had just won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for the third volume of his trilogy His Dark Materials when Huw Spanner met him at his home in north Oxford on 13 February 2002.
He later remarked that the published interview was ‘the best I’ve ever read’.
Photography: Andrew Firth
This interview is chiefly concerned with the trilogy His Dark Materials. Inevitably, it gives away some important turns of the plot.
A lot of people known as children’s writers seem to have had irregular or disturbed childhoods. Was that the case with you?
Well, my father, who was an RAF officer, died when I was seven, during the Mau Mau rising in Kenya – we were told he was killed in combat, but I’ve never really got to the bottom of what happened – and for a while then my brother and I lived with my mother’s parents in Norfolk. And then she married again and with my stepfather (who was also an RAF officer) we went to Australia for a couple of years, and then to Wales. And then I grew up and went to university.
What were the values that were instilled into you?
The conventional middle-class ones of the time. My grandfather was a clergyman and so every Sunday I went to Sunday school and church. I was confirmed, I was a member of the choir, all that sort of stuff.
We still had the Authorised Version of the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern – all those old forms of worship that had given comfort and joy to generations were still there for me to enjoy. Nowadays it’s all been swept away, and if ever I go into a church and look at the dreadful, barren language that disfigures the forms of service they have now, I am very thankful that I grew up at a time when it was possible for me to go to Matins and sing the Psalms in the old versions.
A lot of Christians are nonplussed by the picture you present of the church in His Dark Materials, which is unrelievedly cruel and oppressive. It doesn’t sound like the church you grew up in.
No. Grandpa was a very kind man – though a man of his own age, mind you: he was a Victorian, born in 1890 or so in a little Devon village, the sixth son and 13th child of a poor farmer, and unquestioningly both conservative and Conservative. His values were already beginning to look a bit dated by the middle of the century.
For example, as the chaplain of Norwich prison it was his job from time to time to attend executions, to be with the condemned man for the last hour of his life and give him Holy Communion and go to the scaffold with him. It caused him a great deal of anguish, but he didn’t question it or rebel against it.
Every religion that has a monotheistic god ends up killing other people
But he was a very good man who was full of love for me and my brother. He was a wonderful teller of stories, from the Bible and from his own experience – here, I’ll give you an example.
When the First World War came, he joined his local regiment, along with a friend from the village called Fred Austin, a big, powerful man and a wonderful horseman. Fred Austin didn’t have any leave for 18 months or so, and when eventually he came home his little daughter didn’t know who this frightening man was and she fled from him. But he was very gentle with her and he didn’t force the issue, he just spoke quietly; and after a few days the little girl came to him and let him pick her up.
And Grandpa used to say that this was like God. We’re frightened of God at first, but God is gentle with us and he loves us and wants us to come to him, so he doesn’t force himself on us but he waits until we’re ready to come to him. And that was the sort of values Grandpa would try to put across.
You’re not really giving us any clues to the source of the extreme antipathy to the Church in your books.
Well, all right, it comes from history. It comes from the record of the Inquisition, persecuting heretics and torturing Jews and all that sort of stuff; and it comes from the other side, too, from the Protestants burning the Catholics. It comes from the insensate pursuit of innocent and crazy old women, and from the Puritans in America burning and hanging the witches – and it comes not only from the Christian church but also from the Taliban.
Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him. Wherever you look in history, you find that. It’s still going on.
But why is there no light and shade? It’s striking that you don’t portray the rebels as particularly good – Lord Asriel is as wicked as Mrs Coulter, I would say – and yet the followers of the Authority are monolithically odious, even though you admit that in real life there are decent people among the servants of God.
OK, that’s an artistic flaw.
A flaw in the artistry or a flaw in the argument?
I’m not making an argument, or preaching a sermon or setting out a political tract: I’m telling a story. And I accept that if I’d had more time to think about it, no doubt I would have put in a good priest here or there, just to show they’re not all horrible.
But there we are. If you’re writing a novel, especially a long story of thirteen hundred pages, there are always going to be things you wish you’d done differently. Artistic perfection is not achievable in anything much over the length of a sonnet.
And amongst the host of parallel worlds that you envisage can you imagine that there are some in which the Church has done more good than harm?
I certainly can. I might well write about such a place in the next book.
Christianity gives an account of the world and what we’re doing here that is intellectually coherent and explains a great deal. But then so do other stories
But this world we live in isn’t one?
No, not yet.
But there are lots of individuals I like and admire who belong to bodies such as the Unitarians, for example, or the Quakers. I don’t agree with the supernatural aspect of what they say, but they maintain a respect for differences of opinion, and on the whole they think that what’s important is what you do and not what you think. I’ve always believed that.
Many of the commentators in the media have seen you as a conscious antidote to C S Lewis, seeking to do for a moral atheism what he did for Christianity.
Yeah, well, it’s largely nonsense, of course.
What is your purpose in writing your books?
My intention is to tell a story – in the first place because the story comes to me and wants to be told.
That’s not an affectation, the way storytellers like to talk about things? That’s your genuine experience?
That’s what it feels like. I am the servant of the story – the medium in a spiritualist sense, if you like – and it feels as if, unless I tell this story, I will be troubled and pestered and harried by it and worried and fretted until I do something about it.
The second reason I do it is that I enjoy the technical business of putting a story together in a way that excites and gives pleasure to an audience. The third reason is that I need to earn a living – and there is another range of reasons beyond that which might include at some point the desire to make sense of the world and my experience of it and give a sort of narrative account of why things are as they are.
But I must come back to what you were saying about Lewis. I don’t think he did set out to evangelise. How many children do we know who have read the Narnia books and didn’t realise they were about Christianity? If he was trying to evangelise, he would have made it jolly clear that Narnia was… He wrote those books at great speed and under great emotional pressure, and I’m inclined to think this began with that famous debate when the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe carved chunks out of him.
I understood that he wrote the books to smuggle the values of the gospel into the imaginations of children past what he called their ‘watchful dragons’.
Well, so he claims, but I don’t think he did. The values depicted in the Narnia stories are certainly not the values I read in the Gospels. Hatred of the flesh? Condemning children for growing up?
In The Amber Spyglass, Mary Malone tells Lyra and Will that the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake. Is that your opinion?
I think I’d agree with her, yes.
What do you find powerful and convincing about it?
It’s a very good story. It gives an account of the world and what we’re doing here that is intellectually coherent and explains a great deal. But then so do other stories. The Gnostic myth, for example, explains a great deal in a very different way. Very different.
The kingdom of heaven promised us happiness and a sense of purpose and a sense of having a place in the universe. But now, for me anyway, the King is dead
The Christian story gives us human beings a very important and prominent part. We are the ones who Jesus came to redeem from the consequences of sin, which our parents – you know. It is a very dramatic story and we are right at the heart of it, and a great deal depends on what we decide. This is an exciting position to be in, but unfortunately it doesn’t gel at all with the more convincing account that is given by Darwinian evolution – and the scientific account is far more persuasive intellectually. Far more persuasive.
And, as I have said, there is another consequence of any belief in a single god, and that is that it is a very good excuse for people to behave very badly.
Is it not fair to say that a great deal of bad behaviour in the last century was the work of regimes that were atheistic, if not scientistic? Wasn’t Nazism, for example, based on a twisted reading of Darwinism?
Yes, but they functioned psychologically in exactly the same way. They had a sacred book that provided an explanation of history which so far transcended every other explanation as to be unquestionable. There were the great prophets – Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung – men so far above the human race that they might as well be exalted as gods. They were treated in just the same way as the Pope. Every word they said, every thing they touched, was holy; their bodies had to be preserved and filed past in reverential silence. The fact that they proclaimed that there was no God didn’t make any difference: it was a religion, and they acted in the way any totalitarian religious system would.
Well, perhaps. But you insist that the problem with monotheism is that it leads people to behave in an oppressive way. From the evidence of the last century one could say that atheism, too, leads people to behave in that way. And no Christian authority has ever killed anything like the tens of millions Stalin killed.
No, but give them the chance! If they had had…
Even proportionately. Also, there is, I think, good evidence that the Inquisition burnt far fewer people than the secular French state did.
Well, that was very comforting as the flames were licking round your toes…
I think the religions are special cases of the general human tendency to exalt one doctrine above all others – whatever it is, whether it’s Marxism, Islam or whatever it is, there is a depressing human tendency to say, ‘We have the truth and we’re going to kill you because you don’t believe in it.’
When did you realise that Christianity didn’t convince you? And what was it that gave the game away?
It was the usual questioning that takes place in adolescence. It began to seem impossible to reconcile the creation story with the scientific account. It became increasingly implausible that life continued after the body died. The claims of some religions – the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven, the infallibility of the Pope – seemed to me such howling nonsense…
But you were brought up an Anglican.
Yeah, but it was things like that…
Can you elaborate what you mean by the phrase ‘the republic of heaven’, which appears in the last line of The Amber Spyglass?
I loathe the Narnia books and the so-called space trilogy, because they contain an ugly vision. I rate C S Lewis very highly, but I detest what he was doing in his fiction
The kingdom of heaven promised us certain things: it promised us happiness and a sense of purpose and a sense of having a place in the universe, of having a role and a destiny that were noble and splendid; and so we were connected to things. We were not alienated. But now that, for me anyway, the King is dead, I find that I still need these things that heaven promised, and I’m not willing to live without them. I don’t think I will continue to live after I’m dead, so if I am to achieve these things I must try to bring them about – and encourage other people to bring them about – on earth, in a republic in which we are all free and equal – and responsible – citizens.
Now, what does this involve? It involves all the best qualities of things. We mustn’t shut anything out. If the Church has told us, for example, that forgiving our enemies is good, and if that seems to be a good thing to do, we must do it. If, on the other hand, those who struggled against the Church have shown us that free enquiry and unfettered scientific exploration is good – and I believe that they have – then we must hold this up as a good as well.
Whatever we can find that we feel to be good – and not just feel but can see with the accumulated wisdom that we have as we grow up, and read about history and learn from our own experiences and so on – wherever they come from, and whoever taught them in the first place, let’s use them and do whatever we can do to make the world a little bit better.
And this, incidentally, is one of my quarrels with Lewis: the children in the Narnia books who have gone through all these experiences aren’t allowed to stay in the world and make it better for other people – they’re whisked off to heaven. That’s not a Christian attitude.
They spent quite a long time in Narnia, didn’t they, as kings and queens, bringing peace and justice?
Not in this world. They’re still children. They’re off on holiday with their parents and they’re all killed in a train crash. That’s grotesque.
Maybe it’s an artistic flaw…
It’s a bloody great big one.
It seems to satisfy a lot of people.
It disgusted me when I read it.
Lewis is a contradictory sort of character for me. I loathe the Narnia books, and I loathe the so-called space trilogy, because they contain an ugly vision. But when he was talking about writing for children, and about literature in general, Lewis was very, very acute and said some very perceptive and wise things. As a critic… And as a psychologist – The Screwtape Letters, for example, is full of very shrewd stuff about what it’s like to be tempted. I rate him very highly, but I do detest what he was doing in his fiction.
To go back to your republic: a lot of people now don’t want to live in either a kingdom or a republic, but in a kind of moral anarchy. ‘As long as I don’t hurt anyone else,’ they say, ‘you can just leave me alone.’
Yes, well, I’m against that.
But a problem many Christians see in atheism is –
The dogmatic certainty.
Christians say that if you are an atheist you have to be a nihilist. Well, that’s nonsense
I was going to say that its logical conclusion seems to be nihilism.
Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned? I don’t know whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic. I’m both, depending on where the standpoint is.
The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things I don’t know – which includes the number of atoms in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable darkness there may be God and I don’t know, because I don’t know.
But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all the things we do know – such as what the time is and how to drive to London and all the other things that we know, what we’ve read about history and what we can find out about science – nowhere in this knowledge that’s available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.
So, within this tiny circle of light I’m a convinced atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what I don’t know. So, that’s my position.
A lot of people assume from The Amber Spyglass that you must be an atheist.
Well, they can assume what they like. Of course, I don’t say, ‘There is no God.’ I say: ‘There is a God, and here he is dying’ – and this is what I was particularly pleased with: as a result of an act of charity. And he goes ‘with a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief’.
But God is an impostor –
He’s the first angel –
Who is himself the accidental by-product of a meaningless universe.
It’s not meaningless. It was meaningless before, but it’s not meaningless any more.
This is the mistake Christians make when they say that if you are an atheist you have to be a nihilist and there’s no meaning any more. Well, that’s nonsense, as Mary Malone discovers. Now that I’m conscious, now that I’m responsible, there is a meaning, and it is to make things better and to work for greater good and greater wisdom. That’s my meaning – and it comes from my understanding of my position. It’s not nihilism at all. It’s very far from it.
Throughout His Dark Materials there’s a strong sense of ‘ought’. All the most attractive characters – Lyra and Will, Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison, Mary Malone – are driven in the end by a sense of duty, at least to their loved ones if not to the world. Where in a world without God does that sense of ‘ought’ come from?
Jesus, like many of the founders of religions, was a moral genius. What a pity the Church doesn’t listen to him!
I’m amazed by the gall of Christians. You think that nobody can possibly be decent unless they’ve got the idea from God or something. Absolute bloody rubbish! Isn’t it your experience that there are plenty of people in the world who don’t believe who are very good, decent people?
Yes. I’m just curious to know where it comes from.
For goodness’ sake! It comes from ordinary human decency. It comes from accumulated human wisdom – which includes the wisdom of such figures as Jesus Christ. Jesus, like many of the founders of great religions, was a moral genius, and he set out a number of things very clearly in the Gospels which if we all lived by them we’d all do much better. What a pity the Church doesn’t listen to him!
Yes, absolutely. How, by the way, do you react to his statement ‘Unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’?
He wasn’t right all the time.
So, you’re with Paul there, that it’s all about putting away childish things.
No, Paul was wrong as well, because you don’t put them away: you keep them with you as you grow.
Did you see the  film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
Yes. I liked it very much.
Part of its message seemed to me to be that its two main characters had been wrong, as they themselves felt at the end, to sacrifice their love for each other for the sake of what they saw as a spiritual duty –
That’s what I felt.
What surprised me at the end of The Amber Spyglass is that that is just what you require of Will and Lyra. Suddenly you sound like a stern Christian moralist.
It’s kind of you to say so. No, I hope I’m clear that they’re not turning away from what you might call ‘sexual bliss’ because they think they should. It’s not that at all. They have their moment of bliss – whatever it is (and I don’t know what it is) –
I’m interested you say that, because I read a review that protested that they consummate their relationship and I thought, ‘I must have missed that.’
I don’t know what they did. I wrote about the kiss – that’s what I knew happened. I don’t know what else they did. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. I think they were rather young to, but still…
No, the reason they have to part in the end is a curious one and it’s hard to explain except in terms of the compulsion of the story. I knew from the very beginning that it would have to end in that sort of renunciation. (I don’t know how I know these things, but I knew.)
Always cast your eyes around as widely as you can. There’s no shortage of extraordinary and beautiful things to be struck by and be amazed afresh by
It’s very traumatic for the reader…
Do you think it wasn’t traumatic for me? I tried all sorts of ways to prevent it, but 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.
A Romantic might have thought, ‘Why can’t Will and Lyra go and live in a third universe and live fast, die young? What a wonderful story to tell the harpies!’
‘Live fast, die young’ is exactly what responsibility and wisdom set their faces against. These two children are setting out on a far more difficult and more valuable journey, which is the journey towards wisdom. This is a story about growing up.
So, your inversion of Paradise Lost is quite different in that, whatever Lord Asriel stands for, what emerges at the end is not in any way the triumph of self-will or self-interest. It’s really quite Stoical…
But of course the Satan figure is Mary Malone, not Lord Asriel, and the temptation is wholly beneficent. She tells her story about how she fell in love, which gives Lyra the clue as to how to express what she’s now beginning to feel about Will, and when it happens they both understand what’s going on and are tempted and they (so to speak) fall – but it’s a fall into grace, towards wisdom, not something that leads to sin, death, misery, hell – and Christianity.
And yet, shortly after, they have to renounce it.
OK, so we have both possible outcomes of Genesis 3. They embrace it and then they renounce it.
You know the maxim ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale.’ You say that growing up is what life is all about, but what the ending of The Amber Spyglass seemed to me to say was that actually all the adventure of living comes when you’re a child. Life for Lyra and Will from now looks set to be dull, if not grim.
In that case, I guess I’d better write another book. There are many other stories that remain to be written, and maybe some of them are stories of what happened to Lyra and Will afterwards.
Many people’s experience of growing up is that life brings disillusionment and bitterness. Is it possible to keep the innocence of childhood and add to that the wisdom of experience? How do you avoid losing what was good and ending up with nothing better?
That is an interesting question. I don’t know, and I wonder whether it isn’t anyway partly a temperamental matter. There are people who are inclined towards pessimism or melancholy and who naturally see disillusion as being the natural state of things. It may be that there are people who are temperamentally eupeptic and constantly see everything as turning out for the better.
But I think it’s probably a bit more than that, and my recipe for seeing the good side of things is to look at the whole picture. If you look at a bit, you can sort of select for any emotional tone by choosing the right bit of history or your own experience. Look at the whole of it. Look at your experience in the context of everybody else’s experience. Always cast your eyes around as widely as you can. Use as much of your knowledge and your memory and the things you can find out – if for no other reason than that if you develop the habit of looking around you, if you encourage your own curiosity, you’ll find an endless wealth of things to be curious about.
Stories can say things more wisely, more profoundly and more directly than any commentary on stories can
What is it Robert Louis Stevenson says?
The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.1‘Happy Thought’ from A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)
He’s absolutely right. There’s no shortage of extraordinary and beautiful things to be struck by and to be amazed afresh by.
Does that mean you are fundamentally an optimist?
I don’t know. I’m not actually at all interested in myself.
Oh. I was hoping you could tell us what your daemon would be if you had one.
She would probably be a jackdaw or a magpie, because those are the birds that are traditionally interested in little shiny things and go and pick them out. They don’t really distinguish between a diamond ring and a bit of Kit-Kat wrapper.
Or between Paradise Lost and Neighbours maybe.
Good example. Of course, I know there is a difference between Paradise Lost and Neighbours, but in terms of story stuff they’re the same sort of thing – they’re both shiny. When you read:
High on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted –2Paradise Lost, Book II, ll1-5
What’s going to happen next? What’s he going to do? And when Drew lends Scotty some money and Scotty says, ‘I’ve put it all on a horse,’ you want to know: What’s going to happen next?
That’s why gossip is a great leveller: we all want passionately to know what happens next. Even the most extreme academic postmodernists, who believe that there is nothing outside language and that stories are written by themselves and fiction is just, you know, a play of signifiers without any ultimate significance and there is no such thing as narrative and everything is self-referential and you can’t trust the narrator and all this sort of stuff, as soon as you say to them in the senior common room, ‘Do you know who I saw going into the stockroom with so-and-so yesterday?’ it’s ‘Tell me more! What happened?’
You observed some years ago that, while children’s writers are addressing the deep questions of life, the novelists who write for adults only want to ‘cut artistic capers’. Is that still the case?
Oh, I think so. I said it to be provocative, mind you.
I think it has to do with this story business again. You see, when you write for an audience that largely consists of children, you have got to put the story at the centre of what you’re doing, and when you do that, you cannot be self-conscious and postmodern and tricksy and self-referential and all that sort of stuff that the literary types like.
But that is actually a great advantage to you as an artist, because stories can say things more wisely and more profoundly and more directly than any commentary on stories can.
This edit was originally published in the April 2002 issue of Third Way.
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Philip Pullman was born in Norwich in 1946 and educated at Ysgol Ardudwy in Harlech. He studied English at Exeter College, Oxford, graduating in 1968.
He did a number of inconsequential jobs, before returning to Oxford in 1973 to teach at various middle schools. During this period he wrote several plays for his pupils (including Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Limehouse Horror and Frankenstein, which were subsequently published in 1993 and 1992 respectively).
In 1986, he became a part-time senior lecturer at Westminster College, Oxford, taking courses on the Victorian novel, the folk tale and creative writing.
He quit in 1996 in order to write full-time. His books include Galatea (1978), Count Karlstein (1982), Spring-Heeled Jack (1989), The Broken Bridge (1990), The White Mercedes (1992), The Wonderful Story of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp (1993), Thunderbolt’s Waxwork (1994), The Gas-Fitters’ Ball and The Firework-Maker’s Daughter (both 1995), of which the latter won the Smarties Gold Award the following year, Clockwork (1996), which in 1997 won the Smarties Silver Award and was shortlisted for both the Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year Award, I Was a Rat! (which was televised by BBC1 over Christmas last year) and Mossycoat (both 1999) and Puss in Boots (2000).
He is, besides, the author of four ‘Sally Lockhart’ novels: The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), which won the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award in 1988, The Shadow in the North (1987), which was shortlisted for the Edgar Allan Poe Award, The Tiger in the Well (1991), which was shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, and The Tin Princess (1994).
His Dark Materials consists of Northern Lights (1995), which won the Carnegie Medal and shared the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 1996, The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), which last year was named ‘children’s book of the year’ at the British Book Awards and was ‘longlisted’ for the Booker Prize before this year becoming the first children’s book ever to win the Whitbread Book of the Year Award.
In 2002, he was named ‘author of the year’ at the British Book Awards.
He has been married since 1970 and has two adult sons.
Up-to-date as at 1 March 2002