A moral vision for the modern age

'Philip Pullman's "The Amber Spyglass" contains the most impassioned cry to accept the death of God since Nietzsche'

Natasha Walter
Thursday 24 January 2002 01:00 GMT

The renaissance in children's literature is turning out to be one of the most striking cultural characteristics of our times. Whether we are reassessing the achievements of the past, as with the film of The Lord of the Rings, or falling in love with current child-heroes like Harry Potter, there has never been another time when children's literature could command such attention.

About six months ago I wrote on these pages that Philip Pullman's novel The Amber Spyglass would be a worthy winner of the Booker Prize. In the event it didn't make the shortlist, but it lived to fight another day. On Tuesday night, Pullman walked away with the Whitbread Prize.

That prize thrives on the neat concept of first dividing books up into categories – novel of the year, children's book of the year, and so on – and then breaking down the categories for its overall prize. That meant that these judges could give the award to Philip Pullman without being accused of dumbing down to the level of a children's book. Peculiarly, this still seems to be a very real fear. Although we are currently seeing such an unexpected outpouring of energy in literature for children, many commentators are still afraid to admit that these books can stand alongside other literature.

Novelists such as Philip Hensher and Howard Jacobson have mocked the adults who eagerly turn the pages of the Harry Potter books, or, even worse, queue up to see the film without the excuse of a seven-year-old child by their side. And when Peter Jackson's film of The Lord of the Rings was released, sceptical critics such as Mark Lawson, Thomas Sutcliffe and David Sexton poured scorn on people who took their childish delights into adulthood. They seem to believe that people who sink into tales that shrug off the adult world are absurd, or even a bit dangerous. In one critic's words, we are proof of "the infantilisation of adult culture".

But these critics who are proud to be too sophisticated to enjoy a book where a bear talks or a dragon flies might be missing out. They needn't be afraid that they will lose their critical edge if they let down their guard against childish things for an instant. Do we still have to spell it out? It really is possible to like Rowling and Roth, to enjoy Pullman as well as Proust.

What is endearing about the new breed of children's writers is that they are firing a new bolt of energy into literature. Naïve? Yes, they may be naïve. But what they don't suffer from is the deadening claustrophobia of so much acclaimed literature for grown-ups. Readers who fell on hyped novels such as Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections or Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, only to find them imaginatively underpowered, will know what I mean when I say that even the biggest novels today can seem much smaller than life.

Still, perhaps those novels honestly reflect the problematic aspects of our current condition, whereas the children's writers have the liberty of escapism. That may be true. But sometimes it is worth going on these journeys – not just to escape, but also to return. I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that after stepping into Rowling's world or into Pullman's world, both of which thrive on the staggeringly precise and sensual detailing of their fantasy universes, I found that the everyday world had juddered a little. Without doubt they do lack other qualities that you look for in literature that isn't meant for children. But still, Rowling and Pullman can achieve that precious effect on the reader of tearing away the veils of familiarity and reawakening one to the oddness and beauty of ordinary life.

And let's not sidestep what is, perhaps, the most obvious point of these books' appeal. As with J K Rowling, Pullman fulfils an often unassuaged longing in this secular age – he describes a great battle between good and evil, a battle where everything is at stake, where you have to take sides. For some people this is just too simple to be enjoyable. They recognise that morality is always about shades of grey, and they don't like being seduced into these grand images of deep black and dazzling white.

But I find this engagement with ethical themes intriguing. And Pullman's moral vision is the most refreshing I've seen in a children's book for a long time, because unlike so many others, he does moral fervour without falling into a sub-Christian message. On the contrary, his work contains the most impassioned cry to accept the death of God since Nietzsche. No wonder Christians have shied away from his books. The Amazon website, where readers can post opinions, contains hundreds of reviews from the United States, many of them from parents who call his vision "satanic" and "dark and terrifying", and warn other families off them. The same can be heard here. Claudia Fitzherbert wrote in a newspaper yesterday: "Christian parents beware: his books can damage your child's faith."

Indeed, they can. Many writers who have tried to preach their atheism in their literature, like writers who have tried to preach their religion, have ended up weakening their vision. But here the loss of faith is made vivid and energetic. The thrust of the trilogy that is completed by The Amber Spyglass is to re-run the Fall, but this time sexuality and knowledge are good, and authority is bad. The priests and the church are the embodiment of evil. The aim of the child protagonists is hardly unambitious – it is to destroy the dream of the kingdom of heaven, and instead to put one's faith in building the republic of heaven in one's own lifetime.

Isn't this is a great vision for the world after 11 September? Here we have a book that asks us to believe that we can build a new, highly moral world without the precepts of religion. Sure, Pullman ends up having his cake and eating it. After all, a fantasy that includes angels, witches, embodied souls and the possibility of movement between parallel worlds is hardly a secular universe. This is still a children's book, and it retains comforting, childish elements – so it can alleviate the dreariness of rationalism with magic flowers and talking bears.

Nevertheless, it's fascinating that such a book has found such an audience now. We have all learnt not to ask writers to give us any moral messages. With most literature that works perfectly, because it makes us alive to irony and imagination without boxing the work up with moral preconceptions. But Pullman is actually asking his readers to engage with him ethically as well as imaginatively. He says wonderfully old-fashioned things like: "Blake once wrote of Milton that he was 'of the Devil's party, without knowing it'. I am of the Devil's party, and I know it."

Pullman celebrates beliefs that should be central to the world we want to build now – beliefs in equal sexual love, in suspicion of authority, in free thought and in a connection with the environment. His sales and reputation suggest that many readers are absolutely entranced by fiction that can mint such brilliant coinage from the dusty moral currency of our age. And even those people who deplore the so-called infantilisation of adult culture would go a long way to find anything else that has such power to make us think and wonder.


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