His Dark Materials, or Pullman Prêt-à-Porter
Hello again, everyone! It’s finally time for my Considered Thoughts on Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. Remember, I know nothing of Narnia except that the lion is named after an antidepressant of some kind, so my Pullman v. C. S. Lewis observations are based on my sense of how Pullman responds to Lewis’s Space Trilogy. And to start things off on the right foot and establish myself as your infallible guide to pop-culture criticism, let me just say at the outset that George Lazenby was far and away the best James Bond in the franchise.
I say this not only because it’s self-evidently true but because, to gauge by the responses to my brief note about Pullman’s series, the critical consensus is that (as more-antifoundationalist-than-moi philosopher Dave Maier put it @ 26, after I’d suggested that the Lord Asriel - Mrs. Coulter - Metatron scene in The Amber Spyglass was Teh suXX0r), “‘Teh suXX0r’ was my reaction not simply to Metatron et al but the whole third book, for which a better title might have been The Unsubtle Screed or something.” Indeed, I have since learned that Maier’s judgment concurs with that of less-antifoundationalist-than-moi literary critic Alan Jacobs, who wrote in the Weekly Standard,
Whichever party readers support in the ancient contest between God and Satan, they will be disappointed to see how often, in The Amber Spyglass, the tale’s momentum is interrupted by polemic. Pullman’s anti-theistic scolding consorts poorly with his prodigious skills as a storyteller. In imagination and narrative drive, he has few peers among current novelists. For such gifts to be thrust into the service of a reductive and contemptuous ideology is very nearly a tragedy.
I think this consensus, if consensus it be, is wrong.
But I’m not going to get all “relativist” on my sometime-Internets-correspondent Professor Jacobs (with whom, I have learned, I went to graduate school) by asking whose ideology is more reductive and contemptuous than whose. I’ll simply suggest that if you all didn’t pick up on Pullman’s profound contempt for the Church in books one and two, you all weren’t reading very hard. And it’s true, Pullman’s treatment of the Church is pretty reductive and contemptuous, since we all know that the Church didn’t really torture and burn witches, or torture and kill ordinary humans whose philosophical and scientific speculations were at odds with the teachings of the Vatican. On the contrary, the Church has always been pretty cool about alternative readings of Scripture, on the grounds that the Bible is an ambiguous and contradictory text that can plausibly be read in any number of ways by honest people working in good faith. About the varieties of human sexual expression, as well, the Church has always been admirably catholic.
Now, it’s true, as Jacobs points out at the end of his review, that Pullman fails to acknowledge the past two centuries of European history, which prove that some rebels against Authority turn out to be authoritarian. For Pullman’s failure to acknowledge that rebellion against the Church can lead to Stalin and Mao, Jacobs has a harsh verdict: “a story so thoroughly sentimental and manipulative doesn’t deserve that loyalty. Pullman’s readers should not overlook the deception, conscious or unconscious, that lurks at the heart of his beautiful, misbegotten endeavor.” What’s misbegotten about it? Just this: “this sentimental refusal of historical understanding leads directly to the Manicheanism of Pullman’s moral vision: closed versus open minds, tyrants versus liberators, the vicious Church versus its righteous opponents.” Yes, well, sometimes narratives of good versus evil can wind up, you know, casting Good versus Evil. Sort of like the way C. S. Lewis’s trilogy did—and I’ll say more about that in a few moments.
But it can’t be denied that The Amber Spyglass is full of characters stopping the narrative to pontificate in this reductive way. Take for example the witch Ruta Skadi, who tells the other witches about her encounter with Lord Asriel:
“And he invited us to join him, sisters. To join his army against the Authority. I wished with all my heart I could pledge us there and then. He showed me that to rebel was right and just, when you considered what the agents of the Authority did in His name. . . . And I thought of the Bolvangar children, and the other terrible mutilations I have seen in our own southlands; and he told me of many more hideous cruelties dealt out in the Authority’s name—of how they capture witches, in some worlds, and burn them alive, sisters. Yes, witches like ourselves . . .
“He opened my eyes. He showed me things I had never seen, cruelties and horrors all committed in the name of the Authority, all designed to destroy the joys and the truthfulness of life.” [Ellipses in original.]
That’s pretty reductive and Manichean, all right. Bad, bad Authority (and agents thereof) against joy and truth—you can’t get much more unsubtly-screedy than that. But guess what? That passage doesn’t actually appear in The Amber Spyglass. It’s from book two, The Subtle Knife. So I have to conclude that anyone who picked up The Amber Spyglass and said, “whoa, this anti-ecclesiastical routine is really getting out of control” was having something like a delayed response to aspects of Pullman’s project that were clear from way back in the opening pages of the series, back when we first learned about the status of women in the Church.
Instead, I’m going to suggest that the problem with The Amber Spyglass is a problem of scale—and that it shares this problem with The Lord of the Rings in one respect, but not, interestingly, with Lewis’s space trilogy. Here’s what I mean. Each of these narratives (unlike, say, Paradise Lost) opens on a very small scale, with little hobbits in their Shire, a medievalist on a hiking trip, little Lyra of Jordan College, Oxford. The boundaries are tiny, almost cloistered, and our protagonists have no idea how vast a task lies before them or how vast is the world in which they must accomplish it. The narratives then gradually expand in scope until they cover all of Middle-Earth (in one case) or the entire cosmos (in the other two). The result, in LOTR, is that we move from the faerie-world of Tom Bombadil to the stage of World-Historical Events in which evil empires are overthrown, ancient lines of kings are restored to their thrones, and entire races of beings (I’m looking at you, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler) abandon Middle-Earth altogether and pass, along with our now world-historical hobbit heroes, into the West. Along the way, though, the prose gets more and more portentous, as Anthony Lane observed a few years ago:
To read it again now, after a gap of decades, is both a rousing and a withering experience; nobody can deny the tweeness trap into which it repeatedly tumbles, or the way in which it tends, at moments of great import, to back off and scurry into the creaking comforts of outdated syntax. The hobbits, on their journey home from Mordor, arrive in the region of Eregion and stay for a week: or, rather, as Tolkien puts it, “Here now for seven days they tarried, for the time was at hand for another parting which they were loth to make.” This is the high style, but it is height without self-consciousness; Joyce climbed up there, too, but his was a parodic quest, and he stripped bare the language of nobility as if removing a suit of armor. Hardly anyone had used it unironically since Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” and to revert to it with a straight face in the nineteen-fifties was to mount a head-on challenge to modernity.
Since Lane brings up the historical record, I have to add that I’m not convinced that Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” didn’t also mount a head-on challenge to modernity. I mean, come on, it’s the late 19th century already. And while George Eliot was chronicling provincial life on the eve of the Reform Bill or tackling the Jewish Question, here’s Tennyson building a discursive bridge to the sixth century—and the mythical sixth century, at that. It’s not like he’s writing a series of long narrative poems on what the railroad will mean for English industry. “Idylls of the King” is neo-retro from the get-go, and its high style works only in that context. But that’s a side argument, as is my sense that in LOTR, the British Empire gets to imagine itself, even at the late date of the mid-twentieth century, as a tiny, quiet nation of shopkeepers from the Shire who don’t quite understand those nasty world-warrish broils taking place in strands afar remote. (I have a theory about the last time the high style could be used without self-consciousness or self-parody or neo-retroism, but I’ll save it for the end of this post, because it has something to do with the larger plot of His Dark Materials.) The important thing is that Lane is right about the increasingly inflated and eventually rather silly language of LOTR: as its scope and scale get larger and larger, you can almost spot Tolkien in the margins straining to crank up the Inflationary Diction Device.
Which brings me back to The Amber Spyglass. The journey of The Golden Compass is an intermediate one: Lyra meddles in the affairs of adults, and soon finds herself swept up into a narrative much larger than herself—but one in which she learns, like that Harry Potter fellow or those Halflings from the Shire, that she is the subject of a prophecy uttered by creatures not entirely of the world we thought we knew. But even as we establish the parameters of Lyra’s parallel-Earth world, in which there are witches and armored bears but no airplanes and no Reformation, we never leave that world; rather, we follow Lyra on her improbable trek to the frozen north via the world of the gyptians. Only in The Subtle Knife do we begin to explore the many-worlds hypothesis (aka the Barnard-Stokes heresy, whose proponents have been imprisoned by the Church), and I have to say that Will Parry’s initial explorations in that deserted coastal town on the planet Cittàgazze are an appropriately eerie and unsettling way to open book two. OK, so the first couple of expansions of scale are successful: with Lyra, we can make it to Bolvangar and we can intervene in the obscure politics of witches and armored bears, and then with Will we can enter new worlds with Specters in them by means of windows left open on busy English streets. So far, so good.
But in book two, we’re alerted to the possibility that all these narrative possibilities are dwarfed by the Largest Imaginable Narrative of All, in which Lord Asriel is challenging not merely the calcified Church and its resistance to scientific exploration, but the Authority himself, He Am Who Am. To this end Asriel is holing up in a mountain fortress and assembling the most awesome array of corporeal and angelic dissidents since . . . since . . . well, since the wrong side won the previous mother of all celestial battles eons ago and then got propagandists like Milton to chronicle their victory. I hope I won’t be considered irreverent when I say that this is pretty big stuff. The narrative better live up to it. And in book two, as it builds momentum, that narrative sweeps up more and more innocents who have no idea what they’ve gotten into, most notably the nun-turned-cosmologist Mary Malone.
I think I’m in broad agreement with a lot of people when I say that the narrative of book three doesn’t live up to the task. But the devil is in the details. Speaking of the devil: Lyra’s trip to the world of the dead is harrowing. Really! And when’s the last time you read about someone harrowing the world of the dead? It’s not like it happens every day, now. That sequence, involving Lyra, Will, and a pair of Gallivespians, gets stranger and stranger as it goes, and deeper and deeper into Western literary history, and by my count these are both Good Things. But then, in the very depths of the land of the dead, the wheels begin to come off: the harpies will be mollified if people tell them true stories? And meanwhile the evil Church Fathers back on Lyra’s planet are planning to fire the world’s biggest cosmic slingshot, which, with a lock of Lyra’s hair, will pulverize her wherever she may be? And this slingshot opens an abyss under the Abyss? Wait just a second. The narrative’s sense of scale has gone screwy on us. The harpies are supposed to be hideous and terrifying, not the underworld’s version of thwarted oral historians who want people to tell their life stories. And the cosmic slingshot—and the entire cosmic slingshot sequence—is just silly.
And then Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel have their epic battle with Metatron, whose name sounds less like something out of the epic tradition than like something out of Power Rangers. Hey, remember those legions of armies Asriel was gathering unto himself, comprised of the most awesome array of corporeal and angelic dissidents assembled since oh yeah, I just mentioned this two paragraphs ago? Well, forget about ‘em, folks, because the climactic battle between good and evil is going to turn out to be something more like a WWE championship match, with flying scissor kicks and pile drivers, and Asriel gets bonked on the head with a rock, but whoa! Mrs. Coulter totally betrays Metatron and fights against him! It’s the most amazing turn of events since Miss Elizabeth turned on Randy “Macho Man” Savage! And she gouges Metatron’s eyes and then Asriel hits him over the back with a metal folding chair! Win!
Oh yeah, the Authority himself gets dumped out of his vacuum-sealed crystal container and decomposes within seconds.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I know it’s hard to depict a battle for the fate of the universe. But that’s my point about the problem of scale here: the scope of the event is out of all proportion to what the narrative can plausibly do. Perhaps Pullman could have conducted the war against the Kingdom of Heaven offstage, so to speak, and have it narrated after the fact by an angel or a witch who can say stuff like “terrible was the tumult my eyes witnessed that day.” All I know is that this profoundly anticlimactic scene doesn’t work at all.
Interestingly (well, I hope it’s interestingly), Lewis’s That Hideous Strength avoids this problem altogether. That’s because the really grandiose celestial stuff—complete with lots of angelic speeches and Blessed-be-He songs of praise, talk of the Great Dance and capital-D Dust (!)—takes place at the end of book two, Perelandra. That Hideous Strength, by contrast, opens in the determinedly domestic realm, where Jane Studdock, a character who had not appeared in the first two books, is struggling with her doctoral dissertation on John Donne. Indeed, it’s not clear for quite some time that book three has anything to do with book two; Lewis has reset the scale of the narrative from scratch, almost as if we’re back in the Shire or Lyra’s Oxford with no knowledge of the divine beings who closed out the previous volume by chanting for a dozen pages or so.
The results of Lewis’s strategy are kind of cool. The book remains largely in the realm of domestic realism; the main plot follows a shadowy group called the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (or N.I.C.E., an almost Pynchonian touch—and it wouldn’t surprise me if That Hideous Strength crossed Pynchon’s mind as he was writing Gravity’s Rainbow) whose forays into fascism are but a prelude to an even more dastardly and far-reaching plot. Gradually, Lewis gradually unearths the Merlin myth for incorporation into his Christian narrative, and then, at the very end of the book, brings down the planetary gods of classical antiquity as well. But because the book doesn’t begin with the grandiose—say, an impending war in Heaven involving every conscious entity—the parade of deities at the end doesn’t come off as hyperinflated. Also, there’s the fact that Lewis has some fun with the planets; as each god arrives, his or her nature suffuses the house in which the principals have gathered. Here’s the first arrival, as felt by Ransom and Merlin:
Quick agitation seized them: a kind of boiling and bubbling in mind and heart which shook their bodies also. It went to a rhythm of such fierce speed that they feared their sanity must be shaken into a thousand fragments. And then it seemed that this had actually happened. But it did not matter: for all the fragments—needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts—went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves. It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting, and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision. For Ransom, whose study had been for many years in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure. He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning. For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them: the angel that spins nearest the sun. Viritrilbia, whom men call Mercury and Thoth.
So now you can tell your students (if you have students) why it’s worth their while to study poetry: it will enable them to maintain their sanity when mercurial Hermes Trismegistus shows up at their door. And quite seriously, the “all the fragments” passage and the “all fact was broken” sentence are very nicely rendered. I wouldn’t say that the entrance of the ancient deities is worth the price of admission by itself, but I certainly would say that Lewis handles this delicate matter of expanding narrative scale rather more deftly than Pullman handles the final struggle with Heavens-to-Mergatroid.
But the ending of Lewis’s novel! Ye gods! You want a reductive and contemptuous ideology, I gotcher reductive and contemptuous ideology right here. In the novel’s closing pages, after the Forces of
N.I.C.E. Evil have been defeated, the Director-with-a-capital-D (formerly known as Ransom) tells Jane Studdock what it all means:
Go in obedience and you will find love. You will have no more dreams. Have children instead.
You should understand that Jane’s clairvoyant dreams about Merlin and disembodied talking heads have driven the narrative from the outset, so that when the Director tells her she will have no more dreams, he is at once informing her that her nights will be easier (which counts as a relief) and that she will no longer have access to the supernal (which counts as a demotion but also a relief). It’s not quite as cruel as it sounds.
But it’s still be fruitful and multiply—and most of all, stop trying to get that Ph.D.! Leave the thinking to the menfolk! To which Jane replies, “My Author and Disposer, what thou bidst/ Unargu’d I obey; so God ordains,/ God is thy Law, thou mine: to know no more/ Is woman’s happiest knowledge and her praise.” Whoops, no, that’s Milton. Sorry about that. Anyway, Jane complies, and on the final page she goes into the marriage bower to start havin’ babies with her husband Mark. Now, this is a pretty raw deal for our Jane, not merely because her husband, preceding her into the bower, has thrown his clothes carelessly around the room (“How exactly like Mark!” she thinks with relief at the knowledge he is there), but more importantly because Mark is a bit of a pud and a toady who has spent most of the novel currying favor with the baddies at N.I.C.E. in the hopes that it will advance his career and give him Power Over Others. It’s as if Jane’s reward, for her good work and her conversion to Christianity, is that she is ordered to bear Mark Steyn’s children.
Oh, all right, to be fair, Mark has an epiphany on his way to the bower in which he sees himself (rightly) as “a coarse male boor with horny hands and hobnailed shoes and beefsteak jaw” (you know, sort of like Steyn!) and the insinuation is that he will henceforth be more worthy of the lady Jane. But still, as Erich Auerbach once said of this closing scene, “ew ew ew ew ew.”
To wrap up this Internets-breaking post with an observation and a question: it appears that for Pullman, as for Lewis, the fate of the universe hinges on what women do with their, you know, female sexuality. Indeed, this seems to be an important concern of the Church in our very own world! So when the Tempter shows up in The Amber Spyglass, in the shape of nun-turned-cosmologist Mary Malone, she basically tells Lyra to go ahead and do it, do it, do it ‘til she’s satisfied (whatever it is), because long walks along the beach with your new lover are way better than that flesh-scourging, pleasure-denying ascetic routine. And she doesn’t even have to get married or have babies! And she can go ahead and grow up to get a Ph.D. if she wants to, just like Mary did after she left the church! You know what comes after that, right? Deregulate women’s sexuality, and global financial-moral crisis follows. You wind up with women doing science, women kissing women, men marrying box turtles, chaos in general.
Now here’s the question. In Pullman’s universe, everything went wrong with the cosmos a little over three hundred years ago, when the scientists of Cittàgazze, housed in the Torre degli Angeli, invented the Subtle Knife and began cutting into other worlds, thus (unwittingly) releasing the Specters who can suck the living spirit right out of your body. As Pullman writes: “Three hundred years ago, the Royal Society was set up: the first true scientific society in her world. Newton was making his discoveries about optics and gravitation. Three hundred years ago in Lyra’s world, someone invented the alethiometer.” But why pick that point in history as the fateful turning point? The Royal Society was founded in 1660, yes. Hmmm. Was anything else going on around then? Major political events in English history, perhaps? Major English poets writing major epics? Maybe even a dissociation of sensibility of some kind? As I’ve admitted, I’m a complete Pullman neophyte, so I don’t know if he’s discussed this elsewhere. But I will suggest that whether or not human character changed on or about December 1660, thenabouts was the last time an English writer (like, say, Milton) could get away with writing in the high style about things like the war in Heaven.
Your thoughts about any or all of the above (except the bit about George Lazenby)?
This will be quick, because I have to get home to commemorate the release from bondage, etc. (I wonder where that would fit in his universe--some of the angels had Hebrew names). Michael, I think you get at what’s important and dare I say different in Pullman, notwithstanding the suckalicious battle (which even I, a defender of the third book, has to admit is a little silly). Unlike other models, Pullman’s savior of the universe is a girl, helped by women (Molly, the witches) as well as men, and the final event turns on her coming into her sexuality with her partner, Will, as her equal. I think Pullman may in this way be intentionally subverting the old tales and models he’s drawing on. Looking at it this way, the harpies and the voyage to the underworld make sense--Lyra’s talking to them is different than the patriarchal way of dealing with them, and works. It also makes Lyra and Will’s sacrifice at the end heartbreaking, as they both choose to be separate to protect the world even at the moment that they have finally come together. Others’ thoughts? And Happy Pesach!Posted by on 04/08 at 04:59 PM
I’ve discovered, through writing my own fiction, that at some point you just have to lay your thesis all out there and say,"look, here’s what I’m getting at: women fucking isn’t the end of the world,” or what have you.
This is simply part of story telling mechanics. And yes, it’s reductionist, but that’s because a book (film, play, painting, etc.) is a self contained picture of a world, not the world itself. Your themes have to come to fruition, so either you obscure them in esoteric symbolism and creaky archaic language or you let the dramatic flow carry you to the end and have your characters duke it out in plain site of the Pope and everyone, shouting curses and bloodying their knuckles while they discuss quantum physics, Manicheanism, or the meaning of life. But they do have to defend their thesis until the last author is standing. If you let the other side linger, you get into ambiguity, which is fine for some stories but doesn’t work well for all themes (Manicheanism, for example. Good and Evil can’t have a cup of tea together after the final battle, conceding that the other has some valid point).
But yeah, if you build an army in act 1, you have to use it in act 3. Failure to do so is a bad use of Chekhov’s Armory. Party foul on Pullman.Posted by Keith on 04/08 at 05:01 PM
Hey Michael, I’ll have a more substantive response later to this fine, fine post, but in the meantime: don’t try that epistemological flanking move on me. L’anti-foundationalisme, c’est moi.Posted by on 04/08 at 05:43 PM
Well, I guess I have me some re-reading to do. The boys and I listened to the first audio book last year, and then my older son dove into the book on his own. What I mostly remember is defending the third book against spurious attacks from friends who wrote it off completely. But it’s been so many years, and even though you gave advance notice, I haven’t gone back to remind myself of it all.
Have you read the short book “Lyra’s Oxford?”
DPosted by Derryl Murphy on 04/08 at 05:51 PM
Pardon the off-topic comment, Michael, but I didn’t see an email address, and I thought you might like to know that I just came across an updated version of your looming head logo.Posted by Brendan on 04/08 at 06:04 PM
Unlike other models, Pullman’s savior of the universe is a girl, helped by women (Molly, the witches) as well as men, and the final event turns on her coming into her sexuality with her partner, Will, as her equal.
True. Following Fiorentina’s suggestion in the previous thread, I went back and re-read A Wrinkle in Time, because Meg seems like an important antecedent. Except, of course, for the sexuality part.
Good and Evil can’t have a cup of tea together after the final battle, conceding that the other has some valid point
And vowing to work together in the future for the benefit of the entire community, which is what I think happens at the end of the Matrix trilogy. Thanks for the Chekhov, too!
Derryl, no, sorry to say. Nor have I dipped into the tales of Beedle the Bard.
Alan, thanks for stopping by; I’m most curious to hear your thoughts, because there’s much to agree on over tea—before the final battle, that is. In the meantime, in response to your Louis XIVeme anti-foundationalism all I can say is that here we will build the Republic of Antifoundationalism: Liberté, Egalité, Contingencé!Posted by on 04/08 at 06:04 PM
And yeah, I guess I ought to put my email address on the sidebar. OK, give me a moment.Posted by on 04/08 at 06:05 PM
I probably should have been able to guess it, but thanks.Posted by Brendan on 04/08 at 06:16 PM
Not being an erudite English lit type, I have to confess I don’t know what your question about disassociation of sensibility means, so I can’t speak to it. Howevs, I did find the ending of Pullman’s books deeply creepy. For a series putatively groovy vis a vis female sexuality, it had twin familiar tropes of fear of same:
1) the “female sexuality” being celebrated belongs to a little girl virgin
2) after the romantic leads Do It, they must Never. See. One. Another. Again. Since you mention James Bond, Anxiety about Laydeez Club English Chapter President—his One True Love Dies (whew). Ditto in Hemingway, and many other literary and pop chapters in the Must Do It but then Get Away From the Cooties that Come After Book of Masculine Anxiety.
Pullman resolves this not with death but with the two different worlds, never to meet again, longing, etc., but it’s the same thing: virgin sex good, to be celebrated, if you are all prude-y about it you are a prude-y prude (I’m lookin at you, feminazis). On the other hand, standing relationship with an adult woman? Are you kidding me? Have you MET Mrs. Coulter?
So, I don’t know if this has anything to do with Milton. But that was my take on Pullman’s faux celebration of sexuality, if that has any bearing on the answer to the question you ask (and, I guess, even if it doesn’t).Posted by on 04/08 at 06:17 PM
I tend to read fiction for the real-time pleasure and don’t go in much for analysis and deconstruction and shit (which I suppose is why I ended up down on South Campus), and I will therefore have little to contribute to this fine literary thread. Somebody should probably point out, however, that the admittedly and off-puttingly Transformerish name Metatron was not made up by Pullman. Sez ‘kipedia.Posted by on 04/08 at 06:35 PM
I’m hoping that this post signifies a return to the most critical issues of our time. Namely Man/Turtle relationships. Not trying (yeah right) to subvert the central thesis here but lets focus on the things that are really important
e.Posted by on 04/08 at 06:48 PM
"Metatron” is Toraic, isn’t it? At least, it is if I remember my Harld Bloom properly, which is decidedly doubtful.
Oh, and spot on about Lazenby. In Diana Rigg, OHMSS also had the best ever female lead - a criminally underrated Bond outing.Posted by on 04/08 at 07:34 PM
It’s not a matter, I think, of Pullman’s attitudes not bveing evident in the first two books. They certainly are evident, but they do not dominate the story in overly explicit ways. “We hate those fantasy novels that have a palpable design upon us,” as someone almost said. There are tendentious speeches in the first two books, but the speeches are relatively few in number and brief in duration. In the third book, though, Pullman seems to be afraid that someone out there won’t get the message. So diatribes against the Church and the Authority increase: we hear not only from the witches but also from angels, Asriel, King Ogunwe, Mary Malone, even Mrs. Coulter. And Pullman has to come up with new forms of Church corruption: “preemptive absolution,” the execution of children by Pope John Calvin, etc. Pullman has acknowledged that his wholly black portrayal of religion is an “artistic flaw” in the series, which is admirable of him, but, curiously, he doesn’t want to acknowledge that his own beliefs and preferences were responsible for that flaw. Lewis says somewhere that a friend told him that the main flaw in his fiction was its too-frequent possession by “the expository demon,” and I think the same demon possesses Pullman.
There are magnificent passages in The Amber Spyglass—you are right to single out the jourtney into Hell (which not incidentally owes a good deal to Lewis’s The Great Divorce)—and only an extraordinary writer indeed could have written the scene in which Iorek Byrnison re-forges the subtle knife. But the lecturing grows tiresome, and as one of my students said the other day (I am teaching a class right now on Christianity and Fantasy), “I throw myself into this vast fictional world and at the end the universe is supposed to be saved by two thirteen-year-olds kissing in a meadow?”
My (evangelical) students are fascinated by the books, though, and we’re having our best discussions of the semester about them.
I think you’re basically right about That Hideous Strength, by the way. It has more than its share of cringeworthy moments.Posted by on 04/08 at 07:35 PM
But have you seen Orwell’s review of That Hideous Strength, a book that in many ways resembles Nineteen Eighty-Four and echoes certain themes in “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell’s response is a classic example of what the psychologists used to call an “approach/avoidance conflict.”Posted by on 04/08 at 07:40 PM
About Metatron: I are an total ignoramus. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Kathleen @ 9: not bad for a not-English-lit type, not bad at all. You remind me that Their Eyes Were Watching God is a pretty savvy twist on that Must Do It but then Get Away From the Cooties that Come After Book of Masculine Anxiety tradition: the heroine gets to do it, do it, do it with a young brown-eyed handsome man who can pick a guitar and talk that sweet sweet talk, but then he dies, which is sad, and never gets the chance to turn into a boring old philandering fat guy, which is good. For all its many many faults, Titanic made the same offer: get that di Caprio kid while he’s young, have a torrid fling, then be sad when he freezes to death and keep his unspoiled memory forever.
Alan, I agree that Pullman has a palpable design upon us—I just think the design began to get the better of his story in book two. But yes, I’d forgotten about teh EEEEVIL Father Gomez and his preemptive absolution (though I have to say that this form of corruption seems like a merely rococo version of the selling of indulgences). The wheels and the gloves come off in book three, it seems. As for your student’s question—“I throw myself into this vast fictional world and at the end the universe is supposed to be saved by two thirteen-year-olds kissing in a meadow?”—the answer is apparently yes, because that lets the Dust flow, like a mountain stream, and lets the Dust flow, with the smallest of dreams, and so forth. I thought that whole sequence, culminating in the endless teary farewell, was something out of Zeffirelli’s Endless Love. Which is not a good thing, especially after you’ve just harrowed hell with the greats.
I’ve never read Orwell’s review of That Hideous Strength. I can’t wait to.Posted by Michael on 04/08 at 07:59 PM
At first I was going to protest at being lumped in with somebody else’s profession of dislike for the book, but then Alan shows up here with his eloquent #13, to which I can only add: What Alan said. And what Kathleen said too (#9).
Actually, Michael, I read the whole post, and comments too, wondering when you were going to defend the book. It seems that whenever someone points out something lame or icky about it, you agree. Yes, he’s up to something with the Milton parallel, but so what? The book is lame. So you found some more tedious boilerplate in the second book? Okay, you got me: the second book was lame too.
Just for reference (I didn’t really go into detail in the original “Teh SuXX0r” comment), the thing that grated on me most in book 3 was ex-nun-turned-Scientist Mary Malone and her Enlightened Scientific Empirical Approach to the world (so much better than nasty old Blind Faith, don’t you know). After a while I was all: Give. It. A. Rest.
Interestingly, I don’t remember a damn thing about the Lewis trilogy, which I am positive I read (some 30 or so years ago). Not a damn thing. I remember Narnia better than that, and that was 5 or so more years back.
As for Metatron, I’m surprised that you didn’t know about him. For one thing, he shows up as well in the film Dogma, played hilariously by Alan Rickman. (I can’t actually recommend the film, though.)
Two more things. First, just to show that I am not simply a crabby curmudgeon re: things fantastical, let me put my cards on the table and recommend (again) my own fave fantasy trilogy (credit for the tip to Crispin Sartwell, of all people).
And it’s not that I am more anti-foundationalist-than-vous. I’m more anti-dualist than vous. That’s why your anti-foundationalism doesn’t actually do what it’s supposed to do.Posted by Dave Maier on 04/08 at 08:47 PM
ome of the angels had Hebrew names
So, I realize the bit at the end was supposed to tantalize more than satisfy, but tantalized I am and want satisfaction: what about 1660 or thereabouts made it the last period when high-flying rhetoric could be used without coming off silly or self-conscious? Civil war? Milton’s stature? The fact that thenceforth between the experience and the act fell the shadow? It’s all well and good to link a wikipedia article, even one that seems to be about the translation of German Romantic philhellenism into the English context, but “Donne wrote like this and Dryden wrote like this” isn’t an explanation, and even if it were, wouldn’t explain why ever since then, you can’t do it.Posted by ben wolfson on 04/08 at 09:24 PM
Metatron is indeed an angel from Kabbalistic tradition, along with his henchman and rival Starscream. And the first Sephirot, Keter, translates into Latin as Optimus Primus.
Good and Evil can’t have a cup of tea together after the final battle, conceding that the other has some valid point
Indeed. Which is why the Book of Job remains such an interesting outlier. A lot of things make more sense** if you imagine God and the Devil watching our travails together while passing a bag of Doritos back and forth.
And, well, I enjoyed Out of the Silent Planet, yawned my way through Perelandra, and dumped That Hideous Strength a few pages in. I’m glad that I did. I recall liking The Great Divorce, but by that time my perceptions were colored by the adoption of Lewis by American fundamentalists, who obviously never read it, or the non-Rapture end of the world scenario at the end of the Narnia series, or the little bit where Bacchus and Silenus show up in Prince Caspian.
Oh, right, Pullman. Er, I never made it all the way through the first book. I liked a lot of the setting, but already found something about the tone offputting. So, I should probably try again to knock back the trilogy, right? Or can I stop after the second book and pretend the series ends on a cliffhanger?
And George Lazenby was awesome as Bond. Because he wasn’t awesome. He had the vaguely irritating smugness without the aura of invincibility that justified, which seems more reminiscent of Fleming’s character.
Also, Dave Maier and I both like the Riddle Master trilogy! My life is now complete**.
Hey, has anyone else read Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy? Heartily recommended for those who thought Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell didn’t have enough footnotes. And for the image of William Gladstone as a brawny lightning-wielding magus.
**No, not reallyPosted by on 04/09 at 12:06 AM
I read those books (the McKillip books) but I can’t remember the first thing about them.
Metatron is also the name by the guitarist with the most suggestive name.Posted by ben wolfson on 04/09 at 12:19 AM
Wow, I forgot about that, and I even have that record, as I am a huge R.P. fan (although I prefer his 70’s-era material like Iceland and Stand By).
I read the first Bartimaeus (The Amulet of Samarkand, iirc), which I liked, but I stopped there when I read a review which said the second one was much less amusing. The footnotes were the best part, for me, and I can imagine how that bit could wear thin in subsequent volumes. Even a subpar followup would be better than Artemis Fowl, though.Posted by Dave Maier on 04/09 at 12:43 AM
Sorry, no time to catch up no time to catch up with the other comments, just a quick record of idle thoughts as I was reading this.
No no no no...Metatron is a Transformer, not a Power Ranger!
What do you all think of Steven Brust’s attempted retell of Paradise Lost?
Michael, is Dan Simmons posting next on your list of authors fantastic and science fictional to have blogged about at length?
Oh, and, dewd, u r <I>so<I> on my syllabus!
Why? captcha: “because”!Posted by The Constructivist on 04/09 at 12:54 AM
yeah, actually timothy dalton was the best bond.Posted by skippy on 04/09 at 01:09 AM
Please insert “of an album” between “name” and “by”.Posted by ben wolfson on 04/09 at 01:41 AM
did auerbach really say “ew ew ew ew ew?”Posted by on 04/09 at 04:12 AM
I never did make it to the final book of HDM. Pullman’s writing is an odd mix of startling, brilliant conceits and prim hectoring; though Michael is right that it’s there intermittently from the get-go, the steady drone of tedium increased as I read on till by the end of the second book the reading was, for me at least, a pleasure no more.
Still, I’m aware in broad terms of what goes down in the final instalment. And so I’m kinda glad I didn’t make it that far. I’d heard that the heroes kill God, which I thought impressive in its way. But as I heard more about this, it became clear that, whoever it was they killed, it wasn’t him who am. It was just some old guy in a jar, and if I understand right, he was only ever pretending to be God anyway. I’d have thought someone like that worth killing off even back when I was still a Christian. How much better, had Pullman let Lyra & Co. mix it up with the old Tetragrammaton Himself, who as Dawkins rightly says is one of the most fascinating, terrible, awesome fictional characters mankind has ever created. Pullman could still have let the good guys win. God could challenge Lyra, asking, “Hast thou an arm like God? Or canst thou thunder with a voice like Him?”, and then she could whip out a giant machine gun and go all McBain on His ass. “Nein. But I can pomp you op vis poison lead! [pocketa pocketa pocketa!!!] You haff ze right to remain dead, Lord of Hosts!” Don’t know about you, but I’d have been willing to invest a few hours for a payoff like that.
Hmm. Actually, I hadn’t walked in planning to comment on the substance of Michael’s post. All I’d really wanted to do is note that I think he’s wrong about the Reformation never having happened in Lyra’s world. There was a Calvin, and he took over the Church and moved its HQ to Geneva. I think Pullman was emphatically not writing in the tradition of Pavane or The Transformation, in which so much hinges on the historical contingency of the Reformation (or lack thereof). I think his point was, rather: “Reformation, shmeformation. Papist or prod, das ist ja alles eine Sosse”. For the purposes of Pullman’s thesis, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between churches reformed and unreformed, and I thought his “Pope Calvin in Geneva” line—a mere throwaway, really—a supremely deft and economical way to make that point.Posted by Mrs Tilton on 04/09 at 05:02 AM
Hi Michael. Can I soil this garden?
Even if Pullman did have the Eliot thing in mind, mightn’t his choice of any one historical moment when people started dividing this from that be merely emblematic? People have been featherless bipedal dissociators since at least that Lascaux rave, surely. Or something.
Captcha: “made”: ‘nough said.Posted by on 04/09 at 08:37 AM
“Reformation, shmeformation. Papist or prod, das ist ja alles eine Sosse”.
Heck, in our world Calvin pretty much turned himself into a (small-scale) pope, only more authoritarian. If poor Erasmus’ reformation from within had been embraced by the more pugnacious splitters, we probably would have met the new boss, same as the old boss.
And thank you, Mrs. Tilton. I have my answer: I can read the first two books, and maybe even part of the third, and simply substitute your ending, which is composed entirely of win.
And Professor Maier, my bit about the footnotes wasn’t at all meant to be a criticism. The trilogy does lose some of its sense of fun after the first, as well as its tight focus, but the continued snarky footnote commentary helped. I’d still rate it as worthwhile overall, especially when (as you say) the competition is Artemis Fowl, or Eragon, or… And I’m some random person on the Internet, so would I lead you wrong?
No no no no...Metatron is a Transformer, not a Power Ranger!
Um, see, The Constructivist, this is why it’s worth it to make time to read the other comments. Grumble, grumble.Posted by on 04/09 at 08:41 AM
And Michael, as I should have said already, your comments about problems of scale are superbly helpful. I’ll be using them in class today.
I’m not sure the Orwell review is available online at the moment, but if you want a copy, shoot me an email.Posted by on 04/09 at 08:45 AM
Mrs. Tilton, the ending you described is basically the ending of the novel PREACHER, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Except THAT climax has a (much more laconic) gun-toting revenant called the Saint of Killers who shoots God. There’s also a fistfight with a vampire in front of the Alamo.
I believe John Wayne’s ghost also appears.Posted by on 04/09 at 09:33 AM
Uh oh, a 4 thousand word post requires a 4 hundred word comment, or something.
I’ll try to keep it short(er). Interesting post, but I think that it doesn’t challenge some of the common misconceptions about Pullman’s trilogy.
First: Lord Asriel is not a good guy. He’s a user par excellence, and the complaints that Pullman didn’t address the failures of those world-historical movements that were against the church fall flat. He’s one of a pair with Mrs. Coulter, as is made clear at the end of the trilogy. When the witch makes that speech that you quote above, in book two, it’s not supposed to be just a screed. You’re supposed to see that she’s naive, and that she’s being duped in a conflict that may or may not serve her interests and that she’s unlikely to emerge from, and more to the point that she has no real say in.
Second: the weird twitchiness about female sexuality, indeed sexuality in general, is apparent in Pullman’s trilogy right from the first book. It’s not just that the Church is all fearful about it, which is rather to be expected. The very setup of Pullman’s universe has a spirit for each child which represents their imagination, vitality, and so on *which freezes into one form at puberty*. That’s not something the Church does, it’s something that Pullman did authorially. And it’s really pretty horrible, not just at the level of children who can have their spirits be a dragon or a lion or anything they can imagine finding out that they are stuck with a dog from now on, but even in the stories that Pullman has his character relate in which someone e.g. can’t resist having their spirit assume the form of a dolphin, and then can never leave the seashore because they can’t get too far away from it.
The cause of the narrative failure in the third book is the two of these working in combination, not Pullman suddenly becoming more anticlerical. Pullman can’t do anything interesting with his army of dissidents because really, the only thing he could do within the narrative is show them getting killed off and Lord Asriel declaring himself the new Lord of Hosts. And the canvass can’t get any larger because Pullman has linked his narrative not to a hobbit—and there can be old hobbits—but to a child who can’t even grow up without losing her status as freedom-exemplar.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 04/09 at 09:51 AM
Since the Tolkien discussion was an aside, it would be inappropriate to deploy my standard defense of the linguistic strategy of LotR. But I do feel called on to point out that Tolkien had no use for Britain’s imperial project. (You are correct, however, to note that he was about the last holdout against literary Modernism, and consciously so. It’s all in the published Letters, which everyone should read.)Posted by on 04/09 at 10:44 AM
Good morning Pullmanians!
Dave @ 16:
Actually, Michael, I read the whole post, and comments too, wondering when you were going to defend the book. It seems that whenever someone points out something lame or icky about it, you agree.
Bwah hah hah hah! Actually I agree for other reasons (like “it’s not the screed, it’s the scale"), which confuses people and gives me Power Over Others.
Ben @ 17 (incorporating Chasman @ 26):
I realize the bit at the end was supposed to tantalize more than satisfy, but tantalized I am and want satisfaction: what about 1660 or thereabouts made it the last period when high-flying rhetoric could be used without coming off silly or self-conscious?
It wasn’t supposed to be tantalizing, actually. It was supposed to be a question the answer to which I don’t know. Or did you think all my questions are merely rhetorical questions? Don’t answer that.
As for 1660 and the dissociation of sensibility, I don’t take literally the declarations of great English (or St. Louisian) writers when they make such claims, which is why I mashed together Eliot’s line about the 17th century with Woolf’s about human character changing on or about December 1910. Sorry to be so telegraphic, but it was already a 4000-word post, and I was trying to cut corners. But why did the high style work then and not now? It probably has something to do with the dismantling of certain social hierarchies that were, in turn, the basis for hierarchies of genre in which the epic sat at the apex of the structure. But I’m open to the suggestion that the great Romantic long poems pull off the high style unironically and without Tennyson’s neo-retro insulation device. Then again, as Harold Bloom pointed out some time ago, those great Romantic long poems, unlike the short and brilliant Romantic lyrics, are self-consciously written in Milton’s shadow. So maybe they’re implicitly neo- after all.
OK, pause for breath.Posted by Michael on 04/09 at 11:10 AM
mds @ 18:
A lot of things make more sense if you imagine God and the Devil watching our travails together while passing a bag of Doritos back and forth.
And doubling down: $20 gazillion says he renounces you after I give him these boils, God dude. I’m hearing this in Alex Winter’s voice, and I can totally see Keanu Reeves as YHWH. And yes, you should stop halfway through book two and pretend you never read this thread.
Annie @ 24:
did auerbach really say “ew ew ew ew ew?”
My bad! Actually it was E. R. Curtius.
Mrs. Tilton @ 25:
If and when they get around to filming book three, I so hope they use the Lyra-McBain sequence. I would pay 20 gazillion Devil Dollars to see that. But as for the Reformation:
I think he’s wrong about the Reformation never having happened in Lyra’s world. There was a Calvin, and he took over the Church and moved its HQ to Geneva. I think Pullman was emphatically not writing in the tradition of Pavane or The Transformation, in which so much hinges on the historical contingency of the Reformation (or lack thereof). I think his point was, rather: “Reformation, shmeformation. Papist or prod, das ist ja alles eine Sosse”. For the purposes of Pullman’s thesis, there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between churches reformed and unreformed, and I thought his “Pope Calvin in Geneva” line—a mere throwaway, really—a supremely deft and economical way to make that point.
Well, in my book that’s tantamount to saying the Reformation didn’t happen. There wasn’t any schism, the hierarchy remains in place, and as a result there aren’t any female or gay Episcopalian bishops at Jordan College, etc.
Rich @ 30:
Interesting post, but I think that it doesn’t challenge some of the common misconceptions about Pullman’s trilogy.
This is probably true, because its author doesn’t know what those common misperceptions are. To your points!
First: OK, I should have made it clearer that Lord Asriel is not a good guy. I’m surprised to hear people labor under that misperception. Did they skip over the ending of book one? As for the witch’s screed, though, point taken.
Second: yes yes yes. I forgot to register my dismay and disappointment when I realized that the Church’s interpretation of Dust—that it’s all about Original Sin and puberty—is basically right, and not, say, the work of tiny-minded fanatics who don’t understand physics. But as for your last graf, I don’t think there’s any necessary relationship between the age of the protagonist and the scale of the narrative. The existence of elderly hobbits is beside the point—or, at least, beside my point.
Likewise, roac @ 31, it’s not a question of whether Tolkien had any use for Britain’s imperial project. It’s that LOTR allows us to imagine England as this tiny little Shire far away from, and blissfully-but-dangerously ignorant of, the great war that is about to erupt on the continent.Posted by Michael on 04/09 at 11:44 AM
"Common misperceptions” was probably a bad phrase. Comes from shortening the thing drastically. Longer form might have been “When ‘Jacobs points out at the end of his review, that Pullman fails to acknowledge the past two centuries of European history, which prove that some rebels against Authority turn out to be authoritarian’, he apparently thinks that Asriel is supposed to be a good guy. Actually, almost all of the criticisms of the book as one-sided, which appear to be fairly common, seem to think that Pullman is presenting Asriel as Good, and misread what appear to be screeds in the books as screeds, when they are often really examples of naive revolutionary propaganda.”
“But as for your last graf, I don’t think there’s any necessary relationship between the age of the protagonist and the scale of the narrative. “
I think that there is in this case. Lydia literally can not grow up without her freedom being calcified—by the universe. She’s inextricably linked to the story. Therefore the last book can’t switch to adult politics, not even the concealed and rightist politics of Frodo deciding to give up the power of the Ring, because children that young just don’t have an adult enough worldview. The whole trilogy is largely about sex, both Lydia’s refusal to conform and what’s-his-name’s discovery of his knife, and it can’t ever pass puberty and grow up. So you can find all sorts of reasons why the last book doesn’t work, but fundamentally I think that it doesn’t work because Pullman painted himself into a corner with his original, starting idea for the books.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 04/09 at 12:53 PM
"the concealed and rightist politics of Frodo deciding to give up the power of the Ring”
Over-shortened again. It’s actually Frodo *not* deciding to give up the power of the Ring. He can only actually do it with the help of Gollum and Samwise, which is what makes it, in a sense, political.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 04/09 at 01:01 PM
Just to confirm, I read Jacobs’ review. The operative sentence appears to be “it is not clear that Pullman realizes how much Asriel sounds like all other Liberators, from Robespierre to Stalin.” Really? After what Asriel is depicted as actually doing? Jacobs calls Asriel a “partial exception” to the all-not-in-the-church-are-Good rule, but that’s not sufficient to maintain the core of his review, in my opinion.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 04/09 at 01:37 PM
It probably has something to do with the dismantling of certain social hierarchies that were, in turn, the basis for hierarchies of genre in which the epic sat at the apex of the structure.
It would, wouldn’t it.
But we can read the old high-style stuff without being forced to put an ironic slant on it. Imaginative identification with Old Times? Is the problem that in this modern world there’s nothing for an epic properly to be about—the romantics had to take an inward turn, and we now see where that got us, and nothing’s left—or is it that, the epic not being at the apex, no writer worth h/h salt writes epics—but a talented one could? I suspect the answer’s more on the former side, but that may be because I’m all about the disenchantment.Posted by ben wolfson on 04/09 at 01:42 PM
I think that the witch’s enthusiastic description of Lord Asriel is not meant to make us think that she is wrong but rather that she is one-sided and Manichean, like Tolkien and Lewis.Posted by on 04/09 at 02:03 PM
Michael (or anyone else on this thread ) - Have you ever read Janck Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy? Best fantasy ever written in my opinion.Posted by on 04/09 at 02:37 PM
Yesterday, I was all psyched about having made time to read Tedra Osell’s fine essay as well as having checked out STIGMA from the library. No time like the present to be inspired enough by Monday’s excellent discussions, read four days late, to actually read a book I should have long ago! But, now it appears there’s a whole universe of fiction, too?!
Fine. I’ll add not one (Pullman) but two (Rowling) whole series to the reading-list-of-shame. The eighth-grade recall of Lewis and Tolkien will have to do.
Captcha “mother”; heh-heh, and I wonder where the time goes . . .Posted by on 04/09 at 03:24 PM
"I think that the witch’s enthusiastic description of Lord Asriel is not meant to make us think that she is wrong but rather that she is one-sided and Manichean [...]”
Um. Can’t we agree, reading the actual content of what she says, that she is in fact wrong? I think it’s the “they capture witches, in some worlds” bit that should give it away. What would you think of someone who said “In Sudan they mutilate women. Yes, women just like us. . . I’ve seen pictures. They opened my eyes. So we have to set out with weapons and go there and kill people. No, there is no need to plan. Nor should we actually talk to the women there and find out what they want—they can only want one thing! For us to free them!”
It’s not really one-sided to react to atrocities in this way. It’s sort of a natural thing for naive people to do.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 04/09 at 03:35 PM
"it’s not a question of whether Tolkien had any use for Britain’s imperial project. It’s that LOTR allows us to imagine England as this tiny little Shire far away from, and blissfully-but-dangerously ignorant of, the great war that is about to erupt on the continent.”
Well, OK, I guess. . . but I don’t see the point of the observation. The Shire is not England, it’s an idealized childhood memory of a tiny rural slice of England in 1897. Whom are you accusing Tolkien of trying to fool? He certainly wasn’t fooled himself. He saw the War coming as clearly as everybody else, and the remembered sense of numbingdread permeates the first part of RotK.
It is not sufficiently appreciated that the juxtaposition of the bourgeois late-Victorian Shire and the great big mythic Late Bronze Age started off, in The Hobbit, as a joke. Which Tolkien, in setting out to write a sequel, was stuck with.
Rich Puchalski, the point of Gollum’s role in the destruction of the Ring is quite explicitly theological: It’s the intervention of Grace. You’ll have to spell out your political take on it.Posted by on 04/09 at 04:20 PM
Rich, I don’t think Asriel fits neatly into either the “good guy” or the “bad guy” shoes. He sees the Church and, above and beyond it, the Authority as tyrannical and oppressive, which is surely (in the terms of the book) correct. His determination to fight Church and Authority is surely brave, even heroic. All the people on his side are people we are supposed to admire; all the people who oppose him are people we are supposed to loathe.
What does he do in the books that is unequivocally evil? He kills Roger. But in the book’s moral environment, is even that unequivocally evil? After all, if he had not done it then the way would not have been opened to the destruction of the Authority and Metatron; nor would Lyra have had cause to enter Hell and liberate the ghosts imprisoned there. So even if we were to deem Asriel’s intentions evil — which I am not sure that we are supposed to do, given the greatness of his goals — I think we have to acknowledge that the consequences of his murder of Roger are almost unimaginably wonderful. At the very least Asriel could mount one hell of a utilitarian argument in his defense.Posted by on 04/09 at 05:00 PM
Alan, but surely Robespierre could make the same utilitarian argument in his defense. I’m not arguing for a no-shades-of-grey condemnation of Asriel. I’m saying that Pullman does not present Asriel as the kind of good guy that he’d have to be for your review to have force. He’s a child abandoner, killer, and manipulator. And I think that you’re under-reading the rapprochement between he and Mrs. Coulter at the end. Mrs. Coulter is surely one of the people we’re supposed to detest, but she does “good” things on occasion, and she’s using the Church as a convenient vehicle for her own purposes. By the end, Asriel and Coulter are working together, and it’s strongly suggested that she and Asriel are similar.
Pullman is anticlerical, yes. But I don’t see a reading that he’s unaware of Robespierre, Stalin, etc. as supported by the text.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 04/09 at 05:54 PM
You are right about the series.
I used to think Jack Vance wrote fantasy, but as I got older I began to realize it was psychological realism.Posted by Steve Muhlberger on 04/09 at 06:24 PM
Rich, Asriel could say that his killing of one child led to the liberation of everyone who ever died from an eternal prison, and also resulted in the destruction of a tyranny that extended over “a million universes.” I don’t think Robespierre’s resumé quite matches up.
But that aside, by killing off Asriel (and Mrs. Coulter) with Metatron, Pullman avoids the problem of what happens when the revolutionary becomes the ruler — the problem embodied by Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot et al. — the “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” problem, let’s call it. As I say in my review, he just doesn’t “reckon with” (note that, pace your comment, I didn’t say that he’s not “aware” of it) that dominant feature of the past two hundred years of European and world history. He’s free to set all that aside, of course! — but when he does he surely foregoes any claim to have his political vision taken seriously.Posted by on 04/09 at 06:52 PM
However, Rich, if you see anything in the books that suggests that Pullman does reckon with this history, do please let me know.Posted by on 04/09 at 06:53 PM
Well, it’s nice to find a friendly reception even in the absence of knowing what the disassociation of sensibility is (thanks Michael and Dave).
I wonder if another reason that Pullman’s ending feels a little flat, aside from the Zeffirelli-ness and the creepiness, is that although like C.S. Lewis (and Tolkien) he draws from a rich tradition to create his fantasy world in the end he just has a *point* to make rather than a whole worldview to advocate for.
Lewis is didactic, sure, but his point isn’t just “Christianity is good” but instead “living a Christian life in a Christian universe is good”; Tolkien’s point is even vaguer than that, some kind of deep conviction that the world is disenchanted and longing for an irrevocably lost enchanted world; while Pullman’s point is “see! I told you organized religion totes sucked”.
Which is, I don’t know, it reminds me of Eagleton on Dawkins: the smug atheist argument is airtight but a bit airless, too. So at the end of Lewis and Tolkien the point points somewhere, whether you want to go there or not, while at the end of Pullman the point is just followed by some exclamation points. There is nowhere to go (here I agree with Rich, about painted-into-a-corner, but I don’t think it has to do with youth vs. adulthood).Posted by on 04/09 at 06:54 PM
Regarding your last paragraph, Michael----in the British editions of HDM (if you have not seen them), each chapter has woodcut by Pullman and an epigraph. Often from Blake, Whitman----so I think there is a Romantic influence working at work here, if in the shadows.Posted by Kristina Chew on 04/09 at 08:35 PM
I’ve written in comments quite a lot of what I see in the books that suggests that Pullman has reckoned with this history. Even killing off Asriel at the end is a way of reckoning with it. It seems to me that you’re saying that Pullman shouldn’t have written screeds against the Church, but you do want him to put in something like “By the way, revolutionaries can be bad too! They can take over in authoritarian fashion! Let no one reading my book get the impression that they are all good!”
Pullman uses the well-discussed authorial trick of having the Church in his universe do bad things specifically so that the characters will sound natural condemning it. Well, OK; once that is set in motion, the screeds kind of follow, because we’re seeing his universe through the viewpoint of anticlerical characters. But consider how much he could have cleaned up Lord Asriel, if he’d wanted to write him that way. He could have started by not making him Lyda’s father who abandoned her. Then, you know, not having killed a child to pursue his goals. None of that is really necessary to the plot, such as it is.
And the overblown “I saved a million universes” thing doesn’t work. Asriel clearly didn’t *plan* to free all the people who died, and in fact tried to interfere with Lyda before she could do so. Nor did he really destroy a million-universe tyranny by hitting someone over the head at the end. If Pullman had wanted to go in that direction, he could have written in a God that didn’t expire by himself of old age.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 04/09 at 09:48 PM
Metatron also appears in Kevin Smith’s movie Dogma and Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel Good Omens, both rattlin’ good stories.Posted by on 04/09 at 10:04 PM
My problems with the HDM series include all of the above, but also that Pullman hates, hates, hates that tricksy Lewis, and must steal the Precious from him, he must. He forgets: Battle not with zealots, lest you become a zealot, and if you gaze into Narnia, Narnia gazes also into you.
Um. I’m trying to say that (1) Pullman has said that Lewis’s Narnia books are completely devoid of love or compassion, which is dead wrong, but would make sense if he had amended that to “the love and compassion Lewis tries to include is completely ruined by his religious dogmatism” (I’m not agreeing, just saying this would have made sense), and that (2) Pullman thus writes a screedulous fiction that exhibits every flaw he sees in Lewis—dogmatism, abuse of children, fixation on puberty as the crucial dissociator of sensibility (a fall from grace for Lewis, a release into the wonderful world of sex and power for Pullman).
I think Harold Bloom would say, if he didn’t have contempt for pop fantasy, that Pullman fails to escape Lewis’s shadow. (I reluctantly admit that Pullman makes his liberators sort-of villains, but it’s too late and not convincing. He needs those villains.)
Enough about Pullman. This wonderful thread has given me the Job-Doritos image, and also I am moved to note reflections it has stirred in me . . .
I. The dissociation happened about the time Alchemy dissociated from Chemistry. A short time later the Wizengamots of all nations had to enact the Statute of Secrecy. Wizards continue to explore Magic and the Muggles explored Technology. (One detail from Pullman I really enjoyed was that physics is known as “experimental theology”—the D.O.S. never happened in his world. (I also want to know why his world is warmer, but the sea level is lower, but that is only the beginning of logistical world-building problems, and . . . enough about Pullman.))
II. Great point about Their Eyes Were Watching God. I was just this morning wondering aloud in front of a class what Tea Cake’s death had to do with anything, and now here is the answer, thirteen hours too late.
III. The ASLAN(tm) pill in The Corrections is just brilliant. Memories of reading Narnia occur to each character, and then each character encounters this pill which takes away shame. I reckon this is saying how Narnia, for Americans, stands for innocence and goodness and potential and grace and stuff, while the hardness of the world makes us look for substitutes in pharmaceuticals. Or something. And there is definitely a Philip K. Dick quality to having Aslan visit in pill form.
IV. I didn’t like Lyra’s harrowing of hell, but maybe that is because I’m Christian. Ursula Le Guin did the same thing in a recent novel, and I’m thinking it’s a necessary part of an anti-theist mythology, to suggest that dissolving into the universe is a welcome release and that any afterlife must be a grim prison. Le Guin has written some new Earthsea novels and stories in the last, like, ten years, and they have a very palpable design to retcon (as they say in comics) her universe for feminism. Le Guin is good enough to change her whole universe for obviously philosophical reasons and not make the experience too creaky. So, in the last novel the Classical underworld we got to know in the original trilogy turns out to be a hubristic creation of dumb, patriarchal wizards who would have known better if they’d listened to the women, and the souls are set free and dissolve just exactly like they do in His Dark Materials.
V. Speaking of Le Guin, while reading HDM I kept thinking, “this is The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas In Order To Found New Omelas.” That’s my problem with it.Posted by on 04/10 at 12:36 AM
"a release into the wonderful world of sex and power for Pullman”
I still disagree with that. Pullman treats puberty as a freezing, as a time when plasticity is replaced by a sort of grim fixation, as if adult sexuality is just something that people get and then it never changes. That may be a not-too-bad representation of the way that some teens might think of sex, if anyone at that age is really reflective enough to generalize in that way, but it’s not really true.
Le Guin did indeed retcon the Earthsea universe. I remember being really puzzled by that as a teenager, when I found out that U.K. Le Guin was Ursula K. Le Guin. I wondered why she was writing books where the women did evil magic and a common saying about magic-workers was “women’s magic is weak magic” and the whole thing was all about a guy’s coming-of-age experiences. I tend to think of the early Earthsea books as a good writer being sort of submerged in the assumptions of her material.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 04/10 at 12:56 AM
Oh, yeah, so—also—it seems to me lots of F/SF novels fix on that moment in history when the Royal Society disenchanted us by replacing magic with Cartesian reality.
Isn’t that something Harold Bloom also goes on cryptically about in The Influence of High Anxiety? Isn’t it the Romantics’ job to deal with the consequences of that dissociation? Where Milton didn’t have any problems combining magic and science (and neither did Newton), the Romantics and all of the rest had to struggle with disenchantment.
So, my new theory about genre fiction is that if you write with nostalgia for lost enchantment, you are writing fantasy, and if you write to explore the Cartesian universe, you are writing science fiction, but that they are one genre, and this is proved by how much they refer to each other.
Neal Stephenson’s SF series starting with Quicksilver (I haven’t read the sequels) goes back to that moment in history, and it keeps referencing alchemy, witchcraft, and fantasy tropes.
In Harry Potter that’s when the magic world is forced to go underground.
In His Dark Materials that’s a moment when science begins, but under the thumb of a totalitarian Church so that science is called “experimental theology” and subatomic particles are discussed as spirits.
So, anyway.Posted by on 04/10 at 01:14 AM
Rich, maybe you are right.
About Le Guin, I remember reading somewhere her statement that, as a young author, she didn’t think she could challenge too many fantasy conventions at once. She challenged the Manichean worldview and Eurocentrism of fantasy in the first Earthsea books, so she thought gender would have to wait. I think she was discussing that as a regret, IIRC.
I often see a matter-of-fact, anthropological, clinical view of misogynistic societies in her fiction, and I know this doesn’t mean she’s okay with those societies, just that this is how human cultures sometimes work. I think her recent trilogy Gifts, Voices, and Powers does that but makes feminism a major theme too.Posted by on 04/10 at 01:21 AM
Interesting that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service begins with an action-packed sequence on a smaller, personal scale (Bond intervenes in Teresa’s suicide attempt) that then connects to the larger-scale conflicts of the film. I wonder if that’s part of the reason Lazenby is your favorite Bond?Posted by on 04/10 at 10:18 AM
I was waiting for somebody to bring up The Other Wind, because when I read about Lyra setting free the trapped souls in His Dark Materials, I had a strong attack of deja vu.
Not having read HDM ought to stop me from commenting on it, but . . . the fundamental difference between him and his adversaries is that Tolkien and Lewis both believed in a transcendent reality; and that while they knew that they were making up Narnia and Middle Earth, those inventions were sincerely intended as mappings or representations of something that actually existed. Whereas Pullman, as far as I can tell, is a straightforward materialist, and can’t intend all the machinery about Dust as anything more than metaphor. Am I wrong?
To put it another way, the assertions that (1) Your god is a senile fraud! and (2) Your god doesn’t exist and never did! are prime examples of what we lawyers call “pleading in the alternative” —they can’t both be true.Posted by on 04/10 at 11:41 AM
Roac, I think that’s right on, but I think that Le Guin does a million times better job of writing fantasies where transcendent realities exist even though the philosophy behind them is materialist. So, I’m sayin’ its possible, and it doesn’t offend me the way Pullman does. I feel like Pullman doesn’t respect the machinery of his own fantasy—rules, schmules, it’s not like it really matters whether the magic works consistently; I’ve got preaching to do.Posted by on 04/10 at 12:02 PM
I may not have made it clear that I am a longtime admirer of LeGuin (the only author I ever wrote a fan letter to, and got a nice reply which I treasure). I guess my bitching about Pullman logically should apply to LeGuin as well, but who says I have to be logical? If I have to draw a distinction, I guess I would say that LeGuin is an atheist, but I don’t read any of her works as written for the purpose grinding that axe. (Plus she’s a Tolkienist, a sure badge of virtue in my universe.)
Incidentally, I haven’t read HDM, but I did look at some of Pullman’s earlier juveniles while my daughter was reading them. They were OK, but nothing moved me to go on reading. I did think it was a little creepy for a male children’s author to be promoting sex for teenaged girls, which he was doing even then.Posted by on 04/10 at 12:18 PM
I couldn’t help but notice that picture of Putin peering into Alaska. Do you notice a little atom bomb mushroom cloud off at the bottom of the picture, near the Aleutian islands of Alaska? Or is that just me? It’s a pretty creepy picture, if you think about it.
Los Angeles DUI lawyerPosted by on 04/10 at 01:32 PM
1. Concerning the folly of Jane Studdock’s quest for a PhD: Lewis said, elsewhere, that he wasn’t against women doing academic work; he was just trying to depict Jane as an individual as being out of her depth in dealing with Donne.
However, if that was what he meant, he sure didn’t make it clear in the novel, did he? There aren’t any good women scholars in the book. And the fact that “The Place of the Lion” by Charles Williams, one of Lewis’s favorite novels, features an even more arrogant and out-of-her-depth woman scholar, who gets a more brutal comeuppance, makes one wonder.
A comparable criticism often made of Lewis on the basis of “That Hideous Strength” is that he was anti-science. Again, he maintained he wasn’t; he was just against what the N.I.C.E. distorted science. And this time he did have one minor character (Hingest, the scientist who quits the N.I.C.E. in disgust) to show the difference. But there really wasn’t enough of him to make the point.
As far as Mark goes, he’s supposed to have learned his lesson at the end. The kind of petty social-climbing he was indulging in at the start of the book had led him directly to the pits of Hell, and he well knows it. We’re intended to see him as a reformed character (except about his sloppy personal habits), though whether that looks plausible is another question.
I agree that Lewis’s re-starting book three with a domestic setting does a lot to inoculate against inflated language. But I think it’s a little unfair to implicitly compare Tolkien to Pullman. Unlike either Pullman or Lewis, Tolkien wasn’t writing a trilogy. “The Lord of the Rings” is a single novel that happened to be published in three volumes, so complaining that book three is too inflated is unfair: it isn’t intended to be considered separately. The whole thing should be taken as one unit, in which the rise to grandeur works more naturally. It really is misleading to take short chunks out of the peroration to giggle at them: in the total context of what’s come before they work much better.
Also, an important difference between Tolkien and Pullman is that Tolkien does not have the kind of close-up description of climactic action that Pullman has and can’t carry off. Asriel fights Metatron and the Authority in person on-stage, but Frodo only fights Gollum, and nobody is seen fighting Sauron. And here’s where Tolkien’s elevated language really works, because it’s the perfect distanced tone to describe such mighty events as the fall of kingdoms without pathos or deflation.
And yes, Tolkien took an un-ironic tone towards heroism. He thought we needed it, and he made a very rigid distinction between the honor of the warrior and the rightness of his cause. (See his essay on “The Battle of Maldon.") Tolkien is filled with irony - that only a humble hobbit, not a mighty warrior, can destroy the enemy; that there’s an invincible weapon that nobody can use; that the enemies’ own machinations cause their downfalls; and so on. But he’s not cynical, and I think a large part of his appeal is that he’s a rare author who is not. Certainly most of the so-called Tolkien imitations out there are remorselessly cynical. It gets tiring.Posted by on 04/10 at 05:09 PM
Let me recommend John Crowley’s 4-ology “Aegypt,” which is about moments when the world is open to the sorts of change that let you choose between science and magic, reformation and authoritarianism, the Shire and the City.
They are fantasy, but much less stereotypical than Pullman or Tolkien (of course, Tolkien created or perhaps resurrected those stereotypes).Posted by on 04/10 at 05:32 PM
But I will suggest that whether or not human character changed on or about December 1660, thenabouts was the last time an English writer (like, say, Milton) could get away with writing in the high style about things like the war in Heaven.
Hmm. 1660. Well, you’ve had the Leipzig & Frankfurt Book Fairs going like gangbusters for a few decades, and so all of a sudden books are flying around all over Europe… and for the first time they’re cheap. Then, you’ve also got an England that’s just beginning to emerge from beneath Cromwell’s gigantic bloody, repressive, conservative thumb. Pamphleteering has become a high art by now, and people are reading newspapers! And there’s even affordable pornography! Publishers are making money… and regular folks are reading regularly for maybe the first time ever.
Kind of makes me wonder if there was a shift in the type of readership poets and playwrights were aiming for that reached a tipping point some time around 1660? If so, maybe the high-style dies because the ‘common man’ just doesn’t cotton to it—or worse, finds it insulting.
That’s a pretty great ‘something to ponder on’ you threw out there, Michael.Posted by on 04/10 at 06:16 PM
D’oh! I’m dumb. I forgot all about how lowbrow theater was around that time… I also forgot all about Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe and Pope’s The Dunciad. So maybe Milton got away with it because he wrote well… but lesser poets’ attempts were already being satirized even as he was churning out his epic. So the high-style was probably killed by satire… maybe even with an assist from the advertising of the day, which was pretty flowery.Posted by on 04/10 at 07:04 PM
”Just this: “this sentimental refusal of historical understanding leads directly to the Manicheanism of Pullman’s moral vision: closed versus open minds, tyrants versus liberators, the vicious Church versus its righteous opponents.”
Sort of the prevailing Theme since that boring manichean melodrama, the Book of Job (aka variations on evidentiary problem of evil). At least When Zep did Mordor-ville it swung a bit.Posted by Ezra Hound on 04/10 at 07:56 PM
So, my new theory about genre fiction is that if you write with nostalgia for lost enchantment, you are writing fantasy, and if you write to explore the Cartesian universe, you are writing science fiction, but that they are one genre, and this is proved by how much they refer to each other.
Oh, I like this a lot! This really helped me just this second crystallize the thesis for a story I’m writing.
My general theme is our various interpretations of the Future and how they play out against reality. The whole, “where’s my jetpack?” paleofutrist nerosis.
I’m illustrating this by having a fairly realistic world collide with a parallel universe that is a Gernsback Continuum, so tropes from classic sci-fi stories start appearing in the real world and our heroes are trying to figure out why. In effect, they are mapping a Cartesian world that is being unraveled by post modern nostalgia for a future that never happened.Posted by Keith on 04/10 at 08:11 PM
Pullman doesn’t respect the machinery of his own fantasy—rules, schmules, it’s not like it really matters whether the magic works consistently; I’ve got preaching to do.
Yes! Exactly! This is what I’ve been complaining about ever since I read The Amber Spyglass. How can you write a fantasy—a book about the human encounter with the numinous—if you don’t believe in magic, within the confines of the story at least? It’s a shame really; The Golden Compass is an absolutely brilliant book, one of the most original fantasies I’ve read in a lifetime, but unfortunately the trilogy doesn’t pay off, and I really think this is why.
Oh, and you CAN tell I’m a LeGuin fan too, can’t you?Posted by on 04/10 at 08:12 PM
1. Lord Asriel is a classic Magnificent Bastard. Bastard is an important part of that. He is NOT depicted as a good guy. He is depicted as a magnificent son of a bitch who, in pursuit of a ideological dream, commits absolutely horrible crimes. Remember, he’s with Mrs. Coulter. He murders children to get what he wants. This is NOT depicted as a positive thing.
Honestly, tvtropes.com shouldn’t be better at literary analysis than actual professionals. Go read their magnificent bastard entry.
2. The final fight with metatron was anticlimactic for a reason. The whole point was that, ultimately, there was nothing mysterious about these creatures. They were puffed up. Paper tigers. They weren’t unworldly, they weren’t magnificent, they were just pretenders. There was more mystery in the regular people than in the ultimate controller of the universe.
That wasn’t an accident.
I guess you can disagree with whether it made a good climax, but polemically it had a point.Posted by on 04/10 at 09:52 PM
that’s tantamount to saying the Reformation didn’t happen. There wasn’t any schism, the hierarchy remains in place, and as a result there aren’t any female or gay Episcopalian bishops at Jordan College, etc.
Fair enough. But against that I’d suggest:
(i) (No schism, no Reformation!) To argue that (a) the salient characteristic of the Reformation is that it was schismatic, or indeed that (b) it was the Reformation that introduced schism to Christianity, is, ah, pretty Romanocentric. Not everybody, certainly not even every Christian, would see things that way (with nods to our protestant friends WRT (a) and our orthodox, Nestorian etc. friends WRT (b)).
(ii) (But there was still a hierarchy!) The new broom Calvin presumably would have had some input into personnel decisions in the hierarchy, and those would presumably have differed from those of the pre-Genevan popes. But more importantly: do you remember when you were a kid and learned that (for example) “the Normans” “conquered” “the Saxons”? And do you remember when, some time later in life, you twigged that what this really meant was “one clique of mafiosi displaced another, different clique of mafiosi as the group extracting rents from a population that was pretty well fecked over before, and stayed pretty well fecked over thereafter”? Costumes and incantations may vary, but hierarchy is hierarchy and will be ever thus, unless and until somebody starts a republic of heaven or something. At least, I imagine that might be somebody’s idea for a series of children’s books.
(iii) (And if there was a Reformation, then where are the female and gay bishops?) Lyra’s world seems vaguely late-Victorian/Edwardian. Female bishops (Roman, Anglican or whatever you’re having yourself) would have been relatively rare even in our own world’s Oxford in those days. That bishops, then or now, could possibly be gay is so plainly ludicrous and impossible a notion that I must conclude you meant it as some sort of absurdist joke.
I mean, I take your point but, to reiterate mine, Pullman is after something fundamentally different to what Kingsley Amis was doing. If I may put words in their mouths—Amis: “the Reformation was so crucial to European history that a ‘what-if’ in which it had never happened would be a tremendous story”. Pullman: “Reformation? RC vs Protestant? I have an essential point to make here, and you’re wasting time taking about differences in church architecture and the cut of clerical robes?”Posted by Mrs Tilton on 04/11 at 06:40 AM
Another way of saying Magnificent Bastard is Milton’s Satan. I thought Asriel was a Miltonic Satan from his first paragraph in the story. And the thing is, there is that whole Romantic idea that Milton’s Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost, that we can’t get over our admiration of him even when he does bad things, that our own fallen nature makes us empathize with his situation.
I think Pullman is rewriting Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but I don’t know enough Blake to discuss it right; I know for a fact Pullman is rewriting the war in heaven from Paradise Lost. He’s saying, “‘of the party of Satan and doesn’t know it’, eh? Well, I’ll be of the party of Satan and I’ll know it. Thake that.”
So, in my reading, it’s like we are on two sides in these books. For most of Book I we don’t realize there is a difference between Lyra’s and Asriel’s sides. Thereafter we are on both their sides—Lyra’s quest is quite different from Asriel’s war, but I think the success of Asriel’s war is a precondition for Lyra’s quest to succeed. And lots of characters who I think are definite good guys, like the Gyptians (with their benevolent patriarch) and the witches, never give up on Asriel.
And Lyra has no interest in disproving the idea that God is the Creator, but Asriel does, and so does Pullman. I think Lyra saving the universe is meant to be an unlooked-for grace, what Tolkien called “eucatastrophe,” a surprise for all those characters who thought wrongly that Asriel’s war was what would save the universe. But for me it’s unconvincing. Asriel’s war had to succeed first, even if the universe’s fate still hinged on two kids having sex. (Okay, the “ew” factor is big for me there). The whole series was set up to get to the Republic of Heaven idea. Roger was just a red shirt to be sacrificed for the plot, and to motivate Lyra to begin. I think.Posted by on 04/11 at 07:55 AM
Typo, change to “take.” I don’t imagine Pullman has a lisp.
Hey, we may not be able to write wars in heaven any more, but we sure can film naval battles in space. Is it a substitute?Posted by on 04/11 at 07:59 AM
Well, David Zindell’s War in Heaven is a far-future philosophical space opera, so the answer to “Is it a substitute?” is “Definite maybe.”Posted by on 04/11 at 09:01 AM
Hey, we may not be able to write wars in heaven any more, but we sure can film naval battles in space. Is it a substitute?
It’s the same thing, rm, especially when we apply your theory of science fiction as Cartesian mapping expedition. Outer Space is Heaven* and the forces who do their fighting there are ultimately looking to control the Universe.
*keep this in mind the next time you’re watching Flash Gordon, Star Trek or documentaries about the Space Program.Posted by Keith on 04/11 at 11:57 AM
It seems to me that LOTR and HDM reflect the times they were written. LOTR is imbued with the feeling of WWI. People really did get taken out of rural villages and thrust into a titanic struggle, and after they “won” the war, they went home to find that something really did pass out of the world, never to return. In some of Tolkien’s essays like “On Fairy-Stories” he tries to describe what went missing.
I must admit I haven’t read HDM; I listened to the first two books on BBC7. It seemed to me very much a work of the Cold War, with its multiple levels of betrayal. Cittàgazze is a sort of spiritual Chernobyl, polluted by the actions of those who sought power through arrogant use of knowledge.
I’m not saying that either is an allegory; they use the ideas of their time as raw material.
I read the Narnia books as a child. My experience was much like that of Rebecca Traister in her essay at http://www.salon.com/books/int/2008/12/06/narnia/index.html. Looking at them now I see there is some very good writing in them, and some very bad. A Horse and His Boy is awful, and The Last Battle is not much better.
I didn’t read the Space Trilogy until my teen years, when I was reading a lot of SF, and I wasn’t too impressed. I liked Out of the Silent Planet the best. Perelandra was too talky and nothing much happened. That Hideous Strength had some good moments but was too full of Lewis’s odd prejudices. The one that shocked me the most was his opposition to birth control. Was that really the policy of the Church of England at that time?
Lewis never seemed to have much of a message other than “Do what Aslan tells you to do”, e.g., in The Silver Chair, repeat a meaningless ritual over and over and at some point it will make sense, rather than just explaining what’s going on. But it is interesting that in Narnia there is no church. The only organized religion belongs to the Tash-worshippers. Perhaps this reflects Lewis’s unpleasant childhood experiences with organized religion.
Tolkien does have an underlying message, although it’s a subtle one that many people overlook. His higher powers appear in the Silmarillion, not much in LOTR. The elves are permitted to live in Middle Earth, but they try to tamper with it, constructing the rings to halt death and decay in places like Lothlorien. This is an act of hubris; being immortal themselves, they don’t understand that death and decay are natural processes. The rings they created give power to evil. After that evil and the rings are destroyed, they must leave Middle Earth to man.
There is a Creator in Tolkien’s cosmology, but he rarely intervenes. He does send the wizards and other assistants from time to time. Morgoth and his underling Sauron are the Lucifer characters. Tolkien keeps him more or less offstage so he doesn’t take over like Milton’s Lucifer; his interesting exploits in Numenor are only referred to second-hand, and mostly in the appendices.
There’s no church or any kind of organized religion in LOTR either, or really any religion at all, except for a few edicts from the Creator now and then.
In a way it’s not quite right to say that the anti-clericalism of HDM is a contrast to Narnia, because these books are not pro-clerical, except in an indirect way. The Narnia message is more that you should have a direct relationship with God, which in a way is anti-clerical. Lewis’s childhood experience with bigoted closed-minded Christianity led him to reject that approach.
However, That Hideous Strength does seem to be a bit more along the lines of “follow the traditional authority figures”, as I remember. It’s been decades since I last read it.Posted by on 04/12 at 03:49 AM
There seem to have been a number of fantasy novels recently that dealt with what happens after death and has living “people” visit the underworld. I can think of one right away - “Firewing” - by Kenneth Opel. I was reading this right after HDM, so it seemed odd that this dark material was aimed at children in both cases.Posted by on 04/13 at 01:45 PM
Yeah. Even our Harry does it, kind of. Every end-of-book confrontation is a symbolic tomb, and then there’s all that deathly hallows business.Posted by on 04/13 at 02:05 PM
it’s not just recently. Some Sci-Fi writer (sorry; I’m really not well versed in the genre; for all I know the author is somebody quite famous, but for me it was just a book read on a coach between Amsterdam and Luzern and I cannot for the life of me recall his or her name) wrote a sort of neo-Inferno, with Benito Mussolini a major character. And that means the book needs to be a minimum of 27 years old, and was probably older (my copy was a ratty old paperback). Even before that, Pullman’s nemesis, that horrible old Lewis, had The Great Divorce (the Christianiness of which I find far more interesting than that of Narnia or even Screwtape, because so far as I can judge it is deeply heretical).Posted by Mrs Tilton on 04/13 at 04:12 PM
Tehanu at #67: I certainly noticed! Those dragon wings look good on you!
It’s wonderful to see the LeGuin references here. I’ve always wished someone would address the pattern in fantasy literature to leave the reader “alone and bereft” (it seems to me!) when the series is over: HDM does it, Earthsea does it, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising does it--in the end, we’re educated by reality, and we must cope without Earthsea’s magic, the presence of the Old Ones, etc. A certain kind of battle has been won, but it leaves the field feeling cold and barren in comparison to the Quest.Posted by on 04/13 at 06:41 PM
Yeah, it;s a good thing that by the time Lewis wrote, they didn’t burn people at the stake anymore. Because his tendency to imagine Christian doctrine to be anything that he thought felt right wouldn’t have gone over so well earlier.Posted by Rich Puchalsky on 04/13 at 08:57 PM
Mrs Tilton @77: I think it was “Inferno”, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Science-fiction writer dies and goes to Hell; his Virgil turns out to be Mussolini.
(They followed in Dante’s tradition by writing their friends into it. I used to be in the social circle and recognized various people.)Posted by on 04/13 at 09:09 PM
yes, that must be the book I am thinking of.
Rich, good thing indeed. I don’t have much use for Lewis’s religiosity, but all the same would have thought it a shame for him to end in an auto-da-fe. It’s sufficient victory for the forces of light, perhaps, that Aslan has been rendered a tame lion.Posted by Mrs Tilton on 04/13 at 09:27 PM
Elfarran @78: That makes me think of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” where one of his points is that escapism is good if it equips the reader’s soul for facing reality again once the story is over.Posted by on 04/13 at 11:33 PM
check out Sabriel by garth nix for jami ...Posted by on 04/14 at 08:37 AM
How could there be 80-some comments here without a mention of the astounding invention Pullman brings: that of daemons. For all the Big Stuff that is addressed, what with church and cosmos--it’s the extraordinary intimacy he depicts between people and animal, and its sad/interesting fixing, that makes the trilogy, to me, so powerful. It’s possible to feel lonely at the end for something that one cannot really “get.”Posted by on 04/14 at 12:28 PM
I haven’t read the Perelandra books or Pullman’s but it’s interesting that Madeleine L’Engle must have been drawing on Lewis for her young-adult SF/fantasy novels, especially the sequels to A Wrinkle in Time—but L’Engle’s interests as I remember them are nothing like Lewis’s. (Her dislikes included black magic, homophobia, child abuse, and personal power IIRC.)Posted by bianca steele on 04/14 at 10:08 PM
Elfarran @78: I just wanted to pick up your shout-out,
I’ve always wished someone would address the pattern in fantasy literature to leave the reader “alone and bereft” (it seems to me!) when the series is over: HDM does it, Earthsea does it, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising does it--in the end, we’re educated by reality, and we must cope without Earthsea’s magic, the presence of the Old Ones, etc.
This is a very very old trope that rather comes with the territory for anyone whose fantasy universe could be described as `Celtic’, because what we have of much Irish and Welsh myth has been rewritten by its medieval Christian preservers (if it was not always like that) to show the death of the gods at the end of the story. Even the Norse sagas get some of this on them, because they too are written up in post-pagan times. The point is that a mortal god is a false god (Pullman’s logic as decried by roac @57 works OK when you see it as an expression of this syllogism) so any tale involving gods that aren’t, you know, God, needs to have them die and then it’s kind of OK, but still edgy enough to be exciting. Odd to find Pullman raiding a ninth-century (say) Christian armoury here but that has a nice element of “religion contains the seeds of its own undoing” doesn’t it? Wait, was that Christian too? I’m just not sure anymore. Er, yes. That’s my sense of it anyway. But obviously Tolkien knew this well, and it’s been picked up by authors as disparate as Michael Moorcock (Corum trilogy) and Lloyd Alexander (Chronicles of Prydain), and Susan Cooper as you say, all drawing from that same magic bag of Celtic (to let Tolkien back in once more). So it’s not surprising that it looms so large in the worlds of those standing on those shoulders, be they giants or no.
(My Captcha is `without’, which seems fair enough.)Posted by Jonathan Jarrett on 04/15 at 02:57 PM
Yeap, it was Inferno by Larry NivenPosted by Lisp Speech on 10/03 at 11:57 AM