Eugene Woodbury

Three visions of the distant, uncertain shore

With the publication of The Amber Spyglass and the completion of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, Philip Pullman has produced a first-rate adventure that dares for the first time since C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" to place the entire sweep of Christian eschatology at the heart of a young adult fantasy series.

Having set the stage for the apocalyptic showdown in the The Golden Compass, and then filling out the cast of characters in The Subtle Knife, Pullman goes on in The Amber Spyglass to question the existence of God, the nature of good and evil, the nature of thought and matter. The structure of his argument holds so well over 1000 pages because the author has set his foundation firmly in the classics, a good place to begin any discussion of the meaning of life. Borrowing from Dante and Vergil, he sends Will Parry and Lyra Silvertongue on the mythic heroic journey: literally from the top of the world, to the depths of hell, and back to Eden.

The title of the trilogy comes Book II of Milton's Paradise Lost, which itself foreshadows the theological challenge Pullman has laid out for himself:

But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds

And considering how well he rises to the challenge, I think it only appropriate that Andrew Marvell's summation of Milton's work, found in the introduction to the Second Edition (1674), so well applies here as well.

In slender Book his vast Design unfold,
Messiah Crown'd, Gods Reconcil'd Decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heav'n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All; the argument
Held me a while misdoubting his Intent

"Yet as I read," Marvell records, "I lik'd his project." An understatement, to say the least. Displaying a breathtaking reach of imagination (his conceptualization of the "daemon," alone, surpasses expectations, and strikes deep chords of affirmation), Pullman pulls off his equivalent epic with a sagacity and a depth of feeling that stirs the soul.

Into the Breach

To a sufficient extent that "His Dark Materials" constitutes some of the most important writing in the genre in the last half-century. It is a work of serious literary weight, and works of serious literary weight beg comparison, or at least a vigorous shoving match.

At first glance Lewis's "Narnia" seems the prime candidate. As in Pullman's trilogy, Lewis's protagonists cross the boundaries of adulthood as they cross the boundaries between worlds. The decisive element perhaps in all successful juvenile fantasy is this transitional period between childhood and adulthood, where the characters possess the qualities of both simultaneously.

This is difficult--if not impossible--to depict in real life (which is perhaps why I so dislike all the video renditions of Narnia I've ever seen. Though I think that Hayao Miyazaki could carry it off--note the relationship between Nausicaa and Asbel, and Lyra and Will.) But as a literary device it works wonderfully when done right. Harry Potter, for example.

And it's not a matter of portraying children as small grownups. Though Lyra and Will and Harry Potter (and Miyazaki's Nausicaa) are often called on to behave as no child could or would--no matter how brave or precocious--they are not behaving as adults could or would, either. They act, rather, even when yielding to their darker impulses, with a purity of intent that adults never achieve. They thus represent a state of transcendence: in the world, but not beholding to the distracting and prosaic and cynical concerns that become the inevitable burden of growing old.

So these are easy associations to make. Even easier to make when you consider that both Lewis and Pullman studied at Oxford and went on to teach literature (Pullman at Westminster College, Lewis at Oxford and Cambridge).

In terms of theological surmise, although both works similarly circumnavigate the continents that separate Genesis and the Ends of the Earth, the more appropriate mirror to hold up to Pullman's work is the lesser known "Space Trilogy." To begin with, both Pullman's "His Dark Materials" and Lewis's "Space Trilogy" are informed by an intimate knowledge of the academic environment. Out of the Silent Planet sets forth from Cambridge; The Golden Compass originates at Oxford, and both are ultimately concerned with the triumph of good over evil.

But these are also correlations that can distract more than they inform, and hide the more important similarities hidden deep within the stories the two authors tell.

A Return to the Schoolyard

Their styles, to begin with, differ considerably. Pullman sweeps his landscape with a spyglass, pulling his characters into focus with the long lense; Lewis writes with a microscope, focused on the small, sharp, human foibles that make his human (and no so human) actors human. His comminatory narrative shines above all else, proving the old writer's adage wrong: you can show by telling. (1)

It is, to be sure, a strange talent. Heroes and villains of Shakespearean magnitude only peripherally step onto his stage: Aslan is the Lion, and the White Witch is, well, a wicked one. But if Lewis doesn't have much to say about the melodramatics of evil, he has plenty to say about ordinary meanness (both the unpleasant and the small). (2) Enough to constitute two notable volumes: The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters. He has Screwtape, in fact, complain of the task that he, the author, has been reduced to: sinners "so muddled in mind, so passively responsive to environment," as to render them "hardly worth damning."

And not so pleasant to have around, either. Many of his child actors seem refugees from some hellish school playground, gripped by a kind of nascent nastiness that occasionally infects the narrator; though, as in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis's slings and arrows more often than not puncture his protagonists.

In That Hideous Strength, Lewis diverts the point-of-view of the first two books away from the now Jeremianic Ransom and focuses instead on Mark and Jane Studdock. Two very ordinary people--indistinguishable even today from any middle-class professional couple--with very ordinary problems, contemplating ending a marriage that has ceased to inspire either of them. "He was an excellent sleeper," Jane Studdock observes of her husband. "Only one thing ever seem able to keep him awake after he had gone to bed, and even that did not keep him awake for long."

And poor Mark Studdock, whose soul is up for sale in That Hideous Strength, hardly comprehends the Faustian bargain he is negotiating.

Like the rest of us, he's after a good job, better pay, an enhanced reputation. His weakness is a quiet insecurity, a wanting to be liked: "If he were ever cruel it would be downwards, to inferiors and outsiders who solicited his regard, not upwards to those who rejected him. There was a good deal of the spaniel in him."

Yet nobody shouts or weeps or carries on, no lawyers are retained, no divorce papers filed. The apocalypse waits upon the fate of a mundane marriage that shows every sign of dying with a whimper. Yet the import of this lost cause is never lost. Lewis's eschatology can be as subtle as his sense of the fine divide--that moment of zero slope along the curve--between what makes right and wrong:

There may have been a time in the world's history when such moments fully revealed their gravity, with witches prophesying on a blasted heath or visible Rubicons to be crossed. But . . . it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad thing before they are yet, individually, very bad men.

Lewis's attention to such subtleties of human frailty, his acuity of observation, makes for a rhetorical weapon with a dangerous edge. Lewis is too easily able to reduce his enemies with ad hominem appraisals that possess the veneer of rational discourse. And in combination with his sometimes reactionary Victorianism, it turns into a kind of blunderbuss, and you hear the sound of the white Englishman's burden falling to the floor with a hollow clunk. Equating quality of character with the wearing of corsets, for example; and a remark about Eustace Scrubb's parents at the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader being "vegetarians, nonsmokers, and teetotalers" and wearing a "special kind of underclothes" that is so far out of left field I cannot pretend to understand what he meant by it. (3)

Subversive Christianity

And then there's Lewis's theology, outside the context of which nothing he wrote can be intelligently discussed. Lewis is carrying on in Narnia the job he began in Mere Christianity, laying on top of his stories a thick layer of apologetics, answering his academic critics (The Silver Chair being a case in point) with children's voices. And when it's your world and your rules, it's not hard to win all the arguments. It's not exactly fighting fair, and Lewis, making the most of his education, with a rich command of allegory at his fingertips, knows how not to show his hand all at once.

Lewis risks, nevertheless, what may be called the Socrates Syndrome. George Bernard Shaw describes it well in the introduction to Saint Joan: the intelligent, rhetorically-gifted individual, convinced of his own rightness, who never quite understands that his brilliant arguments, although transfixing to the choir, only piss off those who disagree with him. Having been weaned on Lewis, I have developed something of an immunity to his faults. He comes across to me now almost as one of his characters, a frumpy Edwardian, the eccentric relation who pops up every Thanksgiving grumbling about the slipshod state of the modern world. You put up with him because when you settle him down the old guy tells such good stories.

Nevertheless, extreme annoyance is exactly my reaction to Plato. His mentor's fate may have been unjust, but it doesn't surprise me one bit.

But C.S. Lewis is read primarily by children to whom these machinations are mostly transparent, or by adults who have already claimed discipleship. It is the surprising strength of Lewis's ecumenicism that demands study by any serious propagandist, as the whole Christian world wants to claim him as their own, even those sects whose theological differences are sufficient to bring them to evangelical knife points. (4) I suspect Lewis has achieved such a mythic status because what he stands for eclipses what he says. Few of his fans, I'm convinced, have read carefully what the man actually wrote (true of Holy Scripture in general).

Notwithstanding all this, the enormous popularity of the series proves yet again the power of raw story to overcome deficiencies in the prose (J.K. Rowling, being another prime example). Which is why I praise "The Chronicles of Narnia" as one of the most subversive works of young adult fiction ever written.  [next page]


1. Lewis's reportedly awful boarding school childhood would have provided him more ammunition, I think, than motivation. His academic training I consider a more likely contributor in this regard.

Namely, that pedagogical approach popular in institutions of higher learning that confuses the Socratic dialogue with actual instruction. As exemplified by John Houseman's portrayal of Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, the goal apparently is to goad students into learning by insulting them, the excuse being, I suppose, that all aspects of character are somehow related to the intellectual task at hand, and the professor's task is to beat the undesirable ones out of them with a verbal cane.

Granted, Houseman's Kingsfield is taken to be a caricature of the generic "great professor," a Mr. Chips in extremis. And this attitude is more likely revealed, in the real world, not between teacher and student, but between dueling scholars of elevated and equal status. Commentators on the political scene have long observed (as any loyal C-SPAN follower can attest) that the intensity of debate rises in inverse proportion to the political distance separating the two sides. The rancor between creationists and evolutionary biologists, for example, is only exceeded by the bar fights that break out among the more vocal proponents of the accepted (pro-evolution) schools of thought. Robert Wright's chapter-long evisceration of Stephen Jay Gould in Nonzero, for example.

There is something of a dark art thus fostered in the halls of learning: that ability to dismantle the opponent's position with high-minded logic over the academic table, while weakening his foundation with skewering jabs beneath it, showing all the time the white, kindly smile of objective reason. It demands a sharp mind and sharper wit, and its practitioners hone their blades in the Darwinist crucible of the peer review and high-brow popular press.

Contrary to the popular facade which paints science as an ascetic realm where cool heads and the scientific method prevails, "truth" is often brought to the fore by sheer will and persistence, or by simply waiting long enough for the old guard to die off: Alfred Wegener's theories of continental drift, not accepted until decades after his death; Michael Coe's fascinating account of a single "great" scholar holding back an entire field of study in Breaking the Maya Code.

Such predilections are only exacerbated in the social sciences and the humanities, where experimental data cannot be readily produced to test contrary assertions. And Christian conviction can only compound it. I don't mean the truly contrarian convictions--such as believing the world was created in a literal week--that place the believer completely outside the mainstream, but the scholar who imagines that his work is, in the eyes of the secular world, "tainted" by his faith. This leads the Christian of evangelical spirit to perceive himself as a besieged minority--true to some extent--and worse, one whose opinions are not taken seriously. That is the lowest blow of all.

And hardly unexpected, then, that he should strike back with the weapons his secular education so generously provided him. At my alma mater, Brigham Young University, you can see this dynamic in action at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), a think tank devoted to Biblical and Book of Mormon archeology and Mormon apologetics. Their peer-reviewed, scholastic work I find readable, worthy of honest debate, and often convincing.

In the arena of polemics (acknowledged as such in their publications), not only do they often choose obscure and deliberately provocative targets, but works by authors embarrassingly less educated than themselves. The FARMS fellows sport degrees from the country's most respected secular institutions, and have no trouble slicing and dicing their enemies to small pieces. It can make for mean satire--think Don Rickles with a Ph.D.--but I'm less than convinced that it serves any useful purpose.

They claim to be following the admonition to be "wise as serpents," but having grown the fangs, they seem to awfully enjoy piercing the flesh. [return]

2. Which isn't to say that great insights are only to be had from the travails of the Lears, Hamlets, and MacBeths. Lewis's point is that we at one extreme pride ourselves on sinful natures that are prosaic at best, and at the other claim a holiness we do not deserve. [return]

3. Here, Lewis is just being snide, and the aspersions fall flat:

He didn't call his father and mother "Father" and "Mother," but Harold and Alberta. They were up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, nonsmokers, and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on the beds and the windows were always open.

It'd be clever to think Lewis was referring to Mormons, except that I doubt that he ever met a Mormon in his life. And Mormons certainly aren't vegetarians, they stuff their houses with as much junk as the next person, and no Mormon child I know refers to his parents by their first names. He only gets three out of six. [return]

4. I have even heard Lewis referred to as "the Mormon theologian, C.S. Lewis." [return]

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.