Writing the book on intolerance
When I heard that Philip Pullman’s fantasy novel The Golden Compass would be made into a movie, I was thrilled. After all, New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson had succeeded in capturing the essence of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. And in the adventurousness, the moral weight, the sheer audacity of his writing, Pullman is every inch Tolkien’s equal.
Not that he relishes the comparison. When I interviewed Pullman in Montreal several years ago, he admitted that The Lord of the Rings is “a very good story.” But he added, “It’s all schoolboys having a jolly big adventure. It’s two-dimensional — the good characters are too good, the bad ones too bad.” In short, “it says nothing about human beings.”
Pullman’s attack on C.S. Lewis, who wrote the Narnia series of fantasy books, went further. “The message of the Narnia books is evil,” he told me. “It exalts cruelty and it excludes anyone who is felt to be inferior.
“Lewis had a hatred and fear of sexuality — of the female. At the end of the Narnia books, a moral writer would say, ‘Go out into the world and make it a better place.’ But Lewis doesn’t do that. He kills off the children and takes them up to heaven. That’s immoral. That’s evil.”
Notice how Pullman criticized Lewis for not being “a moral writer,” and how he used the word “evil” twice. In the current battles raging over his fiction and over the forthcoming movie of The Golden Compass, what’s often missing is the recognition that Pullman is a writer of extraordinary moral depth and insight.
Yes, he’s an atheist, whereas Tolkien and Lewis were devout Christians. But Pullman’s public discussions with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, reveal areas of agreement far greater than their differences.
Pullman declared, for example, that “the true end and purpose of education” is not to fill children’s minds with testable facts but to help them see themselves as “the true heirs and inheritors of the riches — the philosophical, the artistic, the scientific, the literary riches — of the whole world.” He praised the ideal of “setting children’s minds alive and ablaze with excitement and passion.” To which the archbishop replied, “We’re entirely at one on that.”
Indeed, Rowan Williams has called for “His Dark Materials” — the name of Pullman’s entire trilogy — to be taught in religious education courses in British high schools. Such is the hallmark of a Christianity not afraid of diversity, not afraid of debate, not afraid of dissent.
What a sorry contrast to the Toronto-area boards of Catholic education that have pulled “His Dark Materials” off their shelves. Their trustees should know that in the eyes of Donna Freitas, a Catholic theologian in the United States, “His Dark Materials” is a “religious classic.” The final novel in the trilogy won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 2001 — the only time a book for young people has been so honoured.
The Toronto skirmishes are small potatoes compared to the furor over the movie. It’s clear, I regret to say, that Pullman’s philosophical radicalism has been toned down for the screen. Yet in the United States, the Catholic League and Focus on the Family have already denounced The Golden Compass, sight unseen. New Line Cinema is so nervous about the public reaction that the two sequels may never be filmed.
I don’t recall hearing the American Humanist Association call for a boycott of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Thank God, so to speak, humanists believe in tolerance. Montreal journalist and author Mark Abley appears fortnightly. firstname.lastname@example.org