For a long time, Philip Pullman’s been my favorite living writer. And for practically as long as I’ve loved his stories, particularly The Golden Compass, I’ve been aware of his harsh criticisms of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. (That’s actually how I found this site, as I was researching recent discussions on the topic and came across this post from last January. I hope that in some respects what follows will be a continuation of the discussion Brenton and his readers were having there in the comments.)
Whatever your feelings about him might be, Pullman’s been back in the news lately with the release of a trailer for the new BBC adaptation of The Golden Compass (not to be confused with the regrettable 2007 feature film) and the announcement of an October release of his next book.
It’s a little awkward. Tolkien and Lewis are authors whose works are beloved, and without whom I probably would never have been led to discover Pullman–not only since they formed my taste for the sort of genre his books most nearly fit into, but since The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia paved the way for publishers to seek out and promote books like His Dark Materials in the first place. Thus, along with the awkwardness of liking all of them together–something that would have been latent in the case of Lewis and Tolkien anyway, even without all of Pullman’s provocations–there’s an added discomfort, a sense that Pullman is being ungrateful for all they have done for him.
To pass over the well-documented wardrobe allusion embedded in his story, these words of the Librarian of Jordan College at the close of Chapter 2 of The Golden Compass might suggest Pullman is not unaware of his debt to his forebears:
“That’s the duty of the old,” said the Librarian, “to be anxious on behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old” (32).
For years, Pullman has aired his critiques much more overtly in interviews and talks, providing plenty of fodder for us, fans and scholars alike, to think about and respond to. He has rather cannily gotten his name linked inextricably with Lewis’, in particular, and I have to suspect that at least to some degree his attacks spring from emulation in the older sense of ambitious rivalry, as well as the newer, of imitation; that he, as much as any poet, suffers from a certain anxiety of influence and misprizes those he must contend with.
Then in the fall of 2017, along with his long-awaited new novel, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage, Pullman released Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling. Inevitably, many responses were again determined by the Lewis-shaped hole Pullman has carved out for himself in the popular sphere. In a review of the novel, titled “Is Philip Pullman the anti-C.S. Lewis?” Elizabeth Desimone writes:
“In a roundabout way, Pullman does Christians a service by writing his anti-Christian books. He reminds us, vividly and trenchantly, of what we do not want to be, what Christ would not want us to be. His earlier books charged the church with sowing sexual guilt, a criticism that struck me as both warranted and wrong—warranted because you do not have to look far to find bad theology on sex but wrong because any Catholic who disapproves of the body or of sensory pleasure has a basic misunderstanding of sacramentality.”
If his fiction prompts a “roundabout” reaffirmation of faith through introspection, his non-fiction, gathered for the first time in Daemon Voices, poses the same challenge directly. Laura Miller’s review in the New York Times cautions:
“Taken in long swigs, Daemon Voices can be overwhelming, a torrent of enthusiasm for science, art, music and literature. But moderate doses act much like the story Lucy Pevensie reads in a magical book in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a novel by Pullman’s bête noire and occasional inspiration, C. S. Lewis. Like that story, and like Pullman’s own fiction, these essays cast a spell ‘for the refreshment of the spirit.’ To read them is to be invigorated by the company of a joyfully wide-ranging, endlessly curious and imaginative mind.”
Indeed, in several passages Pullman cites Lewis admiringly. In his introduction to Paradise Lost, he writes:
“C.S. Lewis remarks that for many readers, it’s not just the events of the story that matter: it’s the world the story conjures up. In his own case, he loved the Leatherstocking tales of James Fenimore Cooper not just for ‘the momentary suspense but that whole world to which it belonged–the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, war-paths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names’” (58).
The same reference appears in “Reading in the Borderland,” a discussion of the connection between illustrations and stories (278). Temperamentally, though, however much Pullman is drawn to world-building, he resists it:
“meanwhile the book is lying there forgotten. Because you left the path. Because you became more interested in the wood, in elaborating all the richness and invention of the world you’re making up. Never leave the path” (90).
Tracing G.K. Chesterton’s “‘evil shapes’ in the pattern of a Turkish carpet,” he remarks that this
“odd idea turns up in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia too, where the Witch kills Aslan with a knife of ‘a strange and evil shape’–what is an evil shape? Nonsense, that’s what it is” (443).
“Absolute nonsense, of course, and it doesn’t matter a bit. The real point is not how they get there, but what the do when they arrive: not the wood, but the path” (91-92).
In “Let’s Pretend,” he considers the case for adaptation of children’s books:
“A sort of worthiness argument sometimes comes into play here: it’s good that children should know classic stories like Treasure Island and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Secret Garden, and so it’s OK to adapt them for the stage…” (295).
This criticism, if it is one, is purely in the service of an argument about the narrow-mindedness of certain trends in education reform and the value of live theater as such.
“The model of growth that seems to lie behind that attitude–the idea that such critics have of what it’s like to grow up–must be a linear one; they must think that we grow up by moving along a story of timeline, like a monkey climbing a stick. It makes more sense to me to think of the movement from childhood to adulthood not as a movement along but as a movement outwards, to include more things. C.S. Lewis, who when he wasn’t writing novels had some very sensible things to say about books and reading, made the same point when he said in his essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children: ‘I now like hock, which I am sure I should not have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had only one pleasure, I now have two.’” (126)
Again, he cites the very same passage in “The Republic of Heaven,” only this time he goes on:
“There’s nothing there which a republican would have any quarrel with; but the sensible Lewis who wrote that was thrust aside in Narnia by the paranoid bigot who proclaimed that an interest in lipstick and nylons was not an addition to the pleasures of life but an absolute disqualification for the joys of heaven” (450).
Alongside the so-called problem of Susan, however, he amplifies the point with reference to Aslan’s revelation, ‘The term is over: the holidays have begun,’ with which he vehemently disagrees:
“This world is where the things are that matter. If the Narnia stories had been composed in that spirit, the children who have passed through all these adventures and presumably learned great truths from them would be free to live and grow up in the world, even at the price of engaging with the lipstick and the nylons, and use what they’d learned for the benefit of others…That would be the republican thing to do. That’s why Lewis doesn’t let his characters do it, and why the Narnia books are such an invaluable guide to what’s wrong and cruel and selfish.”
That is the very claim Desimone made about Pullman’s books, of course, seen from the other side. Her comment about “[disapproval] of the body or of sensuality” being “a basic misunderstanding of sacramentality” is also apposite here. Pullman’s harping on lipstick and nylons, and his assertion of the importance of life in “this world,” strains the whole metaphorical richness of Lewis’ Chronicles through an impossibly literal-minded sieve. “The children who have passed through all these adventures and presumably learned great truths from them”– ideally, that’s us! The same goes for when we read His Dark Materials–unless, like Pullman when he reads The Last Battle, we bring an uncharitable grouchiness to the endeavor, we do return “free to live and grow up in the world.”
That mind Miller found “endlessly curious, wide-ranging and imaginative” but also “Far from Narnia” has its limitations, as we all must. Pullman sticks to a path which, for all that they have their parallels, diverges from and even runs counter to Lewis’. And he has no patience at all with Tolkien’s luxuriant woods:
“The Lord of the Rings is not a republican story, because there is no point at which it connects with our life. Middle Earth [sic] is a place that never existed in a past that never was, and there’s no way we could ever get there. Nor do the people there behave like people, unlike those concerned with another Ring; the world depicted in Wagner’s Ring cycle never existed either, but the Ring is a republican work because Wagner’s gods and heroes are exactly like human beings, on a grand scale: every human virtue and every human temptation is there. Tolkien leaves a good half of them out. No one in Middle Earth has any sexual relations at all. I think their children must be delivered by post” (451-2).
I guess he’s never wandered very far into The Silmarillion. But then, not many people do! Whereas I, for my part, have never made it very far into Wagner; but suddenly I have an unaccountable desire to “Kill the Wabbit.”
In “Writing Fantasy Realistically,” Pullman confesses, “Now I was embarrassed to discover that I felt so much at home writing fantasy, because I’d previously thought that fantasy was a low kind of thing…I had thought (and I do still think) that the most powerful, the most profound, the greatest novels I’d read were examples of realism, not of fantasy” (351).
“I can’t remember anything in The Lord of the Rings, in all that vast epic of heroic battles and ancient magic, that titanic struggle between good and evil, that even begins to approach the ethical power and the sheer moral shock of the scene in Jane Austen’s Emma when Mr Knightley reproaches the heroine for her thoughtless treatment of poor Miss Bates.” (352)
When he cringes from imagining his work being labeled fantasy and compared to “a thousand other big fat books crowding the fantasy shelves, all with titles like The Doomsword Chronicles…” it becomes clear, if it wasn’t before, that what Pullman is revolted by is not so much Tolkien as the legions of Tolkien’s imitators; what he is revolting against is not Tolkien, but his own prejudiced view (353). This is all too easy, and understandable, to fall into when writing polemically, but certainly something to be on our guard against if we would read charitably.
As tends to happen, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams don’t figure in Pullman’s allusions–even Dorothy Sayers gets just one passing mention (127). Yet I think Barfield (quoting William Blake) says it best in his dedication in Poetic Diction to C.S. Lewis: “Opposition is true Friendship.”
In this print of Plate 20, Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, you can just faintly see at the bottom of the page the aphorism “Opposition is true Friendship.” Text editions make it much easier to read.