"Glancing Over Into Paradise"

    Lord Byron. "The Vision of Judgment".
    London, 1822.

    Neil Gaiman. "Murder Mysteries"
    (Adapted and illustrated by P. Craig Russell.)
    Milwaukee, Oregon, 2002.

    Philip Pullman. "His Dark Materials: 1. The Golden Compass [aka Northern Lights]; 2. The Subtle Knife; 3. The Amber Spyglass".
    London/New York, 1995-2000.

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If Americans are so much more religious than their British counterparts, as the common wisdom holds, then why do two of the most interesting and intense meditations on founding principles published in the last decade originate with Englishmen Pullman and Gaiman? Both Gaiman's *Murder Mysteries* (originally a short story; now a graphic novel) and Pullman's best-selling and award-winning trilogy *His Dark Materials* build themselves out of Milton's *Paradise Lost*. Gaiman dares to attack Milton almost head-on by imagining the processes through which the universe itself was built and the cost of God's determination that human beings would have personality and will, while Pullman just as audaciously writes his own sequel to *Paradise Lost*, *Paradise Regained* notwithstanding.

But much of the information we claim to know about Satan is extra-biblical, and Milton probably plays as large a role as anyone in the shaping of the whole story.

The myth of Lucifer/Satan-- which most Christians and post-Christians can recite more or less entire-- is more complex in origin that many of them know. The devil is a very shadowy figure in the Hebrew Bible. His most prominent role occurs in Job where "the adversary" meets with the sons of God, and God himself, to discuss his comings and goings on the earth. When God proudly points out the faithfulness of Job, Satan counters that Job lives in a blessed bubble and has no reason not to be faithful. And thus ensues the bet about Job's reaction to trial and tribulation. Otherwise the whole concept of the devil is rather nebulous. The serpent in Genesis is not explicitly linked to the concept of a fallen angel, much less the highest angel, and other appearances in the books of the prophets are inconclusive at best. In the New Testament, the figure comes into much sharper focus, tempting Jesus to use his powers to benefit himself rather than [or in addition to] God and others, marshaling the forces of evil in the Revelation, and being spoken of in various places as the clear enemy of God. But much of the information we claim to know about Satan is extra-biblical, and Milton probably plays as large a role as anyone in the shaping of the whole story. Critics have long since noted that Milton's Satan is-- despite Milton's avowedly religious intent-- the actual hero of *Paradise Lost*, the heart of the tale, the dramatic focus, the pre-Romantic Romantic who would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. Even so, Satan loses: despite his successful temptation of Adam and Eve, he cannot defeat God. Milton, you see, is orthodox.

Gaiman and Pullman are not. The tension in Milton, to some degree, is that he fashions a somewhat noble character who still must be taken as the embodiment of all evil. Gaiman and Pullman, on the other hand, are neither linked to a specific and official religious choice which they must support nor are they ignorant, as Milton had to be, of the gnostic gospels discovered in the past century; of the erosion of Christian authority by both the rationalist explorations of the 18th and 19th centuries and the ultimate individualism to which five centuries of Protestantism would lead; or of Romanticism, which could-- for perhaps the first time since imperial Rome-- make a hero of a wicked being who has the audacity to question even God himself (as, interestingly enough, Job does).

Gaiman makes the unusual choice of straddling Milton: while his story within a story is set in the present, the greatest part of the tale [the "within"] is a recounting of something that happened-- the first first murder, before Cain and Abel-- when Lucifer was still God's lieutenant. This thematic frame serves at least two purposes: first of all, it draws the reader in by providing her with a more or less sympathetic lead character in a familiar contemporary setting, establishing a sense of reality which therefore lends support to the inner story, encouraging the suspension of disbelief. Second, by presenting the ancient story as a first-person narrative told by one character to another, Gaiman further lowers the reader's defenses against the recounting itself by allowing for the possibility that it's all just the raving of an insane street person. By doing so, Gaiman guarantees that the central theme of his meditation-- the possibility of redemption-- comes through to the reader even if she rejects the inner story's alleged veracity. Thus Gaiman writes what is, in substance, a Judeo-Christian reverie which requires of the reader no assent to Judeo-Christian tenets. A very cagy strategy with an enormous payoff: I have rarely encountered such melancholic work, such heart-rending and affecting sadness, and what a surprise to find it in a book which is not only "genre" fiction (Gaiman is considered a writer of SF) but also a graphic novel.

Pullman's work is immensely more confrontational and unorthodox. The Ancient of Days' victory is the victory of power, not of righteousness, and-- even more audacious-- the rebel who determines to challenge heaven is not an eternal angel, but a man.

Pullman's trilogy, just as serious in intent, presents an entirely different sort of surface to the reader. Ostensibly written for juveniles, it is as demanding as most works for adults and is, in fact, published in both juvenile and adult editions in the U.S. Whereas Gaiman's story is arguably no more science fictional than Milton's, Pullman's books-- *The Golden Compass* (1995), *The Subtle Knife* (1997) and *The Amber Spyglass* (2000)-- are unabashedly speculative. *The Golden Compass* is chiefly set in a parallel version of our world, in what seems to be the equivalent of late Victorian or early Edwardian England and parts north of there. The Subtle Knife begins in our world, in present-day England, but quickly jumps into yet another parallel world-- one which echoes both the Renaissance and the late Middle Ages-- with others to follow as the narrative continues through *The Subtle Knife* and into *The Amber Spyglass*. The differences between those versions of one world are substantial but not lethal: the characters from one can breathe in another, for example, and the various Englishes are comprehensible. Since parallel or variant worlds are an essential component of quantum mechanics (I hope I said that less than stupidly-- I am not a student of physics), Pullman's imaginative explorations should not be considered fantasy in any normal sense. He is, to be sure, inventing, but not capriciously: he is not writing about magic, but about the inherent possibilities of variants of our world. I am not suggesting, however, that Pullman is not imaginative: far from it. His conception of sentient, verbalizing polar bears is far more alien than just about anyone's extraterrestrial and just as possible. Furthermore, Pullman's imaginative achievement is quite defensibly as great and as significant as Tolkien's, and-- like Tolkien-- Pullman is a great narrator and a great inventor, but not a great stylist. He is not "literary" in the sense that James Joyce or Guy Davenport is. Rather he takes a dominant mode-- quasi-journalistic naturalism-- and uses it for first-rate storytelling which as as serious at heart as Milton's or Homer's. And the comparisons to both are apt because all three writers are concerned with war in heaven (or maybe disagreement in heaven in Homer's case) and with the interventions of heavenly forces into human lives. Pullman's trilogy is, as he has noted, a sequel to Paradise Lost, but with this difference: in Pullman, the good guys win.

Did you read that correctly?

From Pullman's angle, Milton's epic is a tragedy, not because humanity fell, but rather because God remains unquestionably in control. If Gaiman's heterodoxy is apparent in his suggestion-- quite gnostic-- that Lucifer's rebellion against God is both philosophically defensible and more humane than perfection, his orthodoxy is implied in his lack of a direct challenge to that eternal perfection the philosophers love. Pullman's work is immensely more confrontational and unorthodox. The Ancient of Days' victory is the victory of power, not of righteousness, and-- even more audacious-- the rebel who determines to challenge heaven is not an eternal angel, but a man. The depth of Pullman's thought and the reach of his achievement is demonstrated by his winning of the Whitbread Prize for *The Amber Spyglass*, the first time the award has ever been given to a work for juveniles.

If Pullman's trilogy can be seen as a sort of culmination of two centuries of investigation into Christian origins and the implications underlying Judeo-Christian norms, perhaps its most fitting companion is not Paradise Lost or Murder Mysteries, both of which question Christian orthodoxy but do not challenge God on his throne, but rather Lord Byron's 180-year-old burlesque *The Vision of Judgment*. Written in the same tone as Byron's comic masterpiece *Don Juan* and while Bryon was still composing the mock epic, *The Vision of Judgment* answers Milton not with the pointed and rational questioning of Gaiman and Pullman, but rather with the same sharp but ultimately warm-hearted jousting that animates so much of his masterpiece. Here we witness the contest between Michael the archangel and Lucifer the arch-enemy for the soul of the recently deceased King George III of England. Byron imagines the ancient brotherhood of Michael and Lucifer strained but intact and Lucifer utterly unlike the ravening lion of the Christian epistles. He is instead aristocratic, haughty, and already master of so many kings that he doesn't mind at all turning George over to heaven. Byron thus assails Miltonic orthodoxy not by careful narrative construction or argument but by ridicule. Indeed the forces of both heaven and hell are eventually scattered by the recitations of British poet laureate Pye, allowing old George to creep into heaven while the gates remain unguarded. While Byron's poem is by no means flawless, it is the only one of these works which deserves to be called "art" in the traditional sense, work which one reads not simply for its content but also for its skill with words. Byron, like Gaiman and Pullman, has a point to make, and all three are first-rate narrators, but only Byron is a literary artist. Even so, despite the more or less functional nature of Gaiman's and Pullman's prose, their insights, their imaginations, adn the depths of their characterizations are remarkable, and *Murder Mysteries* and *His Dark Materials* are fictional works which will be inciting discussion and stirring emotions, I suspect, for longer than any of us can foresee.

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Cooper Renner also reviews books and engages in various critical activities for the online magazine 'elimae', under the name b. renner.