Pullman's Narrow View

As part of my ongoing interest in genre and writing and literary merit, I came across a discussion of Philip Pullman‘s views on fantasy. (Actually, I came across them as part of research on myth and story that I’m doing for a paper, but that’s irrelevant.) The author of the popular and controversial fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials doesn’t seem to like fantasy much.

I don’t like fantasy. The only thing about fantasy that interested me when I was writing this was the freedom to invent imagery such as the daemon; but that was only interesting because I could use it to say something truthful and realistic about human nature. If it was just picturesque or ornamental, I wouldn’t be interested.¹

He also says:

The more fantastical something is the less interesting I personally find it. By realistic I mean if it is talking about human beings in a way which is vivid and truthful and tells me things about myself and my own emotions and things which I recognize to be true … I don’t often encounter that sort of thing in fantasy because a lot of fantasy writing seems to me preoccupied with one adventure after another and improbable sorts of magic and weird creatures like orcs and elves and so on who don’t have any connection with the sort of human reality that I recognize so I am a little but wary of fantasy and what I was trying to do in my ‘fantasy’ … was to tell a realistic story by means of the fantastical sort of machinery of the stories.

So what you’re saying, Pullman, is that people who write fantasy use made up things and narrative adventure to say nothing useful, but you use made up things and narrative adventure to talk about the human condition.

Which is funny, because it seems to me that all you’re doing is not giving anyone but yourself much credit. You can do good things with “fantastical sort of machinery,” but no one else can. And because those other people write “fantasy,” and you’re better than them, you are clearly not writing “fantasy.” You just use it.

Really? Because I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t take long to find a lot of good things being said about humanity by reading fantasy fiction. There’s issues of morality, questions of theology, explorations of love and philosophy and all the subtleties and problems that make us human. And it seems pretty narrow-minded to say that the use of “magic and weird creatures like orcs and elves and so on … don’t have any connection with the sort of human reality that I recognize.” You don’t think that maybe, just maybe, it’s metaphorical?

Oh, no, right, only you’re capable of that.

And let’s not even delve into the fact that most of the tropes of fantasy fiction are derived directly from real-world mythology and represent human archetypes recognizable in every culture in the world and have existed for thousands of years.

He’s also said:

I always took a dim view of fantasy — still do in fact. Most of it is trash, but then 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.

And:

The first book I think really did what fantasy can do, besides Paradise Lost, was a book published in 1920 called The [sic] Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. It’s a very poorly written, clumsily constructed book which nevertheless has the force, the power, the intensity of genius. He uses fantasy to say something profound about morality — none of Tolkien’s imitators do this.

I just think Pullman hasn’t read much fantasy. I mean, he even calls out specifically the downfall to his argument — Sturgeon’s Law, that ninety percent of everything is crud. Yes, there is a lot of bad fantasy out there, lots of stuff that maybe doesn’t do anything useful with the tools it has, just as there’s lots of bad “literature” and bad science fiction and bad movies and, well, bad people. But there’s also good stuff. And given how much volume there is of fantasy, there’s a fair amount of good stuff.

Yes, Pullman, it’s actually possible that people other than you can use fantastical elements to say something profound. It’s possible that people other than you know what a metaphor is.

That’s what fantasy does, it uses metaphor and allegory to say something about us, about our lives. Hell, that’s what all fiction does, ultimately. That’s what myth has done for thousands of years.

And don’t get me wrong — His Dark Materials is a brilliant work of writing, and I love it. But yes, it’s fantasy. And so is a lot of other good stuff. Why are people so averse to that label? Because it’s popular these days? Like success equals trash?

Get over yourselves.

———-

¹ Quotations by Philip Pullman taken from William Gray, Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth, New York: Palgrave MacMillan (2009)

Mythology, Writing , , , , , ,

2 comments


  1. He is mostly correct, though. A great deal of contemporary fantasy doesn’t explore the potential to thoughtfully examine things that are relevant to us (the way he does). Back in the 70s Michael Moorcock complained that fantasy had lost it’s edge and that it was far too devoted to comforting it’s audience, that it was a giant cup of coacoa. Other than Pullman, LeGuin, Pratchett, the woman who wrote Johnathan Strange and Rowling who out there is really pushing the boundaries of fantasy right now.?

    When I think about the kind of stuff that Pullman wants to see out of fantasy, I’m mostly thinking of sci fi. Phillip K Dick, Michael Moorcock, Robert A. Heinlein, William Gibson, J.G. Ballard, I could go on all day, but there’s my point

    • Lucas J.W. Johnson

      The fact that you can in fact name a number of authors that use fantasy well proves my point — sure there’s a lot of crap that doesn’t, but as I mentioned (and as he mentioned) there always will be. There’s just as much, if not more, sci fi crap that doesn’t use the tools well either. “Mostly correct” doesn’t cut it.

      Off the top of my head, I’d also add Gaiman, L’Engle, China Mièville and Gregory Maguire, and I’m sure there’s many others but I’m not as well-read as I’d like to be. And most fantasy I’ve read uses the tools to send a message, to describe a metaphor — it explores the human condition. It’s just subtle about it. Apparently too subtle for some people.

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