Saturday, December 10, 2005

On Lewis and Pullman

On Lewis and Pullman


I'm supposed to go see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tonight. I'm sure I'll blog about it (hiding the spoilers, natch!) behind a cut.


I've read the Alison Lurie and Polly Toynbee write-ups about the film in The Grauniad, and now there's this, in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


But I'd like it if someone would explain to me why we are supposed to buy into the "either Christian allegory OR rousing fantasy tale for everyone" and "you can like Pullman or Lewis, but not both" dichotomies.


I loved Narnia as a child. I'm looking forward to the film. I would probably still love the books today, although in a different way, because I read more critically. There did come a time when I liked Lewis' space trilogy more. Hell, I really love Charles Williams' novels. That they are allegory neither bothers nor offends me. They are what they are.

Pullman is also allegory, to a certain extent. His Dark Materials (I'm not talking about the Sally Lockhart books, which I think are pretty great, too) is certainly didactic. I think he oversimplifies many things about religion, class, and magic to make his points in a way so unsubtle as to be borderline offensive. And I think they are great books and would give them to any child old enough to handle the scary bits. I have friends who are practising Christians who also like Pullman.

People. We can like both. Really. Just like we can enjoy both kinds of literature: science fiction and fantasy. Or both kinds of history: Ancient and Medieval. Or both kinds of music: country and western (the music of pain)...

*ducks to avoid her early modernist friends' rapid-fire projectiles*

Update: This essay by Meghan O'Rourke at Slate is a better take, I think. I'm bothered by one thing, though. She says:
Some liberals, like the popular children's author Philip Pullman, therefore dismiss him out of hand [...]

What exactly does she mean by 'liberal', I wonder? Is there any way that the adjective really fits?

13 comments:

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Hear, hear - I love them both, though for very different things and in very different ways. I suppose it helps that I'm a heathen, though. ;-)

Dr. Virago said...

Thanks for that link, ADM. That was a terrific defense of Lewis against some very puzzling accusations. (After just saying myself on my blog how I preferred Lewis to Tolkien as a child because Lewis gave me girl characters with whom to identify, I couldn't believe Pullman's charges of sexism and thought perhaps I had been a more naive childhood reader than I remembered and not the vocal "girls are just as good as boys" mini-feminist that I was!)

Anyway, I haven't read Pullman, so I can't say that *I* like both series, but certainly I like a lot of contradictory and opposing things, so it shouldn't have to be an either-or choice. But certainly religious texts (if one knows them to be such -- which isn't necessarily the case with the Narnia books, and wasn't for me when I read them), especially Christian ones, do provoke strong feelings of "either-or" in people. This is ironic with Lewis, though, considering the mish-mash of mythos he works with in Narnia! Do people get this worked up about the centaurs and fauns, etc?!

Clearly, in other words, Lewis himself was an "and" person and not an "either-or" person.

(Btw, LOL at "country and western" -- nice Blues Bros. ref!)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Dr. V -- I'm not so sure Lewis isn't sexist. It's one of the things I had trouble with in the Chronicle piece. I don't know that the fact that major characters are female is evidence that Lewis wasn't sexist. Whether that sexism was beyond the norm for someone of his age, class, and social circle is something different. I think it is fair to say that his female characters are still acting within acceptable parameters of female behavior, though. IIRC, it's only in The Last Battle that a woman (Jill Pole) fights outright. Otherwise, the women may be brave, but they are mosr often nurturers. Aravis in THAHB is an interesting character, but one could argue that she is atypical in that she is a "convert" a Calormene who learns to love Aslan; is her rejection of things Calormene a rejection of the heathen or a sign of some kind of feminism. I think there's an argument for the former that can't be ignored.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

plz excuse atrocious punctuation ...

wolfa said...

That article is interesting, but unconvincing, because it refuses anything bad about Narnia. The books are sexist, and they are racist. I agree that they are violent, but dislike their violence, and I certainly can't imagine how they are "loveless", but this article is so into showing how Pullman is wrong that it ends up being wrong, too. I also think he misread Pullman's work -- this article seems like the reverse of Pullman's claims about Lewis.

I liked but didn't love either series, for whatever it's worth. I might have loved Pullman's -- the first book was exceptional -- but it petered out. I wouldn't say I have a preference between them.

meg said...

I can offer one explanation of why they can't both taste great AND be less filling: Because Lewis and Pullman both insist that they aren't writing fantasy but "stark realism."

We don't have to believe them; they don't have to be right; but that's one possible answer to WHY.

Of course, I have three students writing on this subject, so I'm waaaaaay too into this at the moment.

Hawise said...

I must admit that as a child I loved Lewis and then grew into Tolkien. I accepted that the men were flawed in writing about women- I respect that their experiences made that inevitable. I knew that the times were changing -Ursula K. LeGuin was always there to prove to me that a good female writer would create good female characters as did Madeleine L'Engel and others. We are in a period where strong female writers like Tanya Huff and Mercedes Lackey show diversity as a natural strength and not a strange occurence. I haven't read Pullman- somehow he just seems too mainstream for me, a throwback fantasist.
I shouldn't make judgements like that and I will get around to him but there really are some fantastic writers out there and he seems so plebeian, much like J.K. Rowlings (I didn't realise that I was writing fantasy my foot.)

Lewis deserves to be on the screen. We have the technology and really, his tales are much more streamlined than Tolkien's and so more adaptable to a visual experience.

Jane Dark said...

What a disappointing article. Pullman comes off as sounding bitter and jealous about Lewis' series. I like both sets of books tremendously well, despite quibbles that I could raise with either. And I'm a very committed Anglican.

Apparently, Neil Gaiman has written a story called "The Problem of Susan" in the Mammoth Book of Best New Horror -- a friend says it's mindblowing. I'm going to stop by a bookstore and read it today.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Oooh, fun! Let me know how it is. There is a very nice bookstore in the north end of your town with an awesome bakery and food court, if you know it. They are very nice about people hanging out and reading, and there's also a public library and free wifi in the complex.

Phantom Scribbler said...

Hi ADM. Very late to this party... but I need to chime in. I haven't read the Narnia books since I was very young, but Pullman's criticisms seem to be protesting too much. Is Pullman really so much more enlightened than Lewis?

Take the accusation of sexism. Lyra is a notably strong female protagonist -- in the first book. But the active role is immediately transferred to Will once he's introduced. I was quite frustrated at how quickly Lyra was reduced to supporting heroine in the second and third books. That's superior enlightenment?

And Pullman may criticize Lewis for being "loveless," but is it better to allow characters to have sex and then punish them for it? (Most gruesomely in the Sally Lockhart series, with Frederick's death immediately following consummation, but also in His Dark Materials, when Lyra and Will are forced to separate for reasons that seemed gratuitous and tacked on.)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I don't think I said he was, PS -- I said I didn't think there was a dichotomy and one could like both. I never thought of the 'punishment for sex' angle, though -- mostly because I saw it as part of Pullman's "life is sucky, get over it" theme. I think there's an argument to be made for lots of strong female characters in the Pullman books, though -- not just Lyra, or even Lyra and Sally. The women are all clearly people. Of course, I don't think Lewis is all that sexist in context. As an historian, I can't really see most of Pullman's criticisms of Lewis as valid for the man and for his time and social circle. I can see a reason for concern about reading the Narnia books and not noticing they're sexist and racist, though.

Phantom Scribbler said...

I don't think I said that you said he was, ADM, but I'm sorry if it came across that way. Nor am I criticizing Lewis -- I don't think one needs to be a professional historian to understand that it's not valid to criticize an author for not conforming to attitudes current 50 years later. I'm just arguing that I don't think Pullman himself is as free from sexism as he would believe. The existence of strong female characters is important, of course, but so is the way he employs them in the narrative. Lyra's narrative arc in particular seems to me to undermine her strength, delivering a much more mixed message than Pullman perhaps intended.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Oh, I didn't think you were criticising Lewis, PS. But I do think that, taken as a whole, Pullman can claim to be non-sexist, if not actually feminist (which he is in an anachronistic way, I suppose. maybe). One of the things I like about Pullman's women is that they are multi-dimensional. I agree that it's disappointing that Lyra takes a secondary role in the later books, but there are other stong female characters. They may not all be nice ...

Although ... I should read the books again, because thinking of this, there is an aspect of self-sacrifice/martyrdom in the female characters that could be seen as somewhat sexist. But then, is martyrdom a gendered thing, or is it something we've engendered? Aslan is a very masculine martyr, but was Jesus? Isn't part of the maternal idea of Jesus linked to that willingness to give himself up?