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Lewis and Pullman on the same list?

03 October 2014

C. S. Lewis and Philip Pullman are seen as chalk and cheese, but William Whyte says they common ground

ON THE face of it, it seems rather odd to find both C. S. Lewis and Philip Pullman in the same Church Times list of the top ten children's books. One is the perennial favourite of Evangelical Christians; the other a sort of celebrity atheist.

Lewis's books have been attacked for their racism and sexism. Pullman's, by contrast, were described in the Catholic Herald, no less, as the stuff of nightmares, worthy only of the bonfire. I guess they just don't like gay angels.

A little more than a decade ago, Pullman contrasted his trilogy - His Dark Materials - with Lewis's seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia. He was not flattering.

Lewis, he argued, was not simply a purveyor of the typical prejudices of his age and his class, sneering at Orientals and patronising women, he was also "detestable" and "life-hating", rejecting the material world, the pleasures of the flesh -especially sex - in favour of a frankly unhealthy, and repressive Puritanism.

Although I am a fan of both, even l have to admit that some of their critics have a point. Lewis's attitudes on many things - not least ethnicity - really do not bear much examination; and his approach to human relationships is often frankly creepy.

None the less, Pullman, too, has his blind spots. He is at his least convincing when he attacks religion. The death of God, towards the end of his final book, is desperately forced. Moreover, his treatment of childhood seems no less sentimental than Lewis's - not least the suggestion that the end of childhood marks the end of the fantastical.

THERE are, though, two other reasons for thinking that both authors have more in common than might initially seem the case.

The first is that each is, fundamentally, a Christian author. It is a description that evidently fits Lewis. Even as a child, I was suspicious about the way in which he was obviously feeding us doctrine disguised as entertainment. But, as Bernice Martin (in Redefining Britain, 2008) has brilliantly demonstrated, for all Pullman's posturing, he cannot escape his religious heritage. His is a story of loving your neighbour as yourself, and of condemning pharisaical religion. "At the very centre of His Dark Materials lies the supreme affirmation: love is stronger than death," Martin concludes. "Affirmations don't come more distinctively Christian than that."

Second - and this is surely the real explanation for their achievement - both authors seem to me have become possessed by their fantasy, and to have lost control of their stories as a result.

Just as Milton, Pullman's apparent inspiration, could not help but give the devil all the best lines, so both these authors found themselves overtaken by their imaginations. Hence the atheistical Pullman ends up writing a Christian morality tale, and hence, too, the ways in which Lewis's spiritual apologetic leaves open a space for doubt.

In short, for all of their problems, these are cracking good stories -and they are good because even their authors could not constrain them. They open up new worlds. What more could children need?


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