One of the unfairest demands adults make of children’s literature is that it conform to their particular religious or political notions of worthiness, and the new film projects of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia novels and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy — not to mention that boxed sets of both books will be hard to avoid this holiday shopping season — has fueled the long-simmering feud between fans of each fantasy series.
For those unfamiliar with the stories, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia is a magical country in a parallel universe created and ruled by a Christ-like lion deity named Aslan. Various English schoolchildren find themselves transported to Narnia by magical means; the wardrobe of the first book, for instance, leads to an snowy enchanted forest, which an evil White Witch has made “always winter and never Christmas.” (Disney and Walden Media have recently released a special extended DVD version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for just a few weeks.)
The Narnia series is generally called Christian allegory, but that’s simplistic as well as somewhat misleading. Lewis, whose theological writing for adults made him one the 20th-century’s great Christian apologists, coined the word “supposal” to describe his fantasy world — suppose the Son of God appeared as the King of Beasts in a land of talking animals? And suppose that humans, with all their sins, entered this world? What then?
To call the stories allegory also gives no hint of why readers return to them many times, as I have over the years, even past childhood, long after the page-turning adventures hold no more surprises. Lewis was a master stylist, and his children’s series are marked by the same dryly witty prose, comic characters and shrewd insight into the human condition that distinguish The Screwtape Letters and his other books for adults. Yet Narnia has its enemies, and since the first film’s premiere, they have been out in force.
Chief among them is the British fantasy writer Philip Pullman, whose popular and page-turning His Dark Materials trilogy was conceived as an atheistic answer to Lewis’s vision. Pullman, as the Washington Post reminded readers last year, sees Lewis’s magical world as “a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice.” (This strikes me as jaw-droppingly wrong, but more about that in a minute.) Riveting as Pullman’s trilogy is — the film adaptation of the first book, The Golden Compass, should reach theaters next year — it is philosophically incoherent, especially compared to the tightly argued Narnia series.
Pullman’s child heroine Lyra, for instance, endangers everyone around her by her insisting on an expedition to a miserable, shadowy underworld just “to say sorry” to a dead friend. Compellingly eerie (in a Twilight Zone-like way) as these passages are, the also seem rather ridiculous. The fight between good and evil in the Dark Materials books is basically between followers of Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, a selfish egomaniac who’s only slightly less odious than Lyra’s mother, the wicked Mrs. Coulter.
It’s funny to think of Pullman calling Lewis racist, considering the “darkie”-like “Gyptians” in the Dark Materials books. It’s beyond funny to think of him accusing Lewis of “reactionary prejudice,” since Pullman, not Lewis, seems tied to a stuffy and outdated elitism. Human characters in the Dark Materials trilogy all have “daemons,” totem-like animals that express their inner souls. But their inner souls seem bound by the inelastic old English class system — Pullman notes in passing that servants’ daemons are always dogs.
Like Narnia, Pullman’s imagined universe involves a lot of comings and goings between parallel worlds — but in this cosmos God is not so much absent as a weak and exhausted Chronos-like character, suggesting a religious vision that is essentially pagan (or anti-theist) instead of atheistic. This seems not so much defiant as simply unevolved and simplistic. Perhaps Pullman’s quarrel, as he’s said in interviews, is really with monotheism. But in any case it’s not very convincing.
The big reveal in the Pullman series is a former nun’s loss of faith: A character named Mary Malone tells Lyra and her friend Will that flirting with a man in a café reminded her how much she enjoyed kissing a boy when she was 12 (about Lyra and Will’s age, as it happens). This makes Mary understand that the Christian religion is nothing more than “a very powerful and convincing mistake.” Maybe so, but while realizing you like boys seems a very powerful and convincing reason to no longer be a nun, readers may wonder what it has to do with believing in God or not.
Pullman’s a rip-roaring storyteller in the grand tradition of British fantasy-adventure writers Jules Verne and H. G. Wells and H. Rider Haggard, but his characters seem mostly wheeled out of a dusty prop closet; his “Texan” balloon pilot Lee Scoresby, for instance, is no more like a real Texan than Tiger Lily in Peter Pan is like a real Indian. Lewis’s fantasy characters, on the other hand, always have some dryly comical human trait that remind even the youngest readers of real people. Lewis is constantly accused of sexism, but consider his description of a couple of girls in The Horse and His Boy, the fifth novel in the Narnia series: Aravis, a girl escaping a forced marriage in an autocratic land south of Narnia called Calormen, runs into an old aquaintance who seems to be something of a Maureen Dowd in miniature: “The fuss she made over choosing the dresses nearly drove Aravis mad,” Lewis writes. “She remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip. Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming. You will guess that each thought the other silly.”
Lewis’s vision of the world is essentially humane, with his keen eye for all the subtle forms of human vanity — whether expressed by a talking horse or a charlatan magaician. “I don’t quite hold with chariots or the kind of horses who draw chariots,” says the pompous Bree, the horse in The Horse and His Boy. And The Magician’s Nephew ends with Uncle Andrew, the selfish magician of the title, safely back in London after being terrorized by the evil White Witch of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in her previous incarnation.
For the rest of his life, Lewis writes, Uncle Andrew tells the story to anyone who would listen, but his version is a sort of celebrity encounter with himself as the hero: “‘A devilish temper she had,’ he would say, ‘But she was a dem fine woman, sir, a dem fine woman.’”
I’ve read the Narnia series repeatedly over the years because of passages like that. But leaving religion entirely out of it, I can’t imagine reading the Pullman books again. This doesn’t mean I wasn’t glued to them when I discovered the series a few years ago, but while Pullman’s imagined worlds are powerfully eerie, his characters are flat, humorless and generally annoying. Maybe in a generation or two Pullman will prove to be as enduring as Lewis, but I doubt it. Until then, though, I envy the child who hasn’t read either series yet, and receives a boxed set of both for the holidays.
– Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.