the November/December 2001 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
The Republic of Heaven
happens to the Kingdom of Heaven when the King dies? And what has
this to do with children's literature?
Children's books, as readers of this journal are
well aware, are capable of expressing just about any idea, and illuminating
just about any subject. Well, I certainly haven't read all the children's
books there are; I haven't even read very many. What's more, my
reading has been unsystematic, butterfly-like, and anything but
rigorous. Nevertheless it seems to me that the children's books
I love are saying something important about the most important subject
I know, which is the death of God and its consequences.
The idea that God is dead has been familiar, and
has felt true, to many of us for a long time now. Those who believe
that he's still alive will of course disagree with some of what
I say, though I hope they'll stay with me till I come to the end.
Anyway, I take it that there really is no God anymore; the old assumptions
have all withered away. That's my starting point: that the idea
of God with which I was brought up is now perfectly incredible.
But not believing in God is not quite like not
believing in the tooth fairy. There are bigger consequences. G.
K. Chesterton, a stout defender of orthodoxy in religion, said that
when people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing,
they believe in anything. This was a warning against the occult,
and astrology, and fashionable religions, especially those from
that sinister place, the East. Chesterton was easily excited. He
once wrote about seeing "evil shapes" in the pattern of
a Turkish carpet — an odd idea that turns up in C. S. Lewis's
Narnia too, where the Witch kills Aslan with a knife of "a
strange and evil shape." What is an evil shape, I
wonder? Could a triangle be evil, for example? Are some kinds of
triangles decent and God-fearing, whereas others are treacherous
and inclined to furtive sodomy? And could you tell that from the
Much more grown-up than this penny-dreadful stuff
is the famous comment of George Eliot, talking about God, Immortality,
and Duty: "How inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable
the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third."
I like that earnestness. I admire it a great deal. But it points
to one of the most important consequences of the death of God, because
something's lacking: if Duty is peremptory and absolute, so (given
our nature) is the necessity for something else, which one might
call joy. George Eliot's universe of duty is a bleak place, and
human beings need more than that.
Now it's not legitimate, I know, to argue from
the want of something to the necessity that it must exist.
It's very poor logic. But so much the worse for logic. The heroine
of this essay — and why shouldn't an essay have heroes and
heroines? — is the young Jane Eyre, and I'm with her on this:
"You think I have no feelings," she says to her cold-hearted
guardian Mrs. Reed, "and that I can do without one bit of love
or kindness; but I cannot live so." She demands love, because
of her passionate need of it, and in due course love appears, though
not before Jane Eyre the girl has grown and suffered. If we need
something, says Jane Eyre the book, we must search for
it, or create it. I think that the book is right, and I think we
need this thing which I've called joy. I might also have called
What I'm referring to is a sense that things are
right and good, and we are part of everything that's right and good.
It's a sense that we're connected to the universe. This connectedness
is where meaning lies; the meaning of our lives is their connection
with something other than ourselves. The religion that's now dead
did give us that, in full measure: we were part of a huge cosmic
drama, involving a Creation and a Fall and a Redemption, and Heaven
and Hell. What we did mattered, because God saw everything,
even the fall of a sparrow. And one of the most deadly and oppressive
consequences of the death of God is this sense of meaningless or
alienation that so many of us have felt in the past century or so.
However, there is one religion whose peculiar and
intense flavor seems to speak very directly to precisely this psychological
(or spiritual) condition. I'm talking about Gnosticism. The Gnostic
religion, like the Christian one, tells us a story that involves
ourselves. To sum it up briefly and crudely, the Gnostic myth says
that this world, the material universe we live in, was created not
by a good God but by an evil Demiurge, who made it as a kind of
prison for the sparks of divinity that had fallen, or been stolen,
from the inconceivably distant true God who was their real source.
These little sparks of god-ness are known as the pneuma,
or soul, and each of us has a spark inside us. It's the duty of
the Gnostics, the knowing ones, to try and escape from this world,
out of the clutches of the Demiurge and his angelic archons, and
find a way back to that original and unknown and far-off God.
Now whatever else this is, it's a very good story,
and what's more it has an immense explanatory power: it offers to
explain why we feel, as so many of us do, exiled in this
world, alienated from joy and meaningfulness and the true
connection we feel we must have with the universe, as Jane Eyre
feels that she must have love and kindness.
In short, Gnosticism fits the temper of the times.
It lends itself to all kinds of contemporary variations: feminism,
for example, partly because of the important role the Gnostic story
assigns to the figure of the Sophia, or Wisdom, the youngest and
paradoxically the rashest of the emanations of the divine being.
Somehow we're not surprised to learn that it was all her fault that
the material universe came about in the first place.
And Gnosticism appeals powerfully, too, to the
sense of being in the know, of having access to a truth
not available to most people. And, not least, it appeals because
the story it tells is all about a massive conspiracy, and we love
massive conspiracies. The X-Files, for example, is pure
Gnosticism. "The truth is out there," says Mulder: not
in here, because in here is permeated by evil
conspiracies whose influence reaches the very centers of worldly
authority, corrupting politics, the law, the military-industrial
complex, and every other center of power in the world. The Demiurge
is in charge, in here. But out there somewhere
is the source of all truth, and we belong with that, not with the
corrupt and dishonest and evil empire that rules this world.
So it's a powerfully dramatic myth, and it has
the great advantage of putting us human beings and our predicament
right at the heart of it. No wonder it appeals. The trouble is,
it's not true. If we can't believe the story about the shepherds
and the angels and the wise men and the star and the manger and
so on, then it's even harder to believe in Demiurges and archons
and emanations and what have you. It certainly explains, and it
certainly makes us feel important, but it isn't true.
And it has the terrible defect of libeling —
one might almost say blaspheming against, if the notion had any
republican meaning — the physical universe; of saying that
this world is just a clumsy copy of a perfect original we can't
see because it's somewhere else. In the eyes of some Christian writers,
of course, this sort of Platonism is a great merit. C. S. Lewis,
at the end of the last book in the Narnia series, has his character
the wise old Professor explaining: "Our own world, England
and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan's real world."
In fact, the two things are "as different as a real thing is
from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream." And then
he goes on to add under his breath "It's all in Plato, all
in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!"
Now this is a state of mind which, unless we're
careful, can lead to a thoroughgoing hatred of the physical world.
It encourages us to see a toad lurking beneath every flower, and
if we can't see one, it's because the toads now are extra cunning
and have learned to become invisible. The Gnostic would say that
the beauty and solace and delight that can be found in the physical
world are exactly why we should avoid it: they are the very things
with which the Demiurge traps our souls. The Puritanism that so
poisoned the human mind later on said just the same sort of thing.
I'd say that that position is an unhealthy and distorted one which
can only be maintained at the cost of common sense, and of that
love and kindness that Jane Eyre demanded, and finally of sanity
itself. The Gnostic situation is a dramatic one to be in;
it's intensely exciting; but it's the sort of paranoid
excitement felt by those militia groups who collect guns and hide
in the hills and watch out for the black helicopters of the evil
New World Order as they prepare for Armageddon. It's nuts, basically.
So Gnosticism, intoxicating though it is, won't
lead us to the republic of Heaven. We have to realize that our human
nature demands meaning and joy just as Jane Eyre demanded love and
kindness ("You think we can live without them, but we cannot
live so"); to accept that this meaning and joy will involve
a passionate love of the physical world, this world, of
food and drink and sex and music and laughter, and not a suspicion
and hatred of it; to understand that it will both grow out of and
add to the achievements of the human mind such as science and art.
Finally, we must find a way of believing that we are not subservient
creatures dependent on the whim of some celestial monarch, but free
citizens of the republic of Heaven.
And I think I can see glimpses of such a republic
in books that children read, among other places. I think it's possible
to point out in children's literature some moments or some qualities
that are characteristic of a republican attitude to the great questions
of religion, which are the great questions of life.
And these great questions often fix themselves
in the tiniest of details: in stockings, for example.
Here is a nonrepublican view of stockings from
C. S. Lewis. Near the end of The Last Battle, the final
book in the Narnia series, Susan is refused entry to the stable,
which represents salvation, because, as Peter says, "My sister . . . is
no longer a friend of Narnia." "Oh Susan!" says Jill.
"She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick
and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being
grown-up." In other words, normal human development, which
includes a growing awareness of your body and its effect on the
opposite sex, is something from which Lewis's narrative, and what
he would like us to think is the Kingdom of Heaven, turns with horror.
But I'm interested in those nylons. I think Susan
had a point. Here's a passage from William Mayne's recent novel
Midnight Fair (Hodder, 1997). Paul, a boy of twelve or
so, has found his attention increasingly absorbed by Victoria, a
strange and solitary girl. He's just summoned up the courage to
write a Christmas card for her. They've been in church, and he watches
as she leaves with her mother.
The service ended for the rest of the congregation.
For Paul it had not begun, and he would have liked an instant replay,
but that was not in prayer books old or new.
He stood up. The girl came along the aisle, nearing
him. He would follow her out, catch up in the porch, and present
the card . . . . The girl came past. Paul wanted to jump out and give
her a hundred cards.
She did not see him. Why should she? She walked
with her mother. In a brown skirt, stockings with a small white
hole beside one ankle, brown leather shoes with a frilled flap on
the instep, a green sweater, and a bronze coat. She was quite plain,
but unearthly beautiful; there was nothing else like her, and her
uniqueness was the reason for all creation.
Lewis's nylons were not real stockings; they were
Platonic stockings, if you like, and their function was simply to
carry a symbolic charge. What they mean is that if you give them
too much of your attention, you're shut out from the Kingdom of
Heaven. In the republic, stockings work differently. They're real
stockings; they sometimes have holes in them. That little white
hole beside her ankle is one of the things that make Victoria "quite
plain, but unearthly beautiful"; and of course Paul can't
give too much attention to her stockings, and her shoes, and her
coat, and everything about her. She is real, and he is in love.
As a matter of fact, Lewis's position as a whole
wasn't at all consistent. Whereas the Narnia books illustrate the
very antithesis of the republic of Heaven, his critical writing
often shows a more generous and sensible spirit. For example, talking
about this very business of growing up in his essay "On Three
Ways of Writing for Children," he says "surely arrested
development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing
to add new things? I now like hock, which I am sure I should not
have liked as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this
growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly
had only one pleasure, I now have two."
There's nothing there which a republican would
quarrel with; but the sensible Lewis who wrote it was thrust aside
in Narnia by the paranoid bigot who proclaimed that an interest
in lipstick and nylons was not an addition to the pleasures of life,
but an absolute disqualification for the joys of Heaven.
The ending of The Last Battle makes this
position even clearer. "The term is over: the holidays have
begun," says Aslan to the children, having just let them know
that "there was a real railway accident . . . . Your father
and mother and all of you are — as you used to call it in
the Shadowlands — dead."
Using Narnia as our moral compass, we can take
it as axiomatic that in the republic of Heaven, people do not regard
life in this world as so worthless and contemptible that they leave
it with pleasure and relief, and a railway accident is not an end-of-term
Jane Eyre, as so often, got it right and gave the
true republican answer when the pious Mr. Brocklehurst asks what
she thinks she must do to avoid going to hell: "I must keep
in good health, and not die," she says. This world
is where the things are that matter. If the Narnia stories had been
composed in that spirit, the children who have passed through all
these adventures and presumably learned great truths from them would
be free to live and grow up in the world, even at the price of engaging
with the lipstick and the nylons, and use what they'd learned
for the benefit of others. That would be the republican thing to
do. That's why Lewis doesn't let his characters do it, and why the
Narnia books are such an invaluable guide to what is wrong and cruel
No, if the republic of Heaven exists at all, it
exists nowhere but on this earth, in the physical universe we know,
not in some gaseous realm far away. Nor can it be truly depicted
in most fantasy of the Tolkien sort: closed fantasy, as John Goldthwaite
calls it in his brilliant and invaluable study, The Natural
History of Make-Believe (OUP, 1996). As Goldthwaite points
out, such fantasy is both escapist and solipsistic: seeking to flee
the complexities and compromises of the real world for somewhere
nobler altogether, lit by a light that never was on sea or land,
it inevitably finds itself enclosed in a mental space that is smaller,
barer, and poorer than reality, because it's sustained by an imagination
that strains against the world instead of working with it, refusing
and not accepting. The result is a hollowness, a falsity. Tolkien's
Shire, his idealized modest English landscape full of comfortable
hobbits who know their social places, is no more real than the plastic
oak paneling and the reproduction horse-brasses in an Olde English
theme-pub. It's a great pity that with the passing of time it's
become less easy to see the difference between the artificiality
of the Shire and the truthfulness of the great republican fairy
tales such as "Jack and the Beanstalk": both the real
and the fake now look equally quaint to the uninformed eye.
The difference lies in the connection, or lack
of it, with the everyday. Am I saying that there is no fantasy in
the republic of Heaven? That everything must be sober and drab,
with a sort of earnest sociological realism? Not at all. If the
republic doesn't include fantasy, it won't be worth living in. It
won't be Heaven of any sort. But inclusiveness is the whole
point: the fantasy and the realism must connect. "Jack and
the Beanstalk" is a republican story because the magic grows
out of the most common and everyday thing, a handful of beans, and
the beanstalk grows right outside the kitchen window, and at the
end of the story, Jack comes home.
Part of the connection which a republican story
has to have with our lives — a very important part —
is psychological. That's why Wagner's Ring is a republican
work of art, and Tolkien's isn't. Wagner's gods and heroes are exactly
like human beings, on a grand scale: every human virtue and every
human temptation is there. Tolkien leaves a good half of them out.
No one in Middle-earth has any sexual relations at all; how children
arrive must be a complete mystery to them.
So the republic of Heaven is a place where the
people behave like us, with the full range of human feelings, even
when they don't look like us, even when they look like beings that
have never existed, like Tove Jansson's Moomins, or Sylvia Waugh's
Mennyms, or Mary Norton's Borrowers. The people in the republic
are people like us — even when they're dead. The republic
is thronged with ghosts, and they have full democratic rights. A
marvelous creepy little tale, Jan Mark's "Who's a Pretty Boy,
Then?" exemplifies what I mean: on the patch in the garden
where nothing will grow, Dad builds an aviary. But the budgerigars
don't thrive, and mysteriously they begin to speak:
"Oh, I'm so cold," said one.
"I shall always be very cold," said another, "cold
"I shall always be here," said a third.
"I shall never go away," said the white bird.
Ghosts that come only to scare us, ghosts that
are only special effects, ghosts that might as well be aliens or
prehistoric monsters, have nothing to tell us about the republic
of Heaven. But ghosts that remind us of our own mortality are citizens
like ourselves. In the republic, we honor the dead and maintain
a conversation with them, in order to learn more about how to live.
The next essential quality of the republic of Heaven
is that what happens there matters, and what the characters
do makes a difference. The republic is a place where, as
H. G. Wells's Mr. Polly discovers, "If the world does not please
you you can change it."
A good example is the two books that Erich Kästner
wrote in the thirties about Emil Tischbein: Emil and the Detectives
and its sequel Emil and the Three Twins. In the first book,
young Emil goes from the little country town of Neustadt to visit
his relatives in the great city of Berlin. On the train he falls
asleep, and a thief steals the money Emil's widowed mother has given
him to take to his grandmother. Not much money, because they are
far from rich, but that's the point: they can't afford to lose it,
and Emil feels terribly responsible.
But once he arrives in the city, he finds that
he's not alone. Some other boys, strangers at first, quickly join
forces to track down and denounce the thief, and the story ends
happily, with the money restored. The republican point here is that
the children find the solution themselves, out of the everyday qualities
they share: resourcefulness, quick wits, determination, and, not
least, access to a telephone.
In the sequel, Emil is trying to come to terms
with the fact that his widowed mother wants to marry again. He likes
his potential stepfather, but that isn't the point, as every stepchild
knows. Emil would much rather she didn't marry, but he hasn't told
her that. He and his grandmother talk through all the consequences
of this, and he learns from her that his mother feels just the same
as he does — she would really rather remain alone with Emil;
but she's afraid of the future, because Emil will grow up one day,
and marry, and leave home; and after all, Herr Jeschke is a good
man. Emil says:
"What am I to do, Granny?"
"One of two things, Emil. When you get home
you can ask her not to marry. Then you'll kiss and the thing will
"Or you can keep silence, but the silence
must last till the end of your days, and you must be cheerful in
your silence and not go round with a face like a mourner at a funeral.
You alone can decide which course to pursue."
He chooses the right way, for Emil is a hero of
the republic, which is a place where children learn to grow up,
and where cheerfulness and courage do make a difference. Putting
your own feelings first and insisting on expressing them, no matter
what the cost, is not a republican virtue.
Another work I admire for similar reasons is Edward
Ardizzone's Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain. Tim has
run away to sea, and has a fine time till a great storm comes up
and the ship begins to sink. He and the captain are standing on
"Come," [says the captain,] "stop
crying and be a brave boy. We are bound for Davey Jones's locker
and tears won't help us now."
So Tim dried his eyes and tried not to be too
frightened. He felt he would not mind going anywhere with the captain,
even to Davey Jones's locker.
They stood hand in hand and waited for the end.
Little Tim is a picture book for young
children, and sure enough, on the next page arrives the lifeboat;
but Tim and the captain don't know that when they stand hand in
hand waiting for the end. You're never too young to become a citizen
of the republic of Heaven.
So part of this meaning that I've suggested
we need, the sense that we belong and we matter, comes from the
moral and social relations that the republic of Heaven must embody.
In the republic, we're connected in a moral way to one another,
to other human beings. We have responsibilities to them, and they
to us. We're not isolated units of self-interest in a world where
there is no such thing as society; we cannot live so.
But part of the sense of wider meaningfulness that
we need comes from seeing that we have a connection with nature
and the universe around us, with everything that is not
human as well. So the republic of Heaven is also characterized by
another quality: it enables us to see this real world, our world,
as a place of infinite delight, so intensely beautiful and intoxicating
that if we saw it clearly then we would want nothing more, ever.
We would know that this earth is our true home, and nowhere else
is. In the words of William Blake, one of the founding fathers of
the republic of Heaven,
How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy
Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?
Lesser writers than Blake have also caught the
true tone of this immense world of delight, and made their contribution
to the republic. For example, D. J. Watkins-Pitchford, who wrote
under the name of "B.B.": his books about the Little Grey
Men may be familiar to some older readers. In his novel Brendon
Chase (first published in 1945, and recently republished in
Britain by Jane Nissen Books) he does evoke the kind of delight
that Blake speaks of. The three brothers Robin, John, and Harold
run away to the forest and live wild for most of a year.
Here is the fifteen-year-old Robin alone in the
He would sometimes come upon some specially lovely
tree, an oak, or a birch, and he would sit down and feast his eyes
upon it, just as he would go to the Blind Pool to watch the water
and the floating leaves. There was something about the birches which
was extremely attractive — their white bark was the colour
and texture of kid — sometimes there was a beautiful golden
flush on the smooth trunks which felt so soft to the touch . . . . Or
perhaps it was another oak which took his fancy, bare and gaunt
with each little twig and branch naked to the winds . . . . He would
listen to the low hiss of the winter wind among the intricate network,
which sang like wires in every passing gust . . . He would put his ear
to the kindly grey trunk and hear that wild song much magnified,
the whole tree would be pulsing, almost as though a heart beat there
inside its rough body.
All in Plato, all in Plato? What utter
At the furthest extent, this sense of delight in
the physical world can blend into a sort of ecstatic identification
with it. "You never enjoy the world aright," said Thomas
Traherne, "till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till
you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and
perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world."
So far I've been talking about various aspects
of the republic of Heaven, and not in any particular order; glimpses,
little windows opening into it here and there. What we need, if
we're going to take it seriously, is something more coherent and
solid. We need a story, a myth that does what the traditional religious
stories did: it must explain. It must satisfy our hunger
for a why. Why does the world exist? Why are we here?
Of course, there are two kinds of why,
and our story must deal with both. There's the one that asks What
brought us here? and the other that asks What are we here
for? One looks back, and the other looks forward, perhaps.
And in offering an answer to the first why,
a republican myth must accept the overwhelmingly powerful evidence
for evolution by natural selection. The neo-Darwinians tell us that
the processes of life are blind and automatic; there has been no
purpose in our coming here.
Well, I think a republican response to that would
be: there is now. We are conscious, and conscious of our
own consciousness. We might have arrived at this point by a series
of accidents, but from now on we have to take charge of our fate.
Now we are here, now we are conscious, we make a difference. Our
presence changes everything.
So a myth of the republic of Heaven would explain
what our true purpose is. Our purpose is to understand and to help
others to understand, to explore, to speculate, to imagine. And
that purpose has a moral force.
Which brings in the next task for our republican
myth: it must provide a sort of framework for understanding why
some things are good and others are bad. It's no good to say, "X
is good and
Y is evil because God says they are"; the King is dead, and
that argument won't do for free citizens of the republic. Of course,
the myth must deal with human beings as they are, which includes
recognizing that there is a depth of human meanness and wickedness
which not even the imagination can fully plumb. But it's no good
putting the responsibility for that on a pantomime demon, and calling
him Satan; he's dead, too. If we're so undermined by despair at
the sight of evil that we have to ascribe it to some extra-human
force, some dark power from somewhere else, then we have to give
up the republic, too, and go back to the Kingdom. There's no one
responsible but us. Goodness and evil have always had a human origin.
The myth must account for that.
But as well as the traditional good things and
evil things (and there has never been much disagreement about those
in all human history: dishonesty is bad and truthfulness is good,
selfishness is wrong and generosity is right — we can all
agree about those), I think we need to reinforce another element
of a republican morality. We must make it clear that trying to restrict
understanding and put knowledge in chains is bad, too. We haven't
always understood that; it's a relatively new development in human
history, and it's thanks to the great republicans, to Galileo and
Milton and those like them, that it's been added to our understanding.
We must keep it there, and keep it watered and fed so that it grows
ever more strongly: what shuts out knowledge and nourishes stupidity
is wrong; what increases understanding and deepens wisdom is right.
The Christian Heaven used to be where we went when
we died, if we did what we were told. If the republic of Heaven
is here, on this earth, in our lives, then what happens when we
die? Is that all? Is that the end of everything for us? That's hard
to accept; for some people it's the hardest thing of all. Well,
our myth must talk about death in terms that are as true as they
can be to what we know of the facts, and it must do what the Christian
myth did, and provide some sort of hope or consolation. The myth
must give us a way of accepting death, when it comes, of seeing
what it means and accepting it; not shrinking from it with terror,
or pretending that it'll be like the school holidays. We cannot
live so: we cannot die so.
We need a myth, we need a story, because it's no
good persuading people to commit themselves to an idea on the grounds
that it's reasonable. How much effect would the Bible have
had for generations and generations if it had just been a collection
of laws and genealogies? What seized the mind and captured the heart
were the stories it contains.
So if we are to see what a republic of Heaven might
look like, we must look for evidence of it, as I've been suggesting,
in the realm of stories. And one of the few places we can be certain
of finding stories, these days, is in books that are read by children.
But I'll end with a nursery rhyme. If the republic
of Heaven were to have an anthem, I can't think of a better one
Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day;
This is a republic where we live by the imagination.
Night can be like day; things can be upside down and back to front
and inside out, and still all right.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street —
Not in a private playground with security guards
where some of us are let in and others are kept out, not in the
park that closes its gates before the moon comes out, but in the
street, the common place that belongs to everyone.
Come with a whoop, and come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all.
Like Emil, we must be cheerful and not go round
with a face like a mourner at a funeral. It's difficult sometimes,
but good will is not a luxury: it's an absolute necessity. It's
a moral imperative.
Up the ladder and down the wall,
A tuppenny loaf will serve us all.
You bring milk, and I'll bring flour,
And we'll have a pudding in half an hour.
We can do it. That's the way it happens in the
republic of Heaven; we provide for ourselves. We'll have a pudding,
and a good nourishing one it'll be, too; milk and flour are full
of goodness. And then we can play together in the bright moonlight
till we all fall asleep.
Pullman's latest novel is The Amber Spyglass (Knopf).