A young girl with a four-letter L name is whisked off to a land of perpetual winter because she climbed into a wardrobe, all through the agency of a dominating male character whose name begins with the letters As. She must help defeat a deceptively charming, poisonously evil woman who kidnaps a boy the protagonist cares about by offering him candy. Talking animals and multiple universes play a key role in the plot.

This describes C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It also describes The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. The impressive list of parallels between the books suggests to me that the His Dark Materials trilogy is not only hostile to Narnia but a very direct response Lewis’s series indeed. (I don’t know what this says about me, but I love both series about equally, though for very different reasons.)

Pullman is also deeply indebted to William Blake and John Milton, who supplied many concepts and phrases (including the title the golden compass and the series title his dark materials) to His Dark Materials. 

Blake both admired and contended with Milton in his imagination. In Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake claims famously that Milton is “of the devil’s party without knowing it,” referring to the character of Satan in Paradise Lost, whom he and many readers have found a more sympathetic character than the poem’s “Angels & God.” Blake later wrote a long “prophetic” poem in which (among other events) Milton’s spirit descends into Blake’s foot and reunites with his “emanation,” Ololon, who is a combination of the women in Milton’s immediate family (Blake was eccentric).

Taking all of this together, it struck me suddenly that there was some chance Pullman saw himself as the emotional, semi-sort-of-Satanic Blake to Lewis’s reason-and-law-focused Milton. On further thought, I find this…unlikely, because Blake respected and loved Milton, even though he also disagreed with him violently. I see that Pullman claims to respect Lewis more than he respects Tolkien, but—let’s just say—that is not high praise, and Pullman to me seems to show none of the understanding that affection (or even just more than cursory attention) brings regarding Lewis.

In his 1998 Guardian article “The Dark Side of Narnia,” Pullman acknowledges that Lewis’s “literary criticism is, at the very least, effortlessly readable” and that the Screwtape Letters are psychologically perceptive and that Lewis wrote well about myth, fairy tale, and children’s writing….and then goes on to claim that Narnia is “one of the most ugly and poisonous thing I’ve ever read”—which I dearly hope is intense hyperbole, even if one is to acknowledge most of his criticisms, which I don’t, though I am of the impression that Lewis was (mildly, in some ways) racist and sexist, and Narnia reflects that. I agree that it’s a bit disturbing to have the children beat up the bullies who tormented one of them, and, as I recall, there is very little vengeance or comeuppance-getting of any kind in His Dark Materials, which (despite Lewis’s arguments in favor of justice, which I think Pullman would do well to acknowledge and explicitly critique in this vitriolic article) I think I approve of. Pullman writes “there is the loathsome glee with which the children from the co-educational school are routed,” and I know that I at least experienced glee in that scene and found my glee to be somewhat loathsome.

Pullman’s central points, though, I do not find valid at all. There’s his interpretation of The Last Battle:

One of the most vile moments in the whole of children’s literature, to my mind, occurs at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan reveals to the children that “The term is over: the holidays have begun” because “There was a real railway accident. Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead.” To solve a narrative problem by killing one of your  characters is something many authors have done at one time or another. To slaughter the lot of them, and then claim they’re better off, is not honest storytelling: it’s propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology. But that’s par for the course. Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.

So….Pullman seems to find something morally objectionable about the idea of heaven. I think he borrowed this from Nietzsche? Maybe? But no, Lewis is not in this passage saying that death is better than life (that death is the gateway to life? is necessary to a much better if quite different life? almost certainly, in both literal and metaphorical senses, but that’s a somewhat different proposition). In many ways, death, to Lewis, is a misnomer—an illusion.

Yes, there are strains of Christian thought that include intense asceticism, such that one could say they exhort people to postpone all of the good things in life to a potentially nonexistent future after death, but Lewis was not an adherent of such (he did not live in the South in The Pilgrim’s Regress, but he did not live in the North, either). Lewis seemed thoroughly in favor of innocent pleasures of all kinds, including (morally enjoyed) sexual pleasure. He wrote so much about this, including in the Screwtape Letters (“He’s a hedonist at heart…”), that it’s strange Pullman didn’t internalize it at all. Likewise, I think that the intense sense of moral duty Lewis would to some extent take care of the objection that focusing hopes on the next life make us neglect our duty to make this one better (at the end of Till We Have Faces, Orual is her most just when also her most detached, shortly before her death).

Which is, all of it, frankly beside the point. Say that any kind of afterlife has to be included in the term death rather than the term life to satisfy Pullman. Well then. If there really is an afterlife of the sort Lewis imagined, then death really is better than life, and all of these characters really are better off (no pretending about it!). Atheism doesn’t excuse Pullman here—he should be better at suspending disbelief and imaginatively entering other points of view. I am fairly sure that one can honestly believe 1) that there is a potentially happy afterlife, 2) that there is not, or 3) that we cannot know, and I think (thank you, Lewis) that one should not violently condemn people who innocently and with good motives act on the consequences of honestly held beliefs, even when their actions bring about things that are from one’s own point of view terrible. This is hard, and tricky, and complex (motives are so hard to figure out), and dangerous, when the terrible things are truly terrible and especially when they affect one directly. I think it makes sense anyway. I will blog more about this at some point.

Another of Pullman’s central contentions, which I find almost as frustrating, is that Narnia expresses Lewis’s hatred for growing up and sexuality (which Pullman sees as closely intertwined). It’s getting late, and I don’t think I have time to refute it (maybe next week), but I think this is 80% straw man and 20% the Biblical exhortation to “become as little children” (which exhortation no doubt is a large part of Pullman’s target too, but….)

Reading His Dark Materials and then Lewis’s apologetic works gave me the strong impression that Lewis was miles ahead of Pullman intellectually, but that from a storytelling perspective, Pullman’s work was…not necessarily better, because Lewis was trying to do something different and smaller, but fuller, rounder, and more ambitious. The largeness characterization and courage and revolutionary quality of it resonated in a way that Narnia didn’t (and Narnia, in the cognitive details, the figure of Aslan, and, yes, the I’m-right-the-bad-guys-are-wrong flash and flare of it resonated in a way Pullman’s work didn’t, so eh.)