Monday, October 12, 2015

Pullman, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien - Stylistic and Philosophical Similarities

I was doing some reading over the weekend. I picked up a copy of "The Children of Hurin" which I've wanted to read in more detail since the group presentations. I was also reading Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" over the weekend and I kept getting the same feelings from those texts that I was getting from "The Children of Hurin". It was a nagging feeling that the texts were related on a much deeper level than I was perceiving, so I did a little research into it.

For those that do not know, Philip Pullman is a modern British author who is best known for his novels, "The Northern Lights" (The Golden Compass in North America), "The Subtle Knife", and the "Amber Spyglass". Together the make up the series know as "His Dark Materials". He is also well known as an outspoken critic of Christianity and particularly of the Catholic Church. Interestingly enough, Pullman was also educated at Oxford and had a childhood rather similar to Tolkien's. His texts establish a kind  of dialogue with "The Chronicles of Narnia" in the sense that as much as C.S. Lewis's novels explore Christian values and attempt to come to terms his the contradictions inherent in Religion, Pullman's writings does this with Atheism and Secular values. Pullman always has claimed to feel a close kinship to C.S. Lewis both is subject matter and writing style. He feels as thought they are both philosophers approaching the same questions from different angles. C.S. Lewis spent many years as an Atheist following the first World War and much of his writing was a way for him to explore the questions he had about Christianity as a Leader in the Christian Apologists movement and as a former Atheist.

Returning to the subject of Tolkien, Pullman has maintained that he feels he writing is fundamentally different from Tolkien in that the is always a clear dichotomy between light and darkness, good and evil. This is undoubtedly a compelling argument to be made. In class we have mentioned the strong separation of good and evil multiple times. None the less, I couldn't help but disagree with Pullman. Especially after reading "The Children of Hurin", I am not so sure that light and darkness, good and evil, moral and immoral are as clean cut as it might seem in Tolkien's works. For starters, there is Turin. He is a glowing example of the classic tragic hero.  A flawed person that brings about their own downfall through their primary weakness. Tragic heroes almost always end up doing things of questionable morality and usually hurt many other people on their path to ruin. Turin is no exception he kills all of his closest friends, he indirectly causes his own sister's death which also leads to the death of his father and mother. Turin is responsible to the fall of the Elves of Nargothrond as well as the deaths of many in Doriath. Despite all of this, Turin remains a hero. He makes poor choices throughout, but he always believe he is making the right ones. He joins up with the outlaws only to place limits on them for what he considers wrong. He ultimately serves Morgoth's purposes but spends his entire life fighting against him. Ultimately it is said that Turin has a special fate that no other will hold and that he will be instrumental in the process the will eventually lead to Arda unmarred. It seems to me that Turin is a very  complex character when it comes to morality. 

Just to add one more example, I also see Gandalf in this light. He is no doubt a hero and a "good guy" but he does not always make the best or the most moral choices. He allows Frodo to take the ring to Mordor completely aware that Frodo does not fully understand the extent of what he is getting himself into. Throughout the books, Gandalf is kind of tortured by this fact, he cannot decide whether sacrificing Frodo is worth the opportunity to protect all of Middle-earth. His faith in Frodo wavers constantly and he is prone to despair especially when comes to Sauron's attack on Minas Tirith. Gandalf was about ready to give up and the battle is won because of the courage of Aragorn. Maybe not as morally ambiguous as Turin but definitely still an interesting character.

Another thing I noticed about Pullman's works is that they are very much in line with the philosophies of Rousseau. Rousseau takes the stance that the provincial, tribal peoples of the world are in fact the most advanced human beings. He claims that the strike a balance between the brutality of animals and the extreme decadence of civilization. This idea I think is rather evident in Tolkien's works as well. Tolkien highly valued rural, countryside life and despised modernity and the rise of technology. Technology is definitely a prominent theme in Tolkien's works. The noblest, most peaceful, and most admirable races are the Elves and the Hobbits. Both of these peoples live fairly simple lives and have a deep connection to nature. In contrast to them there is Mordor and Isengard. They are industrial powers that run off the processing of nature, the burning of trees, and the mechanization of every aspect of life, from warfare to societal structure and even thought and philosophy. It just got me thinking, maybe Pullman has more in common with Tolkien than he thinks he does. I also wonder if Pullman disregarded much of what Tolkien had to say because he is so well known as a supporter of Christian values and a devout Catholic.


Vana said...

This is very interesting! I think you've inspired me to read Pullman's series. People very often compare Tolkien's works to Lewis', but I think rarely do students attempt to compare LOTR and other works to completely different series. How does LOTR compare to Orson Scott Card's Ender series, or Brian Jacques Redwall series? What are common themes and the reasons behind likenesses? Thank you, friend, this could spark a fantastic analytic paper!!

Estë said...

This is really interesting and insightful! I love the idea of taking a quote from Pullman about his differences from Tolkien and analyzing its validity. I have not read any of Pullman's work but it certainly sounds interesting. I did see the Golden Compass movie with the giant polar bears that the main girl rode around so that sounds pretty great. Nice analysis, thank you

Yavanna said...

I read the first of Pullman's books a long time ago, so forgive me. I agree with you on the ideas about how there are certain characters which forego the entire light and dark dichotomy, but the bigger picture is very certain. From what I remember though of Pullman's books, its not that just characters are morally ambiguous, entire peoples and movements are a bit questionable. Even the heroes stoop to low levels to achieve their goals, and are not morally repentant about the barbarism they must engage in.

Tolkien's characters may do dark things, from time to time, but it always seems they have good intentions-they are the 'good guys' and fight (if maybe not for the light) against the darkness. They fight the enemies of the living god, where as in Pullman's novels there is a more esoteric idea of fighting for freedom from oppression and the evil inherent in institutions.

I also think its interesting your discussion of Rousseau. I always took his works to esteem parts of uncivilized man, but not state that they are in the best state of being. From what I remember, he dislikes what society and civilization have ingrained into us through false institutions, and that these things (governments, money, religion, etc.) serve only to limit our natural moral character.