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His Dark Materials, Part 2: Commitments, Propaganda, and Blurry Lines

Just to be clear, if you’ve clicked on the video before reading, I’m not invoking, nor am I exemplifying, Godwin’s Law.  Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

I began writing about Philip Pullman’s series of novels His Dark Materials with a discussion of what I believe to be the wrong reasons for dismissing, criticizing, or derogating it.  Many, especially in Christian circles, have dismissed it as a piece of atheist propaganda meant to destroy children’s belief in God.  Pullman, in essays about C. S. Lewis, has made the counter claim that Lewis, in his Narnia books, was propagandizing to bring children into the Christian fold.  My contention was that whether or not either one of them was right was beside the point in terms of the literary merit of either series of books.  What I want to do briefly here is to explore that blurry boundary between writing with a passionate aim and propagandizing, and how these relate to art.

To some extent art is about technique and skill.  The very word “technique” comes from the Greek technēs, very inadequately translated as “art”.  It is better translated as “skill” or “craft” or “art” in the sense of the “art” of doing something.  The word for builder or carpenter, tektōn (the word, by the way, which in the New Testament describes the professions of Joseph, husband of Mary, and of Jesus of Nazareth, and which doesn’t necessarily imply what we call carpentry), is related to technēs.  Without skill or craftsmanship, without having mastery of one’s craft and doing a good job at it, one cannot create art, be it painting a picture, carving a statue, building a good house, building a stone wall, writing a novel, singing a song, or making a movie.   Read the rest of this entry

His Dark Materials, Part 1: Literary Agendas

A few years ago I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, one of the most talked-about–and controversial–series of books for children and young adults.  As a prolegomena to actually writing about the series directly, I want to start with some of the philosophical issues that surrounded and still surround it.  The reason I do so is that much of the discourse on this series of books hinged on issues that were not really literary at all.

It is well known that Pullman is an avowed atheist and that His Dark Materials was, in part, at least, conceived as a “response” to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series.  The latter information is especially interesting, since J. K. Rowling is known as a great fan of Lewis’s work, and partly conceived the Harry Potter series (especially its length of seven volumes) as a homage to Lewis.  It is fascinating that the two most prominent authors of children’s books in the late 20th and early 21st centuries both wrote their major works in light of their reactions to and feelings about C. S. Lewis and Narnia. Read the rest of this entry

Reviews: Index

I noticed on my stats page that someone had read my review of Gladiator, which I posted a long time ago.  I’ve got some other movie, book, and other reviews that I’ve got planned (some written years ago, some that I’m planning to write), so I thought I’d make a central index for them as I get them written and posted.  Some essays will be not traditional reviews, but may look at themes in one or more works.  Within genres, reviews are alphabetized by the title of the work reviewed.  Enjoy!


A Double Shadow (this goes to the index for it, since I wrote several essays on it, none of them a traditional review–but, oh well)

His Dark Materials, Part 1:  Literary Agendas

His Dark Materials, Part 2:  Commitments, Propaganda, and Blurry Lines

Lion of Macedon


A Little Romance


Star Trek (reboot), Part 1:  How to Do It Pretty Much Right

Star Trek (reboot), Part 2:  How to Do It Pretty Much Right

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, Part 1–Pre-incarnation

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, Part 2–Synopsis

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, Part 3–Pretty Sounds and Colors!

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, Part 4–Script

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture, Part 5–Cast

STTMP, Part 6:  A Few Words about Costumes (ugh!)

The War Lord


Space:  1999–A Brief Appreciation


Book Review: Lion of Macedon

Once more British author David Gemmell has triumphed with a brilliant piece of historical fiction/fantasy, Lion of Macedon. Gemmell made his name with the Drenai series, novels set in a world roughly similar to late Antiquity or the early Middle Ages. These follow the fortunes of the Greek-like people known as the Drenai over a period of many centuries. Gemmell has also written the Jerusalem Man series, which deals with Arthurian themes and spans from the Middle Ages to the post-apocalyptic future. With Lion of Macedon, Gemmell has entered new territory, basing his story on actual historical people and events.

Lion of Macedon deals with a period of history which changed the world and whose effects are with us still: the rise of Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. The conquests first of Philip and then his son set the stage for the wide diffusion of Hellenistic culture. It was out of this matrix that the Greco-Roman culture of the Roman Empire, and thus ultimately our own, arose. This fascinating period has been little dealt with in fiction, and it is good to see Gemmell do so. He does this by concentrating on an extremely important but “forgotten” character: Parmenion, the chief general under Philip and Alexander, and the “Lion of Macedon” of the book’s title. Although Parmenion helped develop the strategies that Philip and Alexander used to conquer the largest empire the world had seen to that point, and served as Alexander’s right-hand man, little is known of him. Thus, he serves as an excellent window through whom to present the events of the novel.

All too often writers try to get into the heads of major figures in historical fiction. This is hard to do well, as it throws the reader into the situation of seeing events from the insider point of view before understanding the context. The device Gemmell uses allows us to watch the rise of Macedon develop from the viewpoint of an outsider. We learn along with Parmenion. Meanwhile, we see the wonderful character development given to him and to the other characters. When we come to Philip finally, we feel comfortable in the ancient world on the eve of the Hellenistic period. Read the rest of this entry

A Double Shadow: Index

Recently I wrote a long series of posts about the Fall of Man, which I entitled, “Legends of the Fall”.  Since it was long, spanning 22 posts over three months, I provided an index at the end so that readers who are interested (especially those who might have come in in medias res) could follow the whole series from beginning to end.

About this time last year I re-read a book which I’d first read in high school, circa 1979, the science fiction novel of ideas A Double Shadow.  I found re-reading it after over thirty years truly interesting, and many of the ideas in the novel were connected to things I was thinking and blogging about.  I ended up writing a series of posts on the book–which, by the way, I’d recommend to all.

Anyway, I’m in the middle of another series now, and it occurred to me that some of the earlier series that I’ve done ought to have index pages for ready access as well, especially for newer readers who may have missed some of the posts from awhile back.  Therefore, I am posting here the links to my series on A Double Shadow.  Enjoy the posts, and if you’re intrigued, enjoy the book!

A Double Shadow, Part 1

A Double Shadow, Part 2:  Ethics

A Double Shadow, Part 3

A Double Shadow, Part 4

A Double Shadow, Part 5:  Finale

A Double Shadow V: Finale

I have finally come to the last post I want to do inspired by A Double Shadow.  I thank everyone for the indulgence they’ve shown in following a rather lengthy series which I’ve posted here, here, here, and here.  The last thing I want to discuss is the issue of the “simple life” from the point of view of an advanced society.

Over the years I’ve been a regular habitué of Rod Dreher’s blogs in their various incarnations at Beliefnet, later, for a brief time, at Big Questions Online, the website of the Templeton Foundation, and now at The American Conservative.  I was and am a fan of much of his work, and am sympathetic to the “crunchy” outlook (though I’m not a “crunchy conservative”).  Over time, though, I’ve decided that there is much that is problematic both in some of Rod’s ideas in particular and in much of ideas regarding environment, self-sufficiency, going back to the land, and so on that are prevalent both on the Left and in some segments of the Right these days.  Read the rest of this entry

A Double Shadow, Part IV

I’ve used a discussion of the novel A Double Shadow (which you really should read, if you have a chance) as a jumping-off point for discussing various issues in contemporary society–previous installments are herehere, and here.  In this post (the penultimate, by the way), I’d like to bring the discussion to an element of the post’s title:  postmodernism.

“Postmodernism” is one of those terms that is overused and abused, and which often becomes a bugaboo or a reflexive way of showing disapproval or even approval.  Nevertheless, I think it is a useful term, particularly in this context.  Thus, as long as we recall that the term covers a lot of (often conflicting) phenomena, I think we can give a rough definition that will guide our discussion here. Read the rest of this entry

A Double Shadow, Part III

Not long ago I discussed the novel A Double Shadow, and then I discussed the moral ramifications of the ethical system described therein.  The question then arises, what is the relevance? 

To recap briefly, the novel describes a terraformed Mars over a millennium and a quarter in the future, in which human technology has made practically anything possible.  Death is strictly optional, and reversible, practically infinite resources are available, travel across space, time, and dimensions is instantly and easily possible, and no desires need go unfulfilled.  The result is a society in which there is no concept of morality.  Instead, the main values are aesthetic.  Individuals are judged not as “good” or “bad” people, but in terms of how artistic their lives are and how fully they follow their own individual aesthetic choices in living their lives.  The choices themselves are arbitrary, since there is no transcendent standard involved. 

I would submit that such an ethos is not fictional, and that it has in fact been actualized (to a much lesser degree, of course) many times right here on Earth, and still is in places and degrees.  Any class of any society that has sufficient power and resources tends to live by such values as described of the Martians in A Double Shadow.  That is, wealth and power make anything possible, within the limitations of a society’s technology, and they also shield one to a large extent from undesired consequences of one’s actions.  Members of such a class may not be able to teleport to the Andromeda Galaxy or to cheat death, but they can live their lives pretty much as they see fit.  If problems occur in the process, money and power can sweep the pieces under the rug, and life goes on. Read the rest of this entry

A Double Shadow, Part II: Ethics

Having laid the groundwork on A Double Shadow, I want to discuss why I think it’s worth reading and why I think it deals with issues that are significant, especially in today’s cultural milieu.

I’ve mentioned before that any conceivable ethical system must, at some level, make certain postulates or assume certain moral axioms.  The analogy to mathematics is deliberate.  In math, especially in geometry, there are certain basic definitions that are not considered to be definable—they simple “are”.  One either understands them (for the purposes of mathematics) or one doesn’t.  A “line”, for example, though we think we know by common sense what it is, is one such thing.  Mathematically, one could say it is “an infinite locus of points extending infinitely through one dimension and having no endpoints”; but no one but a mathematician would understand this.  Even the terms in the definition can’t be “defined”.  “Infinite” means “not finite”, and is thus defined not in terms of what it is, but what it’s not.  A “point” is not a dot you make on paper, but a “unique geographical location having no dimensions”.  And so on.  Thus, you couldn’t even see, let alone draw, a true point, line, plane, etc.

Likewise, basic postulates simply are.  You can’t prove that opposite interior angles along the transversal cutting parallel lines are equal—they just are.  Likewise with the postulate that for a given line and point not on that line, in a plane, exactly one line passes through the point that is parallel to the given line.  It’s easy to “see” that it’s true, but there’s no proof for it. Read the rest of this entry