Pullman vs. C. S. Lewis on the Issue of Sin

Pauline Baynes, "The Magician's Nephew"

Pauline Baynes, “The Magician’s Nephew”

Spiritual Sunday

Two weeks ago I looked at the anti-church views of Philip Pullman in The Golden Compass, which I was teaching in my British Fantasy class. Today I look at Pullman’s well-known dislike of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. Some of that dislike, I’m convinced, stems from Lewis’s handling of children and sin.

When I first started thinking about Pullman’s attacks against Lewis, I wondered whether it was a case of influence anxiety as described by Harold Bloom. Perhaps Pullman was angry with Lewis for writing his fantasy first. After all, their books have many similarities.

For instance, both involve plucky British girls who venture through a portal to have wondrous adventures with talking animals and who battle evil and powerful women. Both draw heavily on the Bible for their imagery.

Take their inclusion of the Book of Genesis, for instance. In The Golden Compass, Lyra’s father reads her a slightly modified version of the temptation in the Garden of Eden. The Magician’s Nephew, meanwhile, draws heavily on the creation story, with Digory introducing sin—in the form of the enchantress Jadis, a.k.a. the White Witch—into the new world. There’s also a temptation scene involving an apple although Digory, unlike Adam, resists taking a bite.

Pullman doesn’t merely dislike Lewis. He loathes him. He mentions various reasons for this, such as how Lewis has the children die in The Last Battle and how he bars Susan from Narnia heaven for growing into womanhood and putting away her childhood fantasies.

I too felt uncomfortable about these developments. I sense that Pullman’s intense dislike has a deeper cause, however. Here’s my theory.

A number of Lewis’s protagonists commit a sin for which a price must be paid. Edward consorts with the White Witch, requiring Aslan’s Christ-like sacrifice. Jill in The Silver Chair has a moment of pride that leads her to accidentally push Eustace off a cliff (Aslan saves him). Digory releases Queen Jadis and then introduces her into Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. Eustace is a symbolic dragon and then a literal one in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Pullman’s Lyra, by contrast, is not a sinner. She’s just a rambunctious child who needs to grow up. She doesn’t wrestle with her dark side but with how to let go of childhood and begin believing in herself. That seems fairly unobjectionable. But Pullman takes his story in a deliberately anti-religious direction. He essentially says that, rather than wrestling with sin, as Lewis’s children do, Lyra needs to embrace it.

Unfortunately, Pullman has a fairly narrow definition of sin. For him, sin is experience and knowledge. As Pullman sees it, the Church attaches the “sin” label to anything that involves people thinking for themselves. It therefore tries to lobotomize adults, turning them into unthinking believers, and it tries to keep children from growing out of innocence and into adulthood.

But sin is much more. At the very least, it is the way we turn against what is best in ourselves, opting instead for shallow, egotistical gratification. Children can’t be blamed for such turning as much as adults can, of course. They are still learning. But they still have interior battles.

We can see why Pullman might have shied away from the discourse of sin by looking at his religious experiences growing up.  As he notes in an interview, he was raised by his grandfather, an “old-fashioned” Anglican rector. While Pullman doesn’t saying anything bad about him, I find it interesting that he rebelled and became a narrow-minded atheist. By narrow-minded I mean that he came to define Christianity by his rebellion, making such jejune comments as the following:

But when you look at organized religion of whatever sort – whether it’s Christianity in all its variants, or whether it’s Islam or some forms of extreme Hinduism – wherever you see organized religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It’s almost a universal law. 

Yes, organized religion has a lot to answer for—but reducing all religion to the worst acts committed in its name fails to do justice to the full complexity of the institution. It fails to acknowledge, for instance, the power of congregating or the powerful framework religion gives to people for processing life’s deepest questions.

I don’t know for sure but here’s what I think happened. I think Pullman’s grandfather passed along to him his Victorian guilt, prompting Pullman, when he grew up, to angrily reject religion altogether. His loathing for the Narnia Chronicles lies in the fact that he sees his own struggles with guilt in Lewis’s children. He therefore determined to write a different kind of fiction.

For instance, I can imagine him finding the following scene very painful. It is where Digory tries to evade responsibility for Jadis but finally confesses his guilt:

“How came she to be in your world, Son of Adam?”
“By – by Magic.”
The Lion said nothing and Digory knew that he had not told enough.
“It was my Uncle, Aslan,” he said. “He sent us out of our own world by magic rings, at least I had to go because he sent Polly first, and then we met the Witch in a place called Charn and she just held on to us when -”
“You met the Witch?” said Asian in a low voice which had the threat of a growl in it.
“She woke up,” said Digory wretchedly. And then, turning very white, “I mean, I woke her. Because I wanted to know what would happen if I struck a bell. Polly didn’t want to. It wasn’t her fault. I – I fought her. I know I shouldn’t have. I think I was a bit enchanted by the writing under the bell.”
“Do you?” asked Asian; stil speaking very low and deep.
“No,” said Digory. “I see now I wasn’t. I was only pretending.”

I sense that Pullman might have had comparable conversations with his grandfather. There are reasons that “preachers’ kids” sometimes leave the church. But seek to pull away though he might, Pullman’s own fiction is defined by Narnia.

As one who had a Victorian grandmother and whose father went through a similar rebellion, I sympathize with Pullman. I too was deeply disturbed as a child by the presence of sin in The Narnia Chronicles. I had a different response, however. These sinning children gave me the sense that there were momentous issues at stake. It was as though Lewis was showing me respect in lieu of sugarcoating childhood.

I was also impressed by how the children work out their issues on their own. Aslan may show them the way, but they have to do what is required. Digory resists temptation, Edmund battles heroically against the White Witch, Eustace conquers his dragon nature, Lucy follows her vision against peer pressure (in Prince Caspian), and Jill rises to the demands of the quest. So although their stories bothered me, they also empowered me.

I’m holding Pullman to high standards because I enjoy the His Dark Materials trilogy a great deal. I’m not convinced that his vision goes deeper than Lewis’s, however.

Further thought: Here’s another indication that Pullman’s spiritual vision doesn’t go very deep. He parallels Lyra’s self-actualization quest with Satan’s rebellion against God in Paradise Lost. A passage about Satan’s epic journey across the abyss serves as the epigraph for The Golden Compass and provides Pullman with the title for his trilogy (His Dark Materials). The bridge that Satan builds to invade the Garden of Eden shows up in the conclusion of The Golden Compass. Lyra must pass over that bridge to grow up.

While college students often identify with Satan, as did Lord Byron, a mature reading of the Milton’s epic indicates that (1) Milton anticipated this identification and (2) he used it to expose how we are lured by shallow talkers. Pullman appears to have been taken in by Satan’s rebelliousness, perhaps because he felt it in himself. As I say, I’m sympathetic–I can imagine him having painful guilt trips as a child–but a healthier response is to turn one’s back on Satan’s narcissistic brand of heroism and appreciate the far more impressive fortitude exhibited by a repentant Adam and Eve.

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  • Susan Schmidt

    I like your exploration of the complexity of sin, Robin. I’m reminded of a book, which, alas, I can’t remember the title of, in which an anthropologist romanticizes the “natural savage” and then gets eaten by cannibals. One needs go no further than Lord of the Flies to see children’s struggle with “sin” producing serious consequences.

    Of course, socialization has a lot to do with how we act, in fact, I think that “original sin” has as much to do about our human patterns as anything else. When we let “natural fears” such as the fear of not being loved or included fester, they produce tragic results.

  • Robin

    As always, wise words, Sue.

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