each book a different prophecy sends Gregor, the "warrior" mentioned in all of them, on another quest. He is accompanied by different friends and allies each time, the most important of whom are Luxa, the young queen of Regalia, Ares, the bat who becomes Gregor's bond, Temp, the cockroach who forms a bond with Boots, and Ripred, the battle-hardened rat whose loyalties are always in question. In Gregor the Overlander (2003), the quest results in Gregor's rescue of his father who, it turns out, had fallen down the same air duct more than two years previously and become a prisoner of the rats. In Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane (2004), Gregor must find and kill the Bane, a giant white rat who will otherwise bring disaster upon the Underland. Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods (2005) sends Gregor and the others to find a cure for a mysterious plague that is killing all the Underland mammals. Gregor's previous decision not to kill the Bane because it is only a baby when he finds it comes back to haunt him in Gregor and the Marks of Secret (2006) when the Bane, now grown up, commits genocide against the mice, causing Luxa to declare war on the rats. The story of this war is told in Gregor and the Code of Claw (2007).
Like Pullman, Collins tells a story of war; unlike Pullman, she strips the metaphysical from the material: the war in the Underland is not a dualistic conflict between cosmic forces of good and evil, but a pluralistic conflict between morally ambiguous societies; Gregor battles not for good against evil but for one species against and with several other species in a struggle for territory, economic advantage...