Pullman the Preacher

17 Sep

It’s always nice to know that you’re not imagining things. (Particularly when you spend a lot of time doing just that–on purpose.) I read through Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series because I wanted to be fair. Pullman’s atheism felt heavy-handed, and I wondered whether he was really more didactic than Lewis, or whether I was just uncomfortable with didacticism from an opposing point of view.

PSo when I found this article in The Atlantic, I was greatly comforted. It isn’t just me. There’s a reason that lots of people–even Christians–read through Narnia without noticing the Christian elements. I’ve never heard of someone reading Pullman without realizing that he is an atheist. Yes, atheists get preachy, too. And it’s a shame, because Pullman really is a good writer. He could have done a lot with the His Dark Materials books if he hadn’t gotten caught up in trying to prove that atheism can be an emotionally satisfying worldview.

From the article:

…An appropriate response to this irritation would have been to write an “atheist’s Narnia” in which the polemic is less abrasive – and therefore more effective, perhaps – than Lewis’s Christian sallies sometimes are. More myth, in other words, and less message; more Middle-Earth, perhaps, and less Narnia. Instead, Pullman seems to have set out to take the things he hated about Lewis’ writing and recreate them, but at a heightened, more hectoring pitch.

There are other children’s fantasies by atheists that offer an alternative to Narnia. I’m thinking, in particular, of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” series. Cooper‘s world is rather dualistic–which is not atheistic enough, perhaps, for Pullman–but she wrote a compelling series that doesn’t preach.

I enjoy books that struggle toward what their authors see as the truth. Some authors do this successfully–Flannery O’Connor, and C.S. Lewis much of the time. Others–Ayn Rand, for instance–get so caught up in trying to demonstrate the truth of their viewpoints that they end up sacrificing their artistry.

All art is didactic in some sense. Even if you really don’t care what conclusions someone else might draw from it, you have beliefs, and those beliefs shape the way you write. Like it or not. So ranting against didacticism isn’t the answer. But the good of the story has to come first. If the story isn’t improved by adding something, don’t add it. Even if it proves that your viewpoint is eternally right. Just don’t do it. Preachy stories are annoying. Period.

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Posted by on September 17, 2014 in Fantasy


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