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Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy

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Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:

: That Aslan, boy, what a self-centered hero.

There is definitely an element of MERCY in the Narnia books, but is it articulated in the terms of LOVE?

This is sort of a diversion, but Lewis wasn't trying to use the Narnia books to "teach Christianity" to people unfamiliar with it. His stated purpose of the books was to introduce Christian principles to children going to Sunday School -- Christian principles that were *not* being taught at Sunday School because they were considered "inappropriate" for children.

He described the books as a way to slip the information past the "watchful dragons" who guarded the gates of religious education. In that context, I think the Narnia books work very well. Children are taught all about Christian love in Sunday School, and in my experience they get little else. The Narnia books deal with how we rationalize sin, the unpleasant side-effects of making sacrifices, the "de-cuddlification" of God (Aslan, after all, is not a *tame* lion), how easy it is to think you understand what's going on when you really don't... concepts that many Sunday School programs might consider too advanced and complicated for the age group Lewis was writing for.

They are not, in other words, works of evangelism. In my opinion it's a lot more accurate to describe them as an advanced introduction to apologetics for children. Though mostly they're just really enjoyable stories.

Edited by The Baptist Death Ray

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[i think William Blake, who seems also to have influenced Pullman greatly, though interviews & articles rarely discuss this

I agree and I seem to remember Pullman discussing Blake in one interview. I'll try to find it but, basically, what fascinated him was the comparison between "Songs of Innocence" and "Songs of Experience" and how questionning authoritarian structures and doubting the world he has previously loved made Blake a much more accomplished and 'real' writer. Certainly the yearning to discover, even when its discovering something dark and troubling, is also at the very core of "His Dark Materials."

Phil.

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Shantih:

I seem to remember Pullman discussing Blake in one interview. I'll try to find it

You know, I think Pullman mentioned Blake in the Damaris interview you cited a few posts ago. But I don't recall any other instances. Very likely just my faulty memory, though!

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Good catch, Beth! See, I knew I'd read it fairly recently smile.gif From that interview:

I might say you

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Good catch, Beth! See, I knew I'd read it fairly recently smile.gif From that interview:
I might say you

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Apologies for the Frankenthread, but I wanted to bounce something off you folks...

I just finished reading The Golden Compass for a literature class I'm taking, and on Wednesday I'm going to be giving a brief presentation on why I think it's ultimately inferior to, say, Lord of the Rings and Narnia. And a good many other classic fantasy books, for that matter.

So, how would you folks answer that question? What criticisms-- if any-- do you have of The Golden Compass as a work of literature?

(We've only read the one book for this class, so I won't be able to use any ideas that pertain to the latter two novels. Also, this is meant to address shortcomings with the writing itself, not spiritual or religious difference we have with it.)

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Well, I can't think of anything I'd criticize about The Golden Compass. It's a beautiful, enthralling fantasy with memorable characters and a fantastic heroine.

Too bad she loses her spunk in the sequels, the writing loses its majesty, the storytelling gets bogged down in far too many poorly-developed characters and heavy-handed, sharp-edged, anti-Christian ranting.

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I'm in the middle of finishing The Amber Spyglass right now. I'll be back with some comments when I finish it.

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Guest stu

Which one is The Golden Compass? Over here they're called Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass?

Forgive me if I should know this.

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Which one is The Golden Compass? Over here they're called Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass?

Forgive me if I should know this.

The Golden Compass= Northern Lights.

Jeffrey, ignoring the final two books in the series... do you think The Golden Compass has what it takes to one day be considered a classic on par with, say, The Hobbit?

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Guest stu

FWIW, when I first read Northern Lights, I thought it was an instant classic - superb characters, great story, totally involving basically. But I suspect if I went back and read it again now, my dislike of the third book would probably influence my reading of it.

I think we're probably too close to whole hype/backlash dialectic to say whether it could become a classic. For me the thing that makes it great is the simplicity of the central idea (the daimon-child relationship) in the story; it's very odd and fantastic, but comes to see perfectly normal and you even start to feel the depth of the connection as it goes on. That was the thing that I found surprisingly good - a very strange imaginative turn becoming an integral part of the fabric of the whole story, rather than just weird. That said, I think the first half of the book is stronger than the latter.

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FYI: I'm linking here to the Narnia thread to note Pullman's latest rant about The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which proves that he's either A) never read the book, or B) doesn't know much about what he calls "Christian virtue."

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...Too bad she loses her spunk in the sequels, the writing loses its majesty, the storytelling gets bogged down in far too many poorly-developed characters and heavy-handed, sharp-edged, anti-Christian ranting.

These are pretty much my criticisms of the series. I can't remember when I've been so let down by the end of a story. The third book was one "what the...?" moment after another.

It seems just a teeny bit ironic to me that Pullman complains about the Narnia series as being "gruesome", "sexist", and "propaganda", when his own books are exactly that. How about that child being sacrificed? How about those poor kids separated from their daemons? I found that whole thing really appalling! I also like how everybody you like gets killed or thwarted from true happiness in some way: go team!

Anyway, the vitriolic hatred of organized Christianity is so childish and illogical and simplistic and shrill...I'm just amazed that he can write so well but come accross as such a harpy in interviews.

Neb

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FYI:  I'm linking here to the Narnia thread to note Pullman's latest rant about The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, which proves that he's either A) never read the book, or cool.gif doesn't know much about what he calls "Christian virtue."

From Pullman's statements, it seems that his complete definition of "Christian virtue" is "love," and he's insisting there's none demonstrated in the Narnia chronicles. As several of the comments to your blog post indicate, either it's been a LONG time since Mr. P. has actually read LWW and the rest of the chronicles, or his PC peevishness has simply blinded him to the many demonstrations of Christian love--not to mention other virtues--in the books.

Pullman's previous statements (in other interviews) about Lewis "punishing" Susan for growing up are, in my opinion, just--how shall I put it--nuts. I know not everyone agrees with me about this, but reading Susan's exclusion from the new heaven and earth in context, it's not about "sex" or "adulthood" (there are other adults in the recreated world), it's about "worldliness"--being "conformed to this world." If Mr. P. could pull his head out of his Blakean/Shelleyan romantic worldview, he might be able to figure that out.

The man can write fiction, no doubt about it. But he should probably avoid pontification.

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Pullman's previous statements (in other interviews) about Lewis "punishing" Susan for growing up are, in my opinion, just--how shall I put it--nuts. I know not everyone agrees with me about this, but reading Susan's exclusion from the new heaven and earth in context, it's not about "sex" or "adulthood" (there are other adults in the recreated world), it's about "worldliness"--being "conformed to this world." If Mr. P. could pull his head out of his Blakean/Shelleyan romantic worldview, he might be able to figure that out.
I always found the Susan thing very sad, especially when I first read "The Last Battle" as a child. Another thing Mr. P is overlooking is the fact that the other siblings talk about how Susan also denied Narnia's existance as she became more taken with worldly things. She picked on them for having this "fantasy" about some make believe place they played at as children. Here is a woman who had lived a lifetime in Narnia and been queen, yet she was willing to pretend it never happened because the here and now was more important to her. If that's not a portrait of a "backslider" I don't know what is.

Pullman chooses to overlook these important themes, though, because he seems more interested in oversimplifying and taking things out of context, just as attackers of Biblical Christianity are wont to do.

As I mentioned above, it's simply amazing to me that this whingy, testy, illogical pill can actually write so well. Of course, it did take him many years to finally get the third book to the publishers. Is this because, as I've heard, he wanted it to be just right, or is it because he kept adding more of his bleak dogma to rail against the Christian worldview which seems so offensive to him?

Neb

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I see an article in The Western Mail (Welsh newspaper) earlier this month continues to feed the tension over HDM.

Once again it trots out the nonsense that 'The Catholic Herald condemned his work as "fit for the bonfire"'. Pullman is fond of quoting this, but it's a comment taken completely out of context. Leonie Caldecott, the Catholic Herald writer recognises that Pullman is hostile to Christianity, but her tongue was firmly in her cheek when she wrote the now infamous comment. It was an article written close to November 5 - Guy Fawkes night in the UK, the night on which we light bonfires to celebrate the foiling of the plot to blow up James I (or James VI to Scots!). She was not actually saying that any books are worthy of the bonfire, but rather that the heated opposition to Harry Potter in some Christian circles in America was directed at a fairly insignificant target compared to what Pullman was writing.

Rupert Kaye from the Association of Christian Teachers is quoted as saying that Pullman daren't criticise Islam - 'Allah' is missing from the list of names used for 'The Authority'. It seems, though, that Pullman has had it added in to the newer editions (the tenth anniversary edition at least).

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I wonder if Lewis ever spent time with teenage girls? My guess is "Absolutely not."

If he'd emphasized her lack of belief (it's a game we used to play) over and above the normal social (etc.) interests she's accused of, it would make much more sense to me. As is, an interest in nylons, lipstick and invitations isn't a bad thing at all, especially for someone who's encountering them for the very first time.

My guess is that this bothers a lot of readers - along with many other inconsistencies in The Last Battle. It seems to have been written in haste....

I agree. I think Lewis was at times careless writing Narnia, not thinking about the implications of what he was writing.

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In Screwtape Letters and elsewhere, Lewis decries the spirit of the age that focuses on petty, small things as "the real world" and demotes spiritual concerns to a lesser status. Let me see if I can find the quote...

...okay, it's on pages 142-143 of the Collier edition, and is too much to type in right now. :)

Reducing what is "real" to facts and figures, or alternatively, to emotions, and forgetting that the real world is in fact physical AND spiritual. I think THAT's what Lewis is getting at with Susan. her world has shrunk down to nylons, lipstick, and invitations. She has focussed on these to the exclusion of what she knows to be really real. That's the problem - not the things in themselves, but the meaning she attaches to them.

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In Screwtape Letters and elsewhere, Lewis decries the spirit of the age that focuses on petty, small things as "the real world" and demotes spiritual concerns to a lesser status. Let me see if I can find the quote...

...okay, it's on pages 142-143 of the Collier edition, and is too much to type in right now. :)

...That's the problem - not the things in themselves, but the meaning she attaches to them.

At the risk of digression, I concur with the above statement. I'd have to go back and look at "The Last Battle", but I always got the impression that Susan was older than 15 or so. The implication to me seemed to be that she had crossed into, to Susan anyway, young adulthood and was very much concerned with appearing mature and worldly and fashionable, and that the whole Narnia thing didn't get her points with her peers so she chucked it. This would synch with Narnia as an analogy for childhood conversion, later abandoned.

The way it *doesn't* synch is that I don't believe one can "lose" their salvation by ignoring it or denigrating it. Perhaps if Lewis had been a bit more careful with the Susan thing she might have been bewildered and then repentant to find herself in Narnia at the end.

Neb

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nardis wrote:

: and she's how old? Maybe 14, 15, 16.

Or 24, 25, 26 ... or even 34, 35, 36 ... if you want to take into account the decade or two she spent growing up in Narnia and becoming an adult queen, etc. It took years for life in England to become a distant memory, like a "dream", in Narnia; but she had only been back in England for a few years by this point.

Or maybe reverting to her younger body meant she had to go through all the hormonal stuff and brain development stuff all over again.

: It *really* would have been nice to see Susan ending up in Narnia somehow or other...

Actually, none of the characters "end up" in Narnia -- they end up in some version of the afterlife.

: In one of the other late books, she's not in Narnia because she went to the US with her parents.

Not quite. While Susan's younger siblings might make disparaging remarks about Susan's trip to the U.S., I believe Book 2 ends with Aslan telling Peter and Susan that they CANNOT return to Narnia because they are getting too old; at the end of Book 3, he says the same thing to Edmund and Lucy.

: Truthfully, though, it never really did seem right or fair for Susan to

: 1) be very much in the books, and then disappear for no seeming reason

Do you apply this reasoning to Peter (2 books, plus small roles in 2 others, but no role at all in 3 others) or Edmund and Lucy (3 books, plus small roles in 2 others, but no role at all in 2 others)?

: 3) What on earth happens to the timeline of Narnian history when Susan is "no longer a Friend of Narnia"?

Um, I'm not sure what this question means. Is Narnian history supposed to stop in its tracks until Susan becomes a friend again or something? (Of course, by the time we hear about Susan's apostasy, so to speak, Narnian history has actually come to an end.)

: I also honestly feel that the complete avoidance of *any* sense of attraction to characters of the

: opposite sex is a flaw in the way Lewis saw - or didn't see - young people.

I dunno, it seems to me you're reading too much into this. The fact that Lewis didn't think a book for, say, 10-year-olds should deal with, say, 18-year-old problems is hardly any sort of indication that he had any particular view on the problems of 18-year-olds.

Remember, Lewis begins the first book by introducing it to a girl who, he believes, might be "too old" for fairy tales by the time the book comes out -- but he hopes that she will become "old enough" to read fairy tales again. Obviously, Lewis is not imposing these standards on his goddaughter (or whatever she was); rather, he expected, based partly on his own experience as a child, that his goddaughter would impose those standards on herself out of a desire to appear "grown-up" to her peers.

So Lewis expects his readership to consist of pre-pubescent types, and of adults who are willing to enter into that pre-pubescent mindset. To suggest that he disliked pubescents -- and to suggest that he disliked the SEXUALITY of pubescents in particular -- seems to me to be assuming way, way too much.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Adolescence does look silly (in many ways) to people who aren't in the throes of it.

I think this is one area where Pullman (since this is a Pullman thread rather than a Lewis one) is particularly strong - he treats his adolescent protagonists with respect and isn't remotely patronising about them.

I know some people will start jumping up and down to complain about the scene in which Lyra and Will are in a glade together having discovered what love is and finally achieving some state of wisdom which reverses the flow of sraf out of the world.

I'm not convinced by those who say Pullman has his teenage protagonists engage in under-age sex. What is being described is the transcendent moment at which one realises for the first time that this really is love. Pullman's narrative draws back from them leaving the way open for people to infer what they like. In fact, Pullman himself says he doesn't know what happened there and he doesn't want to - if people want to jump to a particular conclusion then it's a reflection on them not him. He says, 'sometimes a kiss is enough' (or words to that effect - I don't have time to dig up the quote right now).

The process of growing up is one of the trilogy's central threads and I have to say I think in most respects he handles it better than Lewis.

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nardis wrote:

: Adolescence does look silly (in many ways) to people who aren't in the throes of it.

Just because it LOOKS silly, doesn't mean it ISN'T, though. I think there is some value in writing a book for pre-adolescents, letting them know that the things that are going to seem so, so, so important to them in a few years really AREN'T that important, and will cease to seem important once they've gotten even older.

That said, Pullman's books are written FOR adolescents, and thus require a different kind of empathy.

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