Philip Pullman is for me a hot-and-cold writer who, fortunately, usually leads with heat. His accomplishment in drawing modern fantasy readers into the worlds of Milton and Dante with the His Dark Materials trilogy is an important one. Lyra in The Golden Compass (also known as Northern Lights) is one of the great children characters in fiction. The books are a bit preachy at times–that a religious leader might trade goodness for power gets a bit tiresome when used so cartoonishly–and I think the series fails as an anti-Narnia because the central divine sacrificial structure bends against the moral message of the imaginative world. But it is a beautiful series from a leading British thinker, and I hope to squeeze his new Dust on my bedside table as soon as I possibly can.
Beyond all this, Pullman’s invention of the daemon is one of the great fantasy inventions of the century, not to mention a brilliant literary tool for exploring self and other naturally within the text.
As I have been struggling lately with The Problem of Susan–as Neil Gaiman put it–it brought me to an interview Pullman did for Slate a couple of years ago. Lyra is set up in The Golden Compass to be an anti-Lucy. As brilliant as Lyra is, it is Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that is the anti-Lucy; Lyra is another girl, like Lucy, driven by curiosity, critical intelligence, and core integrity. Lyra is a trickster character, while Lucy is someone with spiritual sensitivity. Those traits are not opposites–I would love to meet the spiritually sensitive trickster in fiction–and both characters grow in wisdom as the two series continue.
In the third and final volume of His Dark Materials, Lyra is most definitely cast as an anti-Susan. I often thought that move failed because it pressed the characters into a strange identification with sexual exploration and the hero’s quest (as Stephen King does in IT). But as I read this Slate interview, I wonder more if there is another reason that Pullman’s anti-Susan fails in a way that Neil Gaiman‘s (anti-? post-? re-?) Susan doesn’t. Given his response below–and his bland assertion of the non-literary quality of Tolkien–I have begun to wonder if Pullman is a good reader of Lewis at all. Perhaps instead of writing anti-Narnian books, Philip Pullman will turn his considerable genius to simply telling great stories–a task for which he is eminently capable.
But I’ll let you be the judge.
They’re often bracketed together, Tolkien and Lewis, which I suppose is fair because they were great friends—both Oxford writers and scholars, both Christians. Tolkien’s work has very little of interest in it to a reader of literature, in my opinion. When I think of literature—Dickens, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad—the great novelists found their subject matter in human nature, emotion, in the ways we relate to each other. If that’s what Tolkien’s up to, he’s left out half of it. The books are wholly male-oriented. The entire question of sexual relationships is omitted.
Tolkien was Catholic, which meant that for him, there were no questions about religion. The church had all the answers. But Lewis was different. He was a Protestant, an Irish Protestant at that, from a tradition of arguing with God and wrestling with morality. His work is not frivolous in the way that Tolkien is frivolous, though it seems odd to call a novel of great intricacy and enormous popularity frivolous. I just don’t like the conclusions Lewis comes to, after all that analysis, the way he shuts children out from heaven, or whatever it is, on the grounds that the one girl is interested in boys. She’s a teenager! Ah, it’s terrible: Sex—can’t have that. And yet I respect Lewis more than I do Tolkien (from Katy Waldman, “A Conversation With Philip Pullman,” Slate Nov 5, 2015; see the full interview here).