- Fantasy, Myth, and the Measure of Truth: Tales of Pullman, Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald, and Hoffmann by William Gray
It is certainly no secret that Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials series (1995–2000), has distaste for C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (1950–1956), particularly Lewis’s inclusion of Christian teachings and his promotion of childhood and innocence over experience. What is perhaps less well-known is that Pullman worked to distance himself from the entire fantasy genre. In this volume William Gray includes excerpts from interviews with Pullman in which he first says, “I don’t like fantasy” (152), and then later, “I always took a dim view of fantasy—still do in fact. Most of it is trash, but the most of everything is trash. It seemed to me writers of fantasy in the Tolkien tradition had this wonderful tool that could do anything and they did very little with it” (153). But, as Gray convincingly argues in this volume, despite Pullman’s positioning of his work against Lewis in particular and fantasy literature in general, Pullman is actually engaged with many of the same facets of the Romantic mythopoeic tradition that authors such as Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, and E. T. A. Hoffman were. In addition to crafting this overarching argument, Gray also traces the threads of influence between these authors, highlighting such connections as those between MacDonald and Lewis, between David Lindsay and Pullman, and between Milton and both Lewis and Pullman, which lends support to Gray’s claim that the encounter between Pullman and Lewis “almost amounts to a family feud” (127).
After offering up a concise version of this argument in the opening “Prelude,” Gray traces the threads of Romanticism that run throughout fantasy literature, beginning with the Kunstmärchen of German authors such as Ludwig Tieck, Novalis, Clemens Brentano, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, and Hoffman. [End Page 142] The thread that is perhaps most important to Gray’s overall argument is his examination of the larger myths that these German Romantics created in their works: “Typically, then, the protagonists in Hoffmann’s fairy stories are, or are fantasized to be, participants in a much grander narrative or myth” (22). Such a foundation proves helpful in the later chapters on MacDonald, Tolkien, and Lewis by providing a framework for understanding their engagement with the Christian myth as part of the larger impulse of Romanticism and for understanding how Pullman’s His Dark Materials creates its own mythology in spite of his objections to Lewis and Christianity (a mythology that, as Gray provocatively suggests in a later chapter, might be an alternative version of the Christian myth rather than a different mythology altogether). In addition to emphasizing the appearance of grand narratives in many Romantic works, this initial chapter also serves as a useful introduction to some of the philosophical underpinnings of Romanticism, including an emphasis “on the imagination and on creativity,” which, as Gray points out, “derives in large measure from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant” (11).
Later chapters focus on the works of MacDonald, Tolkien, Lewis, and Pullman, respectively, and in each chapter Gray explores the ways in which certain works of each author both align themselves with the Romantic tradition and distinguish themselves from other fantasy works within this tradition. For example, in the chapter on MacDonald, Gray explores MacDonald’s theological views because “Pullman’s atheism is partly based on a view of God that MacDonald equally detests, a detestation that has been largely occluded due to the influence of Lewis” (46). Such comparisons not only demonstrate the nuance and subtlety of Gray’s analysis but also add richness and depth to the fantasy tradition that Gray is examining.
One distinction that might be of particular interest to readers of fairy tales and fantasy literature who are tired of being told that such stories are escapist comes in the chapter on Pullman’s works, in which Gray analyzes the distinction that Pullman makes in The...