The Big Read and the big lie
By Leonie Caldecott
Watching the final moments of the BBC's Big Read last week, my family were punching the air and whooping with glee as Tolkien took the first place. We were even more delighted that Jane Austen managed to wedge herself in between our hero and the third-place candidate, Philip Pullman. While no one can deny that the latter has been stupendously successful (third is an honourable ranking among a remarkably eclectic list), the tactics of the author and his supporters have not been exactly honourable. Benedict Allen in his approbation of His Dark Materials repeated the old chestnut that The Catholic Herald had recommended Pullman's books be burned. So let me try and put the record straight, once and for all.
In October 1999, trying to defend JK Rowling against the charge that her books were too frightening for children, I noted that other books, such as Pullman's, were far more deserving of critical scrutiny from Christian parents, since their themes - that parents are the enemy, that God is a fraud, and that there is no heaven beyond the gentle expiration of atomic particles - were the true stuff of nightmares for children. It being close to bonfire night (when anti-Catholic sensibilities are often in full voice, after all), I joked that fundamentalist campaigners against Rowling could find things far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry Potter.
Needless to say, I am neither a fundamentalist nor a book-burner, having been attacked myself by the former, and finding the latter notion ridiculous. But it seems that Pullman needed a paper tiger to fuel his publicity machine. My article was seized upon, and has been continuously misquoted ever since the third, and most anti-Christian, volume in the trilogy was published.
Curiously, Pullman seems to have no time for either CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien, regarding the former as a crude Christian propagandist and the latter as just deadly dull. But, as the Big Read showed, the majority of the British public don't agree with him.
Meanwhile, I myself seem to be serving another, more mysterious role in Philip's life. He has declared that he hates the Church and all she stands for, and would be happy to be denounced from every pulpit in the land.
Since no clergymen have been forthcoming for this role - the Archbishop of Canterbury recently gave Pullman his imprimatur, to my surprise - the millionaire author has had to make do with an Oxfordshire housewife.
In a public talk at the Oxford Union on April 1, 2001, Pullman said he hoped I was praying for him. But since the God I would be praying to is neither a charlatan nor an April Fool, this request may be a dangerous one to make, even in jest.
Version: 2nd April 2006