Divinely inspired: Philip Pullman

I am sitting in an anonymous hotel room in London with Philip Pullman and I find myself thinking: here is the man who killed off God. Yet to him this death – which happens almost in passing in The Amber Spyglass, the long-awaited third installment of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – seems hardly worth mentioning. It is done, as he says, in an incidental way: “Perhaps people won’t even notice,” he remarks. His voice is low and even; his eyes are steady and blue.

What to make of Philip Pullman? An easy answer, on the surface: he is a hugely successful children’s author, winner of the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Fiction Award, translated into over a dozen languages and comfortable, it seems, in almost any fictional form. There is the Sally Lockhart quartet, ripping yarns set in Victorian London; there are books like The Broken Bridge and The Butterfly Tattoo, gripping social realism as true and eloquent as any “adult” fiction; and then, of course, there are Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife, the first two volumes of the trilogy which has gained him a cult following all over the world – and caused him to join the growing band of authors whose work can no longer be comfortably categorised as “for children” or “for adults”: His Dark Materials is not published as children’s fiction in the United States.

This is hardly surprising; more surprising, perhaps, that these books (which Pullman calls glibly “Paradise Lost in three volumes, for teenagers”), with their radical agenda and deadly serious intent, should sneak out into the children’s market. Trainspotting is a gross-out; Hannibal more of the same. But Pullman, with His Dark Materials, sets out to pull down the whole moral framework that has underpinned Western civilisation. Who says English writers aren’t ambitious anymore?

Pullman clearly relishes controversy – which brings, after all, column inches. He has said in an interview in The Bookseller that he would be “happy to be denounced from pulpits across the land”, and The Catholic Herald has already obliged, calling His Dark Materials “truly the stuff of nightmares”. [or did it?]

Yet Pullman’s powerful attack seems to have gone unnoticed in the mainstream press. Readers have, perhaps, been distracted by the books’ intricate plotting, sensitive characterisation and brilliant invention to notice what has really been going on. The trilogy’s teenage hero and heroine, Will and Lyra, set off from their separate worlds – modern Oxford and an otherworldly parallel Oxford, where each person’s soul is made visible in the form of an animal daemon – to investigate the provenance of Dust, a kind of spiritual Dark Matter. Along the way they meet such striking characters as Mrs Coulter, the sinister, seductive agent of the Church; Iorek Byrnison, noble king of the Armoured Bears which inhabit Lyra’s Arctic; the elegant and courtly Gallivespians, six-inch-high spies with savage stings in their heels.

Yet these creations are merely the framework on which the Big Question hangs: how can the kingdom of heaven be brought to an end, and a republic of heaven installed in its place? That republic, as he envisions it, exists within all of us: it depends on not looking past death to a better life beyond. “There ain’t no elsewhere,” he says bluntly. “This is all there is; and it is extremely beautiful and full of the most exquisite delight. That’s what I mean about the republic of heaven. It’s already around us. I just wanted to make that a bit more explicit, to give it a name.”

A century ago Pullman might not have been able to ask such questions, or make such statements, in print; a few centuries before that and this enquiry might have brought him to the pyre. And that is just what causes Pullman to write as he does. His “Church” is otherworldly: but the parallels are clear. “I am very suspicious of ceremony, hierarchy, ritual,” he says. “It represents the ossification of something that was once genuine. The underlying myth of these three books – the story of the Creation and the Fall – clarifies how the original impulses of great religious teachers are used and perverted and taken as empty banners by people who set up churches.” He has, he says, a “deep, deep dislike” of any kind of religious organisation: “if there is any good in it, it comes out of human beings and not out of religious structures.”

Pullman’s bugbear is C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books: poison, he called them to me. He sees them as little more than Christian propaganda, life-denying rather than life-affirming (he cites particularly the end of The Last Battle, where the children are “rewarded”, or so it seems, by death). “The Narnia books lead up to a view of life so hideous and cruel I can scarcely contain myself when I think of it,” he says – this despite growing up with a grandfather who was a minister, and in whose home he first read the religious writings of Lewis, which he continues to admire. He views the Narnia books as sly, a message slipped in by the back door. But, I put to him, what’s the difference between you and Lewis? Who’s to say His Dark Materials isn’t simply propaganda for the other side?

Pullman concedes the point. “I suppose you could say that these books are an answer to the challenge thrown down by Lewis in the Narnia books. All books teach, whether they intend to or not. You can’t help but reveal your world view in the story you tell.” That is certainly the case in The Amber Spyglass, which I found somewhat compromised by the strength of Pullman’s belief: finally, the Church he portrays becomes so over-the-top wicked it threatens to tip into caricature. But then Pullman spent many years as a teacher, first in an Oxford secondary school and then as a lecturer at Westminster College: it is clear he has not quite lost his taste for pedagogy.

Pullman’s world view – though it encompasses daemons, talking bears and ghosts – has no simple happy endings; the situations his characters confront are as difficult as the ones encountered in all our lives; it is this, he contends, that make his books “stark realism” rather than fantasy, and in this I am certain he is right. The fantastic and the magical should never be confused. As he points out, no one calls Paradise Lost or the work of William Blake fantasy – Milton and Blake are the two greatest influences on His Dark Materials, the title itself a reference to the former.

A touch of hubris, perhaps, to implicitly compare himself to these authors? Pullman’s ambition shines out from him – and he is equally ambitious for his readers. The Amber Spyglass is studded with quotations from Blake, Milton, Coleridge, Ruskin – and the Bible, to name but a few. The difficulty is this: Pullman’s remarkable trilogy needs to be read in the proper context, with and against Paradise Lost, with and against Blake’s depiction of old Nobodaddy. How many of his young readers will today be able to do that?

One can only hope that where Pullman leads they will follow, and discover the dissenting tradition from which these books spring. This is remarkable writing: courageous and dangerous, as the best art should be. Pullman envisions a world without God, but not one without hope. We still need, he says, “all the things heaven represented: joy, delight, a sense of connectedness with ourselves and each other and the wider universe. We need all those things that were symbolised by heaven, but we cannot have a kingdom – so we must have a republic, and it must include all of us, and it must be here.”

The Golden Compass