One of the major arguments against Philip Pullman and the His Dark Materials trilogy is his reported distaste -- could or could not be putting it mildly, depending on what interviews you read -- for C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. Pullman has been at the center of controversy recently with the opening of The Golden Compass, the first movie based on the trilogy, which some say is anti-Christian.
We just happen to have a noted Lewis scholar in the area in Devin Brown (photo, left). The Asbury College English professor, who is a visiting writer at Transylvania University this year, is the author of Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. His new book, Inside Prince Caspian: A Guide to Exploring the Return to Narnia, is due out Jan 1. The new book is in anticipation of the May 16 release of the second film in Walden Media's Narnia series.
But Compass is the topic du jour, and before the movie opened, I rang up Brown to discuss it. Here's an edited transcript of our chat:
Copious Notes: What do you know about the controversy, and what's your perspective?
Devin Brown: I've read The Golden Compass and I know it pretty well. I have not read the other two, and the reason I stopped reading them was not any inappropriate spirituality that drove me nuts. I just didn't find the reading to be as engaging as other things I might have read. It was fine. I liked it mildly. It wasn't enough to keep me reading, but there was nothing that put me off.
Apparently, a big part of the controversy has to do with the second and third books -- which have not been made into films yet -- which have a little bit more overt anti-church, anti-God sentiment.
So, there are two things you can talk about: Philip Pullman's book of The Golden Compass and then the movie from the book, which is apparently toned down from the book, which wasn't that hot in the first place. And then, there are the next two books, which have not been made into films yet. So, these people are reacting to something that's in a book two or three down the line that has not been made into a movie yet.
My personal view of The Golden Compass is, I didn't see anything objectionable to me. It's set in an alternative universe where a group of evil people called The Magisterium have really taken over the church, and they use kidnapping, assassination, torture and other methods to hold onto their power. The good people in this world are opposed to The Magisterium, and I would guess that good people in our world would be opposed to a group like this as well. So, if there had not been a second or third book, I don't think we'd be having this discussion now . . . There will be a point later where this evil church will become more prominent, and people might say, 'Well, isn't that anti-Christian?' Well, Pullman may be anti-church, and the church he's against is a church we should all be against . . .
I just have to wonder if there aren't some people out there who make a living by being incensed and outraged by certain elements in fiction. That gets them talking points on shows. Then there are some people who find some significance in being terrified for the youth of today and that the Pullman Compass is going to turn them all into -- this is one of the ones I read on the Internet -- 'Satanists and atheists.' Really, I think you're one or the other, because I don't know any atheists who believe in Satan. But this woman I was reading was terrified kids would go to this movie, which she hasn't seen, based on a book she hasn't read, and they'll be turned into Satanists and atheists. I don't see that happening.
CN: It does seem like you can't release a piece of children's literature these days without people getting upset about it for one reason or another.
DB: Then you wonder, what's the real problem? I would say there are obviously people who are afraid of the imagination.
There has been a strain in all religious faiths, including Christianity, that's been afraid of our God-given imaginations. It's a powerful thing, and I suppose there's the extreme case where it gets out of hand. But I think kids are a lot smarter than these people give them credit for being. I don't think there's ever been a young person who read the Harry Potter books and thought, 'Is that real?' They know it's a story . . .
There's this group that thinks people will read about evil in a story and become evil. I suppose if evil is glorified and depicted as cool or fun or exciting, they have a point there. But in the books they typically object to, The Golden Compass included, the evil people are typically creepy, and we don't like them. And the people we like are quite moral.
So people get really upset if they think Pullman, who is an atheist, is attacking their church. But this is an alternate universe, and the church there looks nothing like any church I've seen.
CN: I remember talking to one of the producers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which also partially takes place in an alternate universe, and he was saying that the way they saw it, people could take it as Christian allegory, if that's the way they saw it, or they could take it as a fantasy story about good vs. evil. Are these two stories in the same league, in that way?
DB: Pullman has made sort of a reputation for himself in contesting the Narnia stories, and he throws in The Lord of the Rings, too. The fact that he has outright hatred for The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings trilogy does not in itself make him a bad person; possibly a bad literary critic, but not a bad person. He got a lot of press making outrageous claims about the Narnia books, which really don't hold up, but he got a lot of press.
But now that he has the movies out, he's sort of playing down his atheism and playing down his anti-church thing, calling it anti-totalitarianism, instead. But I don't really think that's a cop out. The thing that he's against in his books isn't the church. It's a group of despots that have banded together to grab a hold of power. There's certainly nothing Christian about them . . .
CN: So, I'm taking it, from what you're saying, that you don't quite see the outrage here.
DB: Well, as with any movie, I would say people have the right to not see it. That's fine. And maybe they'll decide they don't want their children to go see it. And that's fine. On the other hand, I'd say people who want to see the film should do so, and decide for themselves if there's anything anti-Christian about it. And what if there is? I don't think there's anything anti-Christian in this one, though in the later books, there might be something. In the third book, they come upon God, and he's a wimp, and they kill him. He's not the God we know. He's some other god. So I don't know what you'd say about that. I'm not too fond of the god they find in the trilogy either.
So let's say there is something negative. You can say, 'I'm not going to support this kind of work. I'm not going to purchase a ticket,' or someone might say, 'I want to know everything there is to know about it. I want to be able to speak accurately about it, and how my beliefs differ from what is on the screen.' I am certainly more of the second kind. I want to read Bertrand Russell's Why I'm Not a Christian, I want to read Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion, and be able to discuss how and why I might disagree with them.
I don't think Christians have anything to fear from Freud or Marx, and certainly not Philip Pullman.
~ Here's a link to Amy Wilson's Dec. 2 story about how Central Kentucky schools and churches have been responding to The Golden Compass.