Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Phillip Pullman and C. S. Lewis

Most readers of current fantasy literature are familiar with Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, which is set in a subtly magical alternate version of Oxford, England. Pullman wrote the series on purpose to counter the teachings of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. It is an intentional reverse-viewpoint to the Christian one of Lewis. Pullman's vitriolic hatred of Narnia, is, by now, very well-documented. This hatred of the Narnia books is more than a bit puzzling; Pullman has infamously stated that the Narnia books are "one of the ugliest and most poisonous things I've ever read". A strange statement because, as Christian works go, the Narnia books are among the most non-judgemental, non-poisonous books the genre has to offer. Had Pullman been talking about say, Jack Chick, that charge might have made sense. Chick tracts generally DO depict the Christian worldview as ugly and poisonous, and the Christian god as unforgiveing and tyranical--not to mention (I dare say it)unconcerned with real morality.

But Lewis's depiction of Christ and God throughout the Narnia Chronicles and his apologetic works for adults is a far more benevolent one. I'm tempted even to say "liberal," though that's hardly accurate, as Lewis did subscribe to tradtional Christian morals. However, it is the brand of Christianity actually promoted by Lewis that is very reason some groups of fundamentalist Christians have major problems with him. I've read quotes from some Christians who honestly beleive Lewis is even now suffering torment in hell for his beleifs. I'll briefly state that their God is not a moral one, and his motives for punishing Lewis not based upon true morals but on technicalities, before getting to the heart of the matter by examining the following quote by Phillip Pullman:

There's a distinction between the things Lewis says as a critic, which are very acute and full of sense and full of intelligent and sometimes subtle judgements – much of which I agree with – and the things he said when was possessed by the imp of telling a story, especially in his children's fiction.

Narnia has always seemed to me to be marked by a hatred of the physical world. When I bring this up, people say, oh no, what nonsense! He loved his beer, loved laughter and smoking a pipe, and the companionship of his friends and so on.

And so he might have done. But that didn't prevent perhaps his unconscious mind from saying something quite different in the form of a story. I'm by no means alone in attacking Lewis on these grounds.

Notice that Pullman takes Lewis to task for what he terms "hatred of the physical world," essentionally for being what might be called overly spiritual, concerned for the world beyond this one--which, as far as Pullman is concerned, does not exist. Anti-Lewis Christians, on the other hand, take Lewis to task precisely because he DID indulge in worldly pleasures. Lewis is well-known to have smoked and drank, and was known to have remarked that he enjoyed good eating, the obvious reason for all the mouth-watering food references throughout the Narnia. Lewis may have felt he was "made for another world," but he had hardly given up appreciating the pleasures afforded by this one while he remained on earth. Lewis's critics, it must be acknowledged, are not entirely off the mark here. Christ did indeed warn that one must hate the world, even hate himself, to become his disiple. Jesus spoke in metaphor, and it would be foolish to take these statements literally, however. We know that the taking of one's own life is a sin, and Christ did not prohibit drinking, only drunkenness. Jesus spoke to his followers in these seemingly extreme terms to hammer his point home: indulging in the physical world is gratifying one's animal nature, and is, if carried beyond moral limits, a form of selfishness that blinds one to the needs of others. And helping others was central to Christ's teaching; here is the real reason why wordly overindulgence is sinful. Did Lewis qualify as overindulgent? Probably not, as I've read nothing to suggest he was anything other than caring for the less fortunate, though all of us are fallible at times. But what the anti-Lewis crowd truely objects to about him are his theological beleifs, some of which run counter to their own orthodoxies.

For one thing Lewis was well known as an inclusionist, a belief system which holds that even those outside Christianity can still be admitted to heaven in certain circumstances. In other words, those who are often considered as unbeleivers are not necessesarily sent to hell. To beleive that they are, merely because of their failure to recognize certain facts about Christ, is to beleive admission to heaven is dependent upon certain technicalities rather than actual morals. Lewis communicated his inclusionist beleif most strongly with the Calormene boy Emeth in The Last Battle. Emeth is a noble and virtuous character who has been seeking the Truth all his life. The problem is, he has been taught worongly; in fact, he's been taught the very reverse of the actual truth. When he finally encounters Aslan (Christ), he is admitted into Heaven, because once he finds the real truth, he accepts more than willingly. There are, of course, some Christians who nonetheless object to this, because of their beleif that Heaven is essentially a club for Christians only, rather than a reward of Eternal Life for the virtuous. This notion, I beleive, is rooted in human tribalism, rather than in religion. The idea that one must belong to to one's particular faith in order to be saved also pops up in various Christian cults. Some OSAS proponents even state that one must be an Eternal security to enter heaven. Such notions are entirely fallicious, of course, as the both cults and OSAS (which originated with John Calvin), did not even exist for hundreds of years after Christianity had long established itself.

But back to Pullman and his objections to Lewis. The character of Emeth (who is a dark-skinned Calormene) is one of the facts which flies in the face of Pullman's charges of racism on Lewis, as others have noted. Pullman's charges of racism and sexism on the Narnia books, in fact, have the intellectual depth of a PC Democrat's ad-hoc attacks on his Replublican rivals during an election, something one would think would be beneath a writer of such obvious depth and talent. But are Pullman's attacks on Lewis entirely genuine? One would think that he would at least acknowledge Lewis talent as a creative fantasist, yet he has not done so to my knowledge. But here is another interview quote that might prove enlightening:

Because the things he's being cruel to are things I value very highly. The crux of it all comes, as many people have found, with the point near the end of the Last Battle (in the Narnia books) when Susan is excluded from the stable.

The stable obviously represents salvation. They're going to heaven, they're going to be saved. But Susan isn't allowed into the stable, and the reason given is that she's growing up. She's become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: 'She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.'

This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here's a child whose body is changing and who's naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one's body and one's feelings. She's doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up.

Maybe one day she'll grow past the invitations and the lipstick and the nylons. But my point is that it's an inevitable, important, valuable and cherishable stage that we go through. This what I'm getting at in my story. To welcome and celebrate this passage, rather than to turn from it in fear and loathing.

That's what I find particularly objectionable in Lewis – and also the fact that he kills the children at the end. Now here are these children who have gone through great adventures and learned wonderful things and would therefore be in a position to do great things to help other people.

But they're taken away. He doesn't let them. For the sake of taking them off to a perpetual school holiday or something, he kills them all in a train crash. I think that's ghastly. It's a horrible message.

Notice that in the next to the last paragraph, he states "Now here are these children who have gone through great adventures and learned wonderful things and would be in a postion to do great things to help other people." Note that here Pullman appears to give Lewis credit where credit is due after all. He acknowedlges there are "great adventures" in the Chronicles, and even that the children have learned "wonderful things," something that would hardly characterize Lewis and Narnia as morally deficient. It seems, also, that virtually all of Pullman's criticsm of the actual story and substance of Narnia is focused entirely on the climax of The Last Battle, the final book of the series.

Let me say, before criticising further, that Pullman makes a valid point here. I will state, unequivally, that Lewis is guilty of a very bad story-telling blunder when he "kills off," the children in order to get them to heaven. There is simply no need for this. I do not beleive that Lewis was dismissive of charity, honesty, or any other of Christ's teachings in the here and now. The books themselves stress the importance or morality (as even Pullman appears to be aware), and even Lewis's own life would tend to refute Pullman's contention that for Lewis, the next life is the only one that matters. That said, I'd say that Lewis was simply guiltly of oversight, not warped ideology, in writing the ending. The children could have lived charitable and productive lives in the service of Christ until they reached a ripe old age. Upon reaching Aslan's country, they might well have become as children again. It is in fact often speculated that we will appear in heaven as we did during the best part of our lives--a man who dies at eighty would not appear as eighty-year old in heaven. Even time would not work as it does on earth, and those who arrived "early' in heaven might meet up with loved ones who died later on. We can only speculate on the afterlife, of course, and Lewis could have done better then he did.

As for the problem of Susan, it, too, should be considered a literary flaw, as she was one of the heroic characters in the early Narnia, and her sudden exclusion at the end makes little sense. However, as others have pointed out, Lewis merely leaves it open-ended as to what Susan's eternal destiny wil be. Her interest in trivilaties appears to be a adolescent stage she is going through, in fact, and not true maturity, which I don't beleive Lewis is trying to discourage.

It has also been pointed out that Pullman has a similar problem in his own series, which might well be called "The Problem of Roger". Roger is the best friend of Lyra Belacqua in the first book of the series. Most of The Golden Compass centers around Lyra rescuing Roger form the Oblation Board, a Church-sponsored orgnization charged with conducting unethical experiments on children. Lyra is successful in saving Roger, but she might as not have been, as Roger is murdered by Lord Asrial, Lyra's "uncle" (actually her biological father) in same manner as the Oblation board , no less, in order to open a transdimensional portal. Lord Asriel, by the way, is the person whose goal is to overthrow the phony "God" (known as the Authority) and estabish a "Republic of Heaven" characterized by freedom and tolerence. In the words of Orson Scott Card, in his review of Pullman's novel:

In other words, even as he attacks religion for all the evil that it causes, he can't get through his own story without having his heroes duplicate all the evils he deplores -- right down to sacrificing an innocent, unwilling child's life to open a door into another world, an act committed by a character who ends up being the leader of the anti-religious religion.

The rest of Card's essay, which I can't recomend enough, can be found here:


The question is, is Pullman guilty of morality slip here or not? He clearly is in sympathy with the "Republic of Heaven" idea. It depends if he is agreement with Asrial's ruthless means of acheiving it. If so, the he is promoting emiricism, an "ends justifies the means" morality. Or possibly he is operating on the "happiness vs. suffering" system of morality promoted by most atheists. If morality is determined by the amount of happiness or suffering occurs for greatest number of people, then one could indeed reach the conclusion that Roger's death could be justified. That is, if more the estabishment of the Rebulic would promote greater happiness among its citizens, then the death of one measly kitchen-boy is relatively inconseqeltial. The problem here is, of course, that our innate moral consiousness ---which as Christians, we beleive is installed in us by God--tells us otherwise. The number of individuals and degrees of happiness acheived is not enogough to argue the morality of a single murderous action.
However, it is not a forgone conclusion that Pullman himself shares his character's postion. He may not agree that Roger's death was a necessary evil to achieve a greater good. Asriel is far from a heroic character in many aspects, although his ultimate goals may be admirable in intent. It is Lyra who is the true hero, and she is never guilty of such morally reprehensible action. Pullman has others reasons for killing off Roger at the end of book one, which come to light in The Amber Spyglass, the third and final volume. An actual afterlife awaits spirits in Pullman's universe, not Heaven of Hell, but a realm similar to Greek Land of the Dead, where the ghosts wander about in a state of eternal boredom. They have been put there by the Authority, the pretender God, whom Lyra and Will eventually euthanize. Lyra finds Roger, and then liberates him and the other spirtis from the land of the Dead. What happens then is that they simply dissipate into nothing, though Pullman attempts to put a pretty face on what is surely oblivion at this point. He doesn't succeed, but he probably does that best he possibly can at making nothingness sound appealing. Like most atheists, Pullman beleives that oblivion is what really waits for us all in the real world, so here he's communicating what he beleives to be the true fate of all conscious beings.

But one more thing about Pullman's trilogy. Pullman imagined an alternate reality in which John Calvin has become Pope, and supposedly Calvinism reighns supreme. Why did he do this? In a DVD I have about the background of His Dark Materials in which Pullman explains that heretics where burned under Calvin, including a child heretic. Naturally Pullman is outraged by the terrible evils perpetuated by the church, and Calvin specifically. It may not be a coincindence then, that the doctrine of OSAS originited with Calvin, who undoubtedly beleived he was going to heaven in spite of his misdeeds. Pullman, of course, sees only religion itself as the problem. Perhaps he should look deeper....

No comments:

Post a Comment