Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Philip Pullman Revisited

From the very first chapter of The Golden Compass I had admired Pullman as a writer. After the very last page of The Amber Spyglass, I cackled and hurled the book across my bedroom. To me, it ruined the series. I saw the whole thing as a cheap vehicle for his bitter atheist indoctrination. (It always bothered me that he could put sentences and paragraphs and chapters together so well, but botch the end product. Somehow the whole doesn't equal its parts.)

And so I, just like everyone else, inevitably began to consider his work in relation to C.S. Lewis and his children's series. I like the Chronicles of Narnia, which was also, in a large sense, a vehicle for his religious convictions. But why did I love Narnia and look down on His Dark Materials? I honestly don't think it was simply because I sided with Lewis. I feel that I'm advanced enough in my studies to where I can entertain and enjoy a viewpoint I disagree with. But I had serious problems pin-pointing what made me love one and hate the other.

The plot of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not as good as The Golden Compass. It has a simple set up and development, it's not as inventive or imaginative as Pullman's world, the characters aren't as engaging, and it ends with a literal deus ex machina. Despite some real gems along the way, in terms of composition and theory it's not that much to get excited about. But its overarching themes of betrayal and forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption, victory and loss are so much greater than Pullman's. Lewis pulls all of what is best from Christianity--recovering what was lost, mending what was thought forever broken, and redeeming and transforming humanity into something greater than it ever was--and sets up a play with talking animals with that as its main theme. Pullman takes his thesis of "I abhor all of that as an institution," and projects it onto a dark, yet compelling world (or, to be more precise, universe) of fantasy and wonder.

Despite its undeniable suspense and charm, with His Dark Materials, I felt a heavy dose of what Faulkner warned about. He said, speaking of the modern author, "[he must leave] no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."

At the end of the third book, I felt that it was a victory without hope. When Lyra's parents sacrificed themselves I felt no sense of loss, because they were such awful people and their death seemed wholly meaningless. No one had gained anything. No one became better.

And probably my biggest complaint with the series is that he builds up an entity at the very end of a book, which before was insignificant (Lyra's friend, whose name I can't recall; the Texan; and Lyra and Will's romantic relationship) and then kills it for emotional effect. It's what my freshman writing teacher calls a "dead dog" trick. (And don't even get me started on all the ways that Lyra and Will could have stayed together. That had more holes in it than their sliced up universe.)

But still, after all that, it reads much better than Lewis.

So who wrote the better series, Lewis or Pullman?

All of the above reflections were prompted by a visit to a Barnes & Nobles in Metairie. I decided to give a great book with a bad name a chance: The Ruby in the Smoke: A Sally Lockhart Mystery by Philip Pullman. I give it my full and most heartfelt endorsement. None of what I complained about in the previous paragraphs is present in this book. It shows the breadth and depth of human motivations and spirit. It's full of unforgettable characters and a twist that is so much more than a plot device. It really is a perfectly crafted novel full of everything that makes reading good. Read it!

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