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The Third Way interview offers an interesting window into Pullman’s beliefs. At first he asserts, very much in the vein of Dawkins and Hitchens, that faith in one God is itself the source of evil: “Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him.” Asked about the crimes committed by atheistic totalitarian regimes, Pullman responds that “they functioned psychologically in exactly the same way,” with their own sacred texts and exalted prophets: “The fact that they proclaimed that there was no God didn’t make any difference: it was a religion, and they acted in the way any totalitarian religious system would.”
The interviewer presses on, pointing out that in that case, perhaps belief in one God isn’t really the root of the problem—and that not only Stalin but even the secular French revolutionaries in the 18th century killed more dissenters than any Church authority. Pullman fires back with a non sequitur: “Well, that was very comforting as the flames were licking round your toes.” When he finally acknowledges that “the religions are special cases of the general human tendency to exalt one doctrine above all others,” it comes across less as a reconsideration of his views than as a grudging concession. There are no reports of Pullman’s plans to write a sequel to His Dark Materials in which the attempt to build an earthly Republic of Heaven ends in firing squads and gulags.
An Attack on Narnia
The intolerant underside of Pullman’s views also can be seen in his intemperate attack on C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia, launched in a 1998 essay in The Guardian. He is hardly the first to accuse Lewis of sexism for his tendency to relegate girls to subordinate roles, and of racism for his negative depiction of the dark-skinned Calormenes. What stands out is the nastiness of Pullman’s rhetoric: He calls the Narnia books “ugly and poisonous things” and “nauseating drivel,” and he declares that he hates them “with a deep and bitter passion.”
Pullman’s specific criticisms of Lewis—which include not only racism and misogyny but class snobbery and a “sadomasochistic relish for violence” and the elevation of childhood innocence over adulthood—are cautiously supported by some critics and hotly disputed by others. If you approach His Dark Materials in a similarly uncharitable spirit, you could find similar grounds for complaint.
Sexism? Heroic though Lyra is, it is mostly Will who fights and who gets to possess a special mystical weapon, while some of Lyra’s greatest feats are accomplished by the “feminine” method of clever manipulation and lies. The trilogy’s main adult female character, Mrs. Coulter, is virtually a cliché of feminine evil—a cold, ruthless siren who schemes, lies, and seduces her way to power—until she is partly, and not very plausibly, redeemed by a spark of stereotypical feminine virtue: maternal love.
Class snobbery? The illegitimate but aristocratic-born Lyra is vastly superior in intelligence and initiative to the lower-class children she befriends; the other hero, Will, is the son of an officer in the Royal Marines. Sadomasochistic violence? Pullman’s trilogy features some very unpleasant deaths and mutilations.
This is not to say that Pullman is a misogynist, a class snob, or a sadist, only that he should be more cautious in branding others with such labels. It is not much of a stretch to think that Pullman sees himself as the anti-Lewis. Third Way asked Pullman if he is “a conscious antidote to C. S. Lewis, seeking to do for a moral atheism what he did for Christianity.” Pullman gave a curious reply: “It’s largely nonsense, of course” (emphasis added). Writing in the British Spectator, critic Caroline Moore argues that “Pullman, for all his superior imaginative powers, is paradoxically more intolerant, more fiercely exclusive and more violently propagandist than Lewis.” That’s a shame, because there is much in Pullman’s message that deserves to be commended, including the idea that, in a world without God, one can find meaning in human consciousness, human work, human freedom, and human responsibility to the world.
Yet His Dark Materials has already earned a place of honor in contemporary popular literature and may well end up as long-lived and beloved as the Narnia series. An interesting if often frustrating thinker, a masterful if flawed storyteller, Philip Pullman deserves the larger audience he is likely to find with the release of the Golden Compass movie. For some readers, his stories will stimulate a discussion of religion and freedom, raising tough questions for believers and nonbelievers alike. For others, it will be the stories themselves that endure: tales of bravery and magic, of heroic children and armored bears, that can stand on their own regardless of any self-consciously heretical message.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young (firstname.lastname@example.org) is
the author of Ceasefire!: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to
Achieve True Equality (Free Press).