Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Or am I, not Pullman, the sinister one?

Lord Asriel's Dæmon?
(Image from Philip Pullman)

In a previous post ("Philip Pullman: 'shallow and sinister'?"), I agreed with Milton scholar Professor James Fleming, who had written that he found 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.
I agreed but also had an inkling that something else might be going on:
Like Professor Fleming, I was troubled by the "noble sacrifice" -- though there may have been an allusion to Christianity in that.
Lord Asriel is a complex figure but is partly modeled upon Milton's Satan in his rebellion against God, and therein lies Pullman's cleverness.

If Stanley Fish is correct in Surprised by Sin, then Milton intends for the reader of Paradise Lost to identify with Satan not because Milton has cast Satan as the hero of this epic but because Milton wants us to renact the original fall from Paradise in our experience as readers. We initially admire Satan's heroic qualities and follow him as he escapes from hell and crosses the treacherous realm of chaos, but we later discover that we have been misled and therefore come to recognize the sin within ourselves that drew us into that identification.

I suspect that Pullman is doing something similar with Lord Asriel. He wants us to initially identify with Asriel but to discover through Asriel's sacrifice of the child Roger that we have been misled.

Why should this be problematic for the reader? Couldn't one simply reject Asriel? I think that Pullman intends his readers to do so, but he is also setting a trap for his Christian critics, who will certainly not wish to identify with Asriel (even if they initially might have done so as readers). The Christian critique of Asriel will likely center on Asriel's apparent "end-justifies-means" ethic, namely the evil of sacrificing a child to open a way toward attaining what Asriel considers good. Pullman could then retort -- more or less plausibly -- that this is precisely what the Christian God does, i.e., sacrifice a child to attain the good. If Christians reject Asriel, then they must also reject their own God. If they refuse to reject their own God, then they cannot criticize Asriel.

I think that this is what Pullman is up to with his depiction of Asriel. Whether the trap that he springs catches Christian critics is less clear to me, for the two cases of sacrifice are not entirely analogous.

What do readers of Pullman think about this?

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At 12:02 PM, Anonymous Charles said...

Interesting. Hadn't thought of it that way.

I did realize that we were supposed to be conflicted in our feelings toward Lord Asriel, but I didn't make the connection to a possible trap. As you say, the two cases are not analogous. Perhaps the most glaring difference is that Christ was a willing sacrifice, whereas Roger was not.

(That's what you were talking about, right? God sending his son as a sacrifice?)

The whole divine trinity thing is another big difference (Roger was basically nothing to Asriel... although in the later books Asriel seems to treat his own daughter in a similar means-to-an-end fashion... I wonder what he would have done had Lyra showed up without Roger).

At 2:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, that's what I was referring to.

I probably need to re-read Pullman . . . but doing so would be like pulling my own teeth.

I just wish that the series had lived up to its early promise.

Jeffery Hodges

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