[Paleopsych] Eugene Woodbury: Three visions of the distant, uncertain shore: Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, and Joseph Smith
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Three visions of the distant, uncertain shore: Philip Pullman, C.S. Lewis, and
http://www.eugenewoodbury.com/essay100.htm et seq.
[Click the URLs to get the footnotes, which require Java. Ugh. I just finished
His Dark Materials, which both of my daughters strongly urged upon me, and
which I recommend. I've scarely read any fantasy, not The Lord of the Rings or
Harry Potter. Maybe a novel by C.S. Lewis at long time ago. I've read maybe a
hundred science fiction books. I've yet to read any of the Mormon texts.]
His Dark Materials
The Golden Compass
The Subtle Knife
The Amber Spyglass
The Ruby in the Smoke
Shadow in the North
The Tiger in the Well
The Tin Princess
I was a Rat!
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
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,
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
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
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
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)
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
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]
Eugene Woodbury | Reading | Pullman Lewis Smith 2
Chronicles of Narnia
The Magician's Nephew
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Horse and His Boy
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Silver Chair
The Last Battle
Out of the Silent Planet
That Hideous Strength
The Screwtape Letters
The Great Divorce
The Weight of Glory
Till We Have Faces
The Abolition of Man
To the Contrary
Subversiveness, you see, is not necessarily a bad thing.
To good or bad ends, it depends on which side you agree with. (We
don't really mind the cheap shots when we wish we thought of them
first.) And I'm not sure that what you can't see can hurt you, else
the world would be full of many more Anglicans than it is. There is a
quality of cluelessness--call it innocence--that protects children
from ulterior motives, just as it protects them from the Specters of
Philip Pullman has also been branded with the label, not because he
is, but because people don't agree with him. And because people liked
to be shocked and offended, and thereby reassured that we'd all be
better off if everybody else saw the world exactly the way we see it.
Taking the label at face value, "His Dark Materials" is, yes, an
exercise in not seeing the world the way most Americans see it. (Not
that I believe that Pullman had Americans particularly in mind, but we
rise always to the occasion.) But there is a difference. You can't
exactly be subversive when you lay all your cards on the table.
And quite a lot of cards Pullman does put on the table, embracing
Really Big Ideas in not-so-acceptable ways. In this reworking of
Paradise Lost, he asks a compelling hypothetical. Given that Milton's
version gives the devil all the good lines, what if--because it's the
winner's version that's always the accepted version--what if those
rebellious angels were on the side of right all along? For our bad
guy, Pullman posits that Metatron ^(5) has pulled a coup d'etat on
God, thrown out the good guys, and decided that it's time to tighten
the screws--using the Church as his instrument--the human race having
gotten a bit too carried away with this free agency stuff.
Frankly, not an unreasonable surmise, considering the way organized
religions (and governments) have behaved throughout great swathes of
human history. Personally, I like the idea that if we were in fact
that unruly third of the host of heaven cast down to Earth, it would
go a long way in explaining why human beings can be so awful to each
other, and why power and agency are so coveted yet so abused.
In the larger view, though, Pullman has adopted a more Olympian than
Christian architecture. The Gods meddling with the humans. (Compare
Vergil.) But it's an unfortunate commentary about our jaded times that
heresy--by which I mean nontraditional ways of looking at the
relationship between God and man, not blasphemy, with which it is
often confused--doesn't get much of a rise out of anybody but the
Fundamentalist fringe, and then them for all the wrong reasons.
It's somewhat reassuring to see that J.K. Rowling has managed to
ruffle the feathers of a few Muggles. But very few.
Outrage is typically reserved for shocking! (always include the
exclamation point) discoveries of hints of teenage sexuality, implicit
(as in The Goats by Brock Cole), or explicit (as in The Wind Blows
Backward by Mary Downing Hahn). In any case, for the easily offended
sex is suggested--though never stated explicitly, you can read into it
what you will--in, of course, the Garden of Eden scenes, foreshadowed
throughout the series.
The real shocker, though, is Pullman's exegesis. This retelling of
man's fall "upwards" into grace positions Pullman as a modern Pelagius
to C.S. Lewis's Augustine. And here, finally, there emerges the
possibility of a philosophical nexus between these two authors, and
one more, that great, grossly underestimated, early 19^th century
transcendentalist neo-Pelagian, Joseph Smith. ^(6)
Saints and Heretics
Pelagius was a contemporary of Augustine, well educated and fluent in
Latin, most probably a native of Ireland. ^(7) He resided in Rome
during the late 4^th century and there developed a theology of
salvation and personal perfection that two decades later, at the
Council of Carthage in 418 would be declared heresy. Augustine's view
of the Fall of Adam, Original Sin, the necessity of child baptism and
the necessity of the Grace of Christ, would become the unquestioned
orthodoxy of the Catholic church.
In the spring of 1820, in western New York State, Pelagius found
himself a champion in the person of Joseph Smith. A Yankee (born in
Vermont), and a Methodist by upbringing, Smith saw visions of God as a
fourteen year old boy, was instructed by an angel to dig out of a
nearby hill the ancient record of the ancient Americas, which he
published as the Book of Mormon. He went on to define a theology both
outrageously unique and brazenly syncretic; it would be received by
the greater Christian community about as graciously then (and today)
as Pelagius's preachings were fourteen centuries before.
Joseph Smith's effort was not simply to reject Original Sin and child
baptism (his second Article of Faith reads, "We believe that men will
be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression";
from the Book of Mormon: "little children need no repentance, neither
baptism"), and knit together Protestant grace and the Catholic
sacraments. His boldest step was to portray the human race as gods in
embryo, not the offspring but the siblings of Christ.
The kernel at the core of this theology is found in Psalms 82:6, "I
have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High,"
which Christ later quotes in John 10:34, and which Joseph Smith chose
to take literally.
Compare Joseph Smith's writings with Balthamos's assertion (in The
Amber Spyglass) that Dust itself is matter made self-aware, that the
Angels "condensed out of Dust" and are co-eternal with God, and not
the original creations of God. "Man was also in the beginning with
God," reads the Doctrine & Covenants. "Intelligence, or the light of
truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be." The most
definite pronouncement of this doctrine was made in a funeral address
now known as the King Follett sermon, first published in the Times and
Seasons, August 15, 1844:
There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are
co-equal with our Father in heaven. . . . [I] proclaim from the
house-tops that God never had the power to create the spirit of man at
all. God himself could not create himself. Intelligence is eternal and
exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age,
and there is no creation about it.
Ask an informed Christian what disqualifies Mormonism from Christian
fellowship, and this is the doctrine he will site. More unfortunate is
that the leadership of the Mormon Church has taken the criticism to
heart, and has for decades been steadily covering up and backing away
from what Joseph Smith preached. ^(8) Ever since rejecting polygamy in
order to gain Utah statehood at the turn of the century, the church
has turned ever more sharply towards an aspect of Pelagianism that
Joseph Smith never fully embraced. Call it the revenge of the
His Good Materials
Pelagius was an ascetic, out of the Stoical tradition, and Joseph
Smith definitely was not. Although the modern church has tried hard to
turn him into one (it makes for a nice fit with the poor, illiterate,
farm boy, Horatio Alger image). Smith loved life, loved women enough
to reinvent polygamy at the same time he was inventing a brand-new
religion, was at home in the physical and often gave as good as he got
(which, in part, eventually got him killed).
"The great principle of happiness," he wrote, "consists in having a
body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment."
On this point all three authors converge. "Dust loves matter,"
observes Mary Malone. Lewis uses almost the same language: "God never
meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. . . . He likes matter. He
invented it." God, pouts Screwtape, is "a hedonist at heart." In That
Hideous Strength Lewis creates the opposite of Dust, the macrobe. Like
the microbe ubiquitous, but situated "above the animal level of animal
life." And while communication between humans and macrobes has been
"spasmodic, and . . . opposed by numerous prejudices," it has had a
"profound influence," which if known would rewrite all of history. But
the macrobes are the stuff of dark angels, inimical to human freedom,
with a Manichaean loathing for matter and emotion.
So much like the councils of Pullman's Church (in which Lewis's
Reverend Straik would certainly find welcome tenure), the ultimate
goal of the macrobes is to compromise the intellect and crush the
will. Keep the context in mind when Rita Skadi contends that "[this]
is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control,
destroy, obliterate every good feeling." Lewis wouldn't necessarily
I know some muddle-headed Christians have talked as if Christianity
thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure were bad in themselves. But
they [are] wrong. Christianity . . . thoroughly approves of the body
[and] believes that matter is good.
In the conclusion to his chapter on sexual morality in Mere
Christianity (that surely places him at odds with the
conservative--and surprisingly gnostic--Protestant view that presently
eclipses the American religious landscape), Lewis unapologetically
states that the "sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad
of all sins." He provides us with this vivid comparison: "A cold,
self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to
hell than a prostitute."
To which he adds, "Of course, it is better to be neither."
This distorted emphasis on "sins of the flesh" reflects that incessant
human need to judge and evaluate and categorize, which arises partly
out of necessity, mostly out of prejudice. The great sins, Lewis
argues, are spiritual in nature, or rather, metaphysical. And the
greatest of all, he insists, is pride. There is much irony in the
fact, Lewis admits: "Other vices may sometimes bring people together:
you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken
people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity."
The problem is, it's a lot easier to tell if a man smokes, or is a
drunk, or sleeps around, and the strictures of organized religion are
readily amenable to the human need to define tribal allegiances, to
say who's on our side, and who's not. Even when it comes to outright
war, religious wars are rarely about religion. It'd be almost
reassuring to believe that what really divides Catholics and
Protestants in Northern Ireland is the question of Papal infallibility
and salvation by grace vs. works. But at the core of most "religious"
conflict are battles over property and power and the right to rule.
Religion supplies each side with the flags, the uniforms, and a
convenient, existential grievance, if one happens to be lacking.
And the choicest piece of real estate in any religious conflict is
Regardless of the strength of sincere belief, heaven is still a
hypothetical. But that hasn't kept anyone from staking a claim. Sort
of like selling the naming rights to craters on the moon. It'd be hard
to come up with a better example of this pretension in action than the
"Rapture," according to which all the good, God-fearing folk
(Christian God-fearing folk, that is) will be "caught up into heaven"
right before the apocalypse counts down to zero. The rest of us sad
sacks will get "left behind." ^(9)
Compared with this, Pullman's vision of the afterlife, pursuing Dante
and Vergil, is almost refreshing. We all go into the dark, as Eliot
phrased it, and it sucks big time.
Lewis's hell in The Great Divorce is equally dark, though its
occupants there are tormented by the banalities of evil. Hell is both
small and infinite. Infinitely small. Heaven can't join hell simply
because it can't fit. Even Minos, as it turns out, would rather rule
the dead than judge them. It is a hard reality for those looking
forward to an afterlife in which they will lord their righteousness
over their neighbors. But like C.S. Lewis's dwarves, who make it into
heaven fine, but are blind to its gifts, the dead in Pullman's Hades
can't see the hell they carry inside them. The Harpies tell Lyra and
Will and the Gallivespians,
Thousands of years ago, when the first ghosts came down here, [God]
gave us the power to see the worst in every one, and we have fed on
the worst ever since, till our blood is rank with it and our very
hearts are sickened.
Lewis takes an opposite, but not opposing, tack. It is not even the
name of the god that matters, Aslan tells Prince Emeth, but how we
behave in the name of that god that instructs the better "angels of
Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's
sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and
it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then,
though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash
his deed is accepted.
Joseph Smith also preached judgement relative to all possible factors.
He considered it "preposterous" that anybody would be damned "because
they did not believe the gospel." God, he declared,
will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several
desserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which
they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct
information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human
In an echo of Vergil, Smith envisioned that these "several desserts"
would require a heaven with three rings, the innermost, or highest,
divided into three more. It is one of his oddest creations, and one
that Mormons (proving themselves equally succeptible to human nature)
have gravitated towards with particular enthusiasm. So much so that
it's given rise to the joke about St. Peter giving the newly deceased
a tour of Heaven. They pass by a heavily secured door, behind which a
great congregation seems to be in assembly. And what is behind that
impressive door? St. Peter is asked. "Ah," he says, taking the group
aside and speaking in the strictest of confidences, "That's where we
keep the Mormons. They think they're the only ones here."
In the end, Smith concludes, "we shall all of us eventually have to
confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right, [for] a man is
his own tormenter and his own condemner."
The Justifying Will
The essential statement of man's relationship to his own salvation is
found in the Book of Mormon: "by grace we are saved, after all we can
do" (2 Nephi 25:23). That comma is much debated: whether we are saved
only after exerting all, or saved despite our best efforts. Drawing on
the Stoical tradition, Pelagius would have aligned himself with the
former, believing that "the moral strength of man's will" was
sufficient to bring a man to salvation. Justification itself depends
on faith alone (anticipating Luther by a millennium), though it does
not automatically sanctify the soul.
Even for Lewis, our attending Augustinian, the physical must follow
upon the existential, and action upon reason. But must follow. It
should come as no surprise that the preeminent explainer of the
Christian religion should prove a master of the dialectic. This is
most apparent in That Hideous Strength, described by Lewis as a "fairy
tale for adults."
And a grim tale it is. Lewis is fighting with the gloves off, but at
least here he stays inside the ropes. Throughout the "Space Trilogy,"
thought and meaning, discovered in dialogue, resolve to action: Ransom
kills Weston only when other means of reason have been exhausted,
after lengthy discussion; Merlin is summoned only at the climax of the
conflict, with a full knowledge of what must be done.
Pullman's only similarly-informed counterpart, his man with a very big
plan, Lord Asriel, is kept mostly off-stage. And he never really
explains himself; he just is. At the opposite extreme, Asriel's lover
and Lyra's mother, the inscrutable Mrs. Coulter, propels herself from
moment to brutal moment, the grasp of meaning hovering always beyond
her fingertips, while Will and Lyra and Mary Malone leap continually
into the Kierkegaardian dark. As with the Studdocks, they "see through
a glass, darkly"; it is action that precipitates knowledge and leads
to belief, the product of which might be called trust or obedience.
Obedience to this faith is not blind; obedience for Lewis requires the
clearest of all vision: to see the self through the eyes of God, and
then to acknowledge the humility necessary to act upon that raw and
white-hot knowledge. When Mark Studdock discovers heaven, "all the
lout and clown and clod-hopper in him was revealed to his reluctant
inspection." Lyra likewise learns the difference--between doing what
she wants, and doing what she knows is right--when she disobeys the
advice of the Alethiometer:
I done something very bad [she tells Will]. Because the Alethiometer
told me I had to stop looking for Dust--at least I thought that's what
it said--and I had to help you. I had to help you find your father.
And I could, I could take you to wherever he is, if I had it. But I
wouldn't listen. I just done what I wanted to do, and I shouldn't . .
Lyra's obedience to the Alethiometer is the opposite of that
"obedience" rejected by Rita Skadi, when the good witch (not all
witches are good in Pullman's universe, but the ones we know are)
observes that "every increase in human freedom has been fought over
ferociously between those who want us know more and be wiser and
stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit."
That is that same viral strain of "obedience" preached to Mark
Studdock in the "Objective Room": a bowing down to men who on one hand
embrace iconoclasm as the right of those "more equal" than the rest,
and at the same time preach acquiescence as the mark of the pure and
Eugene Woodbury | Reading | Pullman Lewis Smith 3
The Book of Mormon
The Doctrine & Covenants
The Pearl of Great Price
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (ed. Joseph Fielding Smith)
The Eternal Siege
As with these elements of story, narrative, and character,
there are issues of substance between Lewis and Pullman that seem more
diametrical at first glance, but which, I believe, dissolve under the
light of closer examination. At the heart of it, Lewis is a
monarchist. Pullman is a republican, and so the monarchal Church is
the enemy. The witch Rite Skadi thus sums her centuries of
observation: "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate
every good feeling." Mary Malone later calls Christianity a
Considering my own measured antipathy toward the "organized" part of
organized religion, I can sympathize with the sentiment. The problem
is, religions sprout like crabgrass even in the most desolate of
landscapes. Any examination of human civilization, I believe, drives
towards one or both of two conclusions: there is either an
ecclesiastical god, or there is such an inclination in the human
animal bred deeply in the bone. ^(10) The Church is the way it is
because people are the way they are.
And therefore suffused with human weakness: the idea that the
contemporary church would even qualify as some sort of blueprint for a
Kingdom of Heaven is one Lewis rejects over and over again. "You are
to imagine us," Ransom lectures Mrs. Studdock, "living on a world
where the criminal classes of the [angels] have established their
headquarters." It is a theme that permeates all of Lewis's writing.
Facing the final showdown with evil, Ransom reminds Merlin, "We are
four men, some women, and a bear ^(11) . . . . The Faith itself is
torn to pieces . . . . The Hideous Strength holds all this Earth in
its fist to squeeze as it wishes."
A situation not so different from that faced by the desperate heroes
battling the Church in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Yet
battle they must, against desperate odds. Because Lewis, while a
monarchist, is a democrat, suspicious of the collective, holding out
great hope in the wisdom and resources of ordinary men. Lewis may not
be a deist, but his God is forced to play the role.
Consider angels. Like Pullman's, Lewis's good angels stand mostly
apart from human activity. Lewis's Gods are forbidden to "send down
the Powers to mend or mar in this Earth until the end of all things."
In the meantime, the Oyeresu communicate through Ransom, who seeks out
Merlin (as John Parry seeks out his son), while the dark forces at the
Institute gather about a disembodied head, their "new man" (Lyra, like
Jane Studdock, dreams of a severed head), a gateway to the gods.
It is the revolt against nature which both emboldens evil and destroys
it. The means become the ends. The subtle knife looses upon the world
the Specters, destroyers of souls. Yet it is the "one weapon in all
the universes that could defeat the tyrant," Will's father tells him.
Ransom crosses the dimensions of heaven by means of a "subtle engine,"
devised by his archenemy Weston to breach the wall of heaven and undo
Eden. ^(12) Weston dead, the Institute on brink of destruction, Ransom
If of their own evil will they had not broken the frontier and let in
the celestial Powers, this would be their moment of victory. Their own
strength has betrayed them. They have gone to the gods who would not
have come to them, and pulled down Deep Heaven on their heads.
The same fate awaits Metatron (and Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter) in
the climactic battle in The Amber Spyglass, "Deep Heaven" literally
pulled down upon their shoulders, tumbling them into the same Abyss
that swallows up Bracton and the Reverend Straik, who dreamed of the
Kingdom of God established by "the powers of science" as its
"irresistible instrument." Like Father Gomez and the Constitorial
Court, men building kingdoms on Earth and rendering unto God that
which is Caesar's, The National Institute of Coordinated Experiments,
Lewis informs us, "was the first-fruits of that constructive fusion
between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful
people base their hopes of a better world." But its heart belonged to
The Last Republic
There is no institutional solution to righteousness. Human beings
build cities on a hill, but they can never found a kingdom of heaven
on Earth without first building a Gulag Archipelago. So when Will's
father tells him, "It's time we started again, but properly this
time," he is not proposing yet another utopian dream soon to degrade
into self-righteous totalitarianism. As Will remembers later,
[My father] said we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are.
. . . I thought he just meant Lord Asriel and his new world, but he
meant us, he meant you and me. . . . No one could [build Heaven] if
they put themselves first. We have to be all those difficult things
like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we've got to study
and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds. . . .
"We shouldn't live as if it mattered more than this life in this
world," says Lyra, "because where we are is always the most important
Instructive in this regard is a comparison of Edens. In each lines can
be drawn between Weston and Mary Malone, and between Ransom and Father
Gomez, between those who fear truth and knowledge, and those who trust
it implicitly. One hears echoes of Lewis's Malacandra and Perelandra
in the land of Pullman's Mulefa, in Will and Lyra's return there from
Hades and Armageddon (compare the final chapter of The Last Battle).
But a return to the Garden is not a return to paradise; it is a
graduation from innocence into knowledge. In his acknowledgments,
Pullman credits an essay by Heinrich von Kleist titled "The Marionette
Theater." ^(14) The themes of this essay--drawing out the essential
contrast between experience and innocence, and pointing to the
deliberate labor that any return to Eden must require--play out with
Lyra and her mastery of the Alethiometer, in an extension on the
mustard seed allegory, delivered by the most unlikely of characters,
and in a wonderful concluding discourse upon grace and works. As the
angel Xaphania instructs Lyra,
You read [the Alethiometer] by grace, and you can regain it by work.
But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought
and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace
attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely,
and furthermore, once you've gained it, it will never leave you.
This is the whole point of Eden. The problem with archetypes (and with
such laden words as "grace") is that it's easy to remember the
mythology and forget the original point. In the Biblical story God's
greatest act is to permit Eve to be tempted, to allow the knowledge to
flow to hearts and minds capable of accepting it. Again, Joseph Smith
got this one right, portraying the "Fall" as a necessary step upwards
in the evolution of the human race:
And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have
fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. . . .
wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no
joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But
behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all
things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have
joy. (2 Nephi 2:22-25) ^(15)
A Tale Newly Told
"This is good doctrine," Joseph Smith boasted. "It tastes good." In
other words, this is the way the story should be told. "We all need
stories," Pullman points out, "but children are more frank about it."
Indeed, the admonition to "become as little children" is, if anything,
an admonition to treat the structure of story seriously, to recognize
that even if you don't believe in Santa Clause, you should still
believe in the story. Because some subjects are "too large for adult
fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book."
Or perhaps, as Lewis prefaced That Hideous Strength, in a fairy tale.
All religious--all political, nationalistic, ideological--belief
resolves to story, because the essence of faith and feeling cannot be
reduced to objective fact, and story is the only way experience can be
effectively transmitted from one mind to another. Mormonism (as an
example) is known today for its staid, business-suited veneer, for its
proscriptive moral code. A far cry from the infinite expanse of
imagination that Joseph Smith suffused into a green and vibrant
theology. Smith began his ministry at the age of fourteen, and began a
religion with the epic story of two teenagers (Nephi and Mormon).
These are the stories that persevere, that still reach out from
beneath the layers of propriety, earnestness, and bureaucracy. Said
Philip Pullman at the conclusion of his Carnegie Medal acceptance
speech, "We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and
don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon
forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever."
The telling moment, for me, occurs in the third chapter of The Subtle
Knife. Will finds himself in a situation where he must hide his
identity. The alias he provides is "Ransom," as indicated above the
eponymic name of C.S. Lewis's hero of the "Space Trilogy." What the
two authors have created, then, are not parallel universes, but rather
alternate worlds. The view from the one to the other is polarized; the
symmetries align; light becomes brighter and contrasts turn dark.
Because, regardless of what universe you are in, truth persists, in an
eternal center, even when approached from opposite directions.
Even in the midst of darkness the awful, punishing Harpies recognize
truth. To the Gallivespian Tialys they explain why they did not attack
Lyra when they had wounded her earlier, under similar circumstances,
Because she spoke the truth. Because it was nourishing. Because it was
feeding us. Because we couldn't help it. Because it was true. Because
we had no idea that there was anything but wickedness. Because it
brought us news of the world and the sun and the wind and the rain.
Because it was true.
What the Harpies read as truth is the story of a life honestly told.
Not lives good or bad, but recounted for what they were; the goodness
is in the honesty of the telling. (Also the moral of The Great
Divorce.) The stories these authors tell, in turn, are true to their
characters, and true to themselves. There is ultimately no point in
searching for two sides of an argument buried somewhere in the
rhetoric. There are three sides here, and many more beyond. And each
author layers a face of the pyramid, and braces the glittering crystal
against the gathering dark.
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