In the eyes of many, Philip Pullman, author of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, is the antithesis of C.S. Lewis.

"He is the anti-Lewis," says British writer Peter Hitchens, "the one atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed." Those who love Lewis as a scholar, artist, evangelist and Christian gentleman find Pullman's smug atheism a blight on children's literature. But secularists who deplore the Christian themes of Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" series consider Pullman their hope for immunizing the young against faith. Unbelief is so much more "sophisticated," so much more deserving of literary awards.

Note that although both Lewis and Pullman won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in Britain, Pullman's "Amber Spyglass," the third book in the trilogy, received the Whitbread Book of the Year prize there, competing against adult novels. Did Pullman gain admirers by proclaiming that "I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with a deep and bitter passion"?

Pullman knows exactly when to amplify or mute his antireligious views: frank in 2003 ("There's no God here. There never was."), coy in 2007 ("it doesn't matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I'm not promoting anything of that sort."). The imminent release of "The Golden Compass" movie seems to have softened his tone.

'Stark realism'

It's no accident that Lyra begins her adventures in "The Golden Compass" book hiding in a huge oak wardrobe -- just as Lucy does in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." (There are even fur coats in both places.) Both Lewis and Pullman got the inspiration for their series from isolated mental images. Both populate their worlds with talking animals and mythical species. Lewis' are more charming, Pullman's more original.

Lewis, a specialist in medieval and Renaissance literature as well as a reader of fantasy and science fiction, respected the genre he worked in. His friend George Sayer observed, "The Narnia stories liberated the children's story from its bondage to realism." Pullman, on the other hand, doesn't like or understand fantasy. He rejects that label for his books for, to him, only "stark realism" is truthful. (Besides despising Narnia, Pullman dismisses J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as "infantile.")

So deep is Pullman's aversion to Lewis that he marked the 100th anniversary of Lewis' birth in 1998 by viciously denouncing the man and his work in Britain's premier Leftist newspaper, The Guardian. (The essay ran a month before "The Subtle Knife's" paperback edition appeared.)

'Life-hating ideology'

Pullman mocks the well-known facts of Lewis's life as "legend" and condescendingly rates his scholarly work as "effortlessly readable." His hottest wrath is directed at Narnia, "one of the ugliest and most poisonous things I've read." Sadly, his "open-eyed reading" is simply blind.

A few examples will suffice. Pullman, who expects his readers to see Will and Lyra as the new Adam and Eve, can't recognize Aslan as a genuine Christ-figure for Narnia. He accuses Lewis of sending Susan to hell in "The Last Battle" merely for wanting to grow up. But Susan is neither damned nor a participant in "The Last Battle." How did Pullman watch a girl who wasn't there?

Bedazzled by his theory that Lewis was afraid of adulthood, Pullman doesn't notice that the characters do age across the span of the series, some even marry and grow old. The original four siblings from "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" -- who spent years as adult rulers in Narnia -- are past puberty and out of school on Earth by the start of "The Last Battle."

The conclusion of that final book, when Aslan brings his now deceased faithful Narnians to heaven, enrages Pullman. He calls it "one of the most vile moments in the whole of children's literature." He won't suspend his (literal) disbelief and accept this as a happy ending. To him, "it's propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology." He would prefer to see characters live with maximum intensity and cheerfully accept personal extinction at death. Disguise it as he may with false charges, Pullman's key objection is Lewis' Christian faith.

Graphic gore

Ironically, Pullman accuses Lewis of "a sadomasochistic relish for violence" when his own novels offer gore far more graphic than anything in Narnia. Pullman sees no reason to shield young readers from harsh realities. He not only describes battles but murder, suicide, mutilation, torture, euthanasia and cannibalism. Mrs. Coulter -- Lilith to Lord Asriel's Satan -- is a seductive mistress and smothering mother more villainous than any witch of Narnia. There is disturbing sensuality, including the sexual awakening of Lyra and Will. Pullman primly insists that only dirty minds will imagine anything beyond a kiss.

An even greater irony is why Christian critics trained their heavy artillery on J.K. Rowling instead of Pullman, who hit the market first. "Harry Potter's been taking all the flak," says Pullman. "Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said."

Family friendly alternatives for young readers

While Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy does not make for appropriate reading for young adults, there are plenty of alternatives for young bookworms with a taste for science fiction or fantasy. Here are a few suggestions of books and series. Not all have explicit Catholic or Christian themes, but make for good, wholesome reading.

  • "The Sparrow," by Mary Doria Russell, tells the story of a Jesuit expedition to search out evidence of extraterrestrial life and the aftermath of the mission.

  • "Time" series ("A Wrinkle in Time," "A Wind in the Door," "A Swiftly Tilting Planet," "Many Waters" and "An Acceptable Time"), by Madeleine L'Engle, employs fantasy and time travel to give insights into love and family, following the adventures of the Murry family.

  • "The Chronicles of Prydain" series, by Lloyd Alexander, based heavily on the Welsh legends of the Mabinogion, is considered a classic in children's science fiction that invites readers to go on five tales of adventure with Taran the Assistant Pig Keeper as he battles evil.