Considering Philip Pullman in Relation to Milton and C.S. Lewis
The Lit Century Podcast Reads The Golden Compass
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
Book scout Kelly Farber joins host Catherine Nichols to discuss Philip Pullman’s 1995 novel The Golden Compass, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy. They discuss the appeal of Pullman’s imagined world and his place in both his intellectual and artistic traditions, his connections to C.S. Lewis and Milton, as well as the challenges of adapting this book for movies and television, and finally—what is Dust anyway?
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From the episode:
Kelly Farber: One of the things I wanted to really get into is that everybody thinks of the series as having this strong stance against religion. But I think when you actually reread it and you think about it more, it’s less black and white, and he doesn’t necessarily construct that as clearly as people think he does. And I’m not saying that as a criticism—I think it’s actually what makes it interesting. I don’t know how interesting it would be if it was like “there’s sin and then there’s not.” He’s playing with that a lot, and he’s trying to blur that wherever possible.
Catherine Nichols: What do you think his stance is popularly considered to be? And where do you think he blurs it?
Kelly Farber: I think people who just casually engage with these books think of them as anti-C.S. Lewis. And Pullman himself has said many times that this is meant to be anti-C.S. Lewis, and it’s also meant to be an interpolation of Paradise Lost, where you flip the whole idea, and Lord Asriel is the Satan-like figure that you’re actually rooting for, and Mrs. Coulter is the godlike figure that you’re rooting against.
I have such a clear memory of reading the third book as a kid, where they fight as angels at the end of the book. He’s playing with these godlike creatures and whether they’re actually good or not. So I think it’s widely considered to be an anti-Christian book. It’s meant to be anti-church. The church is definitely the bad guy in the book.
Catherine Nichols: Well, the idea of heaven is bad. It’s not just that the church has misunderstood the idea of heaven. It’s like, no, if you have heaven, that is worse than nonexistence after death.
Kelly Farber: Totally. But then you have all these other creatures and societies and universes and all these other things going on that don’t necessarily follow that binary. And so I think it’s so much more complicated than that. The more you can just let it be complicated, the more fun you’re going to have reading this.
Kelly Farber is an international literary scout, owner/proprietor of KF Literary Scouting.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many places, including Jezebel, Aeon, and Electric Literature. She lives in Brooklyn.