IS HIS DARK MATERIALS REALLY AN ATTACK ON THE NARNIAN CHRONICLES?
A lot has been said and written about His Dark Materials the "Anti-Narnia" and Philip Pullman the "Anti-C S Lewis". Far too much, indeed, for me to want to go over it all again.
What may be less well known is that there are clear signs in His Dark Materials that the Narnian Chronicles were not Pullman’s primary target among CS Lewis’s works.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s – long before he wrote the Chronicles – CSL wrote the three novels which have become known as the Interplanetary Trilogy. They have stayed in print, but are not as widely read as the Narnian stories, so here are brief summaries of each book:
In Out of the Silent Planet, Doctor Elwin Ransom is kidnapped by two men, Weston and Devine, who take him to Mars (known as "Malacandra") because they believe that its inhabitants (the "Sorns") want him as a sacrifice.
Ransom escapes and finds that the Sorns are not the fearsome aliens that he had been led to believe they were and that all the species of rational creatures (collectively known as "Hnau") on Malacandra live in harmony with each other and with nature. The planet is ruled by a beneficent spirit known as "Oyarsa". The story ends with a confrontation between Weston the scientist, Devine the businessman, Ransom the philologist (and translator) and the Oyarsa. It is revealed that Earth ("Thulcandra", or the "Silent Planet") is ruled by a corrupt Oyarsa (the "bent one" – clearly meant to be Lucifer) and is in a state of cosmic quarantine. Weston’s arguments are defeated by those of Oyarsa who sends all three humans back to Earth.
Out of the Silent Planet has considerable charm, especially in the scenes where Ransom lives with the Malacandrians.
In Perelandra (aka Voyage to Venus) Ransom is transported to Venus, where his task is to save that planet’s Eve (the "Green Lady") from being tempted by Satan (who is personified by Weston) into disobeying Maleldil’s (God’s) commands. Finding that he is unable to defeat the Devil by argument, Ransom engages him in a physical battle which he eventually wins, destroying Weston’s body (Satan’s host). Both Eve and the planet’s Adam remain un-Fallen and achieve a new unity with Maleldil.
Perelandra contains some of CSL’s most delightful descriptive writing. His vision of Perelandra as a beautiful water-planet is sensuous and seductive and wonderfully imagined. Britain was at war with Germany at the time the novel was written which is why, I suspect, Ransom ends up having to defeat Weston/Satan by force, rather than by other means.
In That Hideous Strength, the last volume of the Interplanetary Trilogy, we meet the ambitious young academic Mark Studdock and his proto-feminist (and therefore deluded) wife Jane. Sinister forces (an organisation called the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) which is run by Devine and a man called Jules) are trying to find and wake the wizard Merlin, who is rumoured to sleep below Bracton Wood, and exploit his powers for their own fell purposes. Ransom, meanwhile, has set up a new Logres nearby and has become the personification of the Fisher-King.
In the end Merlin awakes, but turns out to be on the side of the angels and calls earthly and heavenly powers down on the N.I.C.E., which is destroyed. Mark and Jane, who had been drifting apart, resolve to renew their marriage on Christian lines and it is suggested that their son will be the new King Arthur.
That Hideous Strength is the most ambitious of the three novels, and is not altogether successful. However, the climax is well-managed and exciting.
I would like to suggest that His Dark Materials more closely resembles the Interplanetary Trilogy than it does the Narnian Chronicles, both in its similarities and in its differences.
For a start, both trilogies are concerned with a war on a cosmic scale – a war in heaven, in fact. The thrust of CSL’s trilogy is that since the Fall our world has gone astray, ruled by an evil power (Lewis depicts evil very well in Perelandra, less well in the other books), and in need of intervention by God (Maleldil) and the angels (the Oyaresu). The evil takes the form of scientific rationalism, a target which Lewis was happy to attack, and the remedy is a return to Christian values, a clear hierarchy and, in fact, a Kingdom of Heaven.
In His Dark Materials it’s the other way round. The angels – the ones who are in charge, at least – are the bad guys and the Lucifer figure – Lord Asriel – is the liberator, who is going to free all Hnau – angels, humans, Gallivespians, Mulefa, Armoured Bears – from a cruel domination by Metatron and the Magisterium. There will be no hierarchy or Kingdom; instead there will be a Republic. There will be an afterlife, but not as we know it. It will not resemble the Christian Heaven, because Heaven has to be built here and now, not deferred until later.
Perelandra provides an especially interesting contrast. In His Dark Materials, Lyra’s Fall is something to be desired; because it marks her coming of age, and because it will be the means by which the supply of Dust in the multiverse will be made secure. In Perelandra it is essential that the Green Lady Tinidril should not Fall, for if she does it is likely that her world will go the same way that ours has.
Next, consider the characters of Mary Malone and Weston. Both are scientists; one has abandoned Christianity and the other probably never embraced it. Both seek to promote the Fall; one intentionally, one unintentionally. But Mary’s spirit of enquiry is seen by Philip Pullman to be a good thing, leading to knowledge and enlightenment, whereas Weston is a proto-fascist and imperialist, who only wants to use science to spread his malign influence throughout the Field of Arbol (the Solar System) with the assistance of the philistine moneybags Devine.
One charge that has been laid at Philip Pullman’s door is that he has taken CSL’s stories and twisted them to his own ends. This charge may or may not be fair. What is clear is that in the Interplanetary Trilogy CSL took the work of HG Wells (Weston’s space-ship in Out of the Silent Planet is rather similar to Cavor’s craft in The First Men in the Moon, for example) and cheerfully used it for his own straw-man arguments, setting up the characters of Weston and Devine to be shot down by Ransome and the Oyaresu.
Not content with this, CSL depicted Wells (Jules in That Hideous Strength) as a nasty, common little Cockney, adding a snobbish ad hominem attack to his arsenal and betraying his own exemplar. It’s a pointless exercise and one that leave a bad taste behind it. I'm not aware that Pullman has ever made any personal attack on CS Lewis in his novels, whereas Lewis was not above putting the boot into HG Wells when it suited him. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and it’s no more reasonable to criticise Philip Pullman for using the common ground of Miltonic epic fantasy than it is to beat up CS Lewis for building on the pioneering efforts of HG Wells in the field of Science Fiction.
And yet… If anyone could travel between the worlds using the angel’s way – imagination – it was CS Lewis. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again; there’s room for both writers, Lewis and Pullman. Anybody who has read His Dark Materials and enjoyed it for the grand scale of its adventures as well as for its characters owes it to themselves to take a look at the Interplanetary Trilogy. If it takes a peculiar form of doublethink to enjoy the work of both Lewis and Pullman at the same time, then that’s a charge to which I’ll happily plead guilty.