"the most subversive message in children's literature in years"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Nov 7 07:26:45 MST 2000

NY Times, November 7, 2000

Philip Pullman: The Man Who Dared Make Religion the Villain


LONDON, Nov. 6 — Six months ago, the British author Philip Pullman got a
letter from a reader, along with a picture of a winsome little squirrel. "I
want you to admire this squirrel," the letter said. "Now that you've
admired the squirrel, please think about your book which the world has
spent so long waiting for. Now, put those two things together. Finish your
book, or the squirrel will die."

Perhaps Mr. Pullman's reputation has not yet swelled to J. K. Rowling-esque
proportions, but there is no question that he has a growing following of
impassioned admirers who take a personal interest in his publishing
schedule. And with the long-awaited publication of "The Amber Spyglass"
(Knopf), the last book of a trilogy that began with "The Golden Compass" in
1995, Mr. Pullman has done more than appease his eager readers (and spare
the squirrel, presumably). He has produced a thrillingly ambitious tale
inspired by Milton's "Paradise Lost" with a radical view of religion that
may well hold the most subversive message in children's literature in years.

Interviewed recently in London, Mr. Pullman said that his story, which
tells of a boy and a girl from different worlds who grapple with profound
philosophical questions of existence while having amazing adventures, was
the most important thing to him, even more important than the books'
underlying meaning.

"The story has been coming to me for a long time, the idea of a very big
story that would be free from the constraints of superficial realism," he
said. "But when you tell a story, there's got to be a worldview that's
consistent throughout, and this is mine. I dare say there might be a
certain amount of controversy, which places me in a slightly difficult
position because I have not written a sermon or a treatise or a book of
philosophy — I have written a novel."

The trilogy contains many of the familiar elements of fantasy and adventure
novels aimed at the class of readers loosely classified as young adults:
child heroes who undergo life-threatening and character-building trials; an
epic struggle between good and evil, between love and hatred, between free
will and submission; a cliffhanging, imaginative narrative that in this
case glides among various worlds, from a strange city populated by
adult-eating specters to a world of the dead full of pitiful souls who long
more than anything to taste the air again and then escape into nothingness.

It is full of singular characters, too. There are huge polar bears, proud,
fierce and fair, who wear expertly hewn armor that they happen to have made
themselves. There are angels of immense spiritual purity whose fatal flaw —
and most aching regret — is their lack of corporeal existence. There are
tiny creatures called Gallivespians, who are very easy to offend, make
excellent spies and carry lethal poison in their spurs. There are good
witches, forlorn ghosts and terrifying harpies whose fate brings an element
of unexpected joy. And there are humans from a world very much like — but
not quite the same as — our own, whose souls manifest themselves as animal
daemons who stay with them always.

But the books, which have been read by adults as avidly as by teenagers and
younger readers, defiantly confound the expectations of their genre. For
one thing, the lines between good and evil are muddy and shifting, so that
the most wicked characters are capable of startling acts of heroism and
sacrifice. More important, and shockingly, Mr. Pullman, a 53-year-old
former schoolteacher, has created a world in which organized religion — or,
at least, what organized religion has become — is the enemy and its agents
are the misguided villains.

In this way, Mr. Pullman's book offers an explicit alternative to C. S.
Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia," with their pervasive Christian message. In
the Narnia books, nestled inside the delightful stories of talking animals,
heroic challenges and whimsical scenes, the meaning is clear: the heroes
find true happiness only after death, when their spiritual superiority buys
them passage to heaven.

It is a conclusion with which Mr. Pullman thoroughly disagrees. "When you
look at what C. S. Lewis is saying, his message is so anti-life, so cruel,
so unjust," he said. "The view that the Narnia books have for the material
world is one of almost undisguised contempt. At one point, the old
professor says, `It's all in Plato' — meaning that the physical world we
see around us is the crude, shabby, imperfect, second-rate copy of
something much better."

Instead, Mr. Pullman argues for a "republic of heaven" where people live as
fully and richly as they can because there is no life beyond. "I wanted to
emphasize the simple physical truth of things, the absolute primacy of the
material life, rather than the spiritual or the afterlife," he said.
"That's why the angels envy our bodies — because our senses are keener, our
muscles are stronger. If the angels had our bodies and our nerves, they'd
be in a perpetual state of ecstasy."

Full article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/07/arts/07PULL.html

Louis Proyect
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