February 06, 2006
Three visions of a distant shore
With the publication of The Amber Spyglass and the completion of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, Philip Pullman has produced a first-rate adventure that dares for the first time since C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" to place the entire sweep of Christian eschatology at the heart of a young adult fantasy series.
Having set the stage for the apocalyptic showdown in the The Golden Compass, and then filling out the cast of characters in The Subtle Knife, Pullman goes on in The Amber Spyglass to question the existence of God, the nature of good and evil, the nature of thought and matter. The structure of his argument holds so well over 1000 pages because the author has set his foundation firmly in the classics, a good place to begin any discussion of the meaning of life. Borrowing from Dante and Vergil, he sends Will Parry and Lyra Silvertongue on the mythic heroic journey: literally from the top of the world, to the depths of hell, and back to Eden.
The title of the trilogy comes Book II of Milton's Paradise Lost, which itself foreshadows the theological challenge Pullman has laid out for himself:
But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds
And considering how well he rises to the challenge, I think it only appropriate that Andrew Marvell's summation of Milton's work, found in the introduction to the Second Edition (1674), so well applies here as well.
In slender Book his vast Design unfold,
Messiah Crown'd, Gods Reconcil'd Decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heav'n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All; the argument
Held me a while misdoubting his Intent
"Yet as I read," Marvell records, "I lik'd his project." An understatement, to say the least. Displaying a breathtaking reach of imagination (his conceptualization of the "daemon," alone, surpasses expectations, and strikes deep chords of affirmation), Pullman pulls off his equivalent epic with a sagacity and a depth of feeling that stirs the soul.
To a sufficient extent that "His Dark Materials" constitutes some of the most important writing in the genre in the last half-century. It is a work of serious literary weight, and works of serious literary weight beg comparison, or at least a vigorous shoving match.
At first glance Lewis's "Narnia" seems the prime candidate. As in Pullman's trilogy, Lewis's protagonists cross the boundaries of adulthood as they cross the boundaries between worlds. The decisive element perhaps in all successful juvenile fantasy is this transitional period between childhood and adulthood, where the characters possess the qualities of both simultaneously.
This is difficult--if not impossible--to depict in real life (which is perhaps why I so dislike all the video renditions of Narnia I've ever seen. Though I think that Hayao Miyazaki could carry it off--note the relationship between Nausicaa and Asbel, and Lyra and Will.) But as a literary device it works wonderfully when done right. Harry Potter, for example.
And it's not a matter of portraying children as small grownups. Though Lyra and Will and Harry Potter (and Miyazaki's Nausicaa) are often called on to behave as no child could or would--no matter how brave or precocious--they are not behaving as adults could or would, either. They act, rather, even when yielding to their darker impulses, with a purity of intent that adults never achieve. They thus represent a state of transcendence: in the world, but not beholding to the distracting and prosaic and cynical concerns that become the inevitable burden of growing old.
So these are easy associations to make. Even easier to make when you consider that both Lewis and Pullman studied at Oxford and went on to teach literature (Pullman at Westminster College, Lewis at Oxford and Cambridge).
In terms of theological surmise, although both works similarly circumnavigate the continents that separate Genesis and the Ends of the Earth, the more appropriate mirror to hold up to Pullman's work is the lesser known "Space Trilogy." To begin with, both Pullman's "His Dark Materials" and Lewis's "Space Trilogy" are informed by an intimate knowledge of the academic environment. Out of the Silent Planet sets forth from Cambridge; The Golden Compass originates at Oxford, and both are ultimately concerned with the triumph of good over evil.
But these are also correlations that can distract more than they inform, and hide the more important similarities hidden deep within the stories the two authors tell.
Their styles, to begin with, differ considerably. Pullman sweeps his landscape with a spyglass, pulling his characters into focus with the long lense; Lewis writes with a microscope, focused on the small, sharp, human foibles that make his human (and no so human) actors human. His comminatory narrative shines above all else, proving the old writer's adage wrong: you can show by telling. (1)
It is, to be sure, a strange talent. Heroes and villains of Shakespearean magnitude only peripherally step onto his stage: Aslan is the Lion, and the White Witch is, well, a wicked one. But if Lewis doesn't have much to say about the melodramatics of evil, he has plenty to say about ordinary meanness (both the unpleasant and the small). (2) Enough to constitute two notable volumes: The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters. He has Screwtape, in fact, complain of the task that he, the author, has been reduced to: sinners "so muddled in mind, so passively responsive to environment," as to render them "hardly worth damning."
And not so pleasant to have around, either. Many of his child actors seem refugees from some hellish school playground, gripped by a kind of nascent nastiness that occasionally infects the narrator; though, as in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis's slings and arrows more often than not puncture his protagonists.
In That Hideous Strength, Lewis diverts the point-of-view of the first two books away from the now Jeremianic Ransom and focuses instead on Mark and Jane Studdock. Two very ordinary people--indistinguishable even today from any middle-class professional couple--with very ordinary problems, contemplating ending a marriage that has ceased to inspire either of them. "He was an excellent sleeper," Jane Studdock observes of her husband. "Only one thing ever seem able to keep him awake after he had gone to bed, and even that did not keep him awake for long."
And poor Mark Studdock, whose soul is up for sale in That Hideous Strength, hardly comprehends the Faustian bargain he is negotiating.
Like the rest of us, he's after a good job, better pay, an enhanced reputation. His weakness is a quiet insecurity, a wanting to be liked: "If he were ever cruel it would be downwards, to inferiors and outsiders who solicited his regard, not upwards to those who rejected him. There was a good deal of the spaniel in him."
Yet nobody shouts or weeps or carries on, no lawyers are retained, no divorce papers filed. The apocalypse waits upon the fate of a mundane marriage that shows every sign of dying with a whimper. Yet the import of this lost cause is never lost. Lewis's eschatology can be as subtle as his sense of the fine divide--that moment of zero slope along the curve--between what makes right and wrong:
There may have been a time in the world's history when such moments fully revealed their gravity, with witches prophesying on a blasted heath or visible Rubicons to be crossed. But . . . it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter, of that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad thing before they are yet, individually, very bad men.
Lewis's attention to such subtleties of human frailty, his acuity of observation, makes for a rhetorical weapon with a dangerous edge. Lewis is too easily able to reduce his enemies with ad hominem appraisals that possess the veneer of rational discourse. And in combination with his sometimes reactionary Victorianism, it turns into a kind of blunderbuss, and you hear the sound of the white Englishman's burden falling to the floor with a hollow clunk. Equating quality of character with the wearing of corsets, for example; and a remark about Eustace Scrubb's parents at the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader being "vegetarians, nonsmokers, and teetotalers" and wearing a "special kind of underclothes" that is so far out of left field I cannot pretend to understand what he meant by it. (3)
And then there's Lewis's theology, outside the context of which nothing he wrote can be intelligently discussed. Lewis is carrying on in Narnia the job he began in Mere Christianity, laying on top of his stories a thick layer of apologetics, answering his academic critics (The Silver Chair being a case in point) with children's voices. And when it's your world and your rules, it's not hard to win all the arguments. It's not exactly fighting fair, and Lewis, making the most of his education, with a rich command of allegory at his fingertips, knows how not to show his hand all at once.
Lewis risks, nevertheless, what may be called the Socrates Syndrome. George Bernard Shaw describes it well in the introduction to Saint Joan: the intelligent, rhetorically-gifted individual, convinced of his own rightness, who never quite understands that his brilliant arguments, although transfixing to the choir, only piss off those who disagree with him. Having been weaned on Lewis, I have developed something of an immunity to his faults. He comes across to me now almost as one of his characters, a frumpy Edwardian, the eccentric relation who pops up every Thanksgiving grumbling about the slipshod state of the modern world. You put up with him because when you settle him down the old guy tells such good stories.
Nevertheless, extreme annoyance is exactly my reaction to Plato. His mentor's fate may have been unjust, but it doesn't surprise me one bit.
But C.S. Lewis is read primarily by children to whom these machinations are mostly transparent, or by adults who have already claimed discipleship. It is the surprising strength of Lewis's ecumenicism that demands study by any serious propagandist, as the whole Christian world wants to claim him as their own, even those sects whose theological differences are sufficient to bring them to evangelical knife points. (4) I suspect Lewis has achieved such a mythic status because what he stands for eclipses what he says. Few of his fans, I'm convinced, have read carefully what the man actually wrote (true of Holy Scripture in general).
Notwithstanding all this, the enormous popularity of the series proves yet again the power of raw story to overcome deficiencies in the prose (J.K. Rowling, being another prime example). Which is why I praise "The Chronicles of Narnia" as one of the most subversive works of young adult fiction ever written.
Subversiveness, you see, is not necessarily a bad thing. To good or bad ends, it depends on which side you agree with. (We don't really mind the cheap shots when we wish we thought of them first.) And I'm not sure that what you can't see can hurt you, else the world would be full of many more Anglicans than it is. There is a quality of cluelessness--call it innocence--that protects children from ulterior motives, just as it protects them from the Specters of Cittàgazze.
Philip Pullman has also been branded with the label, not because he is, but because people don't agree with him. And because people liked to be shocked and offended, and thereby reassured that we'd all be better off if everybody else saw the world exactly the way we see it. Taking the label at face value, "His Dark Materials" is, yes, an exercise in not seeing the world the way most Americans see it. (Not that I believe that Pullman had Americans particularly in mind, but we rise always to the occasion.) But there is a difference. You can't exactly be subversive when you lay all your cards on the table. Pullman does.
And quite a lot of cards Pullman does put on the table, embracing Really Big Ideas in not-so-acceptable ways. In this reworking of Paradise Lost, he asks a compelling hypothetical. Given that Milton's version gives the devil all the good lines, what if--because it's the winner's version that's always the accepted version--what if those rebellious angels were on the side of right all along? For our bad guy, Pullman posits that Metatron (5) has pulled a coup d'etat on God, thrown out the good guys, and decided that it's time to tighten the screws--using the Church as his instrument--the human race having gotten a bit too carried away with this free agency stuff.
Frankly, not an unreasonable surmise, considering the way organized religions (and governments) have behaved throughout great swathes of human history. Personally, I like the idea that if we were in fact that unruly third of the host of heaven cast down to Earth, it would go a long way in explaining why human beings can be so awful to each other, and why power and agency are so coveted yet so abused.
In the larger view, though, Pullman has adopted a more Olympian than Christian architecture. The Gods meddling with the humans. (Compare Vergil.) But it's an unfortunate commentary about our jaded times that heresy--by which I mean nontraditional ways of looking at the relationship between God and man, not blasphemy, with which it is often confused--doesn't get much of a rise out of anybody but the Fundamentalist fringe, and then them for all the wrong reasons.
It's somewhat reassuring to see that J.K. Rowling has managed to ruffle the feathers of a few Muggles. But very few.
Outrage is typically reserved for shocking! (always include the exclamation point) discoveries of hints of teenage sexuality, implicit (as in The Goats by Brock Cole), or explicit (as in The Wind Blows Backward by Mary Downing Hahn). In any case, for the easily offended sex is suggested--though never stated explicitly, you can read into it what you will--in, of course, the Garden of Eden scenes, foreshadowed throughout the series.
The real shocker, though, is Pullman's exegesis. This retelling of man's fall "upwards" into grace positions Pullman as a modern Pelagius to C.S. Lewis's Augustine. And here, finally, there emerges the possibility of a philosophical nexus between these two authors, and one more, that great, grossly underestimated, early 19th century transcendentalist neo-Pelagian, Joseph Smith. (6)
Pelagius was a contemporary of Augustine, well educated and fluent in Latin, most probably a native of Ireland. (7) He resided in Rome during the late 4th century and there developed a theology of salvation and personal perfection that two decades later, at the Council of Carthage in 418 would be declared heresy. Augustine's view of the Fall of Adam, Original Sin, the necessity of child baptism and the necessity of the Grace of Christ, would become the unquestioned orthodoxy of the Catholic church.
In the spring of 1820, in western New York State, Pelagius found himself a champion in the person of Joseph Smith. A Yankee (born in Vermont), and a Methodist by upbringing, Smith saw visions of God as a fourteen year old boy, was instructed by an angel to dig out of a nearby hill the ancient record of the ancient Americas, which he published as the Book of Mormon. He went on to define a theology both outrageously unique and brazenly syncretic; it would be received by the greater Christian community about as graciously then (and today) as Pelagius's preachings were fourteen centuries before.
Joseph Smith's effort was not simply to reject Original Sin and child baptism (his second Article of Faith reads, "We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression"; from the Book of Mormon: "little children need no repentance, neither baptism"), and knit together Protestant grace and the Catholic sacraments. His boldest step was to portray the human race as gods in embryo, not the offspring but the siblings of Christ.
The kernel at the core of this theology is found in Psalms 82:6, "I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High," which Christ later quotes in John 10:34, and which Joseph Smith chose to take literally, overthrowing the old Nicene gods as surely as does Pullman.
Compare Joseph Smith's writings with Balthamos's assertion (in The Amber Spyglass) that Dust itself is matter made self-aware, that the Angels "condensed out of Dust" and are co-eternal with God, and not the original creations of God. "Man was also in the beginning with God," reads the Doctrine & Covenants. "Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be." The most definite pronouncement of this doctrine was made in a funeral address now known as the King Follett sermon, first published in the Times and Seasons, August 15, 1844:
There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal with our Father in heaven. . . . [I] proclaim from the house-tops that God never had the power to create the spirit of man at all. God himself could not create himself. Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle.
Ask an informed Christian what disqualifies Mormonism from Christian fellowship, and this is the doctrine he will site. More unfortunate is that the leadership of the Mormon Church has taken the criticism to heart, and has for decades been steadily covering up and backing away from what Joseph Smith preached. (8) Ever since rejecting polygamy in order to gain Utah statehood at the turn of the century, the church has turned ever more sharply towards an aspect of Pelagianism that Joseph Smith never fully embraced. Call it the revenge of the Augustinians.
Pelagius was an ascetic, out of the Stoical tradition, and Joseph Smith definitely was not. Although the modern church has tried hard to turn him into one (it makes for a nice fit with the poor, illiterate, farm boy, Horatio Alger image). Smith loved life, loved women enough to reinvent polygamy at the same time he was inventing a brand-new religion, was at home in the physical and often gave as good as he got (which, in part, eventually got him killed).
"The great principle of happiness," he wrote, "consists in having a body. The devil has no body, and herein is his punishment."
On this point all three authors converge. "Dust loves matter," observes Mary Malone. Lewis uses almost the same language: "God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. . . . He likes matter. He invented it." God, pouts Screwtape, is "a hedonist at heart." In That Hideous Strength Lewis creates the opposite of Dust, the macrobe. Like the microbe ubiquitous, but situated "above the animal level of animal life." And while communication between humans and macrobes has been "spasmodic, and . . . opposed by numerous prejudices," it has had a "profound influence," which if known would rewrite all of history. But the macrobes are the stuff of dark angels, inimical to human freedom, with a Manichaean loathing for matter and emotion.
So much like the councils of Pullman's Church (in which Lewis's Reverend Straik would certainly find welcome tenure), the ultimate goal of the macrobes is to compromise the intellect and crush the will. Keep the context in mind when Rita Skadi contends that "[this] is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." Lewis wouldn't necessarily disagree:
I know some muddle-headed Christians have talked as if Christianity thought that sex, or the body, or pleasure were bad in themselves. But they [are] wrong. Christianity . . . thoroughly approves of the body [and] believes that matter is good.
In the conclusion to his chapter on sexual morality in Mere Christianity (that surely places him at odds with the conservative--and surprisingly gnostic--Protestant view that presently eclipses the American religious landscape), Lewis unapologetically states that the "sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins." He provides us with this vivid comparison: "A cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute."
To which he adds, "Of course, it is better to be neither."
This distorted emphasis on "sins of the flesh" reflects that incessant human need to judge and evaluate and categorize, which arises partly out of necessity, mostly out of prejudice. The great sins, Lewis argues, are spiritual in nature, or rather, metaphysical. And the greatest of all, he insists, is pride. There is much irony in the fact, Lewis admits: "Other vices may sometimes bring people together: you may find good fellowship and jokes and friendliness among drunken people or unchaste people. But Pride always means enmity."
The problem is, it's a lot easier to tell if a man smokes, or is a drunk, or sleeps around, and the strictures of organized religion are readily amenable to the human need to define tribal allegiances, to say who's on our side, and who's not. Even when it comes to outright war, religious wars are rarely about religion. It'd be almost reassuring to believe that what really divides Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland is the question of Papal infallibility and salvation by grace vs. works. But at the core of most "religious" conflict are battles over property and power and the right to rule. Religion supplies each side with the flags, the uniforms, and a convenient, existential grievance, if one happens to be lacking.
And the choicest piece of real estate in any religious conflict is heaven.
Regardless of the strength of sincere belief, heaven is still a hypothetical. But that hasn't kept anyone from staking a claim. Sort of like selling the naming rights to craters on the moon. It'd be hard to come up with a better example of this pretension in action than the "Rapture," according to which all the good, God-fearing folk (Christian God-fearing folk, that is) will be "caught up into heaven" right before the apocalypse counts down to zero. The rest of us sad sacks will get "left behind." (9)
Compared with this, Pullman's vision of the afterlife, pursuing Dante and Vergil, is almost refreshing. We all go into the dark, as Eliot phrased it, and it sucks big time.
Lewis's hell in The Great Divorce is equally dark, though its occupants there are tormented by the banalities of evil. Hell is both small and infinite. Infinitely small. Heaven can't join hell simply because it can't fit. Even Minos, as it turns out, would rather rule the dead than judge them. It is a hard reality for those looking forward to an afterlife in which they will lord their righteousness over their neighbors. But like C.S. Lewis's dwarves, who make it into heaven fine, but are blind to its gifts, the dead in Pullman's Hades can't see the hell they carry inside them. The Harpies tell Lyra and Will and the Gallivespians,
Thousands of years ago, when the first ghosts came down here, [God] gave us the power to see the worst in every one, and we have fed on the worst ever since, till our blood is rank with it and our very hearts are sickened.
Lewis takes an opposite, but not opposing, tack. It is not even the name of the god that matters, Aslan tells Prince Emeth, but how we behave in the name of that god that instructs the better "angels of our nature":
Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.
Joseph Smith also preached judgement relative to all possible factors. He considered it "preposterous" that anybody would be damned "because they did not believe the gospel." God, he declared,
will award judgment or mercy to all nations according to their several desserts, their means of obtaining intelligence, the laws by which they are governed, the facilities afforded them of obtaining correct information, and His inscrutable designs in relation to the human family.
In an echo of Vergil, Smith envisioned that these "several desserts" would require a heaven with three rings, the innermost, or highest, divided into three more. It is one of his oddest creations, and one that Mormons (proving themselves equally susceptible to human nature) have gravitated towards with particular enthusiasm. So much so that it's given rise to the joke about St. Peter giving the newly deceased a tour of Heaven. They pass by a heavily secured door, behind which a great congregation seems to be in assembly. And what is behind that impressive door? St. Peter is asked. "Ah," he says, taking the group aside and speaking in the strictest of confidences, "That's where we keep the Mormons. They think they're the only ones here."
In the end, Smith concludes, "we shall all of us eventually have to confess that the Judge of all the earth has done right, [for] a man is his own tormenter and his own condemner."
The essential statement of man's relationship to his own salvation is found in the Book of Mormon: "by grace we are saved, after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23). That comma is much debated: whether we are saved only after exerting all, or saved despite our best efforts. Drawing on the Stoical tradition, Pelagius would have aligned himself with the former, believing that "the moral strength of man's will" was sufficient to bring a man to salvation. Justification itself depends on faith alone (anticipating Luther by a millennium), though it does not automatically sanctify the soul.
Even for Lewis, our attending Augustinian, the physical must follow upon the existential, and action upon reason. But must follow. It should come as no surprise that the preeminent explainer of the Christian religion should prove a master of the dialectic. This is most apparent in That Hideous Strength, described by Lewis as a "fairy tale for adults."
And a grim tale it is. Lewis is fighting with the gloves off, but at least here he stays inside the ropes. Throughout the "Space Trilogy," thought and meaning, discovered in dialogue, resolve to action: Ransom kills Weston only when other means of reason have been exhausted, after lengthy discussion; Merlin is summoned only at the climax of the conflict, with a full knowledge of what must be done.
Pullman's only similarly-informed counterpart, his man with a very big plan, Lord Asriel, is kept mostly off-stage. And he never really explains himself; he just is. At the opposite extreme, Asriel's lover and Lyra's mother, the inscrutable Mrs. Coulter, propels herself from moment to brutal moment, the grasp of meaning hovering always beyond her fingertips, while Will and Lyra and Mary Malone leap continually into the Kierkegaardian dark. As with the Studdocks, they "see through a glass, darkly"; it is action that precipitates knowledge and leads to belief, the product of which might be called trust or obedience.
Obedience to this faith is not blind; obedience for Lewis requires the clearest of all vision: to see the self through the eyes of God, and then to acknowledge the humility necessary to act upon that raw and white-hot knowledge. When Mark Studdock discovers heaven, "all the lout and clown and clod-hopper in him was revealed to his reluctant inspection." Lyra likewise learns the difference--between doing what she wants, and doing what she knows is right--when she disobeys the advice of the Alethiometer:
I done something very bad [she tells Will]. Because the Alethiometer told me I had to stop looking for Dust--at least I thought that's what it said--and I had to help you. I had to help you find your father. And I could, I could take you to wherever he is, if I had it. But I wouldn't listen. I just done what I wanted to do, and I shouldn't . . . .
Lyra's obedience to the Alethiometer is the opposite of that "obedience" rejected by Rita Skadi, when the good witch (not all witches are good in Pullman's universe, but the ones we know are) observes that "every increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit." That is that same viral strain of "obedience" preached to Mark Studdock in the "Objective Room": a bowing down to men who on one hand embrace iconoclasm as the right of those "more equal" than the rest, and at the same time preach acquiescence as the mark of the pure and the faithful.
As with these elements of story, narrative, and character, there are issues of substance between Lewis and Pullman that seem more diametrical at first glance, but which, I believe, dissolve under the light of closer examination. At the heart of it, Lewis is a monarchist. Pullman is a republican, and so the monarchal Church is the enemy. The witch Rite Skadi thus sums her centuries of observation: "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." Mary Malone later calls Christianity a "well-meaning mistake."
Considering my own measured antipathy toward the "organized" part of organized religion, I can sympathize with the sentiment. The problem is, religions sprout like crabgrass even in the most desolate of landscapes. Any examination of human civilization, I believe, drives towards one or both of two conclusions: there is either an ecclesiastical god, or there is such an inclination in the human animal bred deeply in the bone. (10) The Church is the way it is because people are the way they are.
And therefore suffused with human weakness: the idea that the contemporary church would even qualify as some sort of blueprint for a Kingdom of Heaven is one Lewis rejects over and over again. "You are to imagine us," Ransom lectures Mrs. Studdock, "living on a world where the criminal classes of the [angels] have established their headquarters." It is a theme that permeates all of Lewis's writing. Facing the final showdown with evil, Ransom reminds Merlin, "We are four men, some women, and a bear (11) . . . . The Faith itself is torn to pieces . . . . The Hideous Strength holds all this Earth in its fist to squeeze as it wishes."
A situation not so different from that faced by the desperate heroes battling the Church in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Yet battle they must, against desperate odds. Because Lewis, while a monarchist, is a democrat, suspicious of the collective, holding out great hope in the wisdom and resources of ordinary men. Lewis may not be a deist, but his God is forced to play the role.
Consider angels. Like Pullman's, Lewis's good angels stand mostly apart from human activity. Lewis's Gods are forbidden to "send down the Powers to mend or mar in this Earth until the end of all things." In the meantime, the Oyeresu communicate through Ransom, who seeks out Merlin (as John Parry seeks out his son), while the dark forces at the Institute gather about a disembodied head, their "new man" (Lyra, like Jane Studdock, dreams of a severed head), a gateway to the gods.
It is the revolt against nature which both emboldens evil and destroys it. The means become the ends. The subtle knife looses upon the world the Specters, destroyers of souls. Yet it is the "one weapon in all the universes that could defeat the tyrant," Will's father tells him. Ransom crosses the dimensions of heaven by means of a "subtle engine," devised by his archenemy Weston to breach the wall of heaven and undo Eden. (12) Weston dead, the Institute on brink of destruction, Ransom reflects,
If of their own evil will they had not broken the frontier and let in the celestial Powers, this would be their moment of victory. Their own strength has betrayed them. They have gone to the gods who would not have come to them, and pulled down Deep Heaven on their heads.
The same fate awaits Metatron (and Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter) in the climactic battle in The Amber Spyglass, "Deep Heaven" literally pulled down upon their shoulders, tumbling them into the same Abyss that swallows up Bracton and the Reverend Straik, who dreamed of the Kingdom of God established by "the powers of science" as its "irresistible instrument." Like Father Gomez and the Constitorial Court, men building kingdoms on Earth and rendering unto God that which is Caesar's, The National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, Lewis informs us, "was the first-fruits of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world." But its heart belonged to hell.
There is no institutional solution to righteousness. Human beings build cities on a hill, but they can never found a kingdom of heaven on Earth without first building a Gulag Archipelago. So when Will's father tells him, "It's time we started again, but properly this time," he is not proposing yet another utopian dream soon to degrade into self-righteous totalitarianism. As Will remembers later,
[My father] said we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are. . . . I thought he just meant Lord Asriel and his new world, but he meant us, he meant you and me. . . . No one could [build Heaven] if they put themselves first. We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we've got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds. . . .
"We shouldn't live as if it mattered more than this life in this world," says Lyra, "because where we are is always the most important place." (13)
Instructive in this regard is a comparison of Edens. In each lines can be drawn between Weston and Mary Malone, and between Ransom and Father Gomez, between those who fear truth and knowledge, and those who trust it implicitly. One hears echoes of Lewis's Malacandra and Perelandra in the land of Pullman's Mulefa, in Will and Lyra's return there from Hades and Armageddon (compare the final chapter of The Last Battle).
But a return to the Garden is not a return to paradise; it is a graduation from innocence into knowledge. In his acknowledgments, Pullman credits an essay by Heinrich von Kleist titled "The Marionette Theater." (14) The themes of this essay--drawing out the essential contrast between experience and innocence, and pointing to the deliberate labor that any return to Eden must require--play out with Lyra and her mastery of the Alethiometer, in an extension on the mustard seed allegory, delivered by the most unlikely of characters, and in a wonderful concluding discourse upon grace and works. As the angel Xaphania instructs Lyra,
You read [the Alethiometer] by grace, and you can regain it by work. But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you've gained it, it will never leave you.
This is the whole point of Eden. The problem with archetypes (and with such laden words as "grace") is that it's easy to remember the mythology and forget the original point. In the Biblical story God's greatest act is to permit Eve to be tempted, to allow the knowledge to flow to hearts and minds capable of accepting it. Again, Joseph Smith got this one right, portraying the "Fall" as a necessary step upwards in the evolution of the human race:
And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. . . . wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:22-25) (15)
A similar sentiment is echoed in the anime series Scrapped Princess. Finding humankind trapped inside a Rousseauian bell jar, Pacifica (the Eve character) must choose between the guaranteed safety of enforced innocence, and the perils of freedom and self-determination. She must destroy a cruelly anticeptic Eden, its gods and its church--where "Satan's rebellion had been successful"--to make humankind fit for salvation. This is the unique message of Mormonism, and one that Philip Pullman stands squarely behind.
"This is good doctrine," Joseph Smith boasted. "It tastes good." In other words, this is the way the story should be told. "We all need stories," Pullman points out, "but children are more frank about it." Indeed, the admonition to "become as little children" is, if anything, an admonition to treat the structure of story seriously, to recognize that even if you don't believe in Santa Clause, you should still believe in the story. Because some subjects are "too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book." Or perhaps, as Lewis prefaced That Hideous Strength, in a fairy tale.
All religious--all political, nationalistic, ideological--belief resolves to story, because the essence of faith and feeling cannot be reduced to objective fact, and story is the only way experience can be effectively transmitted from one mind to another. Mormonism (as an example) is known today for its staid, business-suited veneer, for its proscriptive moral code. A far cry from the infinite expanse of imagination that Joseph Smith suffused into a green and vibrant theology. Smith began his ministry at the age of fourteen, and began a religion with the epic story of two teenagers (Nephi and Mormon).
These are the stories that persevere, that still reach out from beneath the layers of propriety, earnestness, and bureaucracy. Said Philip Pullman at the conclusion of his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech, "We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever."
The telling moment, for me, occurs in the third chapter of The Subtle Knife. Will finds himself in a situation where he must hide his identity. The alias he provides is "Ransom," as indicated above the eponymic name of C.S. Lewis's hero of the "Space Trilogy." What the two authors have created, then, are not parallel universes, but rather alternate worlds. The view from the one to the other is polarized; the symmetries align; light becomes brighter and contrasts turn dark. Because, regardless of what universe you are in, truth persists, in an eternal center, even when approached from opposite directions.
Even in the midst of darkness the awful, punishing Harpies recognize truth. To the Gallivespian Tialys they explain why they did not attack Lyra when they had wounded her earlier, under similar circumstances,
Because she spoke the truth. Because it was nourishing. Because it was feeding us. Because we couldn't help it. Because it was true. Because we had no idea that there was anything but wickedness. Because it brought us news of the world and the sun and the wind and the rain. Because it was true.
What the Harpies read as truth is the story of a life honestly told. Not lives good or bad, but recounted for what they were; the goodness is in the honesty of the telling. (Also the moral of The Great Divorce.) The stories these authors tell, in turn, are true to their characters, and true to themselves. As Daniel Moloney insightfully argues in First Things, Pullman's story "is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life[.]" (16)
There is ultimately more lost than won in searching for two sides of an argument buried somewhere in the rhetoric. There are three sides here, and many more beyond. And each of these authors reinforces a face of the pyramid, and braces the glittering crystal against the gathering dark.
1. Lewis's reportedly awful boarding school childhood would have provided him more ammunition, I think, than motivation. His academic training I consider a more likely contributor in this regard.
Namely, that pedagogical approach popular in institutions of higher learning that confuses the Socratic dialogue with actual instruction. As exemplified by John Houseman's portrayal of Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase, the goal apparently is to goad students into learning by insulting them, the excuse being, I suppose, that all aspects of character are somehow related to the intellectual task at hand, and the professor's task is to beat the undesirable ones out of them with a verbal cane.
Granted, Houseman's Kingsfield is taken to be a caricature of the generic "great professor," a Mr. Chips in extremis. And this attitude is more likely revealed, in the real world, not between teacher and student, but between dueling scholars of elevated and equal status. Commentators on the political scene have long observed (as any loyal C-SPAN follower can attest) that the intensity of debate rises in inverse proportion to the political distance separating the two sides. The rancor between creationists and evolutionary biologists, for example, is only exceeded by the bar fights that break out among the more vocal proponents of the accepted (pro-evolution) schools of thought. Robert Wright's chapter-long evisceration of Stephen Jay Gould in Nonzero, for example.
There is something of a dark art thus fostered in the halls of learning: that ability to dismantle the opponent's position with high-minded logic over the academic table, while weakening his foundation with skewering jabs beneath it, showing all the time the white, kindly smile of objective reason. It demands a sharp mind and sharper wit, and its practitioners hone their blades in the Darwinist crucible of the peer review and high-brow popular press.
Contrary to the popular facade which paints science as an ascetic realm where cool heads and the scientific method prevails, "truth" is often brought to the fore by sheer will and persistence, or by simply waiting long enough for the old guard to die off: Alfred Wegener's theories of continental drift, not accepted until decades after his death; Michael Coe's fascinating account of a single "great" scholar holding back an entire field of study in Breaking the Maya Code.
Such predilections are only exacerbated in the social sciences and the humanities, where experimental data cannot be readily produced to test contrary assertions. And Christian conviction can only compound it. I don't mean the truly contrarian convictions--such as believing the world was created in a literal week--that place the believer completely outside the mainstream, but the scholar who imagines that his work is, in the eyes of the secular world, "tainted" by his faith. This leads the Christian of evangelical spirit to perceive himself as a besieged minority--true to some extent--and worse, one whose opinions are not taken seriously. That is the lowest blow of all.
And hardly unexpected, then, that he should strike back with the weapons his secular education so generously provided him. At my alma mater, Brigham Young University, you can see this dynamic in action at the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), a think tank devoted to Biblical and Book of Mormon archeology and Mormon apologetics. Their peer-reviewed, scholastic work I find readable, worthy of honest debate, and often convincing.
In the arena of polemics (acknowledged as such in their publications), not only do they often choose obscure and deliberately provocative targets, but works by authors embarrassingly less educated than themselves. The FARMS fellows sport degrees from the country's most respected secular institutions, and have no trouble slicing and dicing their enemies to small pieces. It can make for mean satire--think Don Rickles with a Ph.D.--but I'm less than convinced that it serves any useful purpose.
They claim to be following the admonition to be "wise as serpents," but having grown the fangs, they seem to awfully enjoy piercing the flesh. [return]
2. Which isn't to say that great insights are only to be had from the travails of the Lears, Hamlets, and MacBeths. Lewis's point is that we at one extreme pride ourselves on sinful natures that are prosaic at best, and at the other claim a holiness we do not deserve. [return]
3. Here, Lewis is just being snide, and the aspersions fall flat:
He didn't call his father and mother "Father" and "Mother," but Harold and Alberta. They were up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, nonsmokers, and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on the beds and the windows were always open.
It'd be clever to think Lewis was referring to Mormons, except that I doubt that he ever met a Mormon in his life. And Mormons certainly aren't vegetarians, they stuff their houses with as much junk as the next person, and no Mormon child I know refers to his parents by their first names. He only gets three out of six. [return]
4. I have even heard Lewis referred to as "the Mormon theologian, C.S. Lewis." [return]
5. According to the Doors of Peace web site, "Metatron was said to have once been the prophet Enoch (the seventh Patriarch after Adam), who had been taken up by God and given a coronet, 72 wings and innumerable eyes. His flesh was transformed into flame, his sinews into fire, his bones into embers, and he was surrounded by storm, whirlwinds, thunder and lightning. Enoch had been a scribe, and as Metatron he continued his functions, becoming the heavenly scribe who resides in the 7th Heaven and transcribes all heavenly and earthly events." [return]
6. Which is not to say that the average Mormon would accept this particular interpretation. For a discussion of the transition in Mormon theology away from Joseph Smith and towards a more mainstream (though rather half-hearted), Augustinian belief system, see Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy by O. Kendall White, Jr.
While I essentially agree with White's plot of the evolution of accepted Mormon belief, I reject the global finitism inherent in what he calls "metaphysical materialism." I propose another branch of Mormon theology that I would describe as "Non-finite." That is, the universe as we perceive it, and all matter, space, and time is God's unique creation. Or, more precisely, this finite universe, and everything in it--except our souls--constitutes a small subset of God's greater infinite existence. However, the nature of our (finite) universe, and the heavy and far-reaching demands of agency, imposes upon God finite characteristics when dealing with human beings. According to Eugene England,
God is [thus] not absolutely omnipotent in the traditional Christian sense; he has limits imposed by the co-eternal nature of other components of the universe which he did not create, such as matter, and eternal laws, and especially human intelligences. As modern revelation teaches us, God is bound when we do what he says, that is, he is limited to some extent, required to respond in certain ways by our obedience to the eternal laws he teaches us. In other words, besides being infinite in many important ways (such as providing an Atonement infinitely able to save those who will accept it), he could in some ways be thought of as finite. [return]
7. See "Pelagius and Pelagianism" in the Catholic Encyclopedia. [return]
8. As Eugene England puts it, "There seems to be at present a bad case of loss of nerve, of preferring negative, safe religion to the positive, adventuresome kind championed by the founders of Mormonism." [return]
9. Okay, I'm not being very nice. But then the devout Baptist considers Joseph Smith just as wacky and heretical. All's fair. [return]
10. "When the philosophers of the eighteenth century made religion out to be an enormous error conceived by priests, at least they were able to explain its persistence by the interest of the sacerdotal caste had in deceiving the masses. But if the peoples themselves have been the artisans of these systems of erroneous ideas, at the same time that they were the dupes, how has this extraordinary hoax been able to perpetuate itself throughout the course of history?" (Émile Durkheim, quoted in Nonzero by Robert Wright.) [return]
11. Mr. MacPhee (in That Hideous Strength) speaks of a bear that "would do the best deed that any bear had done in Britain except some other bear that none of us had ever heard of." He is of course referring to Mr. Bultitude, though the description apply well to Iorek Byrnison. [return]
12. Another interesting (and I'm sure coincidental) parallel between Pullman's Golden Compass and Joseph Smith's Liahona can be found in the Book of Mormon:
And it came to pass that as my father arose in the morning, and went forth to the tent door, to his great astonishment he beheld upon the ground a round ball of curious workmanship; and it was of fine brass. And within the ball were two spindles; and the one pointed the way whither we should go into the wilderness. (1 Ne. 16:10)
And now, my son, I have somewhat to say concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director--or our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass; and the Lord prepared it. (Alma 37:38) [return]
13. Paraphrasing Seneca, "When shall we live, if not now?" [return]
14. You can reference the article at the Magellan's Log web site. [return]
15. Compare also Moses 5:10-12, and Paradise Lost, 12: 470-474. Here Adam contemplates being cast out of Eden:
O goodness infinite, goodness immense!
That all this good of evil shall produce,
And evil turn to good; more wonderful
Than that which by creation first brought forth
Light out of darkness! [return]
16. A review of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass by Daniel P. Moloney (May 2001). [return]