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Claudia FitzHerbert talks to Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman has recently won the Carnegie of Carnegies for Northern Lights, the first volume of his epic trilogy His Dark Materials, which celebrates the success of a latter-day child-Eve in defeating the agents of an oppressive God, first published twelve years ago. This was the latest in a string of accolades which have included the Whitbread - for The Amber Spyglass - and a two-part stage production at the National Theatre. The film of His Dark Materials, renamed The Golden Compass, is due to be released before Christmas. Pullman, meanwhile, is some way into The Book of Dust, which will pick up Lyra's story two years on and answer some of the huge theological questions thrown up by his reworking of the story of the Fall (or not) of Man. I began by asking him whether he ever envied his key sources Milton and Blake for the artistic energy they derived from the religious belief he cannot share.

PP: Blake was a visionary. That's the important thing for me. Somebody said to him, 'When the sun comes up do you not see a round thing rather like a guinea?', and he said, 'No, I see a choir of angels singing.' Blake was able to see things that other people would have said weren't there. To my mind that's not very different to perfect pitch. Some people hear a singer or a violinist and don't realise that they're not in tune whereas others know at once because they can hear what the pitch should be.

As for faith, Blake was a pretty heterodox believer, if Blake the believer is who you're interested in. Do you remember his famous demonstration that Jesus broke all the Ten Commandments? I'm more interested in Blake as an artist. I suppose I find it hard to separate - to say this is the part that's due to belief and this is the part that's due to his aesthetic power as an artist. The same goes for Milton, although Milton is a little easier because Blake has explained Milton so well by saying he's of the Devil's party without knowing it. It's a wonderful, wonderful way of explaining Milton and absolutely true. When he writes about Satan in the first part of Paradise all his imaginative empathy is engaged by this rebel God, and I think that is to do with his power as an artist rather than his doubts - or faith - as a Christian. Of course Milton goes on to demonstrate that there is no perfection in large-scale works of art by letting Satan down rather badly in the end, where he makes him into a figure of fun and turns him into hissing snakes.

It may be that future generations of children will be led to read 'Paradise Lost' by your retelling of the story in 'His Dark Materials'. But what about the language, history and teaching of the Church with which your work is imbued (for all that you make an evil thing of it): do you think children not exposed to these forces will be the poorer for it?

This is something that's happened in the last forty years or so - since the New English Bible in the early 1960s and the decline in the use of the Book of Common Prayer and the loss of that tradition of saying the same words Sunday after Sunday which the English Church has had since 1662. I know those words so well, I can do the whole of the General Confession and Prayer for the Church Militant, and they were beautiful words. They might have been beautiful accidentally because they happen to have been written at a time when English prose was peculiarly rich and pungent - I'm talking also about the Bible in the King James version, and Hymns Ancient & Modern, but the point is that that language has all gone. It suddenly went away as if it had never been and this is an extraordinary act of neglect and vandalism on the part of the Church of England.

I was brought up so deeply in that stuff that I can't separate it from myself any more than I can separate my childish knowledge of the Latin I used to learn when I was seven. I can't abandon that now. So when I look at a word, I see at once whether it's a Latin word or a Saxon word or a French one and that forms part of the way I use it. The history, the linguistic charge, almost the perfume, that word carries - I can't separate out my knowledge of these things. Similarly I can't separate my early involvement with the language and music of the Church - it made me what I am. And certainly all the people I know now who cherish as I do these things were themselves brought up in the tradition and brought up to believe and presumably when they were young did believe. I don't know what age Richard Dawkins was when he left his belief behind him but when he was five or six I dare say he was as fervent a believer as you can be at five or six.

Of course I would be delighted if as a result of reading Northern Lights some child were impelled to go and explore the Book of Common Prayer, but I don't think it's very likely. As for the loss to the imagination - well, the imagination loses when it has never seen paintings by great masters or heard classical music - again I would say it is an aesthetic thing more than a belief thing.

OK, leaving aside the imaginative uses of belief, what about the consolatory aspects? The Authority in 'His Dark Materials' is a force for repression throughout. What do you say to critics who ask where is the good that is done by religion?

This is a big subject and I'm writing a big, big book in order to deal precisely with that question; I don't want to anticipate it too much by switching a light on the answer now. The interesting - the curious - question is, if people can be helped by something that is palpably not true, is this better than denying the thing that is not true and not being helped? When I say palpably not true I am speaking from my perspective as an atheist. This perspective thing is important: if I compare the tiny amount of things that I know to all the things I don't know, then of course out there in the darkness there may be God. So from that perspective I'm an agnostic. But then, if we imagine being inside a camera coming closer and closer to this tiny pinprick of light - to the things that we do know - then as we come closer the pinprick gets bigger, as things do, until finally it reaches from horizon to horizon and we are standing inside the light. From this perspective - which is all the things I know - we can see quite clearly there is no God, so in that respect I'm an atheist. That's the way I look at it. Of course, as they used to say in the First World War, there are no atheists in foxholes. But if you're in the habit of thinking honestly about what you do, can you leave that honesty behind when you're in a foxhole? It's very difficult - much more difficult to contain that state of mind than to be a simple believer.

Have you read William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience? It's a great book. He talks about once-born and twice-born - nothing to do with born-again. This is another phenomenon altogether, one which occurs when doubt has entered. He writes about people who have seen the emptiness and horror and futility of everything. They might come back to belief but something's been broken. In effect this is what happens to Lyra when she has to re-learn to use the alethiometer - she loses her instinctive way at puberty. Re-learning will be a long, painful process but in the end she will do it better. This is an image of education for me. I pinched this from Heinrich von Kleist's On the Marionette Theatre. Everything that I managed to say in 1,300 pages is in that essay. Kleist says we exist on a spectrum that goes from the unconscious to the fully conscious, and once we've left unconscious grace behind we can't go back, we can only go on - through life, through education, through suffering, through experience to the thing we come to call wisdom, which is right at the other end of the spectrum.

You used to work as a teacher and you write and speak a lot about education, reminding us of the cardinal values of creativity in learning which are so often honoured in the breach these days. But your vision of education is expensive - classes of never more than twenty taught by the best, brightest graduates. What would you give up to make your vision happen?

Easy. Trident. Iraq. Easy. Of course we should spend more on education. Much, much more. This recent hoo-ha about grammar schools intrigued me. When we spend five minutes talking about grammar schools, why don't we spend twenty talking about secondary moderns? I spent some of my teaching practice in a secondary modern. It was a dreadful place. Nobody felt good about being there.

There's one other thing I'd like to say about education. Everything we ask a child to do in school should intrinsically be something that's worth doing. Are SATs worth doing? Of course not!

Would you say that your version of Victorian England as depicted in the Sally Lockhart quartet owes something to a strain of Fabianism?

I find it difficult to write about the modern world - and you're right, it is a version of Victorian England on offer in those books. They actually take place between 1872 and 1882, so just before Fabianism got going, but it was a time when the best response of the best people to what they saw around them was a form of socialism. People like Shaw. I find it a fascinating time - it had just become possible for women to train as doctors, there was universal literacy thanks to the 1872 Education Act, which meant that every child left school able to read. Telephones were coming in. I love the Sally characters. I want to go back to them. If there's time.

Were you consciously constrained by the historical and chronological framework of that quartet? How much were you itching to invent alternative worlds before embarking on 'Northern Lights'?

I wasn't itching at all. It took me entirely by surprise. I always took a dim view of fantasy - still do in fact. Most of it is trash, but then most of everything is trash. It seemed to me writers of fantasy in the Tolkien tradition had this wonderful tool that could do anything and they did very little with it. They were rather like the inventors of the subtle knife who used it to steal candy when they could have done much more.

The first book I think really did what fantasy can do, besides Paradise Lost, was a book published in 1920 called The Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. It's a very poorly written, clumsily constructed book which nevertheless has the force, the power, the intensity of genius. He uses fantasy to say something profound about morality - none of Tolkien's imitators do this.

Another thing about fantasy - I'm sure that far more adults have read His Dark Materials because they were published as children's books than would have done if they had been published as fantasy. Nor was I itching to write about religion. I originally wanted to write a story about a girl who goes into a room where she shouldn't be and has to hide when someone comes in and by chance overhears something she's not supposed to hear. A little later I discovered she had a daemon, that was the point at which I realised I'd got hold of a story somehow that I could use - no, you don't use a story - that I could explore, and say something about Kleist's essay which I had come across fifteen years before. The religious theme evolved as part of what Lyra has to struggle against and give up.

What do you say to Auden's line that poetry makes nothing happen?

Poetry by itself is just a stringed instrument making no sound. It needs air around it and a human mind to resonate it. Then it makes a difference but not in a simple instrumental 'x therefore y' way. It's more complicated; it takes longer to resonate and to set up neural patterns. It does things, but it doesn't do what the poet thinks it'll do. You can't predict how people will read your work. You might think you've written a searing indictment of the slave trade and people read your novel for the love story - that's part of the democracy of reading that I'm very keen on.

While not being afraid to play God as a writer?

This business about the omniscient narrator also has a bearing on Lyra and the alethiometer and the loss of grace and innocence and confidence and so on. At the beginning of the twentieth century, with the modernists, we lost confidence in storytelling - think of Joyce, and Woolf to some extent, and E M Forster with his 'oh dear - yes, the novel tells a story' as if it were a shameful thing to do. Suddenly the novel became self-conscious about itself and about the process of storytelling, and a huge awkwardness set in that resulted in a split between the people who tell stories - the middlebrow - and the others who would do anything rather than tell a story who were the other thing - the highbrow. Hugh Walpole on one side, James Joyce on the other, and never the twain shall meet. Whereas in Victorian times everyone read Dickens. The gulf is lessening now because people are becoming less self-conscious, or rather learning to deal with their self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is like shyness - charming in a child of twelve but not so charming in someone of 32 or 42 or 52, so to deal with it you have to pretend you're not shy. The way to deal with self-consciousness in storytelling is to pretend that you're not self-conscious. Writing for children is liberating because it forces you to pretend you're not self-conscious.

There is a lovely passage in an essay by Umberto Eco about the difficulty the post-modern chap has in telling his girlfriend that he loves her. He doesn't want to say 'I love you' because those words have been used without irony by Barbara Cartland. Finally he finds a solution. He says to her, 'As Barbara Cartland would say, I love you.' Ha! The tongs of irony you need to hand the sugar of affection.

Have you seen the film of 'Northern Lights' (to be released as 'The Golden Compass' this Christmas) and do you feel at all sorry to think of children coming across the story for the first time as a film?

I've seen bits of it. Teams of slaves are still putting the thing together, assiduously. The look is wonderful, immensely rich and intriguing and attractive. Lyra is played by a girl called Dakota Blue Richards who has never acted before and holds the whole thing together. She was one of ten thousand seen for the part.

No, I'm not sorry. I think the story will survive. I would be sorry if there was a law which said every time a film comes out the book or books on which it was based had to be withdrawn. As James M Cain replied when asked if he minded what had been done to one of his books: 'They've done nothing to my book, it's there on the shelf.'

A number of those who see the film will have read the book already. Non-readers probably wouldn't have come across the book anyway.

How much trouble did the project encounter in America as a result of your book's perceived anti-Christian bias?

The problem for those who think there's an anti-religious anti-moral bias in the books comes when they haven't actually read the books: of course there's a criticism of organised theocratic tyrannical religion but who can disagree with that?

A review in the Church Times said, 'When the morality is secure the metaphysics don't matter.' The qualities which my books criticise are intolerance, fanaticism, cruelty, and the qualities they celebrate are love, kindness, openness, curiosity. I think the moral majority in America is not a majority at all and that the power of the organised Christian Right is a phantom.

Theocracies don't have to be religious. Soviet Russia was a theocracy. They had a holy book, which was Marx; they had prophets and doctors of the church (Lenin, Engels, Stalin, and so on); they had a priesthood that had privileges and powers above the ordinary, which was the Communist Party. There was also a teleological view of history and you could either be on the side of history or against history. There was a state apparatus of denunciation, betrayal, punishment, the idea of heresy, even the cult of holy relics - so many parallels.

In the new edition of 'His Dark Materials' you have added a series of what you call Lantern Slides at the end of each volume, glimpses of the characters in different but possible situations. Aren't these an invitation to others to write stories about your created worlds?

It already happens on the Internet. It's called fan fiction: there are six hundred or so already doing it, maybe more now. Bloody nerve, isn't it?