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Pullman’s Satan


Apparently not satisfied by Adam Gopnik’s attack on C.S. Lewis several weeks ago, The New Yorker carries a new one in its current issue, disguised as a profile of Philip Pullman, the children’s writer who famously despises Narnia. Pullman is certainly deserving of big-profile treatment: he is a serious and popular author. But the timing of its appearance for right now has everything to do with the new Narnia movie. And in the piece, Pullman tees off on Lewis once more.

Pullman also makes a point about Milton’s Paradise Lost that I think is fundamentally wrong. He subscribes to Blake’s view that Milton is “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” and then says “All of the imaginative sympathy of the poem [Paradise Lost] is with Satan rather than with God.”

Now, Pullman is no slouch when it comes to Milton–his best-known work, the trilogy called His Dark Materials, takes its name from the poem. And Milton’s Satan is of course an immensely seductive character, especially compared to Milton’s God. But that’s the point: Readers are supposed to feel pulled toward Satan, in an experience that winds up reminding them about their own proclivity for sin. Milton isn’t of the Devil’s party at all, but he uses the Devil in a fiendishly clever way. (I should point out that this observation about Milton’s Satan is not my own: I once read it somewhere or heard an old English prof of mine make it; ever since, I’ve found it utterly convincing.)