3072Philip Pullman article
- Feb 24, 2001Here's another article on Philip Pullman. He talks about his next book and
prequels to the series. It's worth reading.
To view the entire article, go to
The Last Word
OXFORD, EnglandYears ago, when British writer Philip Pullman was traveling
with his family in Austria, they stayed in a hotel where the restaurant
service was particularly slow. Every evening as they waited for dinner,
Pullman would entertain his 6-year-old son by telling him a portion of "The
Odyssey." "I spun it out, calculating all the time, watching the kitchen and
seeing when the food would arrive, and ending on a cliffhanger every night,"
recalls Pullman. "We got to this point in the last night where the most
exciting bit of the story happens, when Odysseus comes back to the island."
As the tension built and the hero prepared to string his great bow,
Pullman's narrative was shattered by a startling and terrible crunch. His
son, totally engrossed by the story, had bitten right through his water
glass. "The waitress who was coming just at that moment saw this and was
horrified, and she dropped the food," exults Pullman. "It was chaos! It was
wonderful!" Anyone wanti!
ng additional proof of Pullman's superior storytelling skills will find them
in "His Dark Materials," his best-selling trilogy for young adults. The
critically acclaimed books -- "The Golden Compass," "The Subtle Knife" and
"The Amber Spyglass" -- have been published in 21 languages. In the United
States, combined sales of the three volumes have totaled more than 1
million. For most weeks since its publication last October, "The Amber
Spyglass" has occupied the No. 5 slot on the New York Times Book Review
ranking of children's bestsellers, just under the four Harry Potter
adventures. Like the Potter books, the trilogy is attracting readers who
are much older than the target audience. Yes, teens and preteens are reading
it, but their parents are, too. But unlike J.K. Rowling's tales of a young
wizard, Pullman's trilogy delves into the moral complexities of weighty
philosophical and religious questions. The epic story, which was inspired by
Milton's "Paradise Lost," subvert!
s fundamental Western religious principles and is populated by compassionate
witches, malevolent theologians and a feeble, disingenuous God. The first
book, "The Golden Compass" (1996), introduces readers to 11-year-old Lyra
Belacqua, a half-wild orphan who is being raised at an Oxford college.
Lyra's Oxford is very different from Pullman's. In her world, every human
has a "daemon," an animal familiar that serves as the embodiment of a
person's soul. The golden compass of the title is a truth-telling
"alethiometer," which proves to be invaluable as Lyra journeys to the frozen
North to rescue her best friend and other kidnapped children from terrible
experiments being carried out by the church. In "The Subtle Knife" (1997)
she meets Will, a sober boy burdened by adult responsibilities, and together
they travel to other worlds in search of Will's missing father. Along the
way, Will acquires the immensely powerful knife of the title. Lyra is
pursued by an assassin in "The Ambe!
r Spyglass," which recasts the biblical Temptation and Fall as the beginning
of true human freedom. The final volume also wraps up myriad plot
developments with a great war in Heaven that results in the death of God.
While many readers might find such content objectionable, attacks on "His
Dark Materials" have been few. This is particularly surprising given that
religious fundamentalists have criticized the relatively innocuous Harry
Potter series as glorifying witchcraft. A recent article in Publishers
Weekly speculated on why the trilogy hadn't stirred similar controversy, and
the explanation is: No one's really sure. Pullman's U.S. editor, Joan
Slattery, publishing director of Knopf Books for Young Readers, says she's
"pleasantly surprised and relieved" that she's not hearing any complaints.
"Kids are reading these for the wonderful adventures," she says. "The adults
who are reading it are fairly sophisticated. I think it's a testament to the
intelligence of his fans th!
at nobody has objected to it." After "The Subtle Knife" was published,
Pullman received a handful of letters from readers accusing him of endorsing
Satanism. "My response to that was: 'You haven't read the whole story yet.
You wait and see what happens in the third book. If you find that you
inadvertently become a Satanist, you can write to the publisher and get your
money back.' " Pullman acknowledges that a controversy would be likely to
boost sales. "But I'm not in the business of offending people," he says. "I
find the books upholding certain values that I think are important. Such as
that this life is immensely valuable. And that this world is an
extraordinarily beautiful place, and we should do what we can to increase
the amount of wisdom in the world." He says he recently received a review in
the mail from a vicar who found the books' "moral base" to be secure. "What
he meant," Pullman explains, "is that the qualities and the actions which
the story seems to be sa!
ying are good -- such as courage, love, kindness, compassion and so on --
are ones that we can all agree on. . . . It's saying things that we
generally agree on, so what is there to disagree with?"<h1>It's No
Narnia</h1> Pullman, 54, lives with his wife and three dogs in a tranquil
Oxford suburb. The study is cluttered with hundreds of books, but Pullman
doesn't write there. He works in a rickety-looking garden shed in the back
yard, where, when he's writing, he produces exactly three hand-scrawled
pages a day. After lunch, he always watches his favorite television show,
the Australian soap opera "Neighbours." He enjoys tracking what he describes
as the "ancient story patterns," the love triangles straight out of classic
literature. Pullman's father was a pilot with the Royal Air Force, and so
Philip was a well-traveled child. For a time, the family lived in what was
then Rhodesia. After his father was killed in a flying accident, his mother
married another RAF flier and t!
hey moved to South Africa and then Australia. As an adult, Pullman settled
in Oxford, where he taught the British equivalent of junior high school for
13 years. For several more years, he instructed teachers-in-training on
children's literature. Eventually he quit to write full time, turning out
young-adult and children's volumes that have included another trilogy ("The
Ruby in the Smoke," "The Shadow in the North" and "The Tiger in the Well"),
"The White Mercedes" and "I Was a Rat!" Just a short walk away from the
Pullmans' house is the grave of another Oxford master of fantasy: J.R.R.
Tolkien. Comparisons, notes Pullman with a heavy sigh, are inevitable.
There's the Oxford connection, and the invented worlds, and both Tolkien's
"Lord of the Rings" and "His Dark Materials" consist of one (very) long
story in three volumes. But Pullman insists the similarities stop there.
"What I'm doing is utterly different," he says. "Tolkien would have deplored
it." So, too, would have !
another famous Oxford fantasy writer, C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian whose
children's series "The Chronicles of Narnia" exemplified his religious
convictions. "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief," says
Pullman. "Mr. Lewis would think I was doing the Devil's work." Pullman read
the Narnia books as an adult and found them deeply disturbing. "Lewis was
celebrating, upholding certain activities and attitudes which I am
explicitly against, such as bullying, racism, misogyny. Girls are no good,
says C.S. Lewis. Girls are only good as long as they act like boys. If
they're tough, they're okay, but intrinsically they're inferior. People with
dark skins who probably come from somewhere sinister like the East, and
almost inevitably smell of garlic, are always a sign of evil or danger." In
the final Narnia book, "The Last Battle," the older girl is excluded from
salvation because she has become too interested in lipstick, nylons and
invitations. "In other words, sh!
e's growing up. She's entering adulthood," says Pullman. "Now this for
Lewis, was something . . . so dreadful and so redolent of sin that he had to
send her to Hell. I find that appalling." The coming of age of Lyra and
Will, which serves as the culmination of the trilogy, represents an
alternative view of the business of growing up. "This is the moment when
they become truly what they could be," says Pullman. "Mr. Lewis would have
hated it." Both Lewis and Tolkien stressed "the otherness" and superiority
of their fantasy worlds. Pullman is passionately opposed to that, too. He
gazes out the window and watches the unending downpour that is turning his
yard into a mucky pool. "I want to open people's eyes if I can, and their
hearts and their minds to the extraordinary fact that we're alive in
<em>this</em> world, which, although it is full of rain and mud, is
nevertheless extraordinary and wonderful. And the more you explore it and
discover about it -- scientifically, imagi!
natively, artistically -- the more wonderful and extraordinary it becomes."
The author would also like to help readers discover the possibilities within
themselves. "Harry Potter was born to be a wizard, and I don't really like
that idea. I wanted to get away from the notion that somebody is born with a
particular destiny," he says. "Lyra is a very ordinary child, and so is
Will, and there are hundreds of thousands of millions of kids like Will and
Lyra all around the place. The great things they do are doable by all of us.
. . . Lyra's and Will's responses are the responses of every young person
who is faced with something difficult and is courageous enough to deal with
it. "<h1>The Realism of Fantasy</h1> Many adult readers of general literary
fiction don't care for the fantasy genre and its endless quests for sacred
objects and places with strange spellings. Therefore, it is perfectly
reasonable to speculate that if "His Dark Materials" had been published for
would have been relegated to the fantasy aisle -- and reached a far smaller
readership. While the trilogy relies on such standard fantasy elements as
talking animals and dramatic prophecies, it departs from the genre's
conventions. "What I'm interested in is what people are like as human
beings, and how we grow up and how we love each other and how it's difficult
to live with each other," says Pullman. "Traditionally, that sort of stuff
has belonged in the domain of realistic fiction. But why not put that in a
fantasy context? I wanted to make this fantasy as realistic in psychological
terms as I possibly could." The trilogy's animal familiars are a fanciful
device that serves as a shortcut to characterization (or, possibly, species
stereotyping). Children's daemons change according to their mood -- when
Lyra is angry, hers often transforms into a polecat -- but once a person
matures into adulthood, his daemon settles into a single form. Servants'
daemons are always dog!
s. The villainous Mrs. Coulter's daemon is a golden monkey, while the
fearsome Lord Asriel's is a powerful snow leopard. Readers frequently ask
Pullman what sort of daemon he might have. "I think she would be one of
those birds who steal bright things, like a jackdaw," he says. "Storytellers
work by picking up little bright bits of experience or gossip or something
they've read that sort of sparkles. So you pick it up and take it to your
nest." Pullman's influences range far and wide. Washington Post book critic
Michael Dirda, who has called the trilogy "the best, deepest and most
disturbing children's fantasy of our time," assembled a remarkable list that
includes "Paradise Lost," the poetry of William Blake, the Jewish cabala,
Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungs," "Peter Pan," "Star Wars," superhero comics
and Ursula K. Le Guin's "Earthsea" books. Pullman devised the names for some
of the trilogy's most beloved characters by borrowing from a variety of
sources. The autho!
r came up with "Iorek Byrnison" for the armored bear by thumbing through a
book of old Norse poems. "Iorek means something like bear," he explains,
"and the second part of his name comes from 'byrne,' which means something
like armor. Then I added a typical Nordic suffix." Texan aeronaut Lee
Scoresby was derived from actor Lee Van Cleef and arctic explorer William
Scoresby. As for the elegant and beautiful witch Serafina Pekkala, Pullman
took that name right out of a Helsinki telephone book. "It's a really common
name in Finland," he says. Pullman was very involved in the award-winning
audio versions of the trilogy -- he read the narration -- but his
participation in any upcoming film version will be considerably less. The
movie rights have been sold to a company that's talking to various studios,
he says, and that's all he knows. "Whether they will make a film at all,
whether it will be one film or three, whether it will be animated or not, I
really don't want to be involve!
d. If somebody buys the rights, that's what they buy -- the rights. If they
want to turn Iorek Byrnison into an armored giraffe and Lyra into a boy . .
. they can do that. I could say, 'You shouldn't do this,' but they don't
care what some damn fool writer in England says. I don't want an argument. I
want to be writing another book." Another book? Could there be a sequel to
the trilogy? The answer is a not particularly firm "no." For now, he says,
he's contemplating prequels, but he hasn't ruled out more on Lyra and Will.
Up next, he says, will be "The Book of Dust," focusing on what he calls "the
mythical dimension" of the trilogy. He's also considering the early life of
one of his favorite characters, Lee Scoresby, and how he came to be friends
with the armored bear. Then there's the story of Serafina Pekkala and the
human she once loved . . . "There are all kinds of stories, thousands of
stories, that could be set in this world," he says. The expert storyteller's
tic pause. "And I may write them."
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