NEW YORK — Harry vs. Frodo. Lucy vs. Lyra.
We don't normally think of classic fantasy series as being pit against one another, because despite their differences, they have so much in common. Most of them are about little people (be they children or Hobbits) caught up in a war of good versus evil that requires a singular sacrifice to save the world, often with a bit of biblical allegory thrown in for good measure. But even if "Harry Potter," "The Lord of the Rings," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "His Dark Materials" were all put on the same bookshelf, they're not all friends, as "Materials" author Philip Pullman explained during his Times Talks appearance Tuesday.
Pullman's series is often referred to as the anti-"Narnia," shorthand for saying they're on opposite sides of the theological fence. (A film version of the first installment of "His Dark Materials," "The Golden Compass," is about to hit theaters December 7 and stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.) In "Narnia," more so than in "LOTR," Christianity is at the forefront, with the story of the crucifixion and resurrection retold with Aslan in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." Even Harry Potter has his fair share of the resurrection tale (see " 'Harry Potter' Author J.K. Rowling Opens Up About Books' Christian Imagery").
That's not to say the Bible doesn't figure into "His Dark Materials," but religion plays a very different part in Pullman's more secular tale, which was inspired by the Fall in Milton's "Paradise Lost" (the series also takes its title from the Milton poem). New York Times writer-at-large Chip McGrath, in interviewing Pullman on the Times Center stage, joked that the "HDM" tomes were "books atheists pray for, if atheists prayed."
"Religion is at its best when it's far from power," Pullman said. "When a religion gains power, it goes bad."
Noting that "His Dark Materials" was more a critique against tyrannical and theological societies than organized religion, Pullman explained that in places like Stalin's Soviet Union (where the "holy book" was written by Marx and the "priesthood" would be the Communist Party) or his heroine Lyra's world, history was no longer moving toward something. In Lyra's world, scientists are afraid of a dark matter-like substance called Dust that they've just learned to detect, and the Church considers Dust to be physical evidence of original sin (see "Armored Polar Bears, Stolen Souls: A Guide To 'His Dark Materials' "). Because Dust concentrates more around adults than children, an offshoot of the Church conducts experiments to sever children from their souls to see if they can stop the Dust (they can't, and the children die). There's no progress without defying the Church — which uses kidnapping, torture and assassination as political tools — but it's not the doctrine at stake, it's the misuse of power.
"At the end of the first novel, after Lyra's seen all these horrible and cruel things done, she thinks about it," Pullman said. "She's been told Dust is bad, but she thinks, 'If the bad people think it's bad, maybe it's good.' It's a huge moral reversal. Because Dust is actually the physical embodiment of the world of thought, of curiosity, of consciousness. And it's better to know more than to know less."
That's partly where Pullman's problem with "Narnia" kicks in — because where "His Dark Materials" is about the necessity of growing up, C.S. Lewis punished his "Narnia" characters for losing their innocence, most notably when Susan is turned away from the Stable (read: salvation) because she's growing up in "The Last Battle."
"I didn't read the 'Narnia' books until I was grown up," Pullman said, "and I could sort of see what he was getting at, and he was getting at the reader in a way I didn't like. The 'Narnia' books are full of serious questions about religion: 'Which God should we worship? Is there a God at all? What happens when we die?' The questions are all there, but I don't like Lewis' answers. I don't like the fact that he sends the children through these extraordinary adventures, allows them to see and do these wonderful things, and then at the end of the book kills them in a railway accident. They're all dead, and this is meant to be a great release, a wonderful thing. It seems to me the proper thing to do, the moral thing to do, the Christian thing to do would be to let those children continue to live and do good in the world, having learned something. But no, that wasn't what Lewis wanted."
Pullman liked "Lord of the Rings" when he first read it as a teen ("We were all out pretending to be Gandalf"), but after thinking about it more recently, he doesn't feel it's as engaging as it could have been. "For Tolkien, the Catholic, the Church had the answers, the Church was the source of all truth, so 'Lord of the Rings' does not touch those big deep questions," Pullman said. "The 'Narnia' books are fundamentally more serious than 'Lord of the Rings,' which I take to be a trivial book."
Yet, ironically, New Line, the studio adapting "His Dark Materials," is hoping for a bit of that "Lord of the Rings" magic — at least at the box office (see " 'Golden Compass' Trailer Teases 'Lord Of The Rings' Parallels — And Non-Cuddly Animal Friends"). And to make sure controversy over religion doesn't get in the way, the Church is more simply referred to as the Magisterium, with Pullman's blessing, so long as the questions of cosmology and fascism are still the focus (see " 'Golden Compass' Fans Flip For Extended Trailer: 'Incredible Is An Understatement' ").
"You have to surrender," Pullman said. "You can't have control over everything. And it would be foolish to — I'm not a filmmaker. But I've seen the shooting on set, the scripts along the way, and I've been allowed to offer advice, so I can't complain. I gather that's unusual!"
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