(urth) the problem with gaiman, mieville, and pullman

Dan'l Danehy-Oakes danldo at gmail.com
Mon Nov 29 11:55:17 PST 2004


Bravo! Bravissimo! 

(Gee ... I hope you're male under that name...)

Yes, Urth manages in general to maintain a certain amount of decorum,
not to say dulce, while debating some pretty hot points. It's small enough
that we can feel that we "know" each other - and even when responding 
to someone we don't know we know that friends are looking on, and so
we try not to behave like total asses.

> Someone mentioned earlier that it has become a fashion lately
> to attack Lewis's work. 

That would be me. I've seen it all over the place but especially in 
the "Gaiman generation."

> Despite my own problems with Lewis's particular worldview, I have read 
> essay by Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, and Phillip Pullman which were
> written basically to "debunk" Lewiss and for Mieville Tolkien as well. 

I would very much like a pointer to Gaiman's essay, as up to now I 
have only his fictions to base this on. (Not only "The Problem of 
Susan," but also the _Sandman_ arc "A Game of You," which has 
some details that have always seemed to me to be idle passing 
swipes at the Narnia books.)

In fairness, though, I don't think Gaiman, at least, can be painted as
simply being a Good Little Liberal in going after Lewis - after all,
he has shown huge admiration for Chesterton and, for that matter,
Wolfe, who is not exactly what I would call a screaming leftist. (As
a side note, I recently picked up a copy of Gaiman's and Wolfe's
collaboration, "A Walking Tour of the Shambles," and it's laugh
out loud funny.)

> Charges of racism, nostalgia, cruelty, etc , I don't think you can 
> psychoanalyze an author from her work, 

H'mmm. I think you can, to some extent, but only based on a large
body of work and only to the extent the work itself permits. A writer's
work, if it's at all serious, necessarily reflects what the writer thinks
and feels and believes (which are of course three aspects of one
process, "abstraction in a human nervous system as a whole in an
environment," but that's another discussion); anyone who could read
the Narnia books and _not_ figure out that the author was a Christian
must be as ignorant of Christian belief and symbolism as I was, in 
second grade, when I didn't get it  until I came to the end of _The 
Last Battle_. Duh!

> and I was particularly disappointed in Gaiman's reaction.  I mean,
> yes Narnia is less of an allegory than the Faerie Queene though
> much more of an allegory than Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien
> denied having any allegorical structure whatsoever.

H'mmm. I'm not sure what you mean by "less of an allegory" -  from 
context you seem to imply that its author's intent was less allegorical 
than Spenser's? Perhaps: but both seemed to have first and foremost 
in their minds the process of _telling a story_; it's when a writer fails 
to keep that f&f that you get what the late Ted Sturgeon called 
"selling your birthright for a pot of message." The late Robert Heinlein 
committed this sin once or twice - most notably in _Farnham's 
Freehold_, where he managed not only not to tell much of a story, 
but also to garble his message to the point where many people 
thought it was a racist, pro-war book, when his intent was exactly the 
opposite: to show that the "supremacy" of whites was a historical 
accident, and to show that even for the survivors, a nuclear war 
would be an unmitigated disaster.

> Allegory is a very nebulous concept, though, we can call Mieville work 
> Marxist romanticism or captitalist dystopia if we want, 

H'mm. Having just finished _The Scar_, I have to admit that I don't
get much of that. I don't actually get much serious political content
in his novels at all; mostly a sense of "Wow, look how grotesque this 
is!" which was enough to carry _Perdido Street Station_ but not a
second book, so that _The Scar_ stayed on my backburner until I
was well over halfway through it.

> and Pullman age of enlightenment identity myth, 

This is dead spot on.

> and Gaiman neo-pagan mall mythology. 

I am laughing. Can you hear me laughing? That's the best
description of everything that is weakest in Gaiman (a writer I 
generally admire) I've run across to date. I shall doubtless steal
it at some future date.


> They are merely drawing a line between what they consider
> to be "leftist" or "liberal" fantasy, and "conservative" fantasy
> like Tolkien and Lewis, more so with Lewis.  I find this appalling.

Well, of course, Lewis had his axes to grind quite as much as 
PG&M do. Tokien had a few, but (unlike PG&M and sometimes 
Lewis - viz _The Great Divorce_) he didn't write whole books as 
grindstones; his concerns about, for example, the evils of 
industrial capitalism were completely natural in the context of
_tLotR_, especially when voiced by Fangorn.

>  I am not a Christian, 

As I am, it is good to have a non-Christian see some of the same 
things I'm seeing in the PG&M anti-Lewis didactic. As I am also 
pretty much a card-carrying liberal, I find this kind of "correctthink" 
behavior on the part of my fellow liberals rather embarassing at

> and my pride is not hurt that they would try to detract from what
> they feel is Tolkien and Lewis's hegemony of "fantasy" literature. 
> I do happen to think Tolkien and Lewis are more intelligent writers
> than their detractors, but this is besides the point.  What I find
> appaling is the open and deliberate politization of literature, is
> literature for its own sake or for furthuring ideology.  

As I said above, I think that a writer's beliefs - political or religious
or what-have-ye - can't help but influence what she writes. But 
there are good ways and bad ways to do it; Lewis provides examples
that range from very good (_Till We Have Faces_, which you could
read and never suspect the writer of being a devout Christian - though
if you know it it adds a great deal to the book) to mediocre (_The Last
Battle_, in which all the masks come off and even my dumb eight
year old self "got" it). 

Gaiman in his fiction generally doesn't make this sort of mistake; 
Pullman's trilogy descends from excellent to (as Rick Nielsen of
Cheap Trick once put it) "subtle like a mallet."  I can't say much 
about Mieville because I frankly haven't found much of the way 
of meaning-structure in the two books I've read.

> What exactly is propaganda is another difficult problem.  I
> certainly did not feel like Lewis was trying to evangelize me. 
> The novel that is most often cited is The Last Battle, but as
> an eight year old I knew the Emperor from across the sea was
> probably some sort of God, but I just took the whole thing as
> story and that's how I still read it, and it never "softened" me
> up to Mere Christianity, 

Interesting: I feel quite certain that, in my case, the Narnia books
_did_ help keep the Christian faith my family (and especially my
grandmother) had started in me going at times when I might
otherwise have "outgrown" it.  But that's quite a different thing 
from whether it would have "softened" me to Christianity if I had
not already been there.

> Lewis's observations concerning human psychology seem very
> persuasive to me if not always the conclusions he draws from
> them.

H'mmm. I'd like to agree with you, but the truth is I don't think he
wrote a decent adult female character until _Faces_. From the
Queen in _Perelandra_ to Jane Studdock and especially Fairy 
Hardcastle in _That Hideous Strength_, I come away with the
feeling that these characters were written by a man who'd never
actually _met_ a woman.

> I want to contrast Narnia with Pullman's His Dark Materials. I absolutely
> loved the series, and waited the five years until the last book with
> bated breath.  The Amber Spyglass which turned out to be nothing
> more than a refuatation of Christianity. 

Well, I think there was a _bit_ more to it than that, but certainly I 
have to agree that the series turns into fairly blatant Gnostic agitprop 
no later than the beginning of _TAS_. (Which makes it interesting
read to read it against - he said, desperately dragging Wolfe into a 
discussion on the Urth list - the _Long Sun_ series, which I have 
argued is an instantiation of a Gnostic cosmology within the larger 
context of a Christian cosmology.)  

> Why use magic or talking polar bears to promote rationalism?  

Because - as Lewis once put it - "Sometimes stories best say what
needs to be said."

> To a certain degree I am biased, I will admit, because I think Wolfe,
> Lewis, Chesterton, Tolkien ask serious questions that Gaiman,
> Pullman, and Mievelle do not, other "fantacists", I am excluding
> "science fiction", do not.  

May I suggest reading Delany's fantasy works, and especially the
"Neveryon" sequence? These are all about this kind of ...

> Questions of metaphysics, epistemology, semantics, what it
> means to be human, what it means to be a nonhuman person,
> the problem of technology and how to use it, etc.  

... well, not the question of "what it means to be a nonhuman
person," but all the others, and especially semantics and
epistemology. Plus a fairly intense economic dialectic.

> Mieville, Gaiman, and Pullman seem to address these
> issues, but it does not seem to me as if their attempts are
> anything other than cursory. 

I would love to hear someone describe how Mieville addresses 
them even cursorily. Perhaps I was too busy noticing the
grotesquery of Bas-Lag, but I honestly did not see any of this.

Pullman I think goes a bit deeper than "cursory," but I don't
think he really thinks things through very well - I get the feeling
that he sticks with the first idea that appeals to him without
subjecting it to very much scrutiny. 

Gaiman ... well, he's one of the deepest writers ever to write
comics. But in the company of Wolfe, Le Guin, Lewis, Tolkien,
Chesterton, Delany, etc., he's like a one-legged man in an 
arse-kicking contest.

> Despite how "liberal" I may be or how "Christian" Lewis is, the 
> fact remains I think he is a better thinker than the rest of them. 

Yes, I agree. His professional work, which is sometimes dismissed
because of his breezy writing style, is extraordinary: I highly recommend
_The Discarded Image_, one of the best works of Medieval Studies
to come out of the 20th Century.

> I feel that this writers who just so happen to be Christian make
> serious commitments to this questions which means trying to
> answer them honestly and to a certain degree means revealing
> in part some of their Christian beliefs.  

I would go a step further: to be a Christian and an honest thinker in
the modern era _requires_ a degree of looking at hard questions
that isn't necessary for humanists, because the scientific episteme 
offers (or appears to offer) so many challenges to the Christian 
episteme that the only other option, which many Christians (alas!)
settle for, is a retreat into the "God said it, I believe it, that settles 
it!" brand of fundamentalism-literalism. This is a pity because a 
Christian committed to dealing with the hard questions finds in the
end that the "challenges" mostly vanish when you learn to think in
both epistemes: indeed, to do so leaves one with a larger episteme
that covers more of the world than either does separately.

But anyway.

> I have no idea what Gaiman thinks about anything, except that
> he probably voted for Kerry.  

Probably not; I believe that he's still a British subject.

> I dont believe science fiction and fantasy are secretly plagued by
> Christianity and a conservative political agenda, and I find that
> kind of thinking supercilious and dissapointing.

H'mmm. I tend to agree, though there is a strong conservative streak
in SF - particularly in military SF. Perhaps more importantly, and this
is why I would have expected Mieville to be an extreme liberal even
if I hadn't read anything outside of his novels, is something I picked
up from Delany's criticism. He puts it this way: "To fail to challenge
something is to maintain it." That is, in writing of an imaginary
culture, whether in the future, on an alien world, or in an imagined
fantastic world, any social structure  that remains as it is in the "real" 
world tends to support that structure in the "real" world. Take, for
example, the nuclear family: if you posit a culture radically different
from our own, but leave the nuclear family untouched, you've 
reinforced our societal assumption that the nuclear family is just
"how things are." Obviously no writer can challenge everything - if
you did, you would leave the reader with nothing to grasp - but the
more a writer "challenges" in her fiction the more I suspect her of
being politically leftist. Mieville "challenges" a great deal of our
assumptions about reality, but doesn't really provide much in the way
of "wouldn't it be better if...?"

> I dont know how Gaiman can hate Lewis and like Michael Moorcock.
> He just doesn't seem to have good taste.

Well ... that is interesting because Gaiman _does_ seem to like 
an awful lot of the same writers Lewis did: Chesterton, Lindsay, and
MacDonald have all had their tributes in his work. I would very much 
like to read what Gaiman has to say about CSL!

>  p.s. I am writing from  hell, of course, so it should be perfectly obvious
> I am not a sheep in wolf's clothing.


> p.p.s. if you are looking to avoid a heated debate on Tolkien
> and Lewis's "racial agenda", do notr ask me if I think Lord of
> the Rings or Narnia is about the crusades or the Moors.

You seem to be asking to be asked, so I'll ask ...

(For me, I think that there's an obvious Moorishness, or perhaps
Turkishness, to the Calormenes. I suspect you could make a case
for the "swarthy" Easterlings in LotR, but I also suspect that that
case would always remain somewhat problematic.)

> p.p.p.s If Barliman does not deliver this, I will roast him.

Well, _someone_ delivered it!


"Saddam would still be in power if he were the President
of the United States, and the world would be a lot better off."
     -- The Forty-Third President, 10/8/04

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