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Philip Pullman & the Uses & Abuses of Enchantment
by Leonie Caldecott
Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, his analysis of the role of fairy tales in nourishing a child’s searchfor meaning, described their importance thus: “More can be learned from them about the inner problems of human beings, and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society, than from any other type of story within a child’s comprehension. Since the child at every moment of his life is exposed to the society in which he lives, he will certainly learn to cope with its conditions, provided his inner resources permit him to do so.” The child, he wrote a little further on,
needs ideas on how to bring his inner house into order, and on that basis be able to create order in his life. He needs—and this hardly requires emphasis at this moment in our history—a moral education which subtly, and by implication only, conveys to him the advantages of moral behaviour, not through abstract ethical concepts but through that which seems tangibly right and therefore meaningful to him.
Children find “this kind of meaning through fairy tales. Like many other modern psychological insights, this was anticipated long ago by poets. The German poet Schiller wrote: ‘Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.’”
A case can be made for measuring the fantasy novels of this last decade against those of half a century earlier, produced by a group of writers close to me both geographically (I live near Oxford) and imaginatively. For Oxford is the home of the Inklings, that group of writers whose fictional output during the first half of the twentieth century created a standard for fantasy writing against which every new effort in the field can arguably be measured.
C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams—and behind them the great George MacDonald—all sought to enchant the imagination with new fairy tales built firmly on the foundations of the old stories. But now, curiously, Oxford has also become the home of the first Anti-Inkling.
In January 2002, it was announced that Philip Pullman had won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, one of the most important of English book awards, for The Amber Spyglass. The third novel in the fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, it was the first “children’s novel” to win the award outright.
Previously Pullman had been awarded the prize in the children’s section of the Whitbread, but no children’s novel, under the rules governing the award, had ever been able to win the overall prize among the categories competing. For Pullman, the rules were bent, or broken, and the great accolade was, for the first time in the history of the prize, awarded to a piece of fiction marketed as being for children (though Pullman has recently started to claim that he did not write it as children’s fiction at all).
The novels in the Dark Materials trilogy have enjoyed a popularity second only to that of the Harry Potter series, selling in the hundreds of thousands both in England and the United States, not to mention in countries such as Germany, where they have enjoyed particular success. However, it happens that the novel which has proved such a “first” in the process of taking children’s literature seriously as a genre, contains one of the most distorted and ignorant depictions of Christianity in the history of literature.
For this reason alone, Pullman’s work merits closer examination, particularly by Christian parents and by those who are involved in the education of children and young people. (I can only note here that one of the few things about Pullman’s own background that I have been able to ascertain is that his father died when he was very young. He also had a grandfather who was an Anglican cleric. The mysterious thing is that Pullman professes in interviews to have loved and respected his grandfather, and never ascribes to him the vicious extremities with which he endows his fictional churchmen.)
Northern Lights, the first book in the trilogy, was published in 1995 (published in America as The Golden Compass) and tells the story of Lyra, a seemingly orphaned girl living in a curious echo of an Oxbridge establishment, Jordan College. She sets off on a quest to rescue her best friend, Roger, from the hands of the sinister “gobblers” who have kidnapped him. A number of other children in various parts of her country, a kind of alternative England in what Pullman tells us is an alternative universe, have suffered the same fate.
It turns out that the entity responsible for abducting these children is something called the Church. In describing the Church, Pullman uses a host of specifically Catholic terminology: It has a pope, a magisterium, cardinals, oratories, intercessors, etc.
The “gobblers” of the story are in fact the “General Oblation Board,” a terrifying organization within the Church set up by the mysterious and evil Mrs. Coulter. This insatiable maw of G.O.B. (“gob” is old-fashioned English slang for mouth) is, with the sanction of the Church, conducting experiments on children by separating them from their very souls, embodied in Lyra’s world as animal familiars called daemons. The process is designed to somehow prevent them from accumulating the “dust” (equivalent to original sin) that pertains to puberty and adult sexuality. This barbaric procedure, known as “intercision,” leaves the victims little more than zombies.
At the end of Northern Lights Lyra finds Roger, only to watch him die horribly at the hands of her own father, the rebel Lord Asriel, who is entirely focused on opening up the gaps between his world and another one, for purposes that have yet to be revealed, but that have something to do with this “dust.” Before he sets out, Asriel reads to Lyra out of scriptures that echo (yet distort) the Book of Genesis:
And the woman said unto the serpent, we may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden. But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and your daemons shall assume their true forms, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to reveal the true form of one’s daemon, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they saw the true form of their daemons, and spoke with them.
But when the man and the woman knew their own daemons, they knew that a great change had come upon them, for until that moment it had seemed that they were at one with all the creatures of the earth and the air, and there was no difference between them.
And they saw the difference, and they knew good and evil; and they were ashamed and they sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. . . .
Elsewhere, Pullman has insisted that Eve, as portrayed in the actual Genesis, was the first scientist, rejecting obedience for the sake of curiosity and freedom of inquiry.
A Thickening Plot
In the second novel of the series, The Subtle Knife, the plot thickens. Cardinals torture witches, who in this world are a force for good, by hurting their daemons. The sinister agent of the magisterium, Mrs. Coulter, who also happens to be Lyra’s mother (though she has never taken any interest in the child until the point where she could use her for her own purposes), now engages in increasingly foul tactics, seducing, betraying, murdering at will—all in the name of the “Authority” she serves: that is, the Church and its dubious godhead.
By the end of the book, it has been explained to Lyra’s friend Will, a boy from our own world who has strayed into hers, that this Authority must be overthrown if humanity is ever to thrive.
“There is a war coming, boy. The greatest war there ever was. Something like it happened before, and this time the right side must win. . . . We’ve had nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history. It’s time we started again, but properly this time. . . .”
It emerges that Lord Asriel, for all his unscrupulous actions, is actually the leader of the anti-heavenly host, which intends to rebel once again, in a definitive strike against God himself.
I finished reading The Subtle Knife in the autumn of 1999, just as a number of parents in America were expressing concern over the Harry Potter books. In common with my daughters, I had found Rowling’s books cheering and entertaining. What is more, we all thought that, when push came to shove, Rowling was batting for the right side. But across the Atlantic it seemed that the themes of wizardry and witchery, which provide the canvas for the Harry Potter series, were causing extreme unease, with the specific anxiety that they would encourage interest in the occult.
It was close to Guy Fawkes night, when English children tend to have bonfire parties and let off fireworks, so I joked in a regular column I write for the Catholic Herald that any book-burners out there could find many other stories far more “worthy of the bonfire” than Harry Potter. I went on to use Pullman’s books as an example of something that was far more likely to harm a child’s capacity for faith. After describing the plots of the first two books, I pointed out that, in these books, everything we normally associate with safety and security—parents, priests, and even God himself—is evil, is indeed “the stuff of nightmares.” That is to say, they affect a child’s consciousness at its most vulnerable point.
This is not something that J. K. Rowling is ever guilty of, for all her vivid portrayal of evil. There are wicked adults in the Harry Potter series, but they are not the actual parents of the protagonist, nor indeed the ultimate figures of authority in his school.
In the most recent book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry does learn that his father and his godfather were far from perfect at his own age of fifteen, and he has to bear a long and inexplicable silence from his usual mentor, Dumbledore. But none of this adds up to a reversal of the order in which certain people can be trusted and depended on: It just adds to the story a realistic perspective about complex situations and people’s failures and weaknesses. This perspective is essential for the maturing of Harry’s personality and his ability to know and counter evil effectively.
The third and final part of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, which came out in November 2000, offers no such balance, but rather an intensification of the axe-grinding that distinguishes the first two novels. The press pack that accompanied review copies of the book included, among the enthusiastic quotes from reviewers, the words: “Far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry [Potter] . . . a million times more sinister . . . Truly the stuff of nightmares. Catholic Herald.”
On April 1, 2001, I attended a Pullman talk and signing-session at the Oxford Union with my daughter and some of her friends. The ubiquitous Catholic Herald story was right up there at the top of his agenda. “I hope that writer is praying for me,” quipped Pullman. “Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?” (I was, and I am.) The microphone was passed around the audience for questions. “Why are you so nasty about the Church?” asked a child sitting several rows down from us.
Pullman then launched into a diatribe against the Church as being responsible for all the horrors of history: wars, heresy hunts, burning of witches, etc. When he finished, a fairly large proportion of the audience burst into applause. Later we were told that the girl who had asked the question was devastated. Several in our party were preparing to receive the sacrament of confirmation. The point of receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit, notably fortitude and right judgment, was demonstrated graphically to them on that day. I meanwhile began to wonder whether I should start popping out of wardrobes in a set of cardinal’s robes, as in the famous Monty Python “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” sketch.
In my article, not knowing much about Pullman, I had said that perhaps he was going to turn the plot around in the third book and take a different line on the Church in our own (real) world from the one taken on the institution in Lyra’s universe. It seemed to me that Pullman could still pull off a metaphysical tour de force and reach a genuinely surprising conclusion. After all, in The Subtle Knife, Lyra and Will had compared notes about the meaning of the same words in their two different worlds, and realized that some things meant the exact inverse of their normal meaning in the other one’s universe.
Yet this is one of the plot threads that Pullman completely drops in The Amber Spyglass. In fact, the most notable thing about the last volume of His Dark Materials is the way in which the author, judged from a purely literary perspective, woefully overreaches himself, losing coherence and continuity and lapsing into the worst excesses of didactic writing. This is the cardinal sin of fiction, whereby an author, instead of embedding the moral of his story in the text as a whole, contents himself with putting it on the lips of a protagonist. And yet it is for this most flawed volume that the literary establishment decided to decorate Philip Pullman.
The Amber Spyglass hurtles towards an increasingly forceful conclusion: No matter which world you are in, there is no loving, unchanging, all-powerful, all-knowing, fatherly God. There is no incarnate, magisterial, suffering, and redeeming Son, and no Holy Spirit to inspire and defend the Church against the horrors of hell. Religion with its comforts is a hoax.
Pullman’s heroes are the fallen angels and the witches fighting for liberation from the throttling grip of the fraudulent “Authority”: the Ancient of Days who is so old and infirm that he can be usurped by his chief spirit, the “Metatron.” This fearsomely powerful archangel, a kind of satire on St. Michael, turns out to have an interesting Achilles’ heel: He longs for nothing more than to have flesh and blood, so that he can enjoy the sensual delights denied to a being unfortunate enough to be composed of spirit, not matter. This obsession is sufficient to allow him to be dispatched into the abyss—by none other than that femme fatale, Mrs. Coulter, working in one last hideous moment of union with her estranged husband, Asriel.
In The Amber Spyglass, it is revealed that there is no heaven, just an infernal limbo into which the gullible faithful have been corralled, until Lyra liberates them into their true condition: impersonal particles in a strictly material universe. And a physicist named Mary (who like Will is from our world), turns out to be not so much the new Eve as the new tempter. She appears to save not just one, but all the worlds from destruction by merely pointing the children towards their burgeoning sexuality, something she discovered belatedly herself, after leaving the religious order to which she once belonged. It is she who provides the bulk of the anti-Christian rhetoric at the end of the novel.
Meanwhile, a priest sent from the see of Pope John Calvin (the worst of all worlds here!) to eliminate the children before they can effect their rite of passage, has been accorded advance absolution for his intended act of magisterial murder. In case this point is not sufficiently clear, the term “Pre-emptive Absolution” heads up the chapter in which this plot line is initiated. Never mind that the Church—far less God himself, who cannot warp his own gift of free will for man—can under no circumstances offer forgiveness for sins not yet committed. Neither can she offer absolution for sins that are not sincerely repented.
Since winning the Whitbread Prize, Pullman has declared himself, adopting Blake’s judgment of Milton (both are major influences on the Dark Materials trilogy), as being “of the Devil’s party.” Leaving aside the accuracy of Blake’s take on Milton (let alone Pullman’s on each of them), it is certain that Pullman has not progressed from Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained. We have to ask ourselves, what really lies behind Pullman’s creation? Where is he coming from? What is it in this modern fantasy that attracts so many readers—not just children, but also, and maybe most influentially, adults, particularly those who populate the media, and who staff schools and libraries?
Philip Pullman appears to be basing himself on an age-old piece of metaphysics called dualism. Whether under its ancient Manichean form, among the medieval sects, or indeed in its modern, New-Age guise, this heresy stems from the incapacity to hold spirit and matter in the right balance.
In response to the difficulties thrown up by the paradox of Christianity, the dualist cannot believe that spirit could be incarnate, that matter could be sanctified, or that sacraments could be more real and effective than any amount of physical force or psychological coercion. While for most dualists of the ancient and medieval world, only the spiritual world is worth inhabiting, for a twentieth-century sentimental rationalist like Pullman, the material world is superior, and anyone who emphasizes the spiritual is a dangerous, life-denying death-worshiper.
This view of Pullman’s has been strikingly illuminated by his recent comments about C. S. Lewis. At a “Christian-Atheist Dialogue” held at an Anglican church in Oxford in the spring of 2002, Pullman was asked about his dislike of Lewis. He cited two moments in the Narnia books that he hated.
One was the passage in The Last Battle in which Susan is described as no longer being a friend of Narnia, having been distracted by “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” She had always been, as Jill puts it, “a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” Hence, she is not with the others in Narnia/Heaven. The other was the passage at the end of The Magician’s Nephew in which Digory wrestles with the temptation to steal an apple from the tree of life in order to heal his dying mother.
Taking the second instance first, it was with noticeable anger that Pullman described the double-bind in which he sees Lewis putting the boy (he used the word “obscene” to describe it): If you are not good and obedient, your mother will die, but if you are good and obedient she may die anyway. Either way, it is going to be your fault. It seems that Lewis’s treatment of death and morality has triggered a very strong reaction in Pullman, whose own father died when he was very young.
What Pullman cannot seem to abide in Lewis is the hopeful picture of what happens after death: That is to say, the Christian take on life, which, while valuing its beauty and power, nonetheless places it firmly in the context of the next life, the life after death, which is viewed as fuller, more perfect, and thus more important in the final order of things. For Pullman, this is an empty promise—a monumental hoax, almost. For him, death is the end of conscious life.
And yet the fact of mortality is almost an obsession with Pullman, and death plays a prominent role in his books. He kills off a number of important characters in his books (and not only in this trilogy), including Lyra’s friend and protector Lee Scoresby and Will’s father in The Subtle Knife, and both of Lyra’s parents in The Amber Spyglass. Finally, he fulfils the Nietzschean dream by killing off God, a senile deity who makes a brief appearance before being blown away on a puff of wind when his protective crystal chamber is breached.
This God, incidentally, is not the creator of the world, but merely the first angel, who deceived the others into thinking he was the origin of their being. The beneficent and all-powerful deity of the Judeo-Christian tradition is yet another hoax.
Similarly, Pullman separates Lyra and Will in perpetuity at the end of The Amber Spyglass. Here is how Lyra bids her companion goodbye.
“I’ll be looking for you Will, every moment, every single moment. And when we do find each other again, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart. Every atom of me and every atom of you. . . . We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams. And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one, they’ll have to take two, one of you and one of me, we’ll be joined so tight. . . .”
Pullman interprets the dismissal of Susan at the end of the Narnia stories as demonstrating Lewis’s refusal to accept the process of “growing up.” For Pullman, the aim is to leave “innocence” behind and acquire the far more valuable gifts of “wisdom” and “experience.” Whatever else Pullman believes (and he has recently insisted that he does in fact believe in God, though not the God presented by the Church), he does not seem to have the Christian concept of childhood as a time that has its own integrity, its own wisdom—that quality praised and validated by our Lord when he informed us that unless we become like children, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
His Dark Materials
In any case, Pullman rejects the very notion of a Kingdom of Heaven, ending the trilogy with Lyra’s call to build “the republic of heaven.” Presumably that is a heaven in which God can be voted out of power, if he fails to please the incumbents. Perhaps now we begin to see why, like Blake, Pullman feels that in Milton’s portrayal of heaven and hell, the denizens of the latter are the most interesting. “Into this wild abyss,” runs the quote from Book II of Paradise Lost at the beginning of His Dark Materials,
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. . . .
Pullman has identified organized religion, and the Church in particular, with a hatred of the created world, a hatred of the body, a hatred of physical pleasure and happiness. He sees his books as asserting the worth of this world, the here and now existence. Beyond that, there may not be anything else. Why deny a girl lipstick and nylons—not to mention invitations—if there is no heaven to forgo them for, nothing, in fact, beyond the stable of this world with its admittedly rotten apples, but some pretty enjoyable things too?
If it is not possible to live a material existence without being corrupted, runs the dualist argument, then average people might as well do whatever they feel like doing, and be reconciled with the one, true, spiritual world only on their deathbed. Pullman’s vision, in common with many of his contemporaries, just flips that coin over. The superior reality is material; therefore, the ultimate release is to cease to exist and thereby donate one’s particles back to the material universe. Before that, you can do what you want, so long as you are kind, hardworking, etc.
It is ironic that Pullman, in reacting to Lewis’s Christian polemicism, should so clearly display the same fault as he tries to ram his own message home. Certainly, many scenes in The Amber Spyglass fail miserably to measure up to Bettelheim’s stricture that the fairy tale “subtly, and by implication only, convey . . . the advantages of moral behaviour” (my emphasis).
I think that the reference to Susan in The Last Battle actually does show up Lewis at his least edifying. It may be a throwaway line, but it reveals this most humane and broadly Christian of writers to be still somewhat the product of his puritanical Ulster background. And this is not the only place where Lewis demonstrates a certain lack of breadth. Re-reading the Narnia stories as an adult, I have felt on more than one occasion that Lewis could have foregone the sermonizing tone in favor of the method he uses to such great effect elsewhere in the narrative, and which marks out every great fantasy writer: symbolic embeddedness.
The first example which springs to mind of a fantasy writer successfully embedding the necessary symbolism into his text is, of course, J. R. R. Tolkien. To give but one example from The Lord of the Rings, consider the spiritual combat affecting Gollum in the second book (a scene included in the second movie), in which the unfortunate creature conducts a fascinating dialogue between the angelically and the demonically influenced sides of his soul.
In this dialogue, Tolkien presents—embeds—truths about the moral life and struggles of the soul, in a way that is not a sermon stuck into the story but an event that makes sense within the story. By showing through the story the choices Gollum faces, the reasons for choosing either, and the fruits of his final choice, Tolkien subtly implies the advantages of moral behavior.
And does so effectively. I know a number of teenagers, contemporaries of my oldest daughter, who have no religious background at all, and yet who are completely caught up in the mythos of Middle-earth. Through this mythos, symbolically embedded in the story, young people are unconsciously absorbing any number of spiritual nutrients which may serve them well in later life. They will have learned to see the world in a certain way, as it is seen by Christianity.
Similarly, there is a great deal more matter of interest to Christians embedded in the Harry Potter books than J. K. Rowling’s Christian detractors may realize. Harry’s trials follow a classic pattern of spiritual purification—drawing, in The Sorcerer’s Stone, for instance, on the ascending faculties of the soul in Aristotle’s De Anima (I am indebted to John Granger and his The Hidden Key to Harry Potter for this insight). Much of the imagery—unicorns, griffins, and so on—involves traditional symbols deeply entwined with Christian culture.
The central message, if such there is, that only love will overcome the power of death—embodied in the arch-villain whose name says it all, Voldemort (will to death)—is as Christian a moral as you could wish for. Indeed, the name of the protagonist himself, Potter, may be taken to have Christian connotations, given the scriptural references to God as the potter who moulds the souls of men. Rowling is careful not to pronounce on any institutional or cultural form of Christianity—or indeed any other religion, come to that, in the real world.
While Rowling is obviously not constructing a piece of propaganda for Christianity, neither is she very obviously attacking our faith, as Pullman is. That said, it is true that we live in a culture obsessed with the occult, preferring its dark mysteries to those of Christianity, which has come to be equated with bland, superficial moralism, a lack of symbolic resonance, and a consequently gutted liturgy. This is not something that any of us can afford to be complacent about. My impression of Rowling, however, is that the peddlers of the occult exploit her books, rather than the other way around.
In any case, since there are still two books to appear in the series, the jury can fairly be said to be out on Harry Potter. Yet my reading of the fifth novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, has, if anything, confirmed my view of Rowling’s wholesome take on the complexity of adolescence, and her gentle but firm grasp of the moral imperatives this time of life should lead one to discover.
Much has been made by Rowling’s detractors of Harry’s reliance on fib-telling in the early books. It is true that, whatever his virtues, Harry is economical with the truth when it suits him. Yet in the fifth novel this fault is confronted head-on: It is Harry’s own deceptiveness which contributes to the culminating tragedy of the novel, in which he is led to endanger the life of someone he loves precisely because he has not admitted to those who could help him that he himself is receiving information from Voldemort.
Rowling, however, also reminds her readers of the counter-productive effect of the type of judgment passed by a certain kind of agenda-obsessed moralizer, in this case the truly appalling Dolores Umbridge, an official of the Ministry of Magic who comes to Harry’s school, Hogwarts, to take over, and who enforces the official belief that Voldemort will not return. In an excruciating scene, for several hours each evening, she makes Harry write in his own blood (the words appear etched on the back of his own agonized hand as he writes each line on paper): “I must not tell lies.”
The specific accusation she is making against him—that he has lied about the return of Voldemort—is of course untrue, and the punishment sadistic and unjust. What it certainly does not achieve is a conversion (or corruption) of its victim on the crucial issue: his faith that the Truth will set him free. Harry will not be tortured into lying.
As most of the adults, both good and less good, fail to come to grips with Harry’s problems at this stage in his life, he becomes increasingly alienated from all who would have provided him with good counsel and protection. Thus, Harry is exposed to the influence of evil: a classic developmental scenario. Yet even in the darkest moments, Rowling succeeds in keeping a balance between our sympathy with Harry and the objective moral universe he must learn to negotiate. Not an easy thing to achieve in writing for this age range, and thus surely something to be respected, even by her critics.
Another contemporary English writer may provide an instructive contrast with those already mentioned. This is William Nicholson, who wrote Shadowlands and the screenplay for Gladiator. His children’s fantasy trilogy, entitled The Wind on Fire, centers on a family that belongs to a race of people called the Manth. They, as the first volume opens, are living in a culture that has lost its bearings and become fixated on something that will be only too familiar to anyone with teenage children: continuous and wearying academic assessment (think examinations each year, every year, for life . . .).
In the first volume, The Wind Singer, the twins Kestrel and Bowman flee the city of Aramanth in order to find, in the wilderness outside, a solution to the spiritual disease that grips their people. Underlying the plots of all three novels is a tension between the Morah, a force that inspires aggression, competition, and the imposition of human will, and the Singer People, who represent the opposite tendencies. All the action is played out between these two poles.
In the second volume, Slaves of the Mastery, the city of the Manth, whose people have been cured of their over-rigid meritocracy but have not balanced that change with prudence and vision, is destroyed by a far stronger, warrior people, and the Manth are led into slavery. Once again the twins, along with their friend Mumpo, a boy who represents the ultimate strength of the despised and dispossessed, bring about the fall of the Mastery that holds their own and other people in thrall.
There follows an exodus in the third volume, Firesong. The twins’ parents lead what remains of the Manth people to a homeland prophesied by their father, as the forces of the Morah and the Singers prepare to enact an age-old cycle of conflagration and realignment.
Nicholson deals with all the same themes as Pullman: the journey, both geographical and biographical; the turning point between childhood and adolescence; the values that should inform our behavior towards one another; the powers and principalities that affect the world; why we are here in the first place. The Wind on Fire books pull no punches about human vulnerability, violence, and death. There are some terrible scenes of cruelty in Slaves of the Mastery, for example, and yet you do not get the feeling that the author is revelling in them. Certainly they leave a different taste in the mouth from the violent scenes in Pullman’s trilogy.
Nicholson, who is a self-confessed lapsed Catholic with an interest in comparative religion equal to Pullman’s, draws among other things on Judeo-Christian imagery, notably the imagery of Exodus, and the imagery of ancient Rome to great effect. Yet his treatment of puberty, love, marriage, and the family is more in the earthy but reverent mold of the Old Testament or of classical civilization than in the politically correct tone of the late twentieth century.
In the final novel, Firesong, the denouement, when the girls of the Manth are captured to be forced into marriage by a renegade tribe, is terrible, but just. There is even a redemptive plot twist in the midst of the violence, with a one-time betrayer giving his life to save the Manth and effect their escape. Kestrel’s clarity and presence of mind throughout the ordeal hangs entirely on her witnessing of a true marriage—that between her parents, whose mutual respect and loyalty to each other is in such stark contrast to the brutish alternative, or even to the politically contrived arrangements of the second novel, Slaves of the Mastery, with its strong overtones of the Roman Empire.
Most notably of all, Nicholson allows his surviving characters to come to rest in peace and happiness. Heroes and heroines end up marrying and having children. The Manth people have a future in their promised land. Those who are sacrificed along the way are not forgotten; indeed, in the case of the twins, a permanent spiritual bond persists throughout. The vision is infinitely kinder, while no less pluralistic, from a religious and anthropological point of view, than Pullman’s.
A Tragic Affair
It is undeniable that for the most part (when he is not muddying his own pool in trying to seize the fish), Pullman’s His Dark Materials is brilliantly written, full of compelling creations and ideas. For me the whole Pullman affair is tragic precisely because of this. A great talent, a formidable intelligence, has been used to send a message of despair.
He explores themes many of us find fascinating: the existence of parallel universes, the nature of the soul, the relationship between spirit and matter, and that between human beings and animals and angels, etc. And he sometimes explores them with great insight. There is a powerful scene in The Amber Spyglass in which Lyra tries to re-motivate the souls wandering aimlessly in the ghastly Limbo, in which they are trapped after death, by telling them true stories about her own life. Even the harpies that had tormented these lost souls now pause to listen in, and one of them, No-Name, explains why: “Because she spoke the truth. Because it was nourishing. Because it was feeding us. Because we couldn’t help it. Because it was true. Because we had no idea there was anything but wickedness.”
Precisely because he seems so determined to execute a total inversion of Judeo-Christian metaphysics, Pullman betrays this insight, that true stories truly nourish. By lunging at the Christianity of Lewis and Tolkien (of whom he has also spoken dismissively), Pullman limits and spoils his own work. His senile Authority has nothing to do with the living God, whose wise and experienced love brings us to a life that does not merely fizzle out in a damp squib of disintegrating atoms. As both Rowling and Nicholson demonstrate, and Tolkien did before them, you can be free in your exploration of these fundamental themes without mindlessly pulping the truth of a religion that in itself contains all the marvels and wonders you could possibly want.
But anyone who based his view of Christianity only on Pullman’s best-selling books would never come to know this. He would be predisposed not to know this. Contrast the rather bleak ending of His Dark Materials with what Tolkien says about fairy-stories in “On Fairy Stories”:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending; or more correctly of the good catastrophe [which earlier Tolkien has called the eucatastrophe], the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist”, nor “fugitive”. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
Sadly, Philip Pullman, in his desire to resist the temptation to be escapist (which is how he classes, and dismisses, both Lewis and Tolkien), and to promulgate a rigidly modern type of spiritual “realism,” ends up by denying that turn which characterizes the true fairy story, and leaving his readers with a call to build a Republic of Heaven (and presumably leaves them with the guilt if they fail) and the thought that whatever they do in this life, they will dissolve into atoms when they die. He uses his own imaginative skills to offer his young readers a world without the possibility of eucatastrophe, the joyous turn that delivers us from what seems to be our inevitable, universal, and final defeat.
Meanwhile those moviegoers who know nothing about the faith that inspired Tolkien but who shed tears while watching the films of his books, also need to know that there is a source of goodness and hope that makes even Gandalf’s loss and Boromir’s death bearable. Does it really serve the cause of realism and truth to condemn young people to spend the rest of their lives thinking that the life-giving God is no better than the Dark Lord Sauron or the evil wizard Voldemort? Young people, of all faiths and none, who contemplated the fragility of life after September 11th, require all possible spiritual resources to face the future.
A Remodelled Universe
Pullman may be a spellbinding magician painting an awe-inspiring scenario of hugely ambitious scope, but I suspect that in His Dark Materials he is trying to remodel the universe to his own taste. It is a kind of Luciferian enterprise to try to do in his story what Sauron tries to do in The Lord of the Rings. Or indeed to believe one can co-opt this power for good, as those whom the Ring has tempted, like Boromir, or even Frodo at the end of his quest, try to do.
Yet if the true meaning of Genesis has to do with the flight from God rather than the acquisition of “liberating” knowledge, those who seek to immure themselves in Pullman’s world, not to mention attempting to teach a whole generation that this is the world as it really is, will ultimately face the anti-creative cul-de-sac of Mordor. For, as we are told in The Lord of the Rings, the Ring serves only one master.
Leonie Caldecott lives near Oxford, England, with her husband Stratford, with whom she edits a bi-annual journal, Second Spring. A columnist for The Catholic Herald, she works for the European branch of the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture, and is currently preparing a conference on fantasy and children’s literature to be held in 2004. The Caldecotts have three teenage daughters.