TV

His Dark Materials

|

Attempts to bring Philip Pullman's young adult novels, The Golden CompassThe Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, to the screen have largely failed. The books were written in response to C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which Pullman has called "morally loathsome," noting that for the Christian author "death is better than life; boys are better than girls…and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it."

Pullman's anti-authoritarian, anti-church, and individualist message shines through in HBO's new His Dark Materials series, and the adaptation captures the author's enthusiasm for explorers, tinkerers, and physicists, in contrast to Lewis' fondness for medieval monarchs and mammals who know their place. But its villains are too instantly loathsome, its protagonist children too plucky, and its drama insufficiently self-aware to fully capture the compelling air of mystery and enlightenment that makes the books so beloved.

NEXT: The MAGA Doctrine

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Saw it. Loved it.

        1. I was fascinated by it and I liked it.

          1. Wow. Imagine that.
            Two of the evangelical atheists here loved Pullman’s hate-motivated children’s rant.

            “death is better than life; boys are better than girls…and so on.”
            This is such dishonest demagoguery.
            The deaths were only meaningful because life is precious. Personal sacrifice is a consistent theme throughout literature and is nothing special in the Narnia tales.
            As for the stupidity that “boys are better than girls” in the Narnia series; In most of the books girls are the POV main characters. They’re the primary heroes, front line fighters and moral compasses. The boys on the other hand are usually side characters often weak and several are treacherous before their redemption by events. Pullman knows this, but he decides to lie anyway.

  2. Meh. Easier than the books to take in, but not compelling tv.

  3. which Pullman has called “morally loathsome,”

    morally righteous atheists are just the best

    1. Where is Pullman’s version of God In The Dock, one might ask…

  4. “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which Pullman has called “morally loathsome,” noting that for the Christian author “death is better than life; boys are better than girls…and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.”

    The bashing of Lewis is absurd. Lewis’ Christianity is existential and more constrained than Tolkien’s. I suppose he despises Tolkien for similar reasons–only more so? What he’s describing, there, is a lack of wokeness in Lewis–which isn’t, wasn’t, and never can be equated with Christianity itself. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. Did anyone call out slut-shaming in the ancient world before Jesus of Nazareth?

    Meanwhile, Lewis is suggesting that God exists in myriad different forms on myriad different worlds–and our perspective of him is integral to who he is.

    “Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say”

    —-The Silver Chair

    https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/how-lewis-put-ontological-argument-god-in-narnia/

    I have no love for Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, but hating Lewis is a stupid reason to write a book.

    1. Lewis’ That Hideous Stength was an excellent dystopia, I don’t know if I’d call it equal to Huxley and Orwell, but certainly worth mentioning in the same breath.

      1. I see it’s based on his, The Abolition of Man, which is fantastic and especially relevant today with genetic engineering, “nudging”, AI, etc.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Abolition_of_Man#Men_without_chests:_a_dystopian_future

        It’s on my reading list. Thanks!

        1. Glad to be of service.

          No spoilers, but there’s a scene in there which may be the kinkiest thing Lewis, or any other dystopian author, ever wrote.

          1. (Certainly kinkier than Tolkien)

    2. The bashing of Lewis is absurd. Lewis’ Christianity is existential and more constrained than Tolkien’s. I suppose he despises Tolkien for similar reasons–only more so?

      You would think, yet his animus seems to be for Lewis in particular. Which is odd, since IIRC Lewis didn’t even yet consider himself Christian when he wrote the Narnia books, whereas Tolkien was a life-long devout Catholic. In fact, I do seem to recall that it was a bit of a point between them when they were younger that Lewis found Tolkien’s religiosity and credulity in Biblical stories to be strange and naive.

      And Tolkien is way less woke than Lewis. Hardly a female character in sight, and pretty explicitly racist.

      For me it’s a head-scratcher – there’s no question that Lewis is more of a target than Tolkien for a certain brand of atheist, but it makes no sense to me.

      1. “And Tolkien is way less woke than Lewis. Hardly a female character in sight, and pretty explicitly racist.”

        I disagree completely.

        Some of the most powerful characters (and powerfully moral characters) in his books are women, and understanding between the races is a central message of the books.

        1. I’m saying compared to Lewis. As Mother’s lament observes, above, Lewis’ main characters are often the girls, whereas for Tolkien where women are present they are typically present as these unattainable, unearthly ideals like Galadriel and Arwin. Human women hardly make a showing, and no female character really shows much development (although, in fairness, character development is not Tolkien’s forte).

          Again – I’m not condemning Tolkien, merely pointing out that he’s less “woke” than Lewis.

          Likewise, there’s a difference between making a theme of cooperation between races and having racially based moral determinism be fundamental to your worldview. You can do both.

          The Elves are pretty obviously idealized proto-Europeans, with a language that is a mix of Latin and Finnish. Latin, for Tolkien I think, had the purity of being the language of his religion, whereas Finnish, in the mythology of language scholars of his generation, represented the last vestige of pre-Aryan Europe, a ‘purer’ expression of the ‘soul’ of Europe unpolluted by Eastern elements.

          The language of Mordor on the other hand is clearly based on Turkish, and represents the language of a fundamentally corrupted and evil race of people, distinguished from the pure, lilly-white elves by their dark skin and brutish appearance.

          Again, LOTR is a moral fable, and I don’t see it as the work of some sort of Nazi, but I don’t see how you can miss the racialism, especially in the context of an assertion that Lewis, to a contemporary American college-student sensibility, is more “woke” than Tolkien in lacking that stuff.

          1. “Lewis’ main characters are often the girls, whereas for Tolkien where women are present they are typically present as these unattainable, unearthly ideals like Galadriel and Arwin”

            Galadriel isn’t unearthly. She’s flawed. She’s in Middle Earth because she isn’t allowed to go back to the Undying Lands–until she passes the test of rejecting the ring when Frodo offers it and giving Gimli strands of her hair–a gift she had refused to give Feanor in the Undying Lands, which led him to forge the Simarills, something that caught the light of the two trees like nothing else could but her hair. It led to all sorts of awfulness, including her own rebellion and presence in Middle Earth.

            When you say she’s “unearthly”, what you really mean is that she’s powerful. She’s a powerful woman, maybe the most powerful person in Middle Earth, save Sauron. Kind of undermines the idea that there aren’t any powerful women in Tolkien, though, doesn’t it?

            And what about Eowyn? She rides into battle with the riders of Rohan in disguise because she refuses to hide in the keep with the other women and children, and she eventually slays the Witch-King of Angmar–the most powerful of the Nazgul and their leader.

            The . . . um . . . feminist school of literary criticism gets a lot of press, but just because these criticisms are inevitable given the nature of that school of criticism doesn’t mean those criticisms are valid.

            1. When you say she’s “unearthly”, what you really mean is that she’s powerful.

              No. I mean she’s unearthly. She’s immortal. She’s a child of the stars. She’s impassive, untouchable and unattainable. She, to use the language of Freudian criticism, is an icy and remote mother figure who exists as a symbol, not a fully realized person. There’s nothing wrong with that – she’s a literary device. Like cold and brooding men in romance novels.

              Compare her with Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lucy is the protagonist. She’s the one you identify with. She’s the one who goes through the thing the story is about.

              And what about Eowyn?

              And what about Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf, Legolas, and Gimli? You know – the main characters? And what about Boromir, Theodin, Faramir, Elrond, etc., i.e. pretty much all of the other characters?

              As I said, there’s nothing wrong with writing a book with pretty much all male characters. Just like there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that that’s what LOTR is, and that a woman riding through with a sword at one point doesn’t change that.

              To be really crystal clear about what I think about Tolkien’s attitude towards women is that I don’t think he sees women as inferior and weak at all – quite the opposite – but I also think he has little real interest in women. He is far more interested in male-male relationships (make of that what you will).

              The . . . um . . . feminist school of literary criticism gets a lot of press, but just because these criticisms are inevitable given the nature of that school of criticism doesn’t mean those criticisms are valid.

              Right. Which is why I said exactly that:

              “Again – I’m not condemning Tolkien, merely pointing out that he’s less “woke” than Lewis.”

              By which one might say “comes out less favorably when run through the Feminist and Critical Race Theory lenses” on which I have had extensive training but with which I have limited sympathy.

              What did you mean when you said “I suppose he despises Tolkien for similar reasons–only more so”, which I thought I was agreeing with?

              1. “No. I mean she’s unearthly. She’s immortal. She’s a child of the stars.”

                She’s an elf!

                The only reason to believe this is because you want to believe it–and ignore everything that contradicts it. It’s the same with the charge of racism. It has no basis in reality, is in perfect opposition to Tolkien’s central messages, etc., but if all you care about is seeing racism and powerless or ethereal women, then that’s what you’ll see. But Tolkien isn’t to blame for what’s going on in your head.

      2. In 1938, Tolkien’s publisher wanted to print a German translation of The Hobbit, but before the Nazis would allow it to be published in Germany, they asked Tolkien for proof and assurance that he didn’t have any Jewish ancestry or, indeed, whether his German sounding name was of Aryan origin.

        This is how Tolkien responded:

        “25 July 1938 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford

        Dear Sirs,

        Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

        Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.

        I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and

        remain yours faithfully,

        J. R. R. Tolkien

        https://www.good.is/articles/jrr-rolkien-nazi-letter

        That’s about as close as a gentlemen professor of Nordic literature could come to looking the Nazis in the eye, giving them the finger, and saying “Fuck you, racist!”

        The suggestion that Tolkien was a racist is ludicrous.

        1. “Again, LOTR is a moral fable, and I don’t see it as the work of some sort of Nazi, but I don’t see how you can miss the racialism, especially in the context of an assertion that Lewis, to a contemporary American college-student sensibility, is more “woke” than Tolkien in lacking that stuff.”

          I don’t see how his writing a letter to the Nazis saying “I’m not a Jew and don’t see why that should matter” responds to what I said in any way.

          Is there any story line where an orc or half-orc has a moral struggle and realizes the error of his ways? Or are we told everywhere and constantly that they are fundamentally corrupted races of whom moral behavior can never be expected? And this contrast with the inherently morally pure elves is reflected, we are told quite explicitly, in the color of their skin?

          Do you really not see how a Critical Race Theorist would find this more objectionable than literally anything in Lewis?

          What did you mean when you said “I suppose he despises Tolkien for similar reasons–only more so”, which I thought I was agreeing with?

          1. OK, Tolkien himself, I think, was uncomfortable with his Calvinistic Orcs, doomed to be evil. To use anachronistic terminology, the Orcs were in effect NPCs or Goombas, there for the actual protagonists to do battle with.

            Tolkien was near-worshipful of women – check out his tombstone

            https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/1456/j_r_r_-tolkien#view-photo=191775558

            With his wife Edith’s name on top, and comparing her to the Elven princess Luthien and himself to the human hero Beren, who together win a key fight against Sauron’s old boss Morgoth (and Luthien chooses to renounces the elven paradise and die like a mortal so she can be with Beren).

            The only fully evil female Tolkien characters I can recall are the giant spiders, and one of them – Shelob – was defeated by Varda, the Virgin Mary stand-in and Queen of the Stars.

            And when one of the coolest scenes ever is the human female warrior revealing herself at the same time she defeats the head Nazgul – Sauron’s own chief of staff – but with a backstory of unrequited love for Aragorn – I think that in itself gives us a powerful female character who gets a decent amount of character development.

            Galadriel also has to struggle with the temptations of the Ring – it’s the one time we get a vision of what an evil female non-spider character might look like – but she rejects the temptation and accepts her fate – her power will diminish, but she still provides vital aid to the protagonists.

            And LOTR was published in the mid-1950s, i. e. the horrid Dark Ages of patriarchy.

            1. And to be clear, all the Elves, male and female, have to accept that their age is ending and help destroy the Ring anyway.

            2. To use anachronistic terminology, the Orcs were in effect NPCs or Goombas, there for the actual protagonists to do battle with

              I think that’s a fair characterization. In his essay on Beowulf, “The Monsters and the Critics,” what he says he loves about the dragon in Beowulf is that it’s just pure monster that doesn’t represent anything other than an angry and hungry Beast unleashed.

              That’s clearly what Orcs are – amoral, or even cruel and brutal, “beast-ness” in a humanoid form, whereas the Elves represent all that we think of as distinctly “Human,” stripped of the beastly elements that humans share with animals.

              I don’t think Tolkien was some Klansman or someone who sympathized with Nazi racial theories, but he was someone who dwelt in the same academic culture that produced Nazi racial theories, studying Old English philology in particular (a field that was more than a little fraught with Aryan Nationalism). Tolkien’s writings are chock full of a racial collectivism that was quite common at the time, and that I don’t think he thought of as being in any way racist. As Ken points out, the best characters are those who cooperate across racial lines.

              What I’m really saying is that if you’re looking to tear apart a fantasy author for their racial semiotics from a Critical Race Theory perspective, there’s a lot more grist there in Tolkien than there is in Lewis, yet this guy seems to have a personal thing against Lewis and not Tolkien. Which makes no sense to me.

            3. Tolkien was near-worshipful of women

              Like I said, “I don’t think he sees women as inferior and weak at all – quite the opposite.”

              I said he doesn’t show much interest in women. Eowyn is a great character, but is she as developed as Frodo? Or Aragorn? Or Gandalf?

              Of course not. Because she’s so far from being a main character that she’s well developed for being a barely-there side character.

              Again, like I said, I don’t think Tolkien is anti-feminist at all. I’m saying that if you’re comparing him with Lewis and you’re doing so from a woke perspective, Lewis is the more ‘feminist’ writer, as not only does he also have strong, medium-complex female characters, but he has them as the main POV characters.

              The only other thing this guy has to hate about the two of them would be their both being Christian, with the exception that Lewis wasn’t when he wrote the Narnia books.

              It just seems kind of ironic and I wonder what his specific fixation on Lewis is about when Tolkien seems at least somewhat more representative of the things he’s claiming to be mad about.

              1. “Again, like I said, I don’t think Tolkien is anti-feminist at all.”

                I’ll go ahead and say he wasn’t a feminist in any conventional understanding of the term.

                And I’m going to push back somewhat on your chronology – I think Lewis was a convinced Christian and Anglican at the time of the Narnia series.

                For what it’s worth, Tolkien accused Hitler of

                “Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”

                https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/59736/10-things-you-might-not-know-about-jrr-tolkien

                1. I think we could say that Tolkien may have had difficulty making a fully-complete female character, because a fully-complete character would have serious flaws, which he would hate to give to a woman.

                  1. Better visit sex sydney for your own sexy chat experience and pleasure, you will not regret it…

          2. I don’t see how his writing a letter to the Nazis saying “I’m not a Jew and don’t see why that should matter” responds to what I said in any way.

            Actually, what he said was that he’s not a Jew but he wishes he were so fortunate to have one in his ancestry, that the Aryans weren’t Norse, that the racism of the Nazis is so embarrassing that it’s making him ashamed of his German heritage, and that the worthiness of any literature should be judged based on its content rather than the race of its author. Oh, and don’t bother writing me back, he’s saying–because I’d rather forfeit any profits for selling my book in Germany than comply with your stupid racist law.

            . . . but I’m supposed to believe that Tolkien was a racist–despite a central point of his work being about understanding between races–because the bad guys he invented are an unmitigated evil?!

            No.

            Does not compute.

  5. Pullman wrote his trilogy to be some sort of YA atheist screed. But it’s a fantasy work, with non-physical supernatural all through it. It is NOT at all a materialistic work. He certainly portrays organized religion in a bad light, but that’s not the same as atheism.

    What is it with militant atheists and their obsession with battling a God they assert does not exist?

    1. Thank God for the atheists – just as the Christians drive me away from Christianity, the atheists at least persuade me to avoid atheism.

  6. “Lewis’ fondness for medieval monarchs and mammals who know their place.”

    Wait, stop the presses…there are kings and queens in fantasy novels? Shocking!

    I don’t know what it even means to have mammals knowing their places…the Christ-figure manifests as a lion, and if it’s a theologically orthodox manifestation, he’s both a lion and God at the same time.

    1. But, yeah, what a shock to find talking animals in a children’s fantasy series, the good animals being helpers and guides for the children – now that’s unprecedented!

  7. If you want to see an animal knowing its place, see the enthusiastically self-slaughtering cow in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Please to post comments