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Talking to Philip Pullman: An Interview

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 23, Number 1, January 1999
pp. 116-134 | 10.1353/uni.1999.0015

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Talking to Philip Pullman:
An Interview

Philip Pullman has been described as a storytelling mariner, a Tolkien of our time. He would not be entirely happy with this comparison. He is an outstanding writer for children who has published a diverse range of literature that includes historical and modern thrillers, fairy tales, comic stories, and graphic novels. In 1995 Northern Lights (American title, The Golden Compass), the first volume of his ambitious magnum opus, appeared to widespread critical acclaim and won him recognition as a writer whose appeal is not limited to children. Readers of all ages have been gripped by the multiple levels of engagement and interpretation that this book and its recent companion The Subtle Knife (1997) have offered. Now we await the final part of the trilogy which, Philip has explained, is his version of Paradise Lost for young people.

Earlier this year, we talked to Philip Pullman in the riverside garden of a twelfth-century Oxford pub. It was a place frequently visited by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and is said to be where Lewis Carroll often entertained the Liddell children. Across the Thames, on a small island, stands one of the last remaining ornamental statues from a former Italian garden. It is a huge imposing lion, believed by some to be the inspiration for Lewis’s creation of Aslan. Against the background screeching of strutting peacocks and the sounds of weir water, we talked to Philip about his work and, in particular, the influences, concepts, and central themes behind his trilogy, His Dark Materials. We discussed how the structure and scale of the narrative form he has chosen allows him to explore powerful human themes within its epic architecture.

Philip’s belief in the power of stories and the ways in which they can teach us about the world we create, and the morality by which we live, has been an insistent theme in much of his fiction and critical writing. In this conversation, he developed his views on how a single story can encompass issues that seem to transcend time and place. We talked about the extraordinary publishing phenomenon generated by the first two volumes of his trilogy, about the differences in writing for children and writing for adults, about perceptions and representations of childhood, and about the creative influences that have shaped his thinking and inspired his writing. [End Page 116]

We began by talking about “grand” or “overarching narratives” and how they can be used to offer certainties and liberating possibilities for the child reader. Philip regrets the reluctance of many contemporary writers to take on such ambitious challenges.


I think the grand narratives aren’t so much played out or exhausted in contemporary writing, as abandoned for ideological reasons, because they’re felt to be somehow impure or improper. Maybe the whole thing is weakened by a fatal lack of ambition. This is what I find most irritating in my contemporaries among writers: lack of ambition. They’re not trying big things. They’re doing little things and doing them well.


There are some writers who manage to deal with the “incommensurable,” the “unpresentable,” the ideas that are just starting to gel, which they bring into consciousness without fully explaining. That’s what Philippa Pearce did in Tom’s Midnight Garden with the concept of Time. It’s what you have done, in terms of the way in which preadolescents suddenly become aware of human sexuality and that loss of innocence which changes the way they perceive reality.


That’s the central idea of the whole thing, and of course that is part of what is happening in Book Three. It’s my starting point; well, actually, there are several starting points. There’s the Milton, which of course I quote and take as my title for the trilogy. There’s another influence that planted and watered this particular seed. I first came across—twenty years ago—in a copy of the Times Educational Supplement, a translation by Idris Parry of an essay by Heinrich von Kleist, called “On the Marionette Theatre.” This essay has subsequently been...