PHILIP PULLMAN'S HIS DARK MATERIALS (1995-2000) is one of the most innovative and thought-provoking fantasy series of the 20th century. The books won Pullman many awards and millions of devoted fans all over the world. By the author's admission the trilogy aims to create a "grand narrative" relevant for human situatedness in the world after the death of God ("Talking to Philip Pullman" 117). Pullman's most thorough exposition of this mythopoeic purpose can be found in his 2000 essay "The Republic of Heaven." In the light of his statements, His Dark Materials [HDM] is a secular humanist narrative, which seeks to expose manipulation and power games at the heart of organized religions. It is Pullman's attempt to create "a republican myth" whose power would be comparable to that of the Bible--a myth which would "do what the traditional religious stories did: it [would] explain" ("Republic" 665).
Notorious for his narrative attack on religion, Pullman has also created a stir by claiming that his fiction is not fantasy but stark realism, and by criticizing other fantasy writers such as J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, and especially C.S. Lewis, as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia. Our focus in this essay is Pullman's statements about fantasy and his declared self-positioning in regard to Lewis. We argue that His Dark Materials is fantasy, and that it fits the generic template of Lewisian fantasy much closer than Pullman would be willing to admit.
Philip Pullman and the Fantasy Question
"Northern Lights is not a fantasy. It's a work of stark realism." (Pullman, "Talking to Philip Pullman," interview, 1999)
"I suppose it's fantasy--Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife, and [...] The Amber Spyglass."
(Pullman, "Lexicon Interview," 2000)
"[T]here is [...] a fine tradition of [...] fantasy [...] which is where I find myself I suppose."
(Pullman, "Faith and Fantasy," interview, 2002)
"I'm uneasy to think I write fantasy."
(Pullman, "Pullman's Progress," interview, 2004)
Pullman's opinions on the question of fantasy and realism are, to say the least, baffling. They range from flat denial that HDM is fantasy, such as he makes in the Parsons and Nicholson interview ("Talking" 132), through uncertainty about "what's fantasy and what isn't fantasy" ("Lexicon"), to a kind of embarrassed admission that HDM belongs with "a tradition of writing that one has to call for want of a better word, fantasy" ("Faith and Fantasy"). Not only that: when Pullman allows that HDM is fantasy, he tends to qualify the acknowledgment in a way that almost undermines it. In the Lexicon interview he explains: "what I've tried to do there is use the apparatus of fantasy to say something that I think is true about human psychology and about the way we grow up and about the difference between innocence and experience and so on." In another interview that same year he speaks of "using the mechanism of fantasy" to tell "a story about a realistic subject" ("Philip Pullman Reaches the Garden"). Also in "Faith and Fantasy" he stresses that his "fantasy" is, in fact, "a realistic story" but told "by means of the fantastical sort of machinery." A realistic story, he adds, is one which "talk[s]about human beings in a way which is vivid and truthful and tells me things about myself and my own emotions and things which I recognise to be true having encountered it in a story."
The strategy of collapsing the two categories into a kind of "fantastic realism" has two advantages. On the one hand it allows Pullman to draw a sharp line between his own writing and that of Lewis, Tolkien or Rowling. In Pullman's assessment, they represent a tradition he calls "closed fantasy [...] escapist and solipsistic" ("Republic" 661). As he told Dave Weich, "when I made that comment [about HDM as stark realism] I was trying to distinguish between these books and the kind of books most general readers think of as fantasy, the sub-Tolkien thing involving witches and elves and wizards and dwarves" ("Garden"). …