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For Good and Ill

Once upon a time, a little girl crept into a wardrobe, hid among the fur coats, and discovered a secret world. We all know the story. Except this is not C.S. Lewis’ timeless fairy tale, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe but Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Pullman obviously wants his readers to think of Lewis, and the two men indeed have similarities. First, Pullman, like Lewis, is a fine writer. His Dark Materials—the trilogy of which The Golden Compass is the first part—is an inventive, thrilling, literate, and scientifically meticulous adventure.

Pullman and Lewis also both understand the power of fantasy literature. That is why each lays out his world view in the form of a fantasy aimed at children. As Pullman notes, “We can learn what’s good and what’s bad, what’s generous and unselfish, what’s cruel and mean, from fiction” (“Far from Narnia,” The New Yorker, December 26, 2005). Lewis puts it this way: “[F]airy land arouses a longing for [a child] knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his lifelong enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children”).

Show, Don’t Tell

But this is where Lewis and Pullman diverge, for Lewis dislikes didactic writing as a means of reaching children:

Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that. For we have been told on high authority that in the moral sphere they are probably at least as wise as we. Anyone who can write a children’s story without a moral had better do so…(“On Three Ways,” emphasis added)

Pullman’s fiction, however, suggests he has no such confidence in his young audience, however vigorously he may claim the opposite. Towards the end of the trilogy, Mary Malone, the enlightened, liberated ex-nun, explains to the two young protagonists her decision to abandon her vocation and her faith: “. . . I saw there wasn’t any God and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all” (The Amber Spyglass, 441). That certainly qualifies as didactic writing and as a moral “put in” to the story. Lewis would abhor not just the content of that “moral lesson” but its being so crudely laid out.

But let’s turn our attention to the content. Just because a character says something doesn’t mean the author believes it or supports it. Shakespeare portrays murderers, bandits, and adulterers, but that doesn’t mean he condones them. It takes sophisticated reading to determine the author’s intent, the more so the better the author.

In this case, however, the distance between Pullman’s own views and those of his characters is a short one. The author is on record as detesting the Narnia tales. He has called Lewis’ Christian allegories “propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology,” “nauseating drivel,” and “sheer dishonesty” (“The Dark Side of Narnia,” The Guardian, October 1, 1998). Pullman’s stories are a deliberate attempt to subvert Lewis’ mythic vision of Christianity and childhood and to supplant it with his own. As it turns out, Pullman’s mimicry of Lewis’ opening scene is not so much a gesture of homage as it is a sneer, and we are now very far from Narnia.

Innocence and Experience

Pullman claims that Lewis has an unrealistic desire to keep children innocent at the expense of experience and knowledge. This conclusion, however, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how Lewis understands innocence. Pullman sets up a false dichotomy between innocence and experience: that to gain experience means a loss of innocence.

Pullman points to the scene in The Last Battle (the final Narnia book), when Susan is discovered to be absent from the stable (which serves as a sort of doorway to salvation). He describes the reason in this way: “Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all . . . He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up” (“The Dark Side of Narnia”).

But nowhere in the Chronicles does Lewis suggest that growing up is an undesirable thing (and we might well argue that The Silver Chair, the fourth Narnia book, is about adolescence and sexual awareness). Consider what Lady Polly, the first Queen of Narnia, has to say about Susan’s decision to reject Narnia because she thinks she has outgrown it: “Grown-up, indeed. I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can” (“Through the Stable Door,” The Last Battle). What Lewis is really implying in this scene is that Susan willingly abandoned her belief in Narnia because for her it became just one more.aspect of childhood make-believe. In that she is not unlike many a college-age Christian who—free of the foundations of home, faith, and family—elects to stop attending church.

Lewis believed in the value of childhood, and he believed that children’s innocence should be protected. But in Lewis’ Christian understanding, loss of innocence is a result of sin. It is quite possible to gain wisdom and experience without losing innocence in Lewis’ view. Pullman, on the other hand, sees loss of innocence as a prerequisite to wisdom.

Lewis also shunned the idea that we must pretend to the young that the world isn’t full of pain and death, good and evil (“On Three Ways”). His Narnia books demonstrate that understanding. They are filled with instances of children who—far from exhibiting the kind of guileless naïveté that Pullman disdains—must make hard moral choices, often without clear knowledge of what to do and in the face of difficult consequences.

To take just one example, Digory Kirke, the hero of The Magician’s Nephew, faces a moral dilemma towards the end of the novel: obey the command of Aslan, the great Lion and creator of all of Narnia, or save his dying mother. In fact the dilemma turns out not to be one; by obeying Aslan’s command Digory does, in fact, save his mother after all, but we note that he must, and does, act without certain knowledge of the outcome. Far from being a misty-eyed celebration of the goodness of innocence, this is a real, adult depiction of temptation and moral choice. It is not naïveté to suggest that love costs dearly or that life offers no guarantees; that these ideas are fundamentally Christian is almost incidental.

Pullman’s view of growing up is quite different. For him what matters more than anything is attaining a kind of worldly maturity through experience and acquired knowledge. At the outset of The Golden Compass, his heroine Lyra is a delightfully unspoiled, unsophisticated child. She is precocious, wild, fearless, and peremptory, but possesses little knowledge of the wide world beyond her Oxford home. The outcome of Pullman’s epic, the fate of the universe, depends very much on the path this child follows to maturity. Will she listen to the voices of authority, institutional learning, and tradition that govern her world? No: That, in Pullman’s view, is the surest way to corruption, slavery, and a meaningless existence.

Rather, Lyra must learn the ways of the world by experience, error, and by “thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on” and above all, by “keeping [her] mind open and free and curious” (The Amber Spyglass, 491). Much is made of the fact that Lyra is a “practiced liar, [who] knew liars when she met them” (The Subtle Knife, 146). She lies frequently and convincingly, from the beginning of the trilogy to the end, and rarely to her disadvantage. This, in Pullman’s view, is also a mark of maturity: to use one’s knowledge of the world—by deceit or blunt force, as circumstances warrant—to one’s own advantage (and occasionally on behalf of others). To be sure, suffering and loss and betrayal are also part of growing up, but only inasmuch as they add to one’s experience—they have no moral weight in themselves in a world where death is the end of existence.

There is a huge difference between Pullman’s glorification—almost deification—of experiential knowledge from Lewis’ depiction of wisdom and moral choice. Nothing young Digory has experienced in the course of his adventures will enable him to know with any certainty whether or not his mother will die (unlike Lyra, who has the helpful, clairvoyant alethiometer, “truth measure,” to give her insight into nearly everything she encounters throughout the series). Quite to the contrary, Lewis believed that children’s capacity for wonder is what helps them recognize right and wrong and adapt to the world. “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” It is the difference between a world governed purely by intuition and subjective experience and one which acknowledges and yields to the instinct of the right, even at great personal cost. It is the difference between “knowing good and evil” and being “wise as serpents, innocent as doves”—a distinction that Pullman fails to understand.

Paradise and the Fall

The themes of knowledge and experience that run throughout His Dark Materials all lead to one climactic insight: that sexual knowledge enlightens us as to our true selves, and thereby saves humanity from itself. For the entire narrative thrust—no pun intended—of Pullman’s trilogy is to bring his readers to this moment:

Then Lyra took one of those little red fruits. With a fast-beating heart, she turned to him and said, “Will. . .” And she lifted the fruit gently to his mouth. . . . They were confused; they were brimming with happiness. Like two moths clumsily bumping together, with no more weight than that, their lips touched. Then before they knew how it happened, they were clinging together, blindly pressing their faces toward each other. (The Amber Spyglass, 465-466)

Pullman recasts the Fall as a felix culpa, a happy sin—but not because it brought humanity so great a Redeemer. Rather, drawing on the Romantic tradition of William Blake and his successors, he celebrates the tasting of the apple as rebellion against what he views as the capricious and arbitrary rules of “the Authority” and liberation from an artificial state of innocence. That is his rebuttal to what he considers Lewis’ “cheat”: the death of the Pevensie children at the end of The Last Battle as a precursor to their arrival in Paradise.

“The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning,” says Aslan at the very end of the Chronicles of Narnia, “and as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful than I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.”

But unlike Lewis, Pullman, who does not believe in an afterlife, cannot even offer his battle-worn, world-wise protagonists a happy ending. There is no permanent joy in Pullman’s cosmos—only the transient pleasure and the poignancy of the moment. Indeed, for a materialist like Pullman there is no future happiness to be found anywhere: “We shouldn’t live as if [heaven] mattered more than this life in this world” (The Amber Spyglass, 518). Lyra and Will’s task is to “build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere” (The Amber Spyglass, 363).

Sexual pleasure and the thirst for knowledge are the only consolations Pullman can offer to all the questions of misery, loss, and sorrow that haunt human existence. Although he is a storyteller, in the end even stories offer no consolation because he dismisses the truth of myth. Stories are “true” insofar as we bring to them our individual and collective experience. And collective experience and human relationships, in the end, are the only things that endure. Because after death, in Pullman’s vision, all of our individual atoms flow out into the universe and become part of it. “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and particle of God,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson nearly 200 years ago, and his words resonate in Pullman.

So what will young readers glean from Pullman’s work? Only this, perhaps: that nothing is eternal except the present delight, the piercing experience, that which we seize upon and enjoy while we can and then move on to something else. That is the fundamental message of Philip Pullman’s books and, because it is the more subtle message, is probably more dangerous than the fatuous attack on God and his Church (the depiction of which bears little resemblance to anything taught or ever believed by the Catholic Church). The diatribes against religion serve as a smokescreen to distract adolescent minds—and mature ones—from Pullman’s “truth”: In the end, we have nothing to cling to but the present moment, the adrenaline rush of excitement and emotion, and the empty claim that “we can make ourselves trustworthy, kindly, and hard-working by being so. It takes time and effort, of course, not a miracle” (Pullman, “Identity Crisis,” The Guardian, November 19, 2005).

Dragons of Ordinariness

The power of fantasy is that it gives us a clearer window onto our own world. It is one of the reasons fantasy endures and the reason that, despite frequent remarks to the contrary, some fiction should be taken seriously. Indeed, many great Christian writers take fantasy very seriously. George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle all used the genre to great effect.

In another of Lewis’ critical essays, he writes about why he uses the fairy tale as a vehicle to explore deeper themes. As a boy, Lewis himself had been rather put off by the obligatory nature of religion—”stained glass and Sunday school.” But what if, he reasoned, a writer could couch deeper truths in the things children are interested in: knights and battles, sea voyages, animals, strange peoples, and improbable realms. In so doing, the writer might open up a young reader’s imagination to serious, life-shaking ideas without his being distracted by familiar associations he might otherwise be inclined to dismiss. Lewis, marvelously, called his technique “stealing past watchful dragons.”

Pullman understands this concept well, and this is why his fiction is problematic. He too invites his readers to set aside their everyday assumptions about God, faith, authority, and growing up—so that they might be opened to something else entirely. The method is the same as Lewis’; the aim is the opposite.

Fairy tales endure—they matter—because they have the power to sanctify the imagination. They offer a view of the world that delineates right and wrong by exaggerating chivalry and purity, as well as baseness and cruelty. Philip Pullman’s stories deliberately use the power of fantasy to subvert that childlike lucidity. He muddies the clear vision of the young, whom Lewis understood, rightly, to be instinctive about what is good and what is evil.


Your 11-year-old has read the Chronicles of Narnia six times and is weary of Potter-mania. What to recommend for a young fantasy buff? Here are a few laudable alternatives (available in various editions):

  • Lloyd Alexander, The Chronicles of Prydain
  • Madeleine L’Engle, The Time Quartet (A Wrinkle in Time; A Wind in the Door; A Swiftly Tilting Planet; Many Waters)
  • George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind; The Princess and the Goblin; The Princess and Curdie
  • J. R. R. Tolkien (trans.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Pearl; Sir Orfeo
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