Philip Pullman as a Reader of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

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).

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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51 Responses to Philip Pullman as a Reader of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

  1. joviator says:

    The Golden Compass is next up in my reading queue, so this is a timely post. I’m intrigued by the idea that JRRT is not a writer of Literature, because Pullman’s three exemplary writers all bore me to Twitter. It will be interesting to see what he means.


  2. A Writer says:

    Have you read Michael Ward’s piece on Pullman and Lewis? He argues that very thing you’re suggesting, that Pullman is not a good reader of Lewis (at all).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. (Comment, take two.)

    Perhaps Tolkien isn’t interested in exploring sexual relationships in his work? Not all great stories have to include that element. I’d even say that not all great romances have to include it. That seems like a very limited view on Pullman’s part. Tolkien’s work does include a female presence, though it is, admittedly mostly in the background in the Lord of the Rings (except for Eowyn’s moment in the Pelennor Fields). Pullman doesn’t seem to have read The Silmarillion or Beren and Luthien.

    And to say that Susan is “kept out” of Narnia because of sex! That’s an astounding assumption to make, and one I don’t think Lewis intended at all. It also ignores the fact that I don’t think Lewis closes the door entirely on Susan and the possibility of her becoming a friend of Narnia once again. Of course, it’s been awhile since I’ve read TLB, but I don’t ever remember getting the impression that Susan is lost forever.

    Liked by 2 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I agree completely with your second paragraph! And, lazily not yet having read the whole interview myself, I wonder if he has read Till We Have Faces, or, for that matter, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength? Or The Magician’s Nephew? But it sounds like he can clunkily misread anything…

      I sounds like he missed my paper, “The centrality of Sex in Middle-earth”, too… And, as you say, The Silmarillion and Beren and Luthien – and other tellings of First and Second Age stories. And what might his understanding of “The entire question of sexual relationships” – “entire”! – be, if, in LotR, he misses not only Éowyn, Aragorn, and Faramir, but Arwen and Aragorn (with Beren and Luthien in the background), Galadriel and Celeborn, Samwise and Rose, and, to stroll no further into the Appendices, Diamond and Pippin, Estella and Merry, and Lothíriel and Eómer?

      And, “Tolkien was Catholic, which meant that for him, there were no questions about religion.” The mind boggles! If a Protestant like Lewis might have his objections to the Bull Ineffabilis Deus (1854), he is pretty likely to have been aware of the striking latitude of the Bull Grave nimis (1483) and the 371 years of questions, discussions, and free practices following it – to take one example.

      Such readerly and general cultural – inepititude? – do not tend to intrigue me to discover if a notable portion of his fictional writing is really so much better, as Brenton considers it…

      I am interested in the idea of a spiritually sensitive trickster in fiction. though – while not perhaps enough to discover what sort of trickster Lyra is… What about Porfiry Petrovitch?

      Liked by 3 people

      • Is that sex paper available David?
        I just lectured on “The Problem of Susan,” which is why I posted this astonishing quotation here. Pulman clearly didn’t understand Lewis or Tolkien (even if we could critique on the Susan bit). Tolkien’s Catholicism was not as he imagined it, but Lewis’ Protestantism might have been close.
        But I think, honestly, some atheists struggle to understand the inside of a faith life. Thinking of myself, I found it weird as a convert, and still when I meet someone with a worldview new to me, I tried and understand what it is like on the inside.
        I am not perfect at it, but if the media even attempted this, the world would change.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          The article is in Lembas-extra 1993/94, available here:

          I’m sure you are right that “some atheists struggle to understand the inside of a faith life” – and succeed to varying, but sometimes considerable degrees, intellectually and imaginatively. And, for any and all of us, it is the only thing we can do historically in many cases. I just read Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as an End (1944), a mystery set in Egypt in 2000 B.C., apparently based on the details of some particular papyri and involving picking the brains of the Egyptologist who suggested it, and a lot of research, and – after a lifetime of interest in ancient Egypt – I’m not sure what is strictly accurate, and what is plausible, in it, but it is very imaginatively persuasive.

          Liked by 1 person

      • robstroud says:

        “…it sounds like he can clunkily misread anything…”

        Precisely. I would expect nothing less from an arguably militant agnostic who creates a fictional world based on some warped personal version of gnosticism.


  4. Unjay says:

    Oh my gosh, I loved His Dark Materials so much! I couldn’t put it down- then I came to that squalid passage about God being decrepit and wheeled out all shrivelled and brain dead, which belongs more in a Discworld novel- my respect for Mr Pullman plummeted, never to resurface again. Now he says Tolkien lacks literary interest. Clearly the guy will gave no friends left except Richard Dawkins. And the dwarves who are for the dwarves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved them too, knowing going in what they were written for and about. The god-figure in the book is weird and problematic, and I admit that I may not understand it.
      I suspect that there will be friends enough.
      I love Pratchett for all his views.


  5. J Washburn says:

    Thank you, Brenton!

    I too had a confused relationship with Pullman’s books. I thought The Golden Compass was genius, but I didn’t like its antagonism toward C.S. Lewis and the Christian tradition. I sorted it out in a essay I’m happy to say was published on I would love to hear your thoughts if you have time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a substantial piece. You talk about conquering death–what do you make of that long underground journey in the trilogy (Dante, yes, but it seems to me to be a death-conquering metaphor in the book in tension with the desire to escape death by the power characters).


  6. Earthoak says:

    Thanks for this post. I am not qualified to comment much because I confess, I tried to read Pullman’s Dark Materials but could not get past the first book. I felt that the ‘preachy’ tone intruded on my ability to be ‘lost’ in the story and the (evidently rich) world that Pullman had created, and I think that would be the case regardless of one’s own moral or theological position. I gather that tone increases as you progress through the volumes, though as I say I didn’t make it that far. Can one expect their readers to buy into their fantasy while also advocating disenchantment? I am not sure that works. But perhaps I ought to give it another chance and see how I fare.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What an excellent insight! Pullman creates a fantastic universe that is richly imaginative but also disenchanted. In many ways he concurs with Lewis in his atheistic phase.
      The New Atheism that Pullman enthusiastically represents does not regard religion to be worthy of serious adult study but it invests considerable energy in despising it. It creates a caricature of God, as Unjay points out well, and then laughs at it. Such a project is intellectually impoverished. If the new atheism were to create the best divinity that it is possible to conceive and then to say, “but the universe is disenchanted and we are left abandoned within it” then it would be possible to have a serious conversation. We would have somewhere to start.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I do think the books are worth a read. I am yearning to set everything down and read them now, actually (I can’t–in an SF semester).
      In some ways, they become more complexly religious as they go along, drawing on Dante and Milton more once we are out of Oxford. But the narrative arc brings us back to my key two problems: the Divine structure of the books, and what self-discovery is for Lyra.
      Still, a great read.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Steve says:

    I think (Pullman (like J.K. Rowling) totally misses the point about Susan. My take on it here The problem of Susan: growing up? | Khanya


    • As usual, you are a step ahead of me. The first comment is pretty weird. Outside of the Bloomsbury set, I don’t know many with such a reasoned and generous approach to homosexuality in the WWII-era as Lewis. He best friend was gay. Weird response.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        What inept readers Steve lets us see both Rowling and Pullman showing themselves to be (here, at least) – whew! It invites the interesting comparison between Susan (at that point) and (sexually) mature characters throughout the rest of the Narniad, such as the Beavers, the Daughter of Ramandu and Caspian, Aravis and Cor, Hwin and Bree, Helen and Frank. Interesting, too, is the contrast between Susan at the point of her Narnian maturation and Lasaraleen, in The Horse and His Boy, and the comparison between her and Aravis, there. (My old friend, the Rev. Dr. Ian Graham has had interesting things to say in conversation about problematical aspects of the double maturation of the Pevensies, first in Narnia, and then all over again back in our world, but I don’t know who has written anything about this.)

        It suddenly strikes me that The Great Divorce and The Last Battle also invite comparison, such as the condition, variously, of some of the Dwarfs and Emeth and of different excursionists from the Grey City, and of Lewis at the end of The Great Divorce and Susan in this world in The Last Battle.


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  9. megmoseman says:

    I haven’t read either Pullman’s interviews or a lot of the Lewis that makes me say this since college, but…. I am 100% with you that Pullman wrote very good fiction in HDM—and that he’s dreadful at interpreting Lewis. My memory of it is something like this:

    Pullman: “OK, Mr. Lewis, I am going to be as many of what Meg thought were your straw men as I can fit in my head at once.”
    Lewis: “…”

    You are making me want to try to finish a blog post I started about this….

    Liked by 1 person

  10. megmoseman says:

    Thank you very much for the invitation! Here’s the post (a little rough around the edges, but I hope there’s something interesting in it): The Pullman article I’m reacting to, “The Dark Side of Narnia,” comes up as a doc file on a Google search for its title.

    Liked by 1 person

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  12. William E Burns says:

    I don’t know how people here feel about Freud, but most post-Tolkien British male fantasy writing seems to involve this Oedipal struggle with Tolkien–the father that you;ve got to kill. Pullman’s not the only one by a longshot.


    • It is an astute comment. I am not terribly happy with Freudian analysis in literature, but parts of it can be exciting. There is a sense that Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence” is one of these moments (with regards to Pulman and Lewis anyway–I’m not sure about Tolkien).


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  14. Interesting post and a great discussion in the comments. Have you had a chance to read The Book of Dust yet, or anything from the book of essays that Pullman recently released? If so, I’d appreciate some feedback on this essay I’m working on, thinking about ways of approaching the Pullman/Tolkien divide:


    • Wes, I would love to critique it but I haven’t gotten to Dust yet! (or the essays) Partly it is time, but partly it is that I want to live in my world of self-delusion a little longer. Based on the His Dark Materials trilogy, I disagree with Pullman one what dust is. Now with a new book, well, he can change that! I’ll get there though….


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  21. tom says:

    Having read Pullman only recently, I was struck by how ‘girly’ Lyra seemed to get in The Subtle Knife. To me, it seemed that she suddenly became deferential towards him, allowing him to take the lead and cooking for him. Granted, we all get more agreeable when smitten. So perhaps I am mistaken.


    • Do you mean the 2nd or 3rd book? I saw that in the 3rd. I’m not too hard on Pullman for little things like that–partly because I am always tempted to nail people like this to the wall for hypocrisy. It’s a weakness in me. I really have to reread the trilogy that I quite liked. However, in the end, I thought it a general success as a story, but a Susan of Narnia-like failure of the character in the end–in such a way that just makes the thing fall apart. Maybe I’ll set the Golden Compass on the ever-tottering pile on the bedside table.


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