Magazine article The Spectator

A Labour of Loathing

Magazine article The Spectator

A Labour of Loathing

Article excerpt

WHATEVER the atheist equivalent of canonisation is, they are doing it to the children's author Philip Pullman. The full power of secular liberalism is being deployed to magnify his glorious name. Last year he won the Whitbread Prize, normally reserved for adult authors. Now Radio Four is handing over three of its precious Saturday afternoons for an adaptation of his trilogy, His Dark Materials. Nicholas Hytner is preparing Pullman's works for the stage of the National Theatre, and Hollywood is hoping to do for him what it did for Tolkien. In early March he will be beatified through an interview with Melvyn Bragg on the South Bank Show. Why is he suddenly so important?

Here is the reason: Philip Pullman is the man who may succeed in destroying a country that the liberal intelligentsia loathe even more than they despise Britain. That country is Narnia, discovered long ago by millions of English-speaking children, and still beloved by many of them. Narnia is a conservative sort of place - religious, undecimalised, unmetricated, patriotic and hierarchical. But Narnia cannot be corrected, modernised, devolved or forced to join the euro. As a country of the mind, it remains defiantly independent for as long as the books are sold and read and their stories remembered. The creator of Narnia, C.S. Lewis, though dead almost 40 years, is the most influential Christian in modern British culture, not because of his faith but because his stories are so good. Parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, seeking literate and well-crafted stories for their young, have been all but compelled to turn to this odd Ulsterman's works for the last half-century. They know that these gifts will actually be read, despite the archaic slang used by the 1940s children who are their heroes and heroines.

Most, regrettably, do not care or even notice that the seven Narnia books convey a Christian and conservative message, but among the enlightened classes many adults are unhappy about Lewis's confident and potent faith, unashamed and unfashionable, conveyed through parables and allegory and perhaps destined to stay with his readers all their lives. The cultural elite would like to wipe out this pocket of resistance. They have successfully expelled God from the schools, from the broadcast media and, for the most part, from the Church itself. They would much rather He was not sitting on the bookshelves of their offspring. Philip Pullman allows them to remove Him, and replace The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with Pullman's very different country of the mind rebel angels, friendly daemons and witches who are not wicked but good (though Pullman also has a wardrobe).

Pullman's stories are crammed with the supernatural and the mystical, and take place mainly in alternative worlds, most captivatingly of all in an Oxford recognisably the same place while utterly different. But while Narnia is under the care of a benevolent, kindly creator, Pullman's chaotic universe has no ultimate good authority, controlling and redeeming all. God, or someone claiming to be God, dies meaninglessly in the third volume of his trilogy. There is life after death, but it is a dark, squalid misery from which oblivion is a welcome release. Pullman puts forward a complex theory of man's true destiny, and his stories are a powerful epic that everyone should read. But many who buy these books for children and grandchildren would be surprised, and even shocked, if they knew just how vehemently Pullman despises the Christian Church, and how much he loathes his dead rival, Lewis. …

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