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Friday, October 21, 2005

Pullman, Lewis, & the world-changing redemption of the ordinary

Grumpy angel courtesy & copyright
of Hugh MacLeod &

Philip Pullman has been attacking C. S. Lewis once more, turning a few speckled grains of truth (a girl with fat legs, a mix of good and bad among those with dark skin) into the pomp of a major mole mountain. How many dead writers get this kind of sustained pummeling, I wonder? The last notable spectacle of this kind is probably Griswold's repeated kicking of the corpse of Poe. I don’t think Pullman can make his arguments of racism work without exaggerating some evidence and ignoring other evidence, but Tim Cavanaugh has thrown his feathered hat into the ring by arguing that racism is a source of power and interest in many British writers. I like the first two volumes of His Dark Materials but always find it curious that the author is so very shrill about Lewis when his own loathing of religion (not just religion as it is “organized” into human institutions, but the concepts of a living, borderless kingdom of believers, God, and a world beyond this one) wounded the final book of the trilogy.

So I guess it’s time to think about MacLeod again.

17. Merit can be bought. Passion can't. The only people who can change the world are people who want to. And not everybody does.

--Hugh MacLeod,
How to be Creative, The Gaping Void

Topic: world-changing.

Last night I was daydreaming about the thread of the fantastic in poem and narrative, stitching my way back to George MacDonald and William Morris and to the American Romantics and then all the way through Renaissance Arcadian romance to Gawain and Beowulf and the Dream of the Rood. While no book has ever been or can ever be identical with so-called reality, and while “our” reality does not exist in fiction—despite mirrors, despite the onslaughts of movements called American Realism and Naturalism—the length of the distance between “our” reality and a created world can vary considerably.

Writers like Hawthorne who "tinge" their pictures with "the marvelous" are positing the possibility of other worlds, other ways of being. It’s why fantastic literature is (unless too derivative) automatically subversive and in violation of our world’s natural laws. Surely it’s why so much speculative writing is religious (more subversion of normal values) or “otherworldly” in coloring--and why MacDonald and Lewis and Tolkien hold such sway. It helps to live in more than one world; it helps to believe that one soul’s Passion can transform the globe. Perhaps the invention of another world always brings with it a built-in sense of wonder that is essentially religious, whether the writer is so or not. Pullman can’t, in the end, break free of a Christian world view; he ends with Eden, although it is a rather perverse one, where two children have sex and then separate forever.

All art attempts to play redeemer. At its highest level, art restores infant sight to the humdrum world. Art knocks the picture askew so that we can notice and see its image once more. An act of art is like the child jumping rope in the kitchen (don't do that!) who catches up a pot of cyclamen in his arc; the crack! of ordinary clay startles us, and we both kneel, staring at the delicate curved stems and flowers and the pale curled roots in the potting soil. When we look up, the world is standing—broken and bright and saved from the ordinary--all around us.


  1. You can't get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.
    --C. S. Lewis

  2. At its highest level, art restores infant sight to the humdrum world.

    I love this line, and agree whole heartedly with your post.

    I think I'll jump rope in the kitchen tonight and see what happens.

    --Donna the B.Q.

  3. Well I jumped rope in the kitchen and nothing broke. The dishes railed, shook, and as one voice threatened to become bits of poetic ceramic on the floor, but nothing fell.

    I also jumped rope in the kitchen of my mind this weekend and worked some more on a chapter for a novel. To quote my husband who is not a fiction fan, and who suffered through my reading of it with sighs, "Hey that actually sounds like real writing. You're getting better."

    So thanks again for the magic sprinkles from the week at NCCAT.

    Are you plotting your next novel?

    --Donna the B.Q.

  4. Donna the B. Q.--

    How did I miss this piece of news? Good for you! Let me know how it goes... You need a writing pal, I think; you don't want your husband to become the long-suffering sort!

    No, I'm getting ready for a conference (back soon) and putting a story ms. together and trying to get my mind to bend back to the ms. that I was working on back in July, before life interfered.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.