Philip Pullman

December 10th, 2004

As I drove through the Oxfordshire countryside to meet Philip Pullman, I was thinking about Satan. There is much of Milton’s Lucifer in Pullman’s Lord Asriel, and writers tend to attach themselves to their characters, just as humans and their daemons are attached to each other, in the His Dark Materials trilogy. How much of Lord Asriel would I find in Mr Pullman?

First of all I had to find the house. I went into the local post office, where I was courteously given directions, then asked ‘Are you from the film company or do you want his autograph?’

Philip Pullman is world-famous already, and once New Line Pictures (Lord of the Rings), release the first part of his trilogy, he will enter JK Rowling territory, safe in the knowledge that unlike her, he is everywhere considered to be the real thing; the best children’s writer since Tolkein.

‘Tolkein?’ he says. ‘Lord of the Rings is not a serious book, because it doesn’t say anything interesting, or new, or truthful about the human condition.’

Oh dear. I have only just arrived at his farmhouse, the interview has not really begun, and I have put myself on the side of the Authority, the Magisterium and the Oblation Board. I need to cut a hole into another world as fast as possible.

Together we go through to a place he loves – Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem few have read and fewer enjoyed, including myself, but I think it best not to say so, nor to mention Voltaire, who described the masterpiece as ‘obscure, eccentric and disgusting.’

As Pullman talks about the poem, his face softens, his voice is excited, his tone persuasive. I feel myself pulled along by his arguments, and I realise what a very good teacher he must have been. He loves the poem because it is where he found his purpose. ‘The place was waiting for me but I wasn’t ready. Any earlier and I wouldn’t have had the skills or the strength or the confidence.’

Philip Pullman was in his late forties when he began to write Northern Lights. He had done well enough before then, winning readers and prizes with books such as The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, andClockwork. He was able to give up teaching full-time in 1985, but it was another ten years before he had completed Northern Lights, the book that changed everything for him.

And for us. The imaginative landscape of Northern Lights is more than armoured bears and sky-borne witches. Lyra really is a new Eve; a pointer, a possibility, a challenge, and a threat. Far from simple, the book, like Lyra’s alethiometer, can be read at many levels. At its simplest, it is an adventure story, at its most subtle, it is a commentary on human progress and the choices we make, both in our world, and in the others that surround us.

Does Pullman really believe in other worlds? He smiles and shakes his head, ‘It’s not a question of belief, or even of possibility, though I am sure other worlds are scientifically possible. It is a question of truth, and for a thing to be true, it doesn’t have to be possible.’

He’s playing with William Blake’s line, ‘Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.’ Pullman trusts writers with a childlike innocence, then brings his own experience to bear on their work. This creative collision is what makes his own work so invigorating.

But what does he mean – that for a thing to be true it doesn’t have to be possible? ‘Truth is often symbolic’, he says, ‘It is not the same as commonsense. A leap of imagination is necessary.’

Pullman is passionate about imagination, and begins a long tirade on the iniquities of our school system, and its determination to sever children from their imagination just as Mrs Coulter’s Oblation Board would sever them from their daemons. He says he got out of teaching just in time – he reckons he would be thrown out now. ‘It began with Margaret Thatcher, and this Government has been convinced by her aims and her methods.’

For Pullman, the obsession with invented standards, pointless testing, endless form-filling and a moribund National Curriculum are killing the joy of learning, and driving the best teachers out of the system. ‘I used to teach the things that excited me’, he says, ‘and when the teacher is excited, so are the children. What do we want to do? Stuff them with facts or open their minds?’

His study floor is covered in requests from schools. He paces about, sighing. ‘I want to help, but there’s no time.’

The paradox of his success is that it has left him fighting for time to write. I understand this completely, and it makes me feel better to hear it from someone else. He talks of his own paradise lost, when the phone didn’t ring and the emails weren’t spawning a universe of their own. Pullman is almost wistful about his teaching days, when he could depend on having three hours every evening to write undisturbed.

‘What happened to your shed at the bottom of the garden?’ I ask, and he says he gave it to a struggling writer, because now he can afford a beautiful study in a beautiful house. My advice is to get another shed; success brings material advantages but it eats up time and space. I love my houses, but I still work in a hut.

The film will bring Philip Pullman more success and less time. He is bracing himself for that, but he is a man on a mission. He wants a big audience for what he knows are important ideas, and he believes the film can bring him that audience. Tom Stoppard wrote the first draft of the script, but he has now been replaced by the director Chris Weitz. The result will be a film that is less profound but more dramatic, and hey, this is Hollywood, not the National Theatre.

For those who can’t wait for the film, the National will re-stage His Dark Materials from November 20th 2004 until April 2005. Nicholas Wright’s adaptation and Nick Hytner’s direction produced a challenging piece of work last year, and Pullman is rightly content.

The film will have to be more of a crowd-pleaser, but there is part of him that is touchingly seduced by Hollywood and its blandishments. He doesn’t seem to be worried that it might take a more subtle knife than Hollywood can wield to prise open a true version of his work. For myself, I am sorry they have dispatched Tom Stoppard. Pullman remains optimistic.

He won’t be drawn on whether he will return to Lyra and Will, left parted in parallel Oxfords at the close ofThe Amber Spyglass. It may be that his work there is done. I get a sense that although there is an Asriel-like arrogance in Philip Pullman, he is not vain enough to be tempted into sequels he does not believe in. He won’t churn it out, Harry Potter style. His is a grander purpose, and one of great seriousness, which is part of his charm.

He leaps up again to find me a beautiful book of Tiepolo drawings of Punchinello – the original Mr Punch. This was his inspiration for his new book The Scarecrow and his Servant, a kind of re-working of Don Quixote with a bit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein thrown in, as the turnip-headed monstrous rag-bag comes to life and begins a journey through the world of men.

It is a wonderful piece of story telling – both children’s book and modern fable. Pullman is unconcerned by his label as a children’s writer. He reckons it gives him more power, not less, and he is sure that grown-ups would never have read him if he had been shelved under that curious heading ‘Fantasy writer’. ‘On the whole, those writers are uninterested in language, and they live in a cult-world of their own. They read me but I don’t read them if I can help it. Telling an adventure story with witches and demons is not enough. I am interested in the Quest – and the Quest, however you decide to tell it, is the big story about human nature.’

He had made lunch – leek and potato soup from the garden. He is chatting about a field he’d like to buy beside his house. His wife Jude is hoping to persuade him to buy an apartment in Geneva. He looks uncomfortable at the thought of all this spending, not because he is mean, but because he is still not used to money. His wife tells me about years of sardines and baked beans, as they struggled to bring up their sons, while allowing Philip to write. She has kept a letter from the bank refusing them an overdraft, and she has kept her reply, assuring the Bank Manager that one day her husband would be a famous author. ‘Did you always know that?’ I asked him, thinking about the Scarecrow, who is saved by his Inner Conviction. ‘I didn’t, she did’, says Philip, smiling at Jude, ‘I just knew there was something I had to do.’