Saturday, March 28, 2009

Philip Pullman: "shallow and sinister"?

Philip Pullman, April 2005
Photograph by Adrian Hon, MSSV
(Image from Wikipedia)

The Milton List has been having a discussion of Philip Pullman's "Dark Materials" series because of its many allusions to Milton's writings, which some Milton experts are currently exploring. Other Milton scholars remain unimpressed by Pullman. For instance, Professor James Fleming wrote:
Am I alone in finding Pullman both shallow and sinister?

As far as I can tell, The Golden Compass ends with Lord Asriel, the good-scary guy, murdering a child (Roger). This is presented as a noble sacrifice, allowing the great man to open up the heavens in defiance of an authoritarian God.

A little Brothers Karamazov rids us of this deed.
I concurred:
You're not "alone in finding Pullman both shallow and sinister." Even worse, he can't tell a good story.

In the mid-90s, I was sitting in a cafe in London reading book reviews in some newspaper and came across two reviews, one of Rowling and the other of Pullman. An excerpt from the latter's book aroused my curiosity, but I didn't actually read the series until around 2005, long after I'd read most of the Harry Potter series.

I was greatly disappointed by the story's development in the Pullman's series. I started reading with high expectations, and the quality of his writing is certainly very good, but the story went nowhere. Even the writing seemed to falter in the latter books . . . but perhaps I was just getting bored.

Like Professor Fleming, I was troubled by the "noble sacrifice" -- though there may have been an allusion to Christianity in that -- but whatever Pullman might have intended by that, and by the entire series, I finished reading him with a sense of letdown.

In my opinion, he let his animus toward Christianity distort his story.

Despite Pullman's literary gifts, which are considerable and far better than Rowlings', the latter tells a much better story that kept me interested to the very end.

The 'noble sacrifice' in the Harry Potter series worked rather better, too.

For anyone interested, I blogged on my reaction to Pullman back in 2005, soon after having finished him in disappointment.
Other readers will certainly have had a different reaction, and I'd be interested in Written Wyrdd's opinion since she's a reader of fantasy and sci-fi and is also, I take it, a writer herself.

Was the Pullman series a letdown for anyone else?

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At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Charles said...

I just recently finished reading His Dark Materials, and I will say that it gave me a lot to think about. I don't know if I can say it was a letdown, but I agree with you when you say: "he let his animus toward Christianity distort his story."

Especially toward the end, there were some things that seemed a little forced to me. Like the "temptress" being a former nun, for example--that was just a little too convenient. And how was she a temptress anyway? She told Lyra and Will about a romantic experience she had, and that was somehow the equivalent of giving them the forbidden fruit? As if a young boy and a young girl aren't going to figure this thing out for themselves. Maybe I was just a young perv, but I had this figured out long before Lyra and Will's age in the story.

And I still don't understand how this Temptation and Fall worked into the story anyway. There is all this talk about stopping (killing) Lyra before she has the chance to fall, but when she does the Authority is already dead and Metatron has been cast into the Abyss, so what's the point? It all felt rather tacked on. If anything, for me, the real breaking of the Authority's (or Metatron's) power came when Will and Lyra cut a way out of the land of the dead.

Hmm. Now that I think about it, I suppose it was a bit of a letdown at the end.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Maybe I was just a young perv, but I had this figured out long before Lyra and Will's age in the story."

Charles, you've lost me. Had what figured out? Ah, you mean Will's knife-like ability to penetrate.

Now, I've got it figured out...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:43 AM, Anonymous Charles said...

Yep. I think we're on the same page now.

At 11:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Must be a paper knife, then. Oops, my wife just noticed these messages and told me to cut it out.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:10 PM, Blogger writtenwyrdd said...

He got a little "God is dead, there is no God" as the series progressed, but there really was a lot of imaginative stuff in the series. Overall, I did enjoy it.

The movie was a fairly decent translation to screen, too, IMO.

I cannot recall the ending of the series, however. So I cannot say whether I agree with you or not. This was one of the few series I've read and own that I didn't reread.

At 9:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

WW, thanks for the remarks. I agree that Pullman is imaginative. If only he had sustained the magic of the series' beginning.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:47 PM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

I might make a suggestion. I assume that all of you are adults; therefore, you are reading Pullman's and Rowling's books from that perspective. If you read Pullman's series along with 5th and 6th graders, then very rarely does any religious discussion arise. Children LOVE any book where a child overcomes adults. Books where they must survive using their wits against the adult world in general. When I was a child, it was the Boxcar Children who survived on their own, or Madeline l'engle's books. After having spent years now in discussion with children about Harry Potter, they identify with his struggle to overcome the adult world. Mean teachers, horrible foster family, etc. Bad guys out to get you, or the bad kid that the good ones ultimately overcome. I have always maintained that the genius of Pullman and Rowling was mixing the above with a little magic. It takes a rare elementary student to assess these books as good vs evil in a religious sense.
Well, just a few thoughts from an elementary literacy person!
Since these two authors have primarily made their retirement stash from selling to elementary students then I applaud them for cluing into the buying audience. Of course, the great aspect, of both writers, I believe, is giving adults something to discuss also!

At 3:28 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"Children LOVE any book where a child overcomes adults."

So, it's settled. Pullman is sinister.

Jeffery Hodges

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