The complex relationship between His Dark Materials, Narnia and John Milton’s afterlife

Both C.S. Lewis and Phillip Pullman have discussed the works of John Milton, primarily Paradise Lost, throughout their own writing careers, and so it comes as no surprise that a high level of influence can be found in each writer’s most renowned work – The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and the His Dark Materials trilogy respectively. The afterlife of John Milton lives throughout each of these texts in the allegorical references made to the narrative of Paradise Lost, but each writer has used their own religious views and opinions on gender to twist their allegory into a form completely unique to them. The reason for why these two writers should be examined in relation to Milton’s afterlife is simply due to their relationship with one another as well as Milton; Pullman has criticised Lewis’ writings as well as named Milton as inspiration for his own, therefore placing his work as the afterlife of both Milton and Lewis.

What must first be examined is the level to which each author has noted Milton as an influence over their work. One of C.S. Lewis’ most noted scholarly works is an extensive critique of Paradise Lost – entitled A Preface to Paradise Lost – in which Lewis defends the form of epic poetry, along with the poem’s content. However, what is most notable in Lewis’ critique of Paradise Lost is his examination of the character of Satan, a character that has largely been regarded by critics as having been portrayed in a heroic manner[1] by Milton. Lewis accuses the suggestion that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost as being “erroneous”[2]. Highlighting the “misery which he [Satan] suffers and inflicts”[3], Lewis claims that there is a laughable quality to Milton’s Satan, in the sense that

No one had in fact done anything to Satan; he was no hungry, nor over-tasked, nor removed from his place, nor shunned, nor hated – he only thought himself impaired. In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and fest and dance, he could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige.[4]

In viewing Satan in this approach, Lewis highlights the absurdity of his actions, likening his behaviour to the stupidity of “sawing off the branch he is sitting on”[5] and therefore encouraging the reader to laugh at Satan, not with him, thus extinguishing all possible heroic implications attached to Satan’s character. Rather than feel sympathy for Satan being cast down to Hell, the reader of A Preface to Paradise Lost is encouraged to examine his situation logically, and arrive at the conclusion Lewis presents, that Satan carries with him nothing but “a Hell of infinite boredom”[6] that motivates all of his action; there is nothing heroic about the cowardice Satan displays in attacking two creatures who have never done him harm “only to annoy the Enemy whom he cannot directly attack”[7]. Lewis’ refusal to view Satan as a heroic figure places emphasis on the view that Satan’s dedication to defeat Heaven is nothing more than misplaced monomania, and that above all things, “Christianity commits every Christian to believing that the Devil is (in the long run) an ass”[8]. Lewis’ trajectory of Satan’s decline from angel to serpent feels self-contentedly pious, and emphasises the punishment that awaits sinners when “self-intoxication encounters reality”[9], ‘reality’ in this case being the power of the Christian God.

It is this reverent view that Satan is ‘an ass’ that Lewis carries over to the Devil character of his own work, the eponymous White Witch of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Although both deeply evil characters, both the White Witch and Satan alike are described as being attractive, and both hold connections to light – ““…form had yet not lost/All…original brightness”[10] – and whiteness – “Her face was white, not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar” – , both of which connote images of purity and goodness, images that do not match up with their ultimate actions of evil. It is this outer beauty that allows both characters to appear so tempting to both the reader and the characters whom they each tempt – Eve in Satan’s case and Edmund in the White Witch’s. However, unlike Satan, the White Witch has not any implication of being a heroic character, and this is perhaps most likely due to C. S. Lewis’ ability to reflect upon Milton’s portrayal of Satan. Being a devout member of the Church of England at the time of writing the Chronicles of Narnia[11], Lewis would not wish for there to be any confusion as to where his loyalties lie in the metaphorical battle of good and evil, as it has been confused in Milton’s case. Even in the temptation of Edmund (paralleling Satan’s temptation of Eve) the White Witch is seen as a frightening figure – “Edmund did not like the way she looked at him”[12] -, giving the reader no time to view her as attractive or convincing in the way in which Milton’s Satan has been. Lewis states that “To admire Satan, then, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies…”[13], and although Lewis disparages indictments that Milton deliberately wrote Satan as an attractive and heroic character, he actively makes decisions in his own writing to remove himself from such accusations, making his Satan counterpart to be mistrusted from her very introduction.

In contrast to this approach, Phillip Pullman makes strides in his work to make his devil counterpart – Lord Asriel – to be not only attractive to both reader and character alike, but also to be on the side of good. Milton

“…unwittingly portrayed Satan sympathetically, making him seem heroic at times. Pullman does the same thing, but deliberately and with much more energy and purpose.”[14]

The energy and purpose with which Pullman writes his devil is motivated by his own religious reasoning; Pullman is an atheist[15]. Detached from any religious agency, Pullman is free to criticise the religious aspects of Milton’s original text through his own work, and he does so in making the main motivation of his protagonists to preserve knowledge, the very thing that caused the fall of mankind and the beginning of all sin in both Milton’s Paradise Lost and the original Genesis story on which it is based. Lord Asriel’s cause is to preserve what is referred to throughout His Dark Materials as ‘dust’, which is seen by Leonard F. Wheat to symbolize knowledge[16]. In defending dust (knowledge), Lord Asriel therefore opposes the Church of Pullman’s fictional world, who in turn wish to eliminate dust in favour of religious superstition and what they view as innocence. Innocence is seen within Pullman’s narrative as the absence of dust, a purity that can only come through the absence of knowledge. Pullman places his protagonist, Lyra, on the side of knowledge, actively opposing the Church and therefore supporting the endeavours of his Satan character, intentionally doing what C.S. Lewis actively avoided in his work, namely to be “of the Devil’s party.”[17]

This is primarily due to the fact that “Phillip Pullman is writing an antireligious opus”[18], and as such must reverse all of Milton’s intentions within the original Paradise Lost story. Therefore His Dark Materials is “an upside-down retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost[19], being upside down because Satan’s side wins and the reader is intended to side with the fallen angels, rather than with God and what Pullman refers to as ‘the Republic of Heaven’.

Pullman’s writing of His Dark Materials is not only an attack on the superstition of organised religion (primarily Christianity), but also a retaliation against what he considers to be “one of the most ugly and poisonous things [he has] ever read”[20]. In his essay ‘The Dark Side of Narnia’, Pullman does not hold back in his criticism of C.S. Lewis and his work, but what he claims to be one of the “most vile moments”[21] of the Narnia Chronicles is

…at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan reveals to the children that “The term is over: the holidays have begun” because “There was a real railway accident. Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead”.[22]

In making the decision to kill his young protagonists rather than have them grow up, Lewis makes the active choice to preserve them as innocent and untouched by sin forever in Heaven (Narnia). In this narrative choice, he also does not allow them the option to have knowledge of the world, instead they will embark upon “the Great Story which no one on earth has read”[23] – no one on earth has read this particular story because those on Earth are fallen, and therefore are not destined for Heavenly redemption in the same sense that the Pevensie children appear to be. In their deaths, the Pevensie children have been saved by their purity and shall be rewarded by Aslan (Lewis’ Jesus counterpart[24]) in their ‘Heaven’ of Narnia.

Pullman claims that Lewis was “frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up”[25], a characteristic that can also be found in the Gobblers (General Obligation Board) of Pullman’s narrative. It is the mission of the Gobblers – working for the Church, also known in Pullman’s world as the Magisterium – to perform incision upon pre-pubescent children and their daemons. Within the world of His Dark Materials, each person’s soul lives as a physical manifestation outside of their bodies, shifting in shape until the age of puberty whereupon it settles in the form of an animal that is representative of the person to whom the daemon belongs. In their task of incision, the Gobblers separate the child from their daemon, thus blocking the intellectual transformation that occurs with puberty. In this task, they are preventing children from the attainment of knowledge (Dust), the very manifestation of Original Sin. This is very much what Lewis succeeds in doing in his killing of the Pevensie children whilst still in their innocent, childlike state; he prevents them from the attainment of knowledge and therefore they shall never fall as Adam and Eve did in Paradise Lost.

Pullman’s fierce criticism of Lewis can be found in the way in which he describes the horror of the Gobbler’s actions. Upon first seeing a child separated from his daemon, Pullman’s protagonist Lyra has the “first impulse…to turn and run, or to be sick”[26]. This displays the extent to which Pullman despises the fate Lewis gave his characters, that a child without their soul and therefore without any means with which to grow up and attain knowledge is unthinkable and revolting. Therefore it can be read that not only has Pullman used his allegorical narrative to retell Paradise Lost, but he has also used it to criticise Lewis, making his views actively opposed to those that Lewis tried to uphold in his own allegorical retelling of Paradise Lost, and also by likening the actions of his most evil characters to the actions of Lewis in his killing of the Pevensie children at the conclusion of his The Chronicles of Narnia series.

Another element of Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia that appears to incense Pullman is Lewis’ treatment of his female characters, primarily Susan, the eldest female Pevensie child. It is discovered in the final Narnia book The Last Battle that Susan is “no longer a friend of Narnia”[27] due to the fact that “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipsticks and invitations”[28] – in short, Susan grew up and is therefore no longer deemed by Lewis to be allowed into Narnia. If Narnia is to be viewed allegorically as Heaven – it being the kingdom of Aslan, Jesus’ counterpart[29] -, this holds connotations of its purity, a purity that cannot be upheld if sin is to be let in. In Lewis’ eyes, Susan has sinned simply by allowing herself to lose the innocence of childhood and to attain the knowledge of adulthood, and this is punished by her ousting from Narnia. Unlike her siblings, she does not die in the train crash and therefore is not rewarded with an eternity in Narnia; she must remain in her fallen state on Earth.

Pullman remedies this problematic treatment of gender in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia by allowing his female protagonist to grow up and, rather than punishing her for it, “Pullman makes ‘The Fall’ a gloriously uplifting event”[30], thus continuing his “upside-down retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost[31]. In Paradise Lost, it is described how, upon Eve’s eating from the Tree of Knowledge, “Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat/Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe”[32], creating the image of an outpouring of grief upon the action of Original Sin. Likewise, Pullman also uses nature to describe the ‘fall’ of Lyra – who is “in the position of Eve”[33] -, but continues his ‘upside down’ telling of Milton’s story by countering nature’s sighs with the description “Around them [Lyra and Will] there was nothing but silence, as if all the world were holding its breath.”[34] In this description, Pullman offers a revered silence to accompany the act of Original Sin that Lyra and Will are committing, creating an oxymoron that encapsulates the positivity Pullman wishes to associate with the Fall of man. In their act of feeding one another the red fruits, Lyra and Will deliver knowledge to each other and as such, in that moment, they discover the ‘knowledge’ of love and therefore come of age. This action causes Dust to quite literally rain down on them from the sky in a shower of “living gold”[35] that encapsulates the couple in a symbol of joy and ultimate success. Watching them, Dr Mary (whose fate within the text is to “play the serpent”[36]) concludes that in this state Lyra and Will are “the true image of what human beings always could be, once they had come into their inheritance”[37]. The inheritance being referred to here is the inheritance of knowledge, first attained by Eve upon her eating of the forbidden fruit. The implication that this image of knowledge is ‘true’ holds connotations of purity, once again reversing the original intentions of Milton in Paradise Lost. Whereas this action is – according to Milton – “man’s first disobedience”[38] which “brought death into the world, and all our woe”[39], Pullman instead views this as a celebratory event, literally showering those who have sinned in triumphant gold in order to emphasise the freedom and joy that comes with the attainment of knowledge.

It is implied in Neil Gaiman’s short story The Problem of Susan that Susan may yet join her siblings in the paradise of Heaven if she repents her biggest sin, “The sin of Eve”[40]. The implication that Susan is tainted and wicked simply because of her gender is supported in “Eve’s progression [in Paradise Lost] from an independent woman to a dependent woman”.[41] This is, according to Annie Bierman, “to show that women are not born submissive”[42], and while this may at first appear to carry an empowering message for women, it cannot be avoided that the ultimate outcome for the female gender is submission to men (in both the original Genesis story and Milton’s retelling of it). Eve, and ultimately all women kind, are punished in the Son’s order to Eve that “to thy husband’s will/Thine shall submit, he over thee shall rule”[43]. Thus, all women are punished for eternity simply for being born of the female gender.

Pullman once again subverts an element of Milton’s Paradise Lost in his His Dark Materials series in his refusal to portray Lyra submissively, and this can be found in a direct comparison between Paradise Lost and The Amber Spyglass. Both Eve and Lyra are kept in a sleep by someone else’s will at differing points within their narrative, and each character reacts to this in varying ways. The Archangel Michael puts Eve to sleep quickly and without much of the text even addressing it, creating the impression that the fact that Eve is not allowed to take part in discussions of God is not an issue. The fact that this action is skimmed over so quickly within the text – “…let Eve…/Here sleep below…”[44] – also implies that Eve did not resist to this action in any way, continuing her role as the submissive woman. Alternatively, Lyra’s subconscious battles for the right to be awake and present despite Mrs Coulter’s power to keep her sleeping possibly for all eternity. The action Mrs Coulter – a member of the Church – keeping Lyra – an image of purity on the cusp of gaining knowledge through sin – in a state in which she cannot be tainted holds greater meaning outside of Pullman’s narrative. This image can be viewed as representing a greater battle between religious superstition and true knowledge. “Sin is, in the eyes of the Church, knowledge”[45] states Wheat, once again confirming Lyra’s allegorical representation of the struggle for knowledge and therefore sin. Despite the seemingly permanent sleep imposed upon her by her mother, Lyra’s subconscious is shown by Pullman to be determined to break out of the dreamlike state – “’I will wake up and I won’t forget, so there.’”[46]. This affirmation by Lyra displays her potential to exercise free will of the mind even when her body is indisposed, thus linking her and her actions once again to sin, as “Sin…is a state of free will”[47]. Lyra’s consistent need for knowledge is also displayed in her subconscious mind, in her statement

’I’m so afraid of sleeping all my life and then dying – I want to wake up first! I wouldn’t care if it was just for an hour, as long as I was properly alive and awake.’[48]

This again emphasises the difference between Pullman’s female protagonist and Milton’s female protagonist in the sense that, although both Lyra and Eve are tempted by knowledge, the reasons for why this is so create very different ways of looking at each character. Both women are tempted into their actions by the Satan counterpart of each narrative, but Eve’s temptation into sin through knowledge is motivated by Satan’s promise that “…ye shall be as gods/Knowing both good and evil…”[49]. Lyra, however, is not motivated by a want for glory of godlike qualities, but rather by a simple thirst for knowledge. Although both tempted by knowledge, the reasons behind Eve and Lyra’s actions twist the reader’s perception of each character, painting Eve’s attainment of knowledge as a sinful and selfish act, and portraying Lyra’s as an innocent and pure exploration of the world (or, in the case of His Dark Materials, multiple worlds).

Despite his largely positive portrayal of his female protagonist, Pullman does not reward Lyra with a happy ending. Lyra is made to part with her lover Will and return to her own world, rather than spend eternity in the world that is viewed as “Paradise”[50]. For Lyra, much like Susan, there is no Paradise. However, unlike in Lewis’ narrative, this is not as a punishment to the female character for her sinful actions. Rather, Pullman’s refusal to allow Lyra to go to Paradise is his method of stating that there is no Heaven at all. Therefore, this action cannot be viewed as a patriarchal punishment of Lyra, but instead as an statement of Pullman’s Atheist views. Although Heaven is referred to within the series, it is only ever named as the “Kingdom of Heaven”[51] or the “Republic of Heaven”[52], therefore politicising the concept of Heaven and literalising it as a physical place, removing it from spiritual and religious imagery and therefore making it entirely Pullman’s own.

The very existence of the Chronicles of Narnia series and the His Dark Materials series shows that Milton’s afterlife lives on through contemporary fantasy authors. With both Lewis and Pullman having published works and given interviews on Milton’s Paradise Lost, the influence he has had over each author’s work is inescapable. The ability both Lewis and Pullman have to weave Milton’s themes and symbols into their own work, all the while successfully maintaining their own views and narrative confirms the timelessness of Milton’s work. Although naturally forever tied to his own social and political context, the ability of Milton’s themes and messages to be adapted to new and contemporary ways of thinking – whether it be politically, religiously or gender-related – ensures that Milton’s afterlife will live on through the works of those authors who have read him, even when read with a critical eye.

An almost cyclical nature is created in the fascinating way that Lewis has criticised Milton’s work, and in turn Pullman has criticised both Lewis and Milton’s works, the implication appearing to be that this could continue onwards with Milton ever remaining as the base of religious, gender and literary argument. This establishes Milton’s Paradise Lost as an epic poetical milestone in the way we view politics, gender, religion and simply writing itself. The Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials are, of course, both epic literary milestones in their own right, but neither would have existed had it not been for Milton and his seemingly eternal afterlife.

[1] Raymond Nighan and Donna Freitas, Romantic Comments on Milton’s Satan (7th April 2010) <http://www.stjohns-chs.org/english/gothic/works/satanhero.html&gt; [accessed 3 December 2015].
[2] C.S. Lewis, Preface To Paradise Lost, 15th edn (London: Oxfird University Press, 1967), p. 94.
[3] ibid., p 95
[4] ibid., p 96
[5] ibid., p 96
[6] ibid., p 102
[7] ibid., p 99
[8] ibid., p 95
[9] ibid., p 100
[10] John Milton, ‘Book 1’, in Paradise Lost, ed. by Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, 2nd edn. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 23
[11] BBC, Religions: C.S. Lewis (6th August 2009) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/people/cslewis_1.shtml&gt; [accessed 3 December 2015].
[12] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (Great Britain: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2009), p. 39.
[13] Lewis, Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 102
[14] Leonard F. Wheat, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials— A Multiple Allegory : Attacking Religious Superstition in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Paradise Lost (United States of America: Prometheus Books, 2008), p. 165
[15] ibid, p.16
[16] ibid, p.176
[17] William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. xvii.
[18] Wheat, p. 215
[19] ibid, p. 24
[20] Phillip Pullman, ‘The Dark Side of Narnia’, Guardian, 1st October 1998, p.2. Available at The Cumberland River Lamp Post, http://www.crlamppost.org/darkside.htm
[21] ibid
[22] ibid.
[23] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle, 6th edn (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994), p. 210.
[24] Wheat, p. 11
[25] Phillip Pullman quoted by Carolyn Curtis, Mary Pomroy Ke, Women and C.S Lewis: What his life and literature reveal for today’s culture (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2015), p. 97.
[26] Philip Pullman, Northern Lights, 2nd edn (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 1998), p. 215.
[27] Lewis, p. 154.
[28] ibid
[29] Wheat, p. 11
[30] Wheat, p.15
[31] Wheat, p. 24
[32] Milton, p.228
[33] Phillip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2001), p. 71.
[34] ibid, p. 492
[35] ibid, p. 497
[36] ibid, p. 83
[37] ibid, p. 497
[38] Milton, p.3
[39] ibid.
[40] Neil Gaiman, ‘The Problem of Susan’, in Fragile Things (London: Headline Publishing Group, 2010).
[41] Annie Bierman, ”Sweet Compliance’: Eve’s Progression into Submission in Paradise Lost’, , .17, (), , in<https://www.mckendree.edu/academics/scholars/issue17/bierman.htm&gt; [accessed 12 January 2016].
[42] ibid.
[43] Milton, p.246
[44] Miton, p.283
[45] Wheat, p.265
[46] Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, p.68
[47] Wheat, p.265
[48] ibid, p. 56
[49] Milton, p.226
[50] Wheat, p.208
[51] Pullman, The Amber Spyglass, p. 222
[52] Ibid, p.548

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