Pullman: Trivializing Tolkien


I am not particularly eager to attend to Philip Pullman or his atheistic propaganda piece, His Dark Materials, but a few days ago I read something he said that makes my blood boil. In an interview, recently published in Intelligent Life Magazine, Pullman called Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings “trivial”:

Several times Pullman reminds me that a work of fiction is not an argument. Perhaps it’s safest to say that in “His Dark Materials” he has constructed his own imaginative world so as not to submit to anyone else’s. He likes to quote William Blake’s line: “I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s.” His story is a rival to the narratives put forward by two earlier Oxford writers, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and C.S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia”. Pullman loathes the way the children in Narnia are killed in a car-crash. “I dislike his Narnia books because of the solution he offers to the great questions of human life: is there a God, what is the purpose, all that stuff, which he really does engage with pretty deeply, unlike Tolkien who doesn’t touch it at all. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is essentially trivial. Narnia is essentially serious, though I don’t like the answer Lewis comes up with. If I was doing it at all, I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not worth arguing with” [emphasis mine].

In another interview I just found on a blog called FilmChat and which may be linked to from Pullman’s own website, he clarifies what he means by the triviality of Tolkien:

As for Narnia – I’ve expressed my detestation for that series on several occasions and at length, so I won’t say very much about it here, except to note something that some commentators miss when lumping Lewis and Tolkien together, which is this: that Tolkien was a Catholic, for whom the basic issues of life were not in question, because the Church had all the answers. So nowhere in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is there a moment’s doubt about those big questions. No-one is in any doubt about what’s good or bad; everyone knows where the good is, and what to do about the bad. Enormous as it is, TLOTR is consequently trivial. Narnia, on the other hand, is the work of a Protestant – and an Ulster Protestant at that, for whom the individual interaction with the Bible and with God was a matter of daily struggle and endless moral questioning. That’s the Protestant tradition. So in Narnia the big questions are urgent and compelling and vital: is there a God? Who is it? How can I recognise him? What must I do to be good? I profoundly disagree with the answers that Lewis offers – in fact, as I say, I detest them – but Narnia is a work of serious religious engagement in a way that TLOTR could never be.

    The Nuance of Trivia

      When I first saw the quote from Intelligent life, I thought: “How could he be so ignorant of Tolkien? One would think that an Oxford don and well-known fantasy writer would have a more profound grasp of one of the masters of fantasy literature.”

      Of course, The Lord of the Rings is a profoundly religious book, even a Catholic work, but as Tolkien himself said, “unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” (Letters, n.142). His intention was not to write a Catholic allegory; however, his story telling was so in tune with transcendent values that his Catholic perspective was bound to make its mark.

      Then, after reading the FilmChat quote from Pullman and comparing it with the one from Intelligent Life, I realized, that his position on Tolkien is more complex. His reason for thinking The Lord of the Rings trivial is because it manifests religious certitude on fundamental issues. It seems that Pullman thinks TLOTR is trivial because Tolkien is not a skeptic. Although Pullman can’t stand the Narnia series, at least he can have an argument with Lewis, after all, Lewis, though certainly not a skeptic, was an Christian apologist and took into account the fact the many in the world are unbelievers.


      In fact, I would agree that Pullman has more in common with Lewis than he does with Tolkien. Both C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman produced propaganda. Tolkien did not; he assiduously avoided writing deliberate allegory.

      Not that I always think propaganda is bad, even though that word today carries primarily a pejorative sense. In general, I dislike literary propaganda, namely, the deliberate attempt to sway the reader to a certain philosophy by means of creating sympathy for those ideas through a story. The reason for my dislike, however, is not that all propaganda is bad, but that most literary propaganda is lousy literature. Remember The Da Vinci Code; not only is it full of falsehoods, it is also bad literature, because the storyline is preposterously contrived to convey the propaganda.

      Even so, while Lewis and Pullman share their propagandizing interests in common, there is also an important distinction. Lewis is plain about his intentions, while Pullman dodges and weaves when asked about what he is up to.

      Lewis, as a well known apologist for Christianity, produced white propaganda (“white” meaning it was clear to the readers that they were being propagandized). Even though he refers to the Narnia series and the space trilogy as “smuggling Christianity” it is pretty plain what he is doing. In fact, in the preface of the third installment of the space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, he makes his goal quite clear: “This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.” He makes a full disclosure of his intentions; even so, the fact that his point is dressed in the form of a story makes it appeal to the heart before the head, and thus its effect is as subtle as it is powerful. Hence, the term “smuggling Christianity” is well applied to Lewis’ fantasy literature.

      On the other hand, Pullman is cagey about his intentions. At one moment, he says that fiction is not an argument and then, in almost the same breath, calls Tolkien trivial because he does not present an argument. In fact, Pullman’s well-known identification of His Dark Materials as being about the “death of God,” is the reason for all the controversy, and he admits that he is presenting an argument: “If I was doing it at all, I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not worth arguing with.”

        But then a few moments later he says:

        It’s a foolish thing for the teller of a story to answer critics. If you’re putting forward an argument, you can argue back and demonstrate why your argument is better than theirs. But if someone doesn’t like a story you’ve written, what are you going to say? ‘Well, you should’? (Intelligent Life interview)

          This is the same thing Dan Brown has done by playing the propagandist and then pretending his work is only storytelling. Pullman creates a work that is self-consciously anti-Narnian, descries Tolkien for not being a propagandist and then says his literature does not present an argument. This is propaganda dressed all in black.

          In fairness to Pullman, I will admit that he is generally free enough with answers on a philosophical level when he is interviewed. Perhaps he believes it is necessary to draw a sharp line between the manner of his story telling and the philosophical arguments that underlie his stories. Even so, I dislike his lack of forthrightness about the nature of his literary propaganda.

          Tolkien’s Argument

          In fact, Pullman is right that Tolkien does not present an argument, and he is also basically right that in Tolkien’s writings “No-one is in any doubt about what’s good or bad; everyone knows where the good is, and what to do about the bad.” Just two caveats: First, that Tolkien does not present an argument just means that his intention is not to propagandize; however, the philosophical and ethical principles that underlie TLOTR are in direct and dynamic conflict with those of HDM. Secondly, in TLOTR there is a question concerning what to do about the bad. The great temptation in TLOTR, the great “doubt,” is whether evil may be done for a good purpose, that is, whether the perverse power of the Ring may used for the cause of good. I will admit, however, that this temptation is not so much intellectual as it is affective. The temptation is to rationalize and usurp a power not our own. It is central to Tolkien’s story and it is not trivial, as we shall see.

          But Pullman’s main reason for considering TLOTR trivial is its the lack of argument and the presence of certitude about the “basic issues of life.” This statement underscores not only his disagreement with religious beliefs, but also his utter contempt for them. His position comes close to suggesting that the lives of men lived on the basis of firmly held religious convictions are, and can only be, trivial. Granted, Pullman is speaking of the issues of literature qua literature, but he implies that a life based on religious certitude is by nature insignificant.

          Here the secularist dogma of universal tolerance reveals itself as self-contradictory. By implicitly trivializing the lives of religious men and women, Pullman risks promoting the same fascism which he explicitly rejects.

          Tolkien is anything but trivial in his writings, based as they are on fundamental truths. In Chesterton’s book about one of Pullman’s heroes, George Bernard Shaw, we find G.K. disagreeing with Shaw on the question of dogma:

          Dogmas are often spoken of as if they were signs of the slowness or endurance of the human mind. As a matter of fact, they are marks of mental promptitude and lucid impatience. . . .Dogmas are not dark and mysterious; rather a dogma is like a flash of lightning–an instantaneous lucidity that opens across a whole landscape.

            Elsewhere Chesterton wrote that the brain is a machine for coming to conclusions. Pullman thinks TLOTR trivial, it would seem, because, like most secularists, life is about searching, not finding. From that viewpoint, life must appear to be a quagmire.

            While Tolkien had no inclination to propagandize or to present an argument, he grounded himself on the only thing a good argument can be based on, solid first principles, the “flash of lightning” that quickens lucid thought. And in this regard he has much to offer in argument with Philip Pullman, perhaps even more than Lewis.

            Paradise Lost or Found

            It is a well known fact that His Dark Materials, takes both its name and inspiration from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Pullman has said, quoting Blake, that while ostensibly writing on the subject of the Fall of Man from the point of view of traditional Christianity, Milton was “of the devil’s party and did not know it.”

            His Dark Materials is essentially a recasting of the Fall of Man, in which God, renamed The Authority, is the villain, a usurper of power. Satan, in the character of Lord Asriel, is not the liar, but the revealer of truth. Eve is now the heroine, in the character of Lyra Belacqua, who asserts her independence from dogma and theocracy. And Original Sin is not a sin at all, but the cosmic “Dust,” which is the metaphor for “human wisdom, science and art, all the accumulated and transmissible achievements of the human mind” (FilmChat interview). Tolkien has much to say about this in The Lord of the Rings, and none of it is trivial.

            For Tolkien “[t]here cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall — all stories are ultimately about the fall — at least not for human minds as we know them and have them” (Letters, n. 130). At least on this point, universal experience would seem to make the fact of the Fall beyond dispute.

            Chesterton considered the Fall one point of Christian dogma that can be easily proven (Orthodoxy). He also said that acceptance of the Fall is the only “encouraging view of life.” Indeed, knowledge of the Fall assures us that “we have misused a good world, and not merely been trapped in a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will” (The Thing: Why I am a Catholic). Tolkien understood this.

            Pullman, on the other hand, seems to blame all the world’s woes on theocracy. The limiting of individual freedom on the basis of religious authority is the great evil to be resisted and crushed. Here hidden prejudice of the tolerance dogma is again revealed. According to Pullman, men are not wounded, except by the doctrine of the Universal Wound, imposed by malicious theocracy.

            For Tolkien, the struggle to achieve a transcendent life, to overcome the Fall and experience what was lost through it, is man’s constant yearning. The Lord of the Rings is mostly about death and immortality (Letters, n. 85), and while in Tolkien’s mythology the death of man is not the result of the Fall, nevertheless as one who is fallen, man’s constant temptation will be to secure a immortality by his own device, that is, by power and domination. He is destined to yearn for eternity, but as one fallen, is tempted to achieve it by usurpation.

            Enchantment or the Machine

            And here is where Tolkien does have an argument with Pullman. For Tolkien both men and elves, (the latter representing the aesthetic and creative aspect of mankind), are sub-creators, rational creatures entrusted by the Creator of the world to bring about His intentions by their own participation in His creative power. The magic of the elves, according to Tolkien, is more properly referred to as Enchantment, the invocation of a word upon the world, an intelligible spark that ennobles and elevates the truth and beauty that surrounds men and elves (cf. On Fairy Stories).

            In TLOTR, when the fellowship is within the protection of Lothlórien, Galadriel invites Sam, who had always wanted to see elf-magic, to gaze into her mirror. She tells him: “For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word for the deceits of the enemy” (Fellowship, 353). Tolkien points out that Galadriel is moved to clarify for Sam the difference between the magic of the elves (Enchantment) and the “deceits of the enemy” (the Machine), because confusion exists between them (due to the Fall), and because the two are radically different and irreconcilable. He explains this at length:

            Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, the sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife. This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love for the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of ‘Fall’. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator — especially against mortality. Both of these (along or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, — and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though closely related to Magic than is usually recognized (Letters, n. 131).

            The yearning for immortality, must be subordinated to the limits of truth, the truth that immortality cannot be achieved by being a creator in an absolute sense, but only by accepting one’s limited role in this world, sub-creating according to the Creator’s designs, and trusting in His eternal providence.

            Tolkien admits that he does not use the word “Magic” consistently. This underscores the inherent confusion between sub-creation and the creative usurpation that results from the Fall. Sub-creative magic is Enchantment, or Art elevated to its highest potential, something selfless and disinterested in power and domination. Creative usurpation is the Machine, which is embodied by the Ring and whose goal is always domination and immortality by the destruction of all limitations, including those imposed by God (ibid.). (This is why it is so important to point out that Pullman is wrong when he asserts that in TLOTR everyone already knows what to do about the bad. The Ring itself is connected to the selfless Art of the elves, but that Art has been perverted by Sauron to the end of power and domination. The conflict between these two purposes is a Fall and has much to do with the literary tension of TLOTR.)

            On the other hand, Pullman’s Dust, that spark of consciousness which tends toward wisdom and creativity is not sub-creative, but autonomous and self-assertive. Lyra, his Eve figure throws off the yoke of subordination, rejects the Magisterium’s version of the Fall and believes the satanic dogma: You will be as gods. Creativity can only be achieved without rules. In Book Two of His Dark Materials, The Subtle Knife, Serafina Pekkala, the Queen of the Witches says:

            I don’t know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history … it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out … That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other.

              Pullman himself has remarked about his work: “It’s the story of the Fall which is the story of how what some would call sin, but I would call consciousness, comes to us.” Nothing but unmitigated license on demand will be tolerated in Pullman’s Eden story.

              The Heart of Darkness

              The enmity between the world view of Pullman and that of Tolkien is best exemplified, perhaps, in their view of beauty and the way that aspect of reality embodies itself in the icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Pullman lays before us a very telling remark when during his FilmChat interview he is dismissive of the word “spiritual.” He paints us a picture of what he considers a delusion:

              I’m thinking of those portraits of saints and martyrs by painters of the Baroque period and the Counter-Reformation: horrible grubby-looking old men with rotten teeth wearing dark dusty robes and gazing upwards with an expression of fanatical fervour, or beautiful young women in sumptuous clothes with wide eyes and parted lips gazing upwards with an expression of fanatical fervour, or martyrs having the flesh ripped from their bones as they gaze upwards with an expression of fanatical fervour – gazing at the Virgin Mary, or a vision of the Cross, or something else that’s hovering in the air just above them. And you know that what they’re seeing isn’t really there; that if you were there in front of them, you wouldn’t see the Virgin sitting on a little cloud six feet above the floor; all you’d see would be the rotten teeth or the sumptuous clothes or the torn flesh and the expression of fanatical fervour. They’re seeing things. They’re deluded, in fact.

              According to Pullman the perennial and unfading beauty of the Madonna and Child is a delusion, nothing really to see but “rotten teeth or the sumptuous clothes or the torn flesh and the expression of fanatical fervour.”

              For Tolkien, of course, things are different. In exactly the same place where he discusses the fact that TLOTR is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” he claims that Our Lady is the basis “upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded” (Letters, n. 142). He also admits, though apparently he himself did not see it before it was suggested to him, “that the invocations of Elbereth, and the character of Galadriel as directly described (or through the words of Gimli and Sam) were clearly related to Catholic devotion to Mary” (n. 213).

              I don’t think much needs to be said relative to the difference between Pullman and Tolkien when it comes to the Blessed Virgin. Pullman’s New Eve is a usurper, Tolkien’s is the Perfection of Creation and the perfect a Sub-Creatrix. Chesterton, perhaps said it best when he versified his regard for those who attack Our Lady, the masterpiece of God’s creation, in his poem “A Party Question”:

              But when that tangled war our fathers waged
              Stirred against her–then could we hear right well,
              Through roar of men not wrongfully enraged,
              The little hiss that only comes from hell.

              A Worthy Adversary

              Tolkien is actually nose to nose with Pullman, but unfortunately the latter, the master of darkness, is in the dark about it. Pullman asserts that the Original Sin is the grand lie of the Christian religion, the suppression of independent consciousness and creativity, that dogma and “theocracy” obliterates “every good feeling.” He suggests that Christianity is the most suppressive institution imaginable relative to beauty and creativity. However, we may counter that one of the most eloquent and persuasive “apologists” for the creative power of man, and his independence from coercion and domination, is not the secularist revisionist of the Fall, but the great advocate of the traditional Eden story, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He is not only argumentative, he is combative. Brushing him off as trivial is no defense of Pullman’s darkness.

              Enchantment for Tolkien, and Dust for Pullman are the metaphors for imagination, creativity and the quest for transcendent happiness. The question is whether humility or pride leads the way along the path to happiness, to finding what was lost in Eden. As Tolkien says: “We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, it gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile” (Letters, n. 96). Only a humble heart will willingly embrace the sense of loss and reach beyond the veil of this life.

              The Lord of the Rings, though not the propaganda piece that is His Dark Materials, is an eloquent argument for both the Christian imagination and the practice of humility. Its light only shows the hues of Pullman’s work to be truly a dark matter.

              If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be! (Mt. 6:23).

              3 thoughts on “Pullman: Trivializing Tolkien

              1. The thing I like about Tolkien’s writings, is that ‘White is White and Black is Black.’ You have good and evil, and the facts are stated. You can’t sit on the fence and not choose a side. You are either working FOR the forces of evil, or against them.

              2. Pingback: The shadow of Tolkien « Meta·ʃcriba

              3. Pingback: Phillip Pullmans protestantischer Atheismus | SonntagsGesellschaft

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