Sunday, January 14, 2007

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

I'm posting the original article here in it's entirety to better serve the readership and interest it generated. I'll probably avoid splitting these up from now on. Enjoy! -Nick

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 World 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.

Let me be momentarily gracious. Pullman is not a bad writer. He's just not a particularly great one. Though aesthetically competent, he is cursed with a heavy, thudding touch. His philosophizing is graceless and hamfisted. And perhaps most to his detriment, he writes children like someone who's studied them in textbooks, but could never be bothered to speak to one and find out what they're like.

His heroine Lyra is a rigidly contained and unconvincing creation; created not to learn or discover or act freely, but solely to function in service of an omnipotent theme. As starkly serviceable and inorganic as anyone out of an Ayn Rand novel. This isn't a child; it's how Pullman imagines children ought to be. Or perhaps more likely, how he imagines himself as one.The story impresses with sweeping arctic locales and visceral action. But reading them, one can't escape the notion that he's far more interested in ideological pamphleteering than natural storytelling or genuine characters. His characters are written with a marked lack of trust in them to reveal thematic truths through their own actions. Like everything else in his world, they're simply 'forced'. The seams show, and the writer appears, gnashing through the pages. Pullman reads like a man so rabidly chomping at the bit to air his grievances with society, religion, men of the cloth, etc... that he's all too willing to hang his material on unsatisfactory, and even lazy or contrived characterizations and plot turns, and attempt to compensate with exotic locales and big ideas. Sort of a 'we'll fix it in post' mentality.

Ironically enough, Lewis' application of christian themes in his writing was both far more explicit, and far more organic and disciplined. First and foremost, he set out to tell exciting and magical stories, and he did. The themes and morals were incidental, springing naturally from the work. Lewis goes into the process at depth in his essays on the matter, asserting emphatically that beginning with allegorical function in mind when starting a story, is a recipe for disaster. Rather, that the inspiration from Narnia came from his expanding on a single captivating image; a faun holding an umbrella.

Pullman lacks the discipline or perhaps ability, and the necessary trust in his audience to work that way. And in so doing, succumbs to the quintessential trappings of the desperate preacher and second-rate storyteller. Thus, though he fancies himself on equal footing, thinking he has succesfully emulated Lewis's 'formula' for a sort of 'fantasy evangelism', the fact is, he has the process completely backwards. Pullman is not interested in stories, he's interested in preaching. He's interested in essays and speechifying. He's a man with a mission, writing with a staunch 'theme first, story second' method.

Lewis simply enjoyed himself, writing exciting stories that read with the breezy, unstrained quality of a confident, sure-handed wordsmith. Confident in his skill, his faith, his scholarship, and with no so juvenile intent as to need to prove anything to anyone. Pullman's work gnashes and broods like a sulking teenager; seeking not it's own identity or purpose, but to define itself with an anti-identity and the histrionics of rebellion for it's own sake. In the end, it offers little to the reader's soul but an enfeebled, and pointless cry of 'Oh yeah?' Which is why fifty years from now, His Dark Materials will be relegated to dusty library shelves, replaced by the latest fashionable softcover iteration of pop-humanism for kids, and our children will still be eagerly sprinting through the wardrobe. And it is chiefly why Lewis is a first-rate writer, and Pullman is not.


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Blogger Reepicheep said...

I have not read Pullman, but I couldn't leave this post with an empty comments field. It is very very well written. And as a huge, absolutely life-long fan of the books, its so nice to see you get everything right about Narnia- the fact that the Chronicles were not written for the purpose of telling an allegory is lost even on many Christians who love the stories. The series works because the truths come out so naturally, it always makes me wence when people have to try and force it, interupting the story to interject "thats Jesus" or what have you.

Anyway, excellent write up once more.

4:58 PM  

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