The Kingdom of God, the Republic of Heaven: Depictions of God in CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials
Cathy McSporran (English Literature: University of Glasgow)
1 Since 1998, two of Britain's most popular and renowned works of children's fantasy fiction have become, as one topical website states, a space in which 'worldviews collide'. CS Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials have been compared, contrasted and quarrelled over in the most fervent -- and acrimonious -- terms. It was Pullman himself who threw down the gauntlet: his 1998 Guardian article 'The Dark Side of Narnia' described the Chronicles as 'racist', 'misogynistic', 'sneering', 'reactionary', 'vile and poisonous'. It goes on to accuse Lewis's 'powerful seductive narrative voice' of peddling 'propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology'.
|2||CS Lewis is of course no longer around to defend his creation, or to make a counter-attack on Pullman or his work. Nevertheless, His Dark Materials has not been short of harsh criticism. Although even the most devoted haters of His Dark Materials tend to concede the 'beauty, detail and believability of the fantasy worlds Pullman creates', they have gone on to condemn His Dark Materials as 'reductive and contemptuous'; as dependant upon narrative 'absurdities'; as 'anti-religious tub-thumping'; or, in one memorable Amazon review, 'as beautiful as a cobra, and about as welcome in the house'.|
|3||It is significant that very little of this criticism attacks the story-telling skills of either Lewis or Pullman. Everyone seems to agree these two can write. The problem in both cases is the ideology, and how that ideology is communicated. Both The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials are set in a system of magical worlds, and both tell the adventures of a group of bold English schoolchildren who stumble onto these worlds. This is of course a very common trope in children's fantasy, from Carroll's Alice to Rowling's Harry Potter; however, while Rowling contents herself with generalised conflicts between good and evil, Lewis's and Pullman's agendas are rather more high-concept. The children of both The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials end up re-enacting the Biblical events of the rebellion of Satan against God, the temptation in the Garden of Eden, and the Fall of Man. Rowling's young wizards never mention any kind of religion; but Lewis's and Pullman's children meet, face-to-face, the deity of their own respective system of worlds. Lewis's children go through the wardrobe and meet the lion, Aslan; Pullman's children find themselves on a battlefield in Heaven, and encounter the being named only as The Authority.|
|4||Aslan and Authority: as the A-names suggest, these two are the Alpha males of their respective worlds. They both hold absolute power. Apart from that, however, Aslan and Authority are as different as any two deities could possibly be.|
|5||In this paper, then, I will outline one of the ways in which The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials oppose each other: their contrasting depictions of God. There are many other ways in which Pullman's trilogy could be considered an 'anti-Narnia'; Pullman's representations of childhood and adulthood, sin and redemption, sexuality and the Fall, are all rigidly antithetical to Lewis's. This paper, however, will restrict itself to representations of a Supreme Deity, with a brief outline of the 'Great Adversary' -- the Satan figure -- of each god, and of the Afterlife each godhead has created for his subjects. I will show how Lewis creates his Aslan to be utterly sympathetic, good and true -- and how Pullman creates his Authority to be utterly unsympathetic, wicked and false. I will argue that each writer uses this black-and-white figure to express, and to favour, the writer's own stated religious ideology; I will draw on other writings by Lewis and Pullman to outline what that stated ideology is. In the case of Lewis, this is the Christianity laid out in Mere Christianity and Preface to Paradise Lost. In the case of Pullman, this is an anti-clerical humanism laid out in several interviews and articles.|
|6||As we have seen, then, both Aslan and Authority wield absolute power over their subjects. Aslan is a Christ-figure and nature-god all in one, 'the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea' (Chronicles of Narnia, 146). From the start, Lewis stresses the absolute benevolence of his divine ruler. Narnia's child-characters instinctively recognise his goodness; they experience 'that strange feeling -- like the first signs of spring, like good news' (CoN, 146), merely at the sound of his name. Aslan loves those he rules, and empathises with them in their suffering; Digory, whose mother is terminally ill, feels Aslan 'must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.' (CoN, 83). Aslan is even prepared to die for his subjects -- he sacrifices himself to save the 'traitor' Edmund.|
|7||We see no such benevolence, however, in the God of His Dark Materials, Pullman's cruel and despotic 'Authority'. He imprisons every dead soul in the hellish Underworld; his Church is a 'permanent Inquisition' (The Amber Spyglass, 393) which commits all the atrocities of the auto-da-fé. The Authority's forces practise what in the universe of His Dark Materials is the ultimate cruelty: the process known as 'intercision', the severing of the psychic link between a human and his or her companion animal-spirit, known as the 'daemon'. The daemon represents the life-force, the part of oneself one leaves behind at death; there is 'no passage to the lands of the dead' for one who still has a daemon (AS, 296). The daemons also represents sexuality; they take their final shape at the first sexual experience, 'having felt a lover's hands upon them' (AS, 528). Thus intercision constitutes both castration and lobotomy. Religious law, in His Dark Materials, is the 'life-hating ideology' that Pullman perceives in The Chronicles of Narnia.|
|8||In both books, closely bound up with God's goodness, are issues of God's right to absolute rule. Throughout the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis stresses the legitimacy of Aslan's godhood, capitalising him as 'the Lion'. Moreover, Aslan rules Narnia because he is the Creator of Narnia; the reader witnesses the Creation for him/herself: |
The land itself recognises him as King; the White Witch's false winter starts to dissolve as soon as Aslan sets foot on Narnian soil (CoN 145 onwards). Aslan is both omniscient and omnipresent; when Lucy tells him, 'it was kind of you to come,' he replies, 'I have been here all the time.' (CoN, 498). He is immortal; like Christ, he dies but is resurrected. (CoN, 182). Aslan has a 'hands-on' relationship with his subjects, appearing to them frequently and in person (eg CoN, 498).
|9||In this we see one of the few areas in which The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials share common ideological ground: the somewhat Presbyterian view that a true god requires no Church to make intercession between himself and his subjects. Priests are shown as contemptible in both these works. In Narnia, there is only one 'priest' of Aslan: a talking ape called 'Shift' (CoN, 669 onwards), who turns out to be a fake. Pullman's priests are life-hating zealots, whose cold-bloodedness is indicated by the forms of their daemons: non-mammals such as frogs, lizards and beetles (AS, 69, 73 & 80). They form a sharp contrast with the warm-blooded mammalian daemons, which tend to be owned by sympathetic characters (like Will and Lyra) or by characters capable of redemption; the ruthless Mrs Coulter, for example, has a golden-furred monkey, whose warm colouring hints at the passionate self-sacrifice she will eventually make to save her daughter.|
|10||While Aslan inspires his beloved people against the false priest, however, Pullman's Authority contacts his subjects only through the medium of his cold-blooded priests and their Church. Once, like Aslan, Authority 'walked in the garden and spoke' with humanity (AS, 344); but he is now remote and redundant, and delegates his power to his tyrannical regent, Metatron. Authority is neither omniscient nor omnipresent -- by the time the child-heroes encounter him, he is 'demented and powerless' (AS, 431) and has 'no will of his own' (AS, 432). Neither is he immortal, as we shall see later. Most shockingly to those he rules, he is a usurper, not the true Creator:|
|11||Lewis, on the other hand, models his 'usurper' figure not as Yahweh, but as Yahweh's antithesis: Lucifer. The villainous White Witch, the 'false Queen' of Narnia, is Aslan's Great Adversary: the rebellious Satan of Narnia. Like Authority, an angel pretending to be God, she too usurps power by pretending to be what she is not; that is, human: |
Lilith of course was banished from Eden for refusing to 'lie under' Adam; the Witch, therefore, represents not only the first mortal to rebel against divine authority, but also the first woman to rebel against masculine authority. In Narnia, this is not held to be an admirable thing; here a rebellious female is not just wicked but literally inhuman, a daughter of Lilith and therefore a Jinn. Like Milton's Garden of Eden, Narnia was created as a hierarchy -- Aslan places humans above Beasts, and males above females. Aslan approves only 'Daughters of Eve' to be Queens of Narnia, and no 'Daughter of Eve' reigns here without a High King to outrank her. A Queen who tries to rule without a King is effectively rebelling against God.
|12||The White Witch therefore, as both Lilith and Satan, has a double dose of what Lewis has described as the 'Great Sin': Pride, through which 'the devil became the devil... the complete anti-God state of mind' (Lewis, MC, 100). Lewis shows his abhorrence of such pride by making his 'rebel', the White Witch, not only doubly unsympathetic but doubly unnatural. In her female Pride she is inhuman, a 'Jinn'; in her mortal Pride she is undead, a vampire-like immortal whose skin is 'deadly white, white as salt' (CoN, 93). In Lewis's system, it is she who is cold-blooded -- she who contrasts with the warm-blooded lion Aslan, who is described throughout the book as 'golden' (CoN, eg 79, 175), like the monkey-daemon of Mrs Coulter. Lewis's White Witch is reminiscent of Andersen's Snow-Queen, associated always with the cold and the sterile. Those who displease her are not just imprisoned, but frozen: turned into statues (CoN, 154). She keeps Narnia itself frozen in time, in the condition most terrible to a child reader -- 'always winter and never Christmas' (CoN, 159) -- thereby forestalling the Winter Solstice and the coming of spring.|
|13||The White Witch is also, as Lewis believed Milton's Satan to be, ludicrous. When Satan says 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven', Lewis responds: 'it fails to be roaring farce only because it spells agony' (Lewis, PPL,103). Similarly, the White Witch was once Empress of another world, until she wiped out her own people rather than let anyone else rule them, thereby giving herself nothing and no-one to rule (CoN, 41). To Lewis revolt against the divine will is not only wicked, it is foolish to the point of being risible.|
|14||The Satan-figure in His Dark Materials is rather more complex. Pullman has clearly stated his position on the Satanic rebellion -- he has paraphrased Blake on Milton by claiming, 'I am of the Devil's party, and I know it.' So we might expect Pullman's Satan-figure -- the aristocratic human, Lord Asriel -- to be entirely sympathetic, and completely antithetical to Lewis's White Witch. We are certainly forced to perceive Asriel's rebellion as justified, since the reign of Authority is so entirely oppressive and cruel.|
|15||Lord Asriel himself, however, is far from kindly. His name implies a capacity for ruthlessness: in the Koran, Azrael is the angel of death, who severs the soul from the body. Lord Asriel's daemon, his companion spirit-animal, is a leopard; Asriel himself is often figured as a pitiless feline, 'proud and beautiful and deadly' (Northern Lights, 377). He mirrors his hated opponents in one very striking way: he too is a child-killer, who sacrifices his daughter's friend Rodger to gain power for an experiment. Even more tellingly, Asriel kills the child in the same way the Authority's Church kills children -- by intercision -- cutting the psychic link between the boy and his daemon. Like his namesake, Lord Asriel severs the link between the soul and the body, with no sign of regret or remorse; we are told that Roger was 'crying and pleading, begging, sobbing, and Lord Asriel took no notice except to knock him to the ground'. (NL, 391)|
|16||Lord Asriel's potential for redemption is prefigured, as Mrs Coulter's is, by his possession of a mammalian 'warm-blooded' daemon; Asriel is eventually redeemed by joining Mrs Coulter in a selfless death. Until then, however, the reader is likely to wonder just whose side he's on. His fellow rebels believe he wants what they want: a free and equitable 'republic of heaven'. Asriel himself, himself, keeps quiet on the type of government he intends to establish. He hardly strikes the reader as a natural democrat -- his manservant of forty years says 'his lordship... wouldn't confide in me any more than in his shaving-mug' (The Subtle Knife, 46) -- and his high-handed attitude makes us wonder exactly how willing he would be to surrender his aristocratic status.|
|17||Asriel is one of the few morally ambiguous characters in His Dark Materials. He is both a freedom-fighter and an angel of death. He reminds us perhaps that however justified a revolution may be, it is rarely accomplished without the loss of innocent life.|
|18||While the contrast between the two Great Adversaries is not entirely clear-cut, the respective Worlds of the Dead created by Aslan and by Authority are polar opposites. Once again in the Chronicles of Narnia, we see Aslan as emphatically Christlike, separating the dead into the damned and the saved. He calls all the creatures of Narnia before him at the day of judgement: |
This of course is a direct allusion to the gospel of Matthew (25), which predicts that Christ will 'separate [the dead souls] one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left' (verses 32-3). Just as the sheep on Christ's right are 'blessed', and called to '[our] Father's kingdom', so those on Aslan's right follow him 'Further up and further in' (CoN 755 onwards) to Aslan's country. The fate of those who go into the shadow on Aslan's left is not specified; it almost certainly represents damnation, however, since the 'cursed' goats on Christ's left are dispatched to the 'everlasting fire'.
|19||The criterion for judgement here, however, is rather different. In the Biblical case one is saved or damned by how one treats one's fellow man: Christ says, 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (verse 40)'. In Narnia, though, what matters is whether or not one loves Aslan. One of the English children, Susan, has lost her faith and love for Aslan, and now regards Narnia as simply a 'funny game'; she is conspicuous by her absence at Aslan's day of judgement, and, like those who went into Aslan's 'deep dark shadow', she is never seen again. There is little space in Lewis's tale to disagree with the doctrine of 'Aslan is Lord'.|
Whatever we may think of Aslan or his judgement, however, he does at least deliver what he promises. He tells the children, 'When you meet me here [in Narnia] again, you will have come to stay' (CoN, 662); this is exactly what takes place in the closing chapter of the Chronicles. The Authority too promises to 'separate out the sinners and the righteous' (AS, 264), and to grant the faithful 'eternity in the company of saints and angels praising the Almighty, in a state of bliss' (AS, 335). This, however, turns out to be a lie. The Afterlife is the same for everyone, and is by no means blissful:
Authority's Hades is reminiscent of the eternal tedium of the Classical underworld, where the soul endures forever the 'flavourless existence of a shadow or phantom', and to Dante's Limbo, where the unbaptised exist without pain but also without joy, denied the salvation of Christian faith. Christian faith, however, is no salvation here; Lyra and Will meet the ghost of a young woman 'who had died as a martyr centuries before', who tells them: 'When we were alive, they told us that when we died we'd go to heaven. And they said that heaven was a place of joy and glory... [but] the land of the dead isn't a place of reward or a place of punishment. It's a place of nothing. The good come here as well as the wicked, and all of us languish in this gloom for ever, with no hope of freedom, or joy, or sleep or rest or peace.' (The Amber Spyglass, 331)
|21||There is little doubt that the Authority himself -- rather than his Church -- has consigned humanity to this eternal Limbo. The dead are tormented by Harpies, who tell the children: 'Thousands of years ago, when the first ghosts came down here, the Authority gave us the power to see the worst in every one' (AS, 331. Italics mine). This appears to be an act of gratuitous cruelty on the part of the Authority, since the dead are neither threat nor enemy to him; even the White Witch does not imprison those who support her. The anti-Narnian drive of Pullman's work seems to have made his God a bogeyman, worse even than Lewis's Satanic Witch; his actions are not only vicious but also deeply illogical.|
|22||There is no divine Harrowing of Hell, then, even for the Authority's most devoted followers. Help comes at last not from Christ, but from Lyra and Will, who perform their own mass Harrowing by simply cutting a hole in the ceiling and releasing all the souls, good and evil alike. In Pullman's work, salvation derives not from God, but from the impulsive kindness of children: '[Lyra said], "Will, I want us to take all these poor dead ghost-kids outside -- the grown-ups as well -- we could set 'em free!" He turned and gave her a true smile, so warm and happy...' (AS, 319). The dead escape into the world above, gazing 'with delight and wonder as the first stars they had seen for centuries shone through into their poor starved eyes' (AS, 382), just as Dante escaped Hell and 'came out once more to see the stars'.|
|23||Death, therefore, is treated very differently in these two works. Perhaps even more telling, however, is the death of the Deity himself. Both Aslan and Authority die in the course of their respective fictions. For Aslan, as for all the righteous in Narnia, death appears to have very little sting; when faced with a very healthy Prince Caspian, Aslan assures his companions: 'He has died. Most people have, you know. Even I have.' (CoN, 662) Still, Aslan submits himself to pain and humiliation, and a Samson-like shaving of his hair, before his death by sacrifice:|
Later that same day, however, Susan and Lucy find the sacrificial table cracked in two and Aslan's body disappeared:
|24||Thus Aslan dies, Christ-like, in a state of humility; this is the 'deeper magic' that overcomes the Witch's pride. The death of Authority is a very different matter. Lyra and Will find him on a battlefield, and have no idea who he is. This scene is the reader's only glimpse of the Authority; and it shows a Wizard-of-Oz figure, far from 'great and terrible', but a pitiful fake. The Authority, unlike Aslan in his humility, has clung to his worldy power and his life; he is now painfully old and enfeebled, giving 'the impression of terrifying decrepitude, of a face sunken in wrinkles, of trembling hands and a mumbling mouth' (AS, 416). Now, mindless and senile, he is not only capable of death, but welcoming of it:|
There was no self-sacrifice by the Authority, and now he has no glorious resurrection. The watching children pity him, but they certainly don't 'cry till they could cry no more'; nor does anyone else.
|25||Pullman could scarcely have made his contrast stronger. Aslan is a vibrant god who shrugs off death, to the joy of his loving young subjects. Authority is senile and redundant, a pathetic figure unrecognised by the young people around him, and whose death is long overdue. When it comes it is final, and apparently unlamented.|
|26||It seems, therefore, that Lewis and Pullman simply cannot be reconciled. They sometimes agree on what a god should be -- close to his subjects, a true Creator -- but on depicting a god as he is, they are poles apart. Indeed, perhaps Pullman does not wish to be reconciled, but has created (consciously or otherwise) a deliberate anti-Narnia, designed to oppose Lewis's creation on almost every ideological point.|
Yet ironically, this will to oppose has created similarity. Neither Lewis nor Pullman leave any room for ambiguity in their presentation of the Godhead; only a wicked fool could hate Lewis's Aslan, and only a wicked fool could love Pullman's Authority. This lack of grey shading in the black-and-white is the source of deep dissatisfaction to many readers -- as the Web forum RevolutionSF suggests, 'the preach factor' is equally high in both.
|28||Perhaps the only way to enjoy both these works, then, is to accept that both Lewis and Pullman have taken full advantage of one of the Fantasy genre's conventions: 'my world, my rules'. When in Narnia we must think like a 'Mere Christian'; when in the worlds of His Dark Materials we must embrace Pullman's brand of spiritual humanism. Both philosophies -- and both works -- reflect a yearning for the advent of a Golden Age, in which the wordly and the divine become perfectly aligned: Lewis's Kingdom of God, Pullman's Republic of Heaven. However, the political gulf between them -- the Kingdom versus the Republic -- is too wide for many readers to cross; and perhaps Pullman, the great anti-Narnian, the mischievous member of 'Devil's party', has purposely made them irreconcilable. It seems inevitable, therefore, that the debate over these two fantasy sequences will remain a space 'where two worldviews collide'.|