April 25, 2010

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY: Another Round of Pullman vs. Lewis & Tolkien

Why here, why now?

First of all, I’m reading Colin Duriez’ short book, TOLKIEN AND C.S. LEWIS: THE GIFT OF FRIENDSHIP (2003 by HiddenSpring Press) in which he explores not only the writing of both men and their faith in Christ, but also their friendship and how it developed out of scholarship.

Secondly, this brought to mind a contemporary Englishman who has made his career into one of promoting a loathing of Christians: Philip Pullman. I’ve noted in his interviews that while he has sometime claimed himself atheist and sometime agnostic, (but all the time humanist); he hasn’t taken many swings at the basic tenets of Christianity in his children’s books. (He does in his newest, though I haven’t read it yet and I’m on the library waiting list for THE GOOD MAN JESUS AND THE SCOUNDREL CHRIST, which is reviewed in the Guardian below.)

Other people have answered Pullman’s many claims about what Lewis wrote, what he meant and what Pullman thinks of him.4 I won’t go there except to point out that where Tolkien and Lewis were both Oxford dons and graduated from their alma maters with honors, Pullman barely squeaked out of Exeter College in Oxford with what he calls “a Third class BA in 1968…it was the year they stopped giving fourth class degrees otherwise I’d have got one of those".

I’m going to look at these works of fantasy from a slightly different point of view. Pullman evaluates what he’s written in HIS DARK MATERIALS as “trying to do something different: tell a story about what it means to grow up and become adult…I’m telling a story about a realistic subject, but I’m using the mechanism of fantasy. I think that’s slightly unusual…True experience, not fantasy – reality, not lies – is what saves us in the end…[PRINCE CASPIAN is] “full of bullying and sneering, propaganda, basically on behalf of a religion whose main creed seemed to be to despise and hate people unlike yourself. Whatever Christianity says, I don’t think it’s that.” 1 “…fantasy doesn’t nourish in the way that good realistic fiction does. Whenever I’m asked about HIS DARK MATERIALS, I like to refer to it not as fantasy but as stark realism…I’m realistic in everything I write…even a fairy tale…has to have some grounding in psychological truth. It has to tell us something about what it means to be human…that is where Tolkien falls down…all the human questions for him were already answered since he was a devout Catholic…there was nothing left to say…I don’t write messages, I write stories.”2 “…the fantasy (which, of course, is there: no one but a fool would think I meant there is not fantasy in the books at all) is there to support and embody [matters that might normally be encountered in works of realism, such as adolescence, sexuality and so on], not for its own sake.”3

First of all, I’d like to point out that Pullman has never actually had to face Lewis or Tolkien, so neither man has ever had the opportunity to debate any of his accusations. He speaks to the ringing applause of anti-Narnia and anti-Middle Earth sycophants.

Secondly, both Lewis’ and Tolkien’s works grew out of their experiences in World War I and World War II – the horror of fighting and being wounded as soldiers in WWI and the terror inspired by the Nazi invasion of Poland and other European countries and the English mobilization against it in WWII. Pullman implies that neither man writes realistically. War – the only reality at the time – is woven intrinsically through both the CHRONICLES and H/LOTR. Oddly, Pullman never speaks of having been to the Arctic.

Thirdly, if Pullman’s intent is to write “psychological truth. It has to tell us something about what it means to be human”, then I put out to you that he, too was writing propaganda. Lewis and Tolkien both wrote about “psychological truth” – though it seems to me that no writer can write of anything BUT the psychological truth of their world view.

Last of all is perhaps my most serious counter-accusation: neither Lewis nor Tolkien set out to become celebrities. Both preferred the lives they led as Oxford dons, studying, writing dense treaties on language and Renaissance literature, lecturing undergraduates and mentoring graduates. They became celebrities organically through no effort of their own, as their books were read and passed on from one person to another. Pullman’s notoriety has come not from the word-of-mouth passing of his books from one person to another, but from ad campaigns and from taking the “controversial” stance of bad-mouthing Lewis and Tolkien (as if he were the first to do so…both men had their detractors (including each other!) even before they published the CHRONICLES and H/LOTR). It’s my opinion that his notoriety has come through the promotion of his opinion (which carries far more weight that mine, obviously) through the internet and the prevailing wind of anti-religious fervor. He sarcastically comments: “…Lewis’ books have sold more [copies] than mine. Well they would, with a fifty-year start, wouldn’t you think?”3

Pullman would like his contribution to literature to be that his work would “help us to enjoy life, or to endure it. I’d be happy with either of those valuable aspirations.” 2 Apparently, neither Tolkien nor Lewis will be accorded that same aspiration from him, despite the fact that their works have helped people “enjoy life, or to endure it.” I’m hoping someone will be around in 2045 to make a quick comparison and see whose series has sold more in fifty years and more importantly, which series has continued to help people “enjoy life or to endure it”. My prediction should be obvious.

Specific references:

1 -- http://www.powells.com/authors/pullman.html

2 -- http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=79470

3 -- http://www.achuka.co.uk/archive/interviews/ppint.php

4 -- http://www.planetnarnia.com/assets/documents/74/Lewis_and_Pullman.pdf

Others of interest:



First time I could find written record of Pullman criticizing Lewis



Christina Rodriguez said...

There were things I genuinely enjoyed about Pullman's series but there was much more that I hated - stupid, STUPID weird/creepy things that seemed only to exist for the sake of being "different" or to hammer home some metaphor or another. Pullman's series was a huge let-down for me.

GuyStewart said...

Me, too. There were some really NEAT ideas -- I liked the daemon's, they reminded me of Jonathon Stroud's Bartimaeus; and Lyra's relationship with both the polar bear and later, Will. But, as you said...