Philip Pullman has created a sort of evil Narnia, says John Townsend Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman, David Fickling Books, £9.99 So: another Philip Pullman book. For readers who may have missed this newspaper’s summary of the controversy surrounding this author, let me quickly bring you up to speed. Pullman is an author of children’s books who believes that Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, is nothing but “a very powerful and convincing mistake”. The nub of his message is simple: the Church is involved in a conspiracy against happiness and scientific progress, and the world would be a much better place if everyone stopped believing in God and silly things like that. The Church is a safe target that Pullman has rather boringly targeted. BBC journalists have gleefully misquoted Léonie Caldecott, a writer for this paper, as suggesting that Philip Pullman’s books were “worthy of the bonfire”. Thus, The Catholic Herald has been lampooned as a fundamentalist gang of loonies, Pullman has had acres of free newspaper coverage, and I have to apologise to my trendy, leftwing friends for writing for a paper that is perceived to be run by neanderthals.
I don’t like being a paper tiger. It is very lazy of writers like Philip Pullman to offend Christians and then jump on a vague bandwagon against religion in general. There’s nothing “subversive” or “challenging” about attacking Christianity. It’s been done to death. What is new about Pullman’s books is the way in which it has been done.
Lyra’s Oxford is an offshoot of the trilogy entitled His Dark Materials. It is set in the alternative universe that we first encountered in Northern Lights, the first book. History has taken a different course in this universe, mostly in harmless and enchanting ways.
But, offensively, the Church has become a vast civil service called “the Magisterium”, which protects the forces of evil. We meet Lyra back in her home, an Oxford college that only exists in her universe. Lyra is not left idle for long: she receives an urgent message from a witch’s daemon, an animal that is the manifestation of the witch’s soul, who tells her to go and fetch a medicine for the chief witch, who is ill. She must get this medicine from an alchemist called Sebastian Makepeace. Who is the mysterious alchemist? What is this horrible illness that kills witches? The puzzle thickens. Lyra sets off to the alchemist’s house in north Oxford to retrieve the medicine and save her dying friend.
This book is undoubtedly a good read. Pullman must be given his due. For those who know Oxford well, the story is a hoot. There is a fold-out map that allows the reader to explore the Oxford of the alternate universe. In Lyra’s Oxford, various colleges are plausi bly renamed, and there are new buildings such as a Zeppelin station. Christ Church has become Cardinal’s College, after its founder, Wolsey. There are new colleges, such as Durham College and Wordsworth College. The Queen’s College is now known as “Queen Philippa’s College”. Roads are in different positions. It was a relief to find my college, University College, in the same place.
But this book is more than a cheap parlour game for Oxford graduates. It is a book directed at children, with a dangerous message.
The capacity of children to trust is the essential quality that this book undermines. The daemon leads Lyra into danger, and she scolds herself for being too trusting. One would think the message to be drawn from the experience is simple and traditional: do not trust strangers. Yet Pullman manages to twist the message so that it becomes far more problematic for the Christian reader. For Pullman, the moral is deeper: Lyra should not trust anyone. Nothing is trustworthy, not even religion. “Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it,” cautions Sebastian Makepeace. Self-conscious cynicism is the order of the day. In this sense, Lyra’s Oxford is a parable for our times. Pullman’s universe promotes an attractive inversion of the Christian message that is simply wrong.
In many ways, these books are the exact opposite of the Narnia books. As a child, I loved the Lewis books, and I don’t like the way Pullman delights in inverting their conventions. In the Dark Materials books, the witches (along with gypsies, a pair of homosexual angels, and an apostate nun) represent the forces of good. In the Narnia books, witches represent the deepest evil. The White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe is a dictator who rules by making the land of Narnia winter, but never Christmas. Aslan, the Christ-like redeemer, defeats the witch and brings spring to Narnia. Lewis associated the children’s journey to Narnia with the temptation and redemption of Edmund, who is seduced by the White Witch and then saved by Aslan’s sacrifice. In the Dark Materials books, this situation is reversed. Lyra leaves a spring time Oxford to go to the frozen wastes of the arctic circle, the land of the witches. Lyra’s journey is a postmodern odyssey of personal discovery, in which Lyra makes some pretty unremarkable findings about “who she really is”. In Pullman’s universe, atheists are self-empowered. C S Lewis was far more accurate when he described atheists as joyless misanthropes.
Idon’t want these books to become children’s classics. In fact, I wouldn’t let a child of mine read one. What is most pernicious of all is that the message of this book (and the others in the series) is wrapped up in such persuasive language that a child will be unable to appraise it critically. He or she will be enchanted by Pullman’s gift for storytelling, without realising that he is motivated by a profound and worrying hatred of Christianity.