Numero uno: From the New Yorker:
FAR FROM NARNIA
by LAURA MILLER
Philip Pullman’s secular fantasy for children.
Issue of 2005-12-26 and 2006-01-02
Every year at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England, a guest is invited to speak on the subject of religion and education. Sometimes, a prominent bishop is asked to deliver a lecture, but, as a rule, the event isn’t exactly a big draw. This year, the auditorium was filled, and another room, with a video feed, had to be set up for those who couldn’t fit into the main hall. The speaker, Philip Pullman, is fervently admired for his sophisticated trilogy of children’s novels called, collectively, “His Dark Materials.” In Britain, his books have sold millions of copies, and his often contentious essays on subjects ranging from censorship to education—“We need to ensure that children are not forced to waste their time on barren rubbish” is a typical declaration—appear regularly in the London papers.
In some ways, Pullman was a natural choice for the lecture: he was born in Norwich, where his grandfather was an Anglican parish priest, and the university, which is renowned for its creative-writing program, has given him an honorary degree. In his books, fantasy is a springboard for exploring cosmic questions about the purpose of human life and the nature of the universe. Nevertheless, the selection of Pullman was surprising: he is one of England’s most outspoken atheists. In the trilogy, a young girl, Lyra Belacqua, becomes enmeshed in an epic struggle against a nefarious Church known as the Magisterium; another character, an ex-nun turned particle physicist named Mary Malone, describes Christianity as “a very powerful and convincing mistake.” Pullman once told an interviewer that “every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him.” Peter Hitchens, a conservative British columnist, published an article about Pullman entitled “This Is the Most Dangerous Author in Britain,” in which he called him the writer “the atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed.”
Pullman is a rangy, spirited man in his fifties with a bristling fringe of gray hair; at times, he resembles an intelligent and amused stork. At the lectern, he began, “Quite what prompted you to ask me to talk about religious education I can’t immediately see. . . . Given that I’ve voiced some criticisms of religion in the past, and that various Christian groups have expressed their criticisms of me, it might be that whatever I said on the subject would be hostile in any case.” He smiled. “Well, I hope it won’t be that. But we shall see.” He went on, “I don’t profess any religion; I don’t think it’s possible that there is a God; I have the greatest difficulty in understanding what is meant by the words ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’; but I think I can say something about moral education, and I think it has something to do with the way we understand stories.”
Pullman had called his lecture “Miss Goddard’s Grave,” after a tombstone, first pointed out to him by his mother, in the churchyard in Norwich’s old city center. The stone’s inscription praises “the Talents and Virtues of SOPHIA ANN GODDARD, who died 25 March 1801 Aged 25. The Former shone with superior Lustre and Effect in the great School of Morals, the THEATRE, while the Latter inform’d the private Circle of Life with Sentiment, Taste, and Manners that still live in the Memory of Friendship and Affection.” Who Miss Goddard was Pullman could not say; perhaps he’d look her up one day in the county archives. “There must have been a portrait made at some stage,” he speculated. “People have always liked looking at pictures of young actresses; they still do. Perhaps it’s still hanging in a house somewhere in the city, or at the back of an antique shop, with the title ‘Unknown young woman, late eighteenth century.’ There’s a story there.”
People in the audience had chuckled when Pullman read the line about the theatre being a “School of Morals,” but he insisted that the inscription wasn’t ironic. In the eighteenth century, he explained, people like Miss Goddard had wisely sought ethical instruction from the theatre and in novels. “We learn from Macbeth’s fate that killing is horrible for the killer as well as victim,” he said, before reading a passage from “Emma,” by Jane Austen, in which the heroine is mortified when Mr. Knightley reproaches her for mocking poor, garrulous Miss Bates. The scene, Pullman said, shows that “we can learn what’s good and what’s bad, what’s generous and unselfish, what’s cruel and mean, from fiction”; there is no need to consult scripture. As Pullman once put it in a newspaper column, “ ‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.”
Only a few of the people who had come to see Pullman appeared to be under twenty-one. Strictly speaking, the three novels that make up “His Dark Materials”—“The Golden Compass,” “The Subtle Knife,” and “The Amber Spyglass”—are children’s books, but their ideal reader is a precocious fifteen-year-old who long ago came to find the Harry Potter books intellectually thin. It’s possible that as many adults now read the trilogy as do children. Robert McCrum, the literary editor of the Observer of London, has celebrated Pullman’s “well-made, absorbing characters,” “supreme elegance of style and tone,” and dexterous handling of “very big ideas.” “The Amber Spyglass” won the 2001 Whitbread Prize for best children’s book, then went on to win the Whitbread Book of the Year award, too—the first children’s book to do so.
In his speech, Pullman contended that the literary School of Morals is inherently ambiguous, dynamic, and democratic: a “conversation.” Opposed to this ideal is “theocracy,” which he defined as encompassing everything from Khomeini’s Iran to explicitly atheistic states such as Stalin’s Soviet Union. He listed some characteristics of such states—among them, “a scripture whose word is inerrant,” a priesthood whose authority “tends to concentrate in the hands of elderly men,” and “a secret police force with the powers of an Inquisition.” Theocracies, he said, demonstrate “the tendency of human beings to gather power to themselves in the name of something that may not be questioned.”
This impulse toward theocracy, he announced at the end of his speech, “will defeat the School of Morals in the end.” He sounded oddly cheerful making this prediction; in his books, Pullman enjoys striking a tone of melancholy resolve. He continued, “But that doesn’t mean we should give up and surrender. . . . I think we should act as if. I think we should read books, and tell children stories, and take them to the theatre, and learn poems, and play music, as if it would make a difference. . . . We should act as if the universe were listening to us and responding. We should act as if life were going to win. . . . That’s what I think they do, in the School of Morals. And Miss Goddard’s portrait hangs on the classroom wall.”
The following morning, I joined Pullman as he stopped by the Norwich branch of Ottakar’s, a British bookstore chain. We slipped into a tiny, windowless back room, so he could sign a cartload of books. As he scribbled his name on the title pages, one of the store’s employees explained that Pullman’s public signings are complicated productions. “When ‘The Amber Spyglass’ came out, we had to hire a hall,” he told me. “More than nine hundred people showed up.” Pullman’s fame is only likely to grow: New Line Cinema, the studio responsible for the “Lord of the Rings” films, is preparing three movies based on the trilogy.
Twenty minutes later, we left Ottakar’s and got into his car and drove along a bewildering web of country roads toward Oxford; he lives in a suburb of the city with his wife, Jude. (They have two sons, both grown; Jamie is a violist for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and Tom recently received a master’s degree in linguistics from Cambridge.) It was a raw, wet day. Conversing from behind the wheel suited Pullman; it allowed him free use of a favorite mannerism—a sly, avuncular sidewise glance that punctuates his wit. Outside Norwich, a huge pillar, topped by an ovoid urn, suddenly came into view, in a field by the side of the road. “See that?” Pullman asked with great enthusiasm. “It’s the memorial to the first pineapple ever brought into East Anglia!” When I raised an eyebrow, he chuckled; in fact, the pillar was a First World War memorial. This quip, he said later, was borrowed from his grandfather the clergyman; the monument was a landmark of Pullman’s childhood. “He filled the landscape with stories,” Pullman said of his grandfather. “We’d go for a walk and he’d say, ‘See that tree, boys? That’s Robin Hood’s tree. He would hide up there when the Sheriff would come along!’ ”
Pullman’s first stories for children, which he published in the nineteen-eighties, were fanciful entertainments. He still dashes off these fairy tales: his most recent work in this vein, “The Scarecrow and His Servant,” is the picaresque story of a gallant farmyard mannequin who comes to life and the orphaned boy who signs on as his Sancho Panza. (The scarecrow’s courtship of a farmer’s broom is comically chivalrous.) For many years, Pullman supplemented his writing income by teaching literature at a middle school and at Westminster College, both in Oxford, and he retains some of the traits common in favorite teachers: a sartorial trademark (red socks) and a goodnatured gruffness, calibrated to let the charming students know that they won’t be indulged but not so harsh as to scare the timid ones.
In the early nineteen-nineties, Pullman told me, he decided that he was ready to write something “large.” He informed his editor, David Fickling, who was then at Scholastic and is now affiliated with Random House, that he had in mind a very long story that would take three books to tell. The inspiration was a work Pullman has loved since his teens: “Paradise Lost.” (The series takes its title from a line of the poem which describes the raw substance that Milton’s “almighty maker” uses to create life.) Initially, Pullman told me, he simply planned to infuse his story with Miltonian atmosphere—“the grandeur, the nobility, the overwhelming magnitude of ambition and imaginative power.” Soon, however, Milton’s theme, the Fall of Man, crept into the novel. In an introduction to a recent edition of “Paradise Lost,” Pullman writes, “My story resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence.”
Pullman’s heroine, Lyra Belacqua, is a pre-adolescent girl who erroneously believes that she is an orphan. She has been raised in a slapdash fashion at Oxford, by the scholars and staff of the venerable (and fictional) Jordan College. The novels are set in an alternate version of this universe, in which people travel by zeppelin and refer to electricity as “anbaric power.” It is a church-burdened world, in which the Reformation led to consolidation, not schism, and the Papacy was moved from Rome to Geneva by John Calvin. This Church is responsible for the kidnapping of Lyra’s best friend, whom she vows to rescue; the exile of her father, whom she sets out to find; and, eventually, the homicidal pursuit of Lyra herself. In “His Dark Materials,” the Church is run by a cabal of celibate men who are obsessed with sin and its eradication. The Church employs torture and a doctrine of “preëmptive penance”—a program of self-flagellation that provides its adherents with a kind of get-out-of-Hell-free card, forgiving them in advance for such politically useful sins as assassination.
This villainous institutional portrait, it should be said, is not derived from personal experience. Pullman’s initial encounters with religion were largely benign, owing to his beloved grandfather. Although he became a skeptic early on—“for all the usual reasons”—he kept his thoughts to himself. “I didn’t want to upset him,” he said of his grandfather. “I knew I wouldn’t have changed his mind.” And, for Pullman, his grandfather’s most important quality was his “big soul.” He added, “Although I call myself an atheist, I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that’s the tradition I was brought up in and I cannot escape those early influences.” In “His Dark Materials,” Pullman’s criticisms of organized religion come across as anti-authoritarian and anti-ascetic rather than anti-doctrinal. (Jesus isn’t mentioned in any of the books, although Pullman has hinted that He might figure in a forthcoming sequel, “The Book of Dust.”) His fundamental objection is to ideological tyranny and the rejection of this world in favor of an idealized afterlife, regardless of creed. As one of the novel’s pagan characters puts it, “Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”
“His Dark Materials” may be the first fantasy series founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment rather than upon tribal and mythic yearnings for kings, gods, and supermen. Pullman’s heroes are explorers, cowboys, and physicists. The series offers an extended celebration of the marvels of science: discoveries and theories from the outer reaches of cosmology—about dark matter and the possible existence of multiple universes—are threaded into the story. Indeed, the central mystery of “His Dark Materials” concerns the nature of Dust, a dark matter-like substance that the scientists of Lyra’s world have only recently learned how to detect. Dust is everywhere, but it tends to concentrate around human beings, and around adults more than children. The Church considers Dust to be the “physical evidence for original sin.” Lyra’s father, a Byronic figure named Lord Asriel, defies Church prohibitions by mounting an expedition to the Arctic Circle, where he learns more about Dust by observing another universe, which can be glimpsed through the northern lights. Her mother, the treacherous Mrs. Coulter, is secretly running an isolated camp in the same region, where she conducts sinister Dustrelated experiments on abducted children, under the aegis of the General Oblation Board, one of the Church’s more malevolent offshoots. It is this outfit that kidnaps Lyra’s best friend, setting the story in motion.
What readers tend to find most alluring about “His Dark Materials,” however, is a wholly unscientific invention. Every character in Lyra’s world has a daemon—an animal-shaped alter ego that is all but inseparable from its human counterpart. Not that the relationship is always congenial. In the first scene in “The Golden Compass,” Lyra quarrels with her daemon, Pantalaimon, about breaking the college rules, much as characters in more conventional stories might argue with their consciences. The device could be gimmicky, but Pullman wields it with elegant metaphorical economy. Not only do daemons answer the writer’s need to turn a character’s internal struggles into drama; they speak to the ache of consciousness and the desire for an ideal companion. Children, owing to the plasticity of their personalities, have daemons that can change shape—in the opening scene, Pantalaimon transforms from a moth into an ermine—but as a person comes of age his daemon settles on a single form that reflects his essence. In Pullman’s version of the Fall of Man, the loss of a protean innocence leads to a gain in self-knowledge.
In 1953, when Pullman was seven, he was “thrilled” by the news that he and his four-year-old brother, Francis, were “almost orphans.” His father, an R.A.F. aviator, had died when the plane he was piloting crashed in Africa. The boys had seen so little of their father that he wasn’t quite real to them; Philip remembers him only vaguely, as a paragon of masculine “glamour.” Like Lyra’s own neglectful father, he was “powerful and dashing,” as well as charmingly irresponsible. He once gave Philip a pack of cigarettes, hoping that they’d make the boy sick and stop him from begging for singles. (It didn’t work.)
Pullman told me that his mother, Audrey, was considered “difficult” by her family. “She’d suddenly shut off affection,” he recalls. After his father died, she lodged Philip and Francis with her parents in Norwich for a year or so, and went to London to work. She rented a little flat in Chelsea and ran with a crowd that dazzled young Philip: “men with pipes and cravats and sports cars.” This milieu turns up in an exalted form in “The Golden Compass,” when the beautiful Mrs. Coulter, who exudes “a scent of grownupness, something disturbing but enticing,” brings Lyra to live with her in her chic London apartment.
Pullman’s mother eventually married another R.A.F. pilot. The family followed him on assignment to Australia, then finally to Llanbedr, a small town in North Wales. By then, Philip and Francis had a half brother; a half sister soon followed. Later, their stepfather’s son from an earlier marriage came to live with them. This hodgepodge of half siblings and stepsiblings remains close, despite having since scattered over three continents. When Pullman’s stepfather died, in 2002 (his mother died a decade earlier), they weren’t all able to gather immediately for a service, so they arranged to meet in Scotland the following May. Pullman hit upon the idea of shooting his stepfather’s ashes into the sky with fireworks. “The whole family went out to this little rocky headland, where the firework-maker had his place, overlooking the Firth of Forth,” he said. “As night fell, we’d all been drinking whiskey, having a good time.” His voice slid into a lilting whisper as he sketched the scene. “There were seals basking on the shore, the lights of Edinburgh were just coming out, and there were big naval vessels maneuvering in the firth. The firework-maker, this amazing guy, was busy fixing all the fuses and wires. My stepbrother gave a little address, perfectly judged, and my sister lit the fuse. And it was the most wonderful display! The sky was full of stars—a brilliant display. My sister’s little daughter said, ‘That’s the way I want to go!’ ”
One of Pullman’s beliefs is that your life begins when you are born, but your life story begins when you realize that you were delivered into the wrong family by mistake. “We were a military family,” Mark Dodgson, his half brother, told me. “We weren’t a great one for talking about ideas. Philip was completely different.” For a while, Pullman’s stepfather kept a chicken farm in Llanbedr. “Phil used to spend hours and hours and hours cleaning out these damn chickens,” Dodgson recalled. “As soon as he was finished . . . the others would go off marching or something, and he’d stick his head in a book.”
Pullman found intellectual companionship at the local school. The acknowledgments of “The Amber Spyglass” offer thanks to Enid Jones, his secondary-school English teacher, for introducing him to “Paradise Lost” and for “the best that education can give, the notion that responsibility and delight can coexist.” (Miss Jones is still alive, and Pullman keeps in touch with her; he also keeps a bottle of apricot brandy she gave him stashed in his car, for emergencies.) His best friend during his teens was Merfyn Jones—no relation to Enid, but another devotee of her approach to Milton and the Romantic poets. He is now the BBC national governor for Wales. Jones told me that they shared “a kind of heretical predisposition.”
In his teens, Pullman discovered the poetry of William Blake, another great influence on “His Dark Materials.” He used to jot down lines that he’d memorized from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and pass them to Merfyn during class. Pullman subscribes to Blake’s view of Milton as being “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” He explained, “All of the imaginative sympathy of the poem is with Satan rather than with God.”
Jones has a defining memory of Pullman from their final year in school. The boys represented their school in a debate against a team from the local private girls’ school. “We basically were defending anarchy,” Jones recalled. “People couldn’t quite believe what we were saying and that we were saying it in quite this way and that we were using quotes from various poets and politicians.” Afterward, Jones said, some girls from the other school came up to the teen-age firebrands and asked, “How are you allowed to say these things? We’re not even allowed to think about thinking about these things!”
Near the end of “The Golden Compass,” Lord Asriel asks Lyra to bring him a copy of the Bible, and he reads her a passage from Genesis. In Lyra’s world, the Bible isn’t quite the same as ours: when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, the first thing they see is the adult form of their daemons. “But it en’t true, is it?” Lyra asks of the story. “Not true like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true? There wasn’t really an Adam and Eve?” Lord Asriel tells her to think of the story as an “imaginary number, like the square root of minus one.” Its truth might not be tangible, but you can use it to calculate “all manner of things that couldn’t be imagined without it.” The metaphor is not just cunning; it helps explain why Pullman, a champion of science, writes in the fantastic mode.
The city of Oxford, Pullman once wrote, fosters the imagination: “I put it down to the mists from the river, which have a solvent effect on reality.” Reality, it must be said, seemed firmly in place as we made our way into town, passing through a prosaic neighborhood of contemporary homes, where Pullman once lived. He pointed out a row of hornbeam trees. “Those are the trees from ‘The Subtle Knife,’ ” he announced. The second novel in the series opens in the Oxford of this world; a boy, Will Parry, is trying to protect himself and his mother from strange men who have been badgering them for information about Will’s missing father. In a moment of despair, near this row of hornbeam trees along an otherwise unremarkable traffic corridor, Will discovers a hole in the fabric of the universe. He slips through it and into the sanctuary of another universe, where he meets and befriends Lyra Belacqua.
In 1965, Pullman became the first student from his Welsh school to go to Oxford. The first time he visited the town, he was bewitched by the sensation it offered of stepping out of time. A scene from “The Subtle Knife” takes place near the Radcliffe Camera, which Pullman describes as “a round building with a great leaden dome, set in a square bounded by honey-colored stone college buildings and a church and wide-crowned trees above high garden walls. The afternoon sun drew the warmest tones out of it all, and the air felt rich with it, almost the color itself of heavy golden wine.” When Lyra wants to escape from her minders, she clambers onto the roof of Jordan College. As a student, Pullman used to sneak onto the roof of his college, Exeter.
Pullman and his wife moved outside town a few years ago, when the admirers who kept turning up at their door, asking for autographs and taking photos, became a nuisance. Other Oxford sites have attracted “His Dark Materials” pilgrims, too, particularly the Botanic Garden, where the story’s final, wrenching scene is set. Pullman and I stopped there during a walk around the city. “Once, I saw something on one of the benches,” Pullman said. “It turned out to be a little wooden heart with ‘For Will and Lyra’ written on it. Isn’t that nice?”
We wandered over to the courtyard of the Bodleian Library and stared up at its imposing inner walls. Pullman, whose performance at Oxford was, by his own reckoning, undistinguished, said that he rarely visited the library as a student. “It was intimidating,” he said. “It’s a place of strict rules and arcane ceremonies. Now that I’m featured in the catalogue, I’m not so scared anymore.” He pointed at the gray flagstones on the floor and said, “Under each of these stones we’re stepping on are hundreds of books.” In an essay about Oxford that was published in the Guardian, he wrote that he and his friends used to tell creepy stories about the lowest levels of the library’s underground stacks. They were said to be “occupied by a race of sub-human creatures. . . . You could hear them howling and scrabbling if you pressed your ear to the cellar wall under staircase 9. I did, and you can.” In the trilogy, the Bodleian’s caverns become the haunted catacombs of Jordan College, where Lyra plays with a wild gang of servants’ kids.
Oxford has inspired a disproportionate amount of children’s literature. Trying to glimpse one of the many velvety green quads through gateways that are frequently blocked by large signs declaring “The College is CLOSED” can make you feel like Alice peering at that beautiful garden through the doorway she’s too big to enter. The grounds circled by Addison’s Walk, near Magdalen College, where C. S. Lewis taught, have the air of a park aspiring to wilderness, like Lewis’s imaginary land of Narnia. But perhaps the main reason that Oxford’s dons have excelled at writing for children is that, for so long, the university dictated that they live like children: sheltered, celibate, in single-sex institutions, waited upon by indulgent servants.
Pullman loves Oxford, but he’s far from donnish. His books have been likened to those of J. R. R. Tolkien, another alumnus, but he scoffs at the notion of any resemblance. “ ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is fundamentally an infantile work,” he said. “Tolkien is not interested in the way grownup, adult human beings interact with each other. He’s interested in maps and plans and languages and codes.” When it comes to “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C. S. Lewis, Pullman’s antipathy is even more pronounced. Although he likes Lewis’s criticism and quotes it surprisingly often, he considers the fantasy series “morally loathsome.” In a 1998 essay for the Guardian, entitled “The Dark Side of Narnia,” he condemned “the misogyny, the racism, the sado-masochistic relish for violence that permeates the whole cycle.” He reviled Lewis for depicting the character Susan Pevensie’s sexual coming of age—suggested by her interest in “nylons and lipstick and invitations”—as grounds for exclusion from paradise. In Pullman’s view, the “Chronicles,” which end with the rest of the family’s ascension to a neo-Platonic version of Narnia after they die in a railway accident, teach that “death is better than life; boys are better than girls . . . and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.”
Pullman also makes the argument that Lewis really isn’t all that Christian. The fate of Susan Pevensie, he told me, indicates “some sort of crazed, deranged Manichaeism. Here’s a simple test: What is the greatest Christian virtue? Well, it’s charity, isn’t it? It’s love. If somebody who knew nothing about Christian doctrine, and who had been told that Lewis was a great Christian teacher, read all the way through those books, would he get that message? No.”
Sexual love, regarded with apprehension in Lewis’s fiction and largely ignored in Tolkien’s, saves the world in “His Dark Materials,” when Lyra’s coming of age and falling in love mystically bring about the mending of a perilous cosmological rift. “The idea of keeping childhood alive forever and ever and regretting the passage into adulthood—whether it’s a gentle, rose-tinged regret or a passionate, full-blooded hatred, as it is in Lewis—is simply wrong,” Pullman told me. As a child, Lyra is able to read a complicated divination device, called an alethiometer, with an instinctual ease. As she grows up, she becomes self-conscious and loses that grace, but she’s told that she can regain the skill with years of practice, and eventually become even better at it. “That’s a truer picture of what it’s like to be a human being,” Pullman said. “And a more hopeful one. . . . We are bound to grow up.”
At one point, Pullman and I stopped by the Eagle and Child, an Oxford pub where Lewis and Tolkien used to meet regularly with a group of literary friends. (They called themselves the Inklings.) A framed photograph of Lewis’s jowly face smiled down on us as we talked. In person, Pullman isn’t quite as choleric as he sometimes comes across in his newspaper essays. When challenged, he listens carefully and considerately, and occasionally tempers his ire. “The ‘Narnia’ books are a real wrestle with real things,” he conceded. As much as he dislikes the answers Lewis arrives at, he said that he respects “the struggle that he’s undergoing as he searches for the answers. There’s hope for Lewis. Lewis could be redeemed.” Not Tolkien, however: the “Rings” series, he declared, is “just fancy spun candy. There’s no substance to it.”
Pullman’s appreciation for moral seriousness in fiction has made him deeply frustrated with adult contemporary literature. When “The Golden Compass” won the 1995 Carnegie Medal, a prize awarded by British librarians to the year’s best children’s book, he gave a speech in which he proclaimed, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” He explained, “In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. . . . The present-day would-be George Eliots take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.”
The newspapers, and pretty much anyone who’d ever given up on a contemporary literary novel, relished Pullman’s provocation. David Fickling, Pullman’s editor, recalled, “That was the first really big public demonstration of Philip’s authoritativeness. A clear statement about stories and their importance to children and their importance to human beings was made.” In fact, Pullman’s first two published novels, which he wrote in his twenties, were for adults, but he regards them as substandard and has turned down offers to reissue the second, “Galatea.” (The first is so bad, he insists, that he refuses even to speak of it.) In writing for children, he discovered, he felt liberated to pursue the elemental pleasures of story.
In “His Dark Materials,” Mary Malone, the physicist, discovers that dark matter consists of elementary particles of consciousness. Dust is, as another character puts it, “a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself.” You could say that, for Pullman, stories are the elementary particles of meaning, without which we’d be less than fully human. In his Carnegie Medal speech, he said, “We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it.” What angers Pullman most about theocracy, in the end, is that it blinds people to the true purpose of narrative. Fundamentalists don’t know how to read stories—including those in the Bible—metaphorically, as if they were Lord Asriel’s imaginary numbers.
Pullman refined his own storytelling gifts orally, by recounting versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey to his middle-school students. He estimates that he’s told each epic at least thirty times. Indeed, he once caused a scene in a restaurant when he was retelling the Odyssey to his son Tom, then about five years old. “Every time we went out to dinner, I’d tell it to him in serialized form while we waited for our food to come,” he said. “I’d just gotten to the part where Odysseus has come back home in disguise as an old beggar. Penelope has taken Odysseus’s old bow down and told the suitors that she’ll marry whoever can string it. They all try, but none of them can do it. Then Odysseus picks it up, and he feels it all over—to make sure it’s still good, which it is—and then in one move he strings it. Of course, we know what’s going to happen next—he’s going to use it to kill the suitors—but just before that he plucks it just once, to hear the tone. Tom was so taken with the tension of the moment that he bit a piece out of his water glass. The waitress, who was coming toward us with our food, saw him do it, and she was so startled that she dropped her tray. There was food everywhere! It was chaos.”
Pullman polished his sense of plot by writing plays for school productions. The need to leave the audience hungry for what happens next instilled in him, he said, a ruthless discipline. Nicholas Wright, a playwright who, in 2003, adapted “His Dark Materials” into a hit play for the National Theatre, in London, told me that Pullman encouraged him to edit the narrative at will to make it as effective as possible on stage. “He’s quite a showman,” Wright said. “His instinct was always that the play could be better if you forgot this or did that.” Pinned up by Pullman’s desk is a list of the film director Billy Wilder’s rules for writers. Rule No. 1 is “Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.”
“His Dark Materials” does exactly that. Though the trilogy is more than a thousand pages long, it is powered by an enormous engine of story, which is not merely plot; it’s the sensation some narratives give us of being caught up in something at once momentous and personal. “His Dark Materials” is the story of a universe in peril, but it is also the tale of a girl growing up; the two are inextricable. Wright said of the series, “What it reminded me of more than anything else, funnily enough, is Wagner. Wotan and Fricka are having a terrible fight, and they’re on a mountaintop, and she’s arriving on a chariot drawn by rams. . . . But at the same time, you think, Hang on, isn’t this also Wagner and his wife in a Victorian living room, having a row about the fact that he’s having an affair with the maid? It exists on this very big mythic level, but it’s not divorced from reality.”
Great storytelling is an alchemy of voice, tone, and point of view. Pullman is a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator, which he thinks of as a character in itself—a disembodied “sprite.” This ringmaster of many a nineteenth-century novel can, as he told me, “go anywhere and do anything and see anything, and is both male and female, both old and young, wise and foolish, cynical and credulous, all these contradictory things at once. The narrating voice that tells ‘Middlemarch’ is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”
Pullman said that it was only after he’d learned to inhabit this voice that he became a good novelist. David Fickling coached him on the obscure but merciless rules by which stories operate when he urged Pullman to kill off a major character at the end of one of his early books, “The Shadow in the North,” instead of leaving him merely injured. Pullman now refers to this imperative as “the ‘Fred must die’ rule.” The mournful ending of “His Dark Materials” wrings protests from some readers, but as Pullman once told an interviewer, “I am the servant of the story.” He added, “The story made me do it. That was what had to happen. If I’d denied it, the story wouldn’t have had a tenth of its power.”
The day we sat down at the Eagle and Child, Pullman told me about a speech he had delivered in May, 2004, at a colloquium on science, literature, and human nature. In the speech, he speculated on the possible origins of this “very clear and strong” sense he has that there is, inherently, “a right shape and a wrong shape” for any given story. Where do these shapes come from, and how can he recognize them with such certainty? Not surprisingly, Pullman rejects the notion that he’s receiving direction from some “higher power” when he apprehends that the story he’s working on is either whole or broken. His certainty might be a sophisticated form of cultural conditioning, he supposes, or simply the gift of experience. Because Pullman is an admirer of “The Language Instinct,” the book by the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, I suggested that, if linguistic grammar is hardwired, perhaps a grammar of narrative is, too. “I don’t think that’s implausible, but we just don’t know,” he said. He didn’t sound as if he particularly wanted to find out, either.
One afternoon, at the converted seventeenth-century farmhouse where Pullman and his wife live, he put a frying pan on the big cast-iron Aga stove and fried some organic bacon, which we had purchased at the old covered market in Oxford. (In the trilogy, Pullman reminded me, Lyra spends a lot of time in the market with her gang, running around underfoot, stealing apples.) In the couple’s previous house, Pullman wrote in a shed at the bottom of the garden. Here he has a book-lined study with plenty of room for an impressive wooden rocking horse that Pullman, who likes to do carpentry, was hand-carving for his two grandchildren. He’s also an amateur meteorologist; in the back yard is a small weather station that sends readings on temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, wind velocity, and ultraviolet radiation into his laptop computer, via a wireless feed.
Pullman tipped the bacon into some split-pea soup that he had made earlier, and we sat down for lunch at a big wooden farm table, with Jude, a dark-haired woman with a deadpan sense of humor. A former teacher, she also worked for a few years as a hypnotherapist. She gave the latter profession up, she said, when she “got embarrassed opening the door to strange men and asking them to come upstairs.” When Pullman left for a moment to check the mail, Jude gravely explained that one of their two pug dogs, Nell, had been given her name because “she carries on like Nell Gwyn”—the merry whore of seventeenth-century London.
A few minutes later, Pullman came bounding back into the kitchen, waving a letter. It had arrived at his door despite the fact that the correspondent didn’t know the street address. He was beaming. The envelope read “Philip Pullman, The Storyteller, Oxford.” “I couldn’t ask for anything better,” he said.
I had to look up “avuncular” and “protean.” I was startled at how specifically appropriate the word “protean” is for the context in which it was used. Words do that sometimes–fit situations to a tee.1
Numero dos: http://alagaesia.com/news_interview.htm is a conversation between three writers of fantasy (Philip Pullman, Tamora Pierce, and Christopher Paolini).2
1I tried a very small bit of google searching (I am not cool enough to use Google as a verb) and could not verify the correctness of this phrase. To a tee? To a T? To a tea? If you are crossing the Grand Canyon by tightrope and suffer a misstep is that a trave(r)sTEE? If you farm naga for 10 hours and get no golden pearls is it a c’lamiTEE? Hey look they LEEEEEFT
2Do you like how I left item dos as a raw link with a short description, but I made the title of item uno into a link? How’s that for inconsistency?3
3I do not like this inconsistency. I also do not like the overall shabbiness of my livejournal. I vow to make fewer typos and to sound more coherent. To that end, I have employed footnotes as a blather-cutting-measure. Now blather is in a separate section, instead of embedded with the content4 of my post.
5Maybe it is bad form to have footnotes in your footnotes. Also, maybe I have taken this a little too far.