Philip Pullman interview
DO YOU have difficulty telling your hobbits from your daemons? Can you spot the difference between an Orc and a Gyptian? How easily could you distinguish a Ringwraith from a Cliff-ghast?
If you're at all unsure, you better not mention it to Philip Pullman. The author of Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass (collectively known as His Dark Materials) is in no doubt that his trilogy is in a different class to the work of his fellow fantasist JRR Tolkien. They may be operating in the one genre, but the two are not the same.
"I don't like The Lord Of The Rings," says Pullman. "It is profoundly conservative. It is Little England nostalgic in a way that I have never enjoyed."
This is worth keeping in mind when Birmingham Rep visits the Edinburgh Festival Theatre with its mammoth adaptation of the first two His Dark Materials novels.
Yes, the story of Lyra Belacqua and her travels into parallel universes is a work of rare imagination – alive with fantastic inventions such as the truth-telling alethiometer, the mysterious particles known as Dust and the animal-like daemons who are invisibly conjoined to every person – but so too is it rooted in the real world.
We're sitting by the open stone fireplace in Pullman's low-ceilinged cottage in a village near Oxford. On the windowsill is a maquette of a leaping polar bear, a gift from the design studio of The Golden Compass movie, adapted in 2007 from Northern Lights. It is nearly 15 years since that book picked up a Carnegie Medal, but the 62-year-old still talks animatedly about the trilogy, as if he were as astonished as the rest of us by the universes he created.
"When I was thinking of writing this big fantasy, I thought, 'How can I justify it to myself, morally?'" he says. "'If I don't find a way of connecting it to our lives, if I don't find a way of saying something about what it means to be a human being, then I shall waste seven years on something frivolous.'"
He found the answer in John Milton's Paradise Lost, the epic poem about the temptation of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. Although Pullman, a prominent atheist, would go on to create a three-volume allegory about the falsity of religion, he saw in this 17th century Christian classic a blueprint for what he could achieve in His Dark Materials.
"I realised that what Milton was doing in Paradise Lost was writing a fantasy – it has people with wings and dungeons full of fire – but he connects most deeply with real life," he says. "Milton was doing something profound and important with fantasy, so I thought it must be possible. That's why in His Dark Materials there is a political subtext and a religious subtext – not very 'sub' either – because I realised I could use fantasy to say something about what it means to be a human being."
The success of The Lord Of The Rings movies and the Harry Potter franchise – and, to a lesser extent, The Golden Compass with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig – suggests there is a large public appetite for pure escapism. Pullman makes no overt criticism of the JK Rowling books ("When people read Harry Potter presumably they like to escape into the fantasy of an English boarding school with magic things happening," he says. "I don't want to disparage Harry Potter"), but he has little time for Tolkien. "When they read Tolkien, they want to take refuge in Little Englandism, the sense that the hobbits – which are us – are menaced by the nasty people who are somewhere else, but we're jolly brave and we'll fight through. It's a Churchillian vision of fighting on the beaches."
But doesn't His Dark Materials play to the same desire for escapism? "Well, it would be escapist if you just go there to have a lovely time," he says. "If you go there and find it's bloody horrible, you've got a terrible deed to do and it's dangerous and frightening, then maybe the real escapism is in the realistic novel that talks about being a publisher in London and having an adulterous affair."
Exactly why he should find himself so drawn to telling stories about adolescents is a subject he is uncharacteristically reticent to explore. "Those are the stories that come to me," is all he is prepared to say. As for his own adolescence, it was marked by the usual "difficulty, frustration, unhappiness and bewilderment", but above all, it seems to have been characterised by a tremendous creative flowering.
"I became very interested in painting and the visual arts," says Pullman, who was born in Norwich in 1946 and lived in Zimbabwe and Australia before spending his teenage years near Harlech on the North Wales coast. "I had a book about the history of art which I pored over and I did a lot of drawing. I always remember that sense of discovering a world that was opening up. There was a part of me that responded to the arts like a gong being struck. There was a whole world of artistic excitement. Philosophy! People asking questions about if there is a God. What's life about? It was extraordinarily exciting."
Although he gravitates so instinctively to writing about this period in our lives, he does not project the feeling of arrested development that you find in writers such as JM Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and AA Milne. That is deliberate. When he came to write His Dark Materials, he was determined to resist the romantic tradition of childhood laid down by these men.
"The pity of it is they were very gifted writers, so they set a mark for childhood nostalgia and whimsy – and there's something rather sickly and unhealthy about it," he says. "For a certain class of British male writers from the late-Victorian period to the 1920s, there was an unhealthy longing to go back to the nursery. I loathe it. And one of my conscious intentions in writing His Dark Materials was to do a story about children that would not be in the least sentimental, that would show what children really want, which is not to go backwards, but to go forwards – children want to be grown up."
Now Birmingham Rep is bringing the first two books to the stage – using the adaptation first seen at the National Theatre in 2003 – Pullman is genuinely interested to see how it shapes up. He is not precious about how other artists deal with his work as long as they treat the stories with respect. "I've always thought it was utterly stupid to sell the rights to an adaptation and then moan about the way they do it," he says. "If you wrote a strong enough story it will stand up to adaptation. The only thing I'm zealously protective about is the integrity of the story. There was a moment early in the film discussions when somebody high up at the studio said, 'Let's make Lyra into a boy.' That sort of thing you zealously protect."
His Dark Materials, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, May 21-24 www.festivaltheatre.org.uk
© Mark Fisher, 2009