Saturday, January 13, 2007

Golden Compasses and Wooden Wardrobes: A critical look at the fantasy fiction of ultra-humanist Philip Pullman, and CS

As this one is on the long side, it'll be broken into two parts. Part two will follow in a day or so. Enjoy!

Part one.

Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass" has been getting a lot of press lately, as Hollywood continues to mine the fantasy genre and capitalize on the success of Lord of the Rings, Narnia, and other literary works by their creative betters that have made profitable leaps to screen. Pullman's first novel in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy is no exception, and the buzz around it will doubtless grow defeaning as it's 2007 release date nears. Particularly with a cast that includes recently-confirmed movie star Daniel Craig, and awards-ceremony furniture like Nicole Kidman.

However, much like the success of The DaVinci Code; one of the most appallingly-written pieces of pop-lit by the king of language-mangling airport-fiction Dan Brown, the source of the clamour surrounding the His Dark Materials trilogy eludes me.

Ok, so it doesn't. It just confuses me somewhat, though not as much as the success of Brown, whose chief vocation should undoubtedly include a mop and shifts that last between midnight and 8 am. But whereas nobody (I hope) is going to mistake Dan Brown's oeuvre for high-art or anything less than lining for one's bird cage, HDM has actually garnered the acclaim of the literary world. It, we are told, is something approaching 'art'.

The chief comparison Pullman draws, is to CS Lewis. And His Dark Materials, to the Narnia series. Primarily for the fact that they're both fantasy fiction with a wide scope and fairly explicit allegorical underpinnings. 'Narnia' in it's many allusions to the Christian ethic and doctrines like sacrificial atonement, and 'Materials' in it's blustering, overtly anti-religious zeal, complete with haphazard modern-social-commentary characters like a pair of gay angels so eye-rollingly topical, they could be doing the rounds on daytime talk shows.

Have I revealed my point prematurely? No matter. The comparison in frankness, is wholly unjustified. When the literary establishment in doe-eyed worship compares Pullman to Lewis, they are comparing student and master.

Don't expect anyone to tell Pullman this, though. His disgust for Lewis is widely documented, as is his appraisal of the Narnia series as a vulgar and hateful little thing, symptomatic of everything wrong with those 'religious types' so easily reduced to a string of adjectives from the 'Outraged Humanist's Word Wheel.' "Patriarchal" "Racist" "Mysoginistic", etc.. And finally, he declares the series outright, "Nauseating drivel." Sadly, to read his interviews one can barely help but conclude that this is the place from which he and his work draw their chief significance and identity. He is not Philip Pullman, he is the anti-Lewis. His Dark Materials, is the Anti-Narnia.

to be continued tomorrow. . .

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