Is It Possible to Like Both C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman at the Same Time?

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There’s a short piece in this week’s Time in which I chat with Philip Pullman. It’s here.

I don’t know if it comes across in the article — which I wish were longer and better — what a warm, intelligent presence Pullman is. He focuses this very appealing, avuncular, charming beam of interest at you while you’re talking. He takes what you’re saying seriously. He’s also very willing — as not all interviewees are — to say what he means, and be passionate about it, even when he’s on the record. And having breakfast. And answering the same questions for the 1,000th time.

For example, we talked about C.S. Lewis. Pullman is regularly called upon to breathe fire on the subject of Lewis, and he did so with relish. What — Pullman asked himself rhetorically — would you think about Christianity if your only source of information were The Chronicles of Narnia?

I think you’d come away thinking that the highest Christian virtue is martial valor. Courage in battle. You’d also come away believing that a lot of other things are part of the Christian message. Such as the disparagement of women. Such as a suspicion and hatred of people with dark skin who smell of garlic.

You’d also come away believing that the greatest task of a Christian would be to get out of this world, get out of this earth, as quickly as possible and go to the next one. Because what Lewis does with the children in that story is to take them through all these adventures, they see wonderful things, and they learn great truths, and so on, and then he kills them. Instead of letting them go free, as I think would be the moral thing to do, the Christian thing to do, to use these truths they’ve learned and these strengths they’ve gained to make the world a better place. To do good! But he takes them away. Doesn’t allow them to do that! Lucky children, you’re dead! You can relax now!

And so this intelligent but uninformed reader would consider that this Christian religion was a mighty peculiar thing, which involved fighting, hatred of women and minorities, and a loathing of this physical world that we live in, and a wish to escape from it.

He could have stopped there. He did not. Pullman went on.

His [i.e. Lewis’s] comments about women throughout are loathsome. His attitude to children who are fat and have freckles, for example – for God’s sake! What is the point? Someone once compared him to that sort of teacher who sides with the bullies in their class, against the weak children, and that’s exactly right, that’s exactly the position Lewis takes up. It’s a foul position, morally speaking.

That isn’t even everything, by a long chalk. Pullman’s positions are never un-nuanced — absolute positions are among the things he has no patience with — and he did have some praise for Lewis. Some. “[He] was a man of great intelligence and a very fine critic. He said some very sensible and interesting things about writing for children, for example. But when he wrote fiction, something strange entered into him.”

It’s odd for me to think about Lewis that way. I’ve been fascinated with Lewis since I was a little kid, and I found myself wanting to defend him. But even I can see that there are ugly passages in the Chronicles — I once called Lewis a death-eater in Time, because of the way he writes about the Calormen. And Lewis did make a fetish of innocence and childhood, in a creepy way that Pullman very bracingly inverts in His Dark Materials (to Pullman growing up and learning about the world are actually good things). But I don’t know! Can’t I love them both? Tell me, Interweb!