Yelling at the Clouds: Philip Pullman on Tolkien and Lewis

There are some genre authors who like to demonstrate their edgy, iconoclastic credentials by sticking the boot into J.R.R. Tolkien. Michael Moorcock springs to mind, with the much-beaten dead horse that is the Epic Pooh essay. Each to their own, I suppose, though seeing as Epic Pooh really boils down to “this book expresses opinions I disagree with,” I have never felt Moorcock’s essay merited any serious attention. It’s a trolling piece, that gets the geekdom’s blood flowing, but which is fundamentally uninteresting in terms of literary analysis. And seeing as it first came out in 1978, there is little new to be added to the discussion.

(For myself, I happen to think reading books you disagree with is to be encouraged. I don’t think ideological echo-chambers are healthy).

Philip Pullman is another genre provocateur, at least so far as his comments on the Inklings go. He has been making waves again in the last week with another interview broadside at Tolkien, and while it can be waved away as another Epic Pooh (and probably should), it is at least currently topical in 2021. It also demonstrates Pullman’s ideological bugbears, which in contrast to Moorcock’s obsession with the smug English bourgeoisie, are much more tied-up with authoritarianism and religion. Hence today’s post.

In terms my own experience with Pullman’s work, I have read His Dark Materials once, back in 2012 or so. I remember feeling frustrated that Pullman had written a story with armoured polar bears and a War Against God, and yet somehow contrived to make it boring. I was simply not interested in Lyra’s relationship with her daemon, at least compared to the rest of the story. On the other hand, His Dark Materials is also not simply the Atheistic Narnia that so many lazy commentators pigeon-hole it as. Gnostic Narnia would be closer to the mark, and it is possible (depending on your interpretation of Dust) to read Pullman’s trilogy from either a theistic or an atheistic perspective. All told, it is not a stupid work, though it is often frustrating, and I don’t think it quite achieves its ambitions.

Now onto the article:

Pullman, who has given fantasy literature a memorable heroine like Lyra Belacqua, has also often pointed out how Tolkien’s famous book had failed to introduce any strong woman character, and the Narnia series has been ‘disparaging towards women’.

The Lord of the Rings fails to introduce any strong women? Is the article writer (or Pullman) confusing Rings with The Hobbit? Eowyn alone makes a nonsense of the claim, and while most Tolkien characters are male, there is enough material in the mythos for me to write a four part blog series on this very subject (

Meanwhile, calling Narnia disparaging towards women is a stretch, given the active and heroic role played by Lucy Pevensie and later Jill Pole. Jadis the White Witch remains one of the most compelling villains in the entire fantasy genre (far more interesting than Rowling’s Voldemort). On the other hand, buried beneath the hyperbole, there is at least a kernel of truth here. I can see how Pullman came to his conclusion, assuming he is talking about the eventual fate of Susan Pevensie, a perennial bone of contention with discussing Narnia.

The problem is that judging all seven Narnia books by the brief Susan interlude is unfair. It whitewashes the earlier positive portrayal of female characters, including of Susan herself, and falsely implies a consistency of (negative) treatment throughout the series. Honestly, The Last Battle is so full of problematic material – the less said about the Carlormen/Islam thing, the better – that it needs to be evaluated separately from the other six volumes in any fair assessment. Moreover, while I have been critical since childhood of the Susan Problem, I personally read it as Susan being punished for having the nerve to grow up in a way Lewis dislikes, rather than a disparaging of the entire feminine gender.

(As a general principle… Narnia is great for children, but don’t try to analyse it as an adult. It’s a downright painful experience. There is a reason no-one will ever adapt The Last Battle as a movie. Meanwhile, if we are going after Lewis’ handling of women, the sexism of That Hideous Strength is much worse than Narnia, though I have no idea if Pullman has read that. There are moments when Lewis makes Tolkien look positively Woke).

Pullman’s series ‘His Dark Materials’ began with The Golden Compass (published in 1995) followed by The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000) and has courted several controversies in the last two decades. Seemingly a book for teens, it is a beautiful retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series grapples with many existential questions and the intricate relationship of philosophy, science and religion. It criticises authoritarianism, and religious authority, which leaves little room for dissent or pluralism of views. The series has also not shied away from exploring the sexual awakening of its young protagonist.

His Dark Materials was certainly inspired by Milton, but it is not a retelling. As noted earlier, it is fundamentally a sort of Gnosticism for Teens, where the Demiurge has usurped the role of the Creator, and I personally don’t think it achieves the sort of depth alluded to here. Oh, and the protagonist in question is about twelve or thirteen, from memory. One rather suspects that this is journalistic fluff.

Now onto Pullman’s actual words:

I think that themes and issues like these have been rising slowly for a long time. I don’t claim any particular prescience. The growing power of religious orthodoxy was there for everyone to see – well, it’s been visible in Europe for five hundred years at least! What interested me especially was the way power of one sort can be transformed into another and the way religious authority, in particular, doesn’t allow any scope for argument or dissent.

When religions get their hands-on political power – that’s the time to beware. And the scale makes no difference. The absolute authority of being able to say ‘God tells me this is right and you must do what I say’ holds true both across a whole nation and in the much smaller space of a single-family. It’s absolutism that is particularly terrifying. As we saw recently in Washington D.C., there is no arguing against the conviction that can maintain a blatant lie (‘ The election was stolen’). When truth itself withers and decays, bad things begin to happen very swiftly.

For a fellow so interested in writing about the effects of religion on society, I cannot help but feel that Pullman lacks nuance. He seems to treat religion as a monolithic would-be social arbiter, “without any scope for argument”, a sort of merging of Orwell’s Big Brother with a pop-history view of the Catholic Church from 1600, mixed with the outer fringes of modern fundamentalism. Which is a ludicrously reductionist view of something as mindbogglingly complex as human religion.

For a start, plenty of religions have never sought to claim a moral basis for worship at all (ninth century Norsemen were not exactly invoking the moral authority of Odin and Thor). And among those that do, plenty more have a long tradition of religious scholars arguing and dissenting in the absence of a formal interpretive referee, like Judaism. Meanwhile, the pre-Reformation Catholic Church was actually a rival of state-power (Emperor Henry IV versus Pope Gregory VII), a monstrously powerful social interest group, rather than a totalitarian theocracy. And notwithstanding the Galileo legend of pop-history, religion has historically not been the enemy of scientific endeavour. Consider the example of Isaac Newton, devoutly religious to the point he was obsessed with Biblical Prophecy, yet also a titan of Mathematics and Physics.

Pullman also seems to imagine the oppressive power of state religion as a matter of theists bullying secularists. In actuality, when religion cracks down on people via governmental power, it has historically been against other religions. The eighteenth century Anglican Church – a true state religion – was not interested in English secularists. It was interested in going after the Catholics and Non-Conformist Protestants. And it also goes without saying that one could just as easily replace the word ‘God’ in Pullman’s paragraph with ‘the Free-Market’, or ‘the Socialist Revolution’, or even ‘Science’… and one would still generate the same autocratic results. It’s what happens when people dogmatically follow abstractions, and it does not stop with theistic religion.

Also, as an aside, I am genuinely puzzled at how Pullman can connect religion with the Trumpist nonsense of the past few months. To my mind, that had less to do with the problem of dogmatic abstractions, and more to do with the modern phenomenon of self-sorting social bubbles – in the age of the Internet, people are now choosing their own reality, with all that entails.

As a matter of fact, I did meet him once, near the end of his life, when I was an undergraduate. Two friends and I were invited to dinner by the head of our college in Oxford to meet the great man. We were overawed, of course, and I don’t think he was particularly interested in the opinions of callow youths like us in any case. Actually, I’ve long come to dislike the Tolkien kind of fantasy: I think it shuts out too much of what we know to be real.

So an elderly and introverted retired Professor (famously with a bad habit of lecturing to himself, rather than his students) did not show sufficient interest in three undergraduates at a dinner? Good grief, Pullman. Some perspective would be nice.

As for shutting out what we know to be real, I would venture to suggest that the themes of mercy, bravery, and struggling on against adversity are worthy subjects for a story, fantasy or otherwise.

If I had the chance to ask him now, I’d want to know why he lets women play such a small part in the story of the ring. There is absolutely no awareness of sexual power and mystery in the book. Children might as well be delivered by post. I think that, like many Englishmen of his generation, he was actually afraid of women and much preferred the company of men (no women among the Inklings). ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a dead-end, in my opinion.

Ah… so when Pullman refers to ‘what we know to be real,’ he is actually talking about sexuality. Fair enough. Except that there is no sex in Beowulf either… I wonder if Pullman considers that a dead-end. I also wonder whether Pullman has bothered to read beyond The Lord of the Rings, because if he did so, he might find quite a few powerful and interesting female characters in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. Aldarion and Erendis implicitly deals with sexuality in a way that might surprise people.

(Speaking of implicit stuff… does Pullman really need a blow-by-blow account to understand that Faramir and Eowyn are in a sexual relationship, or what Aragorn and Arwen do on their Wedding Night, or that Sam Gamgee bangs Rosie Cotton?).

On the point about female characters – I do think it notable (and vaguely disturbing) that Pullman seems to connect female characters with sex, as though there were no other point in including them. But so far as gender representation goes, there is no need for necromantic questioning. Tolkien himself was interviewed in 1964, and one of the questions was on this very subject (around minutes 16-17):

Tolkien’s response? The story is about “war and a terrible expedition to the North Pole.” The subject matter rather dictates a gender-imbalance in the cast, at least for someone of Tolkien’s generation. Pullman may consider this a ‘gotcha’ moment, but if this is what passes for literary commentary in 2021, then literary commentary is in a bad way. Tolkien’s First Age stories (and Eowyn, et al) demonstrates his ability to write women – no need to resort to Freudian pop-psychology about his inner fears, especially given the role played by his mother and wife in his own life.

I must say… of all the things a current fantasy author could ask Tolkien, the notion that Pullman would fixate on such a trivial matter strikes me as vaguely pathetic.

I’m not sure if ‘His Dark Materials’ is fantasy at all. Actually, I find writing realism far more difficult because I feel I know so little about the way the world really works. I am extremely naive. I’m sure I’d get it all wrong. At least in the sort of books, I write I can say, ‘This is my world. I can make things happen in any way I like.’

I hope his uncertainty about classifying His Dark Materials is ironic (because, yes, it is fantasy, and snobbery will get you nowhere, Mr Pullman). But I do actually agree with Pullman that a secondary world offers an escape from that perennial fear that someone will see through the authorial con-trick. It is easier to depict an invented city than a real one.

(Mind you, the secondary world has its own internal logic, and once you have established that, you are rather stuck with it).

2 thoughts on “Yelling at the Clouds: Philip Pullman on Tolkien and Lewis

  1. I had a similar experience with ‘His Dark Materials’. I got a little way in and gave up. I wanted to like it but it seemed simply repellent. The ‘daemons’ were like my Catholic-childhood understanding of my soul, a kind of wispy thing that trails after you. I think James Joyce reported something similar. After I’d got that, and struggled through some gratuitous-seeming unpleasantness, I didn’t care any more.

    A sidelight on Tolkien and women: His ideas, in part, may derive from a bogus theory, Bachofen’s “original matriarchy”. In ‘Goddesses and the Divine Feminine’ Rosemary Ruether gives a fascinating account of this. It was a 19th century origin-myth devised to portray the rule of women as an early, undeveloped form of society. Amazonianism was an extreme form. The theory was influential in anthropology into the 1950s and 60s.

    Thus: in Letter 214 Tolkien asks himself whether Gollum’s tribe was a real matriarchy, with polyandry. He rejects the idea, though he is puzzled by the lack of information about Gollum’s father. No, the “decadent and recessive” Stoors of Wilderland had regressed, but not that far.

    Haleth could be a nod to this tradition. Of course there are Amazons in Greek mythology, like Hippolyta with her Girdle, which I fancy has something to do with Melian’s. On the other hand the Entwives are the opposite of Bachofen’s stereotype, imposing an order on Nature which the Ents don’t want to.

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  2. I honestly think Lewis was better at painting Carlomen than Tolkien was at painting his own Southrons and Easterlings, like the Haradrim, who also fall into a lot of Orientalism clichés. Lewis bothers to make it clear that the Carlomen are human beings like you and me, capable of the best and the worst. Aravis and Emeth, for better and worse, have far more development than any of the Haradrim and Easterlings in the Legendarium.

    If it is for Last Battle, there is the scene of Tirian being dismayed and surrendering because he killed some Carlomenes in cold blood, even though those Calormenes were literally mistreating a Talking Horse and had just killed dryads. Obviously, the Carlomenes are considered human beings who deserve to be respected even if they are enemies.

    Even Aravis’s materialistic friend Lasaraleen sincerely helps her despite her kicking, because she knows that the right thing to do is to be loyal to her friend even if she can’t understand her. It is truly a pity that the House of Bór does not make it past four lines in the Silmarillion. A Narn i Chin Bór would be worth reading

    And even through the Tisroc of the Horse and his Boy we get an interesting glimpse of how a “native” ruler of X world, would view travelers from other worlds -in this case, the Pevensies-

    Likewise, Carlomen has nothing to do with Islam, in any case it reflects pre-Islamic paganism from an orientalist perspective. But Lewis had enormous respect for Islam, for a reason the man who gave it a name in Turkish! to Christ’s version of him. But this is the time where the Islamic theocracy of the ayatollahs complained about the Xerxes of 300.

    True, we have Tal-Elmar, the exception that proves the rule… Tolkien’s version of the Horse and the Boy of it, and both works are practically from the same year. Darker, it is true, although with certain touches equally to the convenience of the script (such as Tal-Elmar learning to speak Sindarin through dreams, that is much worse than Shasta, the identical twin of the crown prince of Archenland).

    It’s really sad that Tal-Elmar ended up unfinished just when it was starting to get interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

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