The scorn of Philip Pullman

I very much enjoyed reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which has recently spawned yet another fantasy film franchise, starting with The Golden Compass (titled Northern Lights outside the US).

But Pullman’s attitudes towards his predecessors, particularly Tolkien and CS Lewis (and I now no doubt join leagues of their defenders) are arrogant and a bit silly.

Pullman has disparaged Lewis as racist and sexist, to some extent a meaningless criticism as it applies to so much of the literature of that time. Modern readers, hopefully, know to read around such ignorance.

Then he dismisses Tolkien’s work as trivial, despite roots in European myth and lore even deeper than his own Miltonian echoes. But Tolkien’s sales are still far in advance of Pullman’s, making this criticism presumptuous, not to mention rather churlish. In Pullman’s scorn for the thought of the masses (religion) and the tastes of the masses (Tolkien) he is elitist. Surely only an elitist could be so contemptuous of something that has demonstrated its appeal for so many? But let’s see what else Pullman has to say about Tolkien and Lewis.

The Lord of the Rings is essentially trivial. Narnia is essentially serious, though I don’t like the answer Lewis comes up with. If I was doing it at all, I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not worth arguing with.
– –

I find what both of them have to say when they are writing about fiction much better than what they say when they are writing fiction, to be frank. They are both fine critics.
– – ABC Australia, Sunday 24/3/2002

I disagree on both counts, though I do agree with him when he says:

The physical world is our home, this is where we live, we’re not creatures from somewhere else or in exile. This is our home and we have to make our homes here and understand that we are physical too, we are material creatures, we are born and we will die… There ain’t no elsewhere, this is where we are. If we want heaven, then there isn’t a kingdom, we have to make a republic of heaven in this world, not elsewhere. (ABC Australia, again)

Though perhaps he underestimates the role of perception in creating the world we see. But, on to his charge against Tolkien. Is Tolkien really trivial?

In a discussion on The Atlantic’s forum, a poster called Carlo elegantly describes the themes of The Lord of the Rings thus:–

I would argue that the central theme of the The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is death, the passing of beauty so that it can be saved, the renunciation of power for the sake of love.

Beautifully expressed. There is another great theme in Tolkien that I would point to: that the world is ultimately saved not by muscular heroism but by friendship.

Lyra and Will: graphic from the second volume in His Dark Materials, The Subtle Knife

What’s more, there is a 1984-like thread to LOTR, in which we never meet ultimate evil (Sauron) directly; only its proxies, the orcs and Saruman. Sauron’s shape and form remain mysterious, but his great eye scans the landscape like radar, its reactions almost unconscious. Sauron is surveillance, untouchable and untrackable power, evil by observation and control, a grand theme for the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The idea of the ending of the golden age under the onslaught of industry is another thread common to these books. In LOTR it occurs in the industrialisation of the shire under the tyranny of the Sackville-Bagginses. In the Narnia series, it’s in the attempts by invading dark-skinned foreigners (there’s that racism) to industrialise Narnia. And in His Dark Materials, of course, it is seen in the entry of our universe into the framework of the books. Notably, of course, this invasion of the “mundane” world happens earlier in Pullman’s series, in volume two.

Of Pullman’s three books, I enjoyed the first, Northern Lights, the most. Here, his inspiration seems at its freshest. But later he becomes increasingly mechanical. For someone who purports to scorn fantastic creatures, his beasts on wheels are rather ludicrous and mechanical conceptions. I was bitterly disappointed as I read the passages introducing them — because he clearly intends them to be fantastic in an evolutionary, rather than than inspirational sense. But they are designs of a mostly dull and scientific sensibility; our natural world produces far greater wonders. This slipping, from the pure fantasy world of Northern Lights into sci-fi appears also in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series where fantasy segues monotonously into sci-fi as the writer runs out of ideas. Fantasy is a label Pullman vigorously but unconvincingly disclaims. There have been many other fantasy series in which this shift occurs. Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books come to mind, though if memory serves, she managed to make it work.

When Pullman has surpassed Tolkien’s sales of 80 million, then perhaps he will have more of a legitimate claim to offering the criticisms he does. However, it remains to be seen whether his fiction will have the same legs as his predecessors. My instinct is that, despite being compelling reading at present, His Dark Materials will prove more susceptible to erosion by fickle zeitgeist. Nonetheless, I look forward to reading Once Upon a Time in the North, the recently published prequel to his trilogy.

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
This entry was posted in Film, poetry and literature, General and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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