Interview with Philip Pullman

IV                Welcome to the new series of Belief, the programmes in which I talk with people about what it is that they believe.  We all have them - beliefs.  We all have our own perspective on the world, and for some of us, they may focus around specific religious doctrines or have grown and developed from them.  Or indeed, be an independently arrived at, personal view of the world, and our place in it.

Throughout the period of the celebration of Christmas, when we find time to contemplate what Christmas means to Christmas, I shall be hearing of the diversity of beliefs now held in the United Kingdom.

Today, my guest is author, Philip Pullman, whose trinity of books, his Dark Materials, is seen by some as an attack on religion.  The first volume won the 1996 Carnegie prize.  The third part, The Amber Spy-glass, was winner of the children's book section of the Whitbread prize, and then the overall Whitbread winner, earlier this year.  An indication that his appeal is far broader than simply to children, but to readers of all ages.

It encompasses a vast narrative of epic scale, in which a child, Lyra, moves through parallel universes, pursued by fantastical creatures in her battle against the forces of the magesteriumfor the destiny of the world.

The grandeur of this concept has led many to ask where Philip Pullman found his own inspiration, and indeed, what he himself believes.

Philip Pullman, it is such a vast concept, I do have to ask where you began?

PP           I began by stealing an atmosphere from the second book of Paradise Lost, by that I meanthat the descriptions in books one and two of Paradise Lost are a landscape of hell, - the fallen angels having just been hurled out of heaven, defeated by the forces of heaven, re-grouping themselves and plotting to overthrow the powers in a more subtle way.  That was something I first encountered when I was  17, doing A levels at school anyway. And it made such an impression on me at the time - not so much at that stage for the profundity of the idea so much, as the power of the language -  I physically felt my hair standing on end, my skin bristling, my heart racing, as we read through this wonderful stuff.  And that is something that always remained with me; little phrases, little glances, little talismans of this wonderful piece, remained me with me for a very long time.  And eventually, the idea came to me that I'd like to do a book using this sort of landscape - which was a change for me because previously, I'd done stuff which was entirely realistic.  I tried to stick to the real world.  Here I had a sort of licence to go and be fantastical.

IV            You've also paid tribute to your debt to Blake.

PP           Well, Blake was a great Miltonian of course.  And I think the truest thing anyone's ever said about Milton is, the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of angels in heaven, and at liberty when he wrote of devils and hell, is that he was a true poet and of the devil's party without knowing it. 

IV            This question about being, of the devil's party, is quite problematic.  Let me just read from The Amber Spy-glass in an attempt to pin you down;

“It's an angel speaking, Balthamos said quietly.  The authority, God, the creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, the King, the Father, the Almighty - those were all names he gave himself.  He was never the Creator.  He was an angel like ourselves; the first angel too, the most powerful.  But he was formed of dust as we are, and dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself.” 

Do you believe in God?

PP           No, I don't believe in anything, any being that could be encompassed by the term, God.

IV            But that is a fantastic list of everybody's God.

PP           I sort of believe what Balthamos was saying there - only ”sort of” because of course, he's a character in a story and he's not the narrator of the story; and even the narrator of the story is not me.  I am several layers of distance behind that.  But nevertheless, what Balthamos is voicing there is something that comes from what I call the myth.  Now, as I was writing this novel, - I was simultaneously writing something else.  I was simultaneously writing, a sort of creation myth that would lie behind it all, which is no way explicit in the book except in those words of Balthamos. 

The notion is that matter comes into being by itself, spontaneously, out of nothing.  There's no need for a creator.  A creator is entirely mysterious, irrelevant.  But the first of the angels is the one who later becomes known by all these names, and in the book, he's referred to as the Authority.  And by the time we reach the end of the book, the Authority's very old, decrepit, senile and longing for nothing more than death and dissolution.  And this actually, is something you can read in the Bible.  If we read the Bible from beginning to end, we see the first appearance of God is rather sprightly and mischievous and young.  And furthermore, he is able to engage in, not only in conversation with human beings but he actually walks up and down the garden with them.  Later on, he withdraws.  He refuses to let Abraham look at him, for example.  So, he's changing.  And later on in the book of Daniel, he's referred to as, the ancient of days - well, he's getting older, isn't he?  He's clearly getting older.  He's not an unchangeable presence.

IV            You say God's getting older, so is he going to die?

PP           By my story, he does, yes.  But what I'm intending to sort of show by that is -- is the old idea of God, the old idea of God as being a person who's up there, who loves us and looks after us and controls us and watches the fall of every sparrow, that idea has had its time.  It's dead.

IV            So, this is an account of where our beliefs, all kinds of beliefs, come from?

PP           No.  I wouldn't say it like that.  It might turn out to be an account of where my beliefs have come from, but first and foremost, it's a story.  You see, I didn't set out to write this thing in order to embody a myth.  The myth was something for my own private needs.  I needed to have something; some sort of solid ground on which the rest could be erected.  But the most important thing as far as the reader is concerned, is the story of what happens:  Event succeeding event, explanations of things that were mysterious, gradually becoming apparent.  Consequence is being worked out, and so on. That's how stories work, and I'm concerned with a story rather than anything else.

IV            Do you see the world's religions and all their ramifications as stories, that it is the nature of consciousness to explain itself in stories?

PP           Yes, that's a very interesting line, which could lead us into neurological science and all sorts of things.But it's certainly obvious that all religions have explained themselves to their own adherents, and to those whom they wish to convert, for example, in terms of stories:  There was a man who; and then this happened; and then he died; and then he wrote again - that's a story.

IV            And do you believe that myths, you know, the Greek myths, the Roman myths, all the legends of different groups and people, are their attempt to search out explanations for why we're here and what the world is about?

PP           Yes, well, we explain everything in terms of stories.  The other day, I was in my bedroom at the time, and I heard a great, big bang outside.  And I looked out of the window and somebody'd crashed their car into my garden wall, and was sitting in the car,  and you know, we called the ambulance, and everything else, and… How did this happen?  Well, the neighbours were all sort of worried how it happened, so eventually, we worked out what the story was.  How it happened that she had done this and crashed the car, and then we were satisfied.  Until then, we were puzzled but then once we worked out how it came about, we were satisfied.

This hunger of working out how things come about, is tremendously deep, and it's almost insatiable, because once we've heard how this came about, we want to know how the next thing came about.

IV            But also, it's full of paradox, isn't it?  Because of course, every witness to an event tells a different story because they see it from a different angle, different perspective.

PP           Well, I think it helps to remember where you're seeing things from.  In the words of my favourite quotation about story-telling, the basic question is, where do you put the camera? Where do you put the camera; where're you seeing it from? 

Now, it's possible to describe my own beliefs for example, as being both atheist and agnostic, depending on where I put the camera.  If I look at the total amount of things I know, and compare it with the things I don't know, the things I know; the tiniest possible, little remote, little speck of light in the middle of a great, vast encircling darkness; which is everything I don't know.  And in all the things I don't know, there may be a God.  There may be a God out there, but I don't know.  However, when you move the camera, when you come in a bit closer and get closer to this little speck of light, so it gets bigger and bigger, and finally sort of spreads out beyond the edges of the vision and fills everything you can see..  Here, I can see no evidence whatever for God.  So on this level, I'm an atheist; further out, I'm an agnostic; depends on where you're standing.

IV            Well let's go into your own story then.  Your story - grandfather, a vicar in the Church of England, up in Norfolk; quite a frosty part of the world, quite austere, flat, bleak.  Was it a flat, bleak religion?

PP           No, not at all, and that's not my experience of Norfolk, curiously enough.  My experience of Norfolk is a rather more gentle and undulating one.  My grandfather was a clergyman; rector of a little country parish near Norwich.  And I spent quite a lot of my time in his household because my father, who was in the RAF, died when I was seven, and my mother was living alone in London, working actually at the BBC; and I my brother and I were sort of passed along to Norfolk, which we were very happy about.  We loved grandpa.  We loved granny.  We loved the life in the rectory.  And his religion was very much a product of his time.  I remember John Robinson's book, Honest to God, came out when he was still alive and he dismissed with regret and scorn, and so on.  That wasn't what they were about at all.

IV            He was a Victorian-

PP           He was a Victorian and his faith I think, had been formed in the WWI, when he was an officer.  And he saw the good work done by the padres of the time, like the famous Woodbine Willy, and that was the faith he adhered to.  It was a simple, practical one.  It made people feel better. It cheered them up when they were dying.

IV            And you take that on-board.  You went to Sunday School.  You sang the hymns.  You knew the liturgy.  When did you begin to cast a rather more critical eye?

PP           I think when most of us do, in my teen years.  I was reading all sorts of things, reading widely.  What was the big thing then… Colin Wilson's, The Outsider, remember that?

IV            I do indeed,

PP           Colin Wilson's book was a wonderful book for teenagers to read because it… you know, it's a fabulous reading list apart from anything else; it leads you on to all sorts of other things.  So reading them, and thinking more and more about things, and also reading the poets too.

IV            So, what did you then make of the iconography and the dogma; the doctrine of the church?

PP           It seemed nonsense. It seemed incredible. 

IV            It's a question of faith, then.

PP           Yes but, it's not easy to believe something if you know it to be nonsense.  I know one of the famous theologians - is it Tertullian - said, I believe because it's impossible.  Well, I haven't yet reached the point when this makes sense to me.  This seems to me, as do many other paradoxes.

Do you remember what the epicycles were?  When we had the Ptolemaics system of astronomy, everything went around the earth, and the planets and the sun, they all revolved around the earth.  The trouble was this didn't sort of match up with observation because sometimes the planets would go faster, and sometimes they'd go slower, and sometimes they might even appear to go backwards for a day or two.  How could this happen if they were all going smoothly around the earth?  And they came up with this idea of epicycles.  They're actually not going around in a simple circle but in a lot of little circles all around one big circle, and then it makes sense - ha, got it now; epicycles.  But time went on, and more observations were made and still these things didn't seem to fit.  So then, they had epicycles on epicycles.   The whole thing was getting more and more complicated and more paradoxical, more and more difficult until the great discovery was made.  The realisation.  Now, supposing we see it another way; supposing the earth goes round the sun, all the difficulties vanish.  Now, these epicycles are very like this, I believe because it is impossible, or all the paradoxes that clever Christians in the present age were - are forced to come up with.  Such as the one, I think it's from Simeon Weil:  This great presence, which is like an absence. I mean, that's nonsense.  It's an epicycle.  It's an attempt to let logic deal with something which logic can't deal with. 

IV            But haven't you just offered up a hostage there though, because if there is an arena of human experience which logic can't deal with, you have to concede that it must exist beyond logic?

PP           Yes.  Of course it does.  Logic is very good in its place, but it doesn't cover everything.  No, I don't regulate my daily life by means of logic.  I regulate it by habit, by superstition, by guess work, by all sorts of things.

IV            By moral code.

PP           By moral codes.  Well moral codes are a very interesting example of how religion I think, gets it wrong, and how I wish religious people would be a bit more modest.  According to religious people, all morality comes from the fount of goodness and so on, which is God, and all moral teachings are religious in origin. 

Well, no, they're not.  A lot of religious teachings come from literature.  A lot of religious teachings come from simple observation.  A lot of moral teachings I mean, come from simple observation. This is where moral teaching comes from.  We don't need a supernatural explanation.

IV            Did you nonetheless, take on basically the tenets of Christian morality, as you grew up?

PP           In some respects, yes.  And I think I probably break the ones that everybody else breaks; But I think the ones that make sense in a sort of general human context are the ones that involve harm to other people, aren't they?  Thou shalt not murder.  Thou shalt not steal.  Thou shalt not bear false witness.  Those make sense, but then, they would make sense without a supernatural origin.

IV            But given the decline in some areas of religious faith and belief in these concepts as endorsed by say, The Sermon on the Mount,  if that falls away more completely than it has in your life-time and mine, if generations down through history abandon them completely, will people still feel the idea that underpins the 10 commandments on the whole, is a good one, or not?

PP           I don't think the morality embodied in the commandments doesn't make sense, or will ever fade away because this is a sensible way of regulating human society.  It's a sensible way which has evolved by natural selection over the course of millennia.  This is a good way to behave to other people.

IV            When you lost your own faith, which you had grown up with in your grandfather's home, did you have a sense of loss?

PP           I had a sense of liberation.  I suddenly saw that all sorts of things were possible.  I don't mean it was possible to do naughty things it was forbidden from before, not at all.  What I meant was, it's possible to see and believe certain things.  It's possible to unbelieve certain things,.

IV            Without falling apart? 

PP           Oh yes, entirely without that.  I never felt the need for the sort of psychological support or crutch which I know some people feel.  I never did.

IV            I know that your father died when you were seven; serious role-model bereavement, closeness lost-

PP           Well, up to a point because you see, we didn't really know him.  He'd been absent for a lot of our life.  He was an RAF officer.  He was off to the war.  He was posted all over the place.  And as I discovered after my mother's death, 12 or so ago, they were on the point of separation anyway.  I never knew that.  Didn't know that until she died.  So, he wasn't at home very much, and he certainly wasn't a role-model.  He was an absent figure, who occasionally turned up with his RAF moustache, smelling of beer and cigarettes, and… you know, patting us on the heads and swinging us up in the air, and being a marvellous… visitor really, but not a father. 

IV            But absences can be important in families, can't they, as much as presences?  The legend of the father.

PP           Ah, yes.  And the legend of this particular father was that he was a hero, he flew fighter planes, he did… you know so on and so forth- but we didn't know him very well.

IV            Now, you travelled around quite a lot; Australia you went to.  And so you've visited different cultures and picked up stories along the way.

PP           Putting it like that, makes it sound rather more anthropological than it was.  I was a school boy, being taken around by my service family.  My mother'd married another RAF officer after the death of my father, and he was posted to Australia.  We'd previously spent some time in what was then called, Southern Rhodesia - Zimbabwe - because my father was posted there.  So yes, we spent a lot of time travelling.  And in those days, you travelled by sea, which is the nicest possible way to do it.  So I did see a lot of the world, but I'm not sure I went about picking up different stories from different cultures, except that in Australia - this was in the mid ‘50s - I first came across comics:  Superman and Batman comics.  We'd seen the Eagle, that high-minded, British comic but this was the hard stuff.And I loved it. 

IV            Let's go into some of the actual nature of the book.  The stories of the book,  the use of vocabulary, the magesterium, the Board of Oblation; oblation isn't a word you run across very often.  It's in the liturgy of course.  The society of the work of the Holy Spirit.  I mean, these are all taken from the Christian churches. 

PP           Well, they're made up titles, but  they're sort of made up from bits, a kit of parts which the Catholic church has kindly prepared for us.  Yeah, that's what they're intended to mean.

IV            Ah, but these are the wicked lot.

PP           They are.

IV            So, are you gunning for the Catholic church?

PP           I'm happy to have it in place as a -- as a villain. But we're talking about another world, remember, and we're talking about a world in which the Catholic church develops in a very different way, because Calvin became the Pope in the history of Lyra's world, and instead of having one single figure and one single body of authority, the church in Lyra's world  is actually split into a number of little constituent and warring and rival colleges and bodies of authority, and so on.  So, they're all fighting amongst themselves, these things.

IV            But where do you feel this great antagonism? I mean, is it a seething resentment of the damage that you believe churches and established religions do?  Or is it a convenient vehicle for a rather waspish look at the Vatican, say?

PP                Waspishness can sustain you perhaps for 1,000 words of a newspaper article, but I'm not sure waspishness can sustain you for seven years in which you're writing a long story.  I think it's probably more than waspishness.

IV            So, it is quite a deep-seated-

PP           Well, it's a deep anger-

IV            - horror.

PP           - and yes, horror at the excesses of cruelty and infamy that've been carried out in the name of a supernatural power.  And it's not only the Catholic church that is guilty of this, of course.  The Protestants were just as guilty of burning the Catholics and their town, and of hanging the witches.  And both sides are guilty of persecuting the Jews.  And then you get Moslems killing Hindus, and Hindus killing Moslems,  and Sikhs killing Moslems and Hindus.  Ah, you know.  The list goes on and on.  I think it was a physicist, who said the truest thing about this.  He said, good people have done good things, and bad people have done bad things without the help of religion, but for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. 

IV            So, where does this anger, where has it found root?  I mean, it's found expression in your imagination to a fantastic extent.  Is this anger assuaged by your writing? Because anger is quite a disturbing component as a personality, isn't it? 

PP           No, I don't think I'm an angry person. 

IV            You seem rather mild to me, but that's just because you've worked it out of your system.

PP           No. I think there's righteous anger, isn't there?  Which is a kind of prophetic sort of thing;   And I'd like to think that the anger I feel at the excesses and cruelties of religion is righteous anger, rather than anything else. 

You see parents in a  suburb in the United Kingdom, spitting and throwing stones and hurling abuse at little children on the way to school, because they belong to a… not even to a different religion.  This is Christians shouting and spitting at Christians.  Religion is to blame for that. 

IV            There is another account, of course which you must be aware of, which is the abundance of charity, the selflessness, good deeds, sacrifice, that Christianity and other religions harness and focus on the needy of the world, the consolations of prayer and introspection, the beauty of liturgy, music, cathedrals.  There're a huge range of richness that the church brings to humanity.

PP           That's perfectly true and as far as the aesthetic component of it - the beauty of the liturgy, the hymns, the psalms, the Bible and so on - this is something that's very deeply part of me.  Every Sunday in my childhood, I went to church.  This was the time when we had the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the King James Bible and hymns ancient and modern,  - words that were well put together basically.  So, these are very much part of me that exists. 

IV            Now, let's go back to Dark Materials.  What is, given the attack on the magesterium and the war that exists, what are you trying to prefigure as the way in which we should live, if you don't want us to be ruled by an authoritative religion?

PP           This is summed up in the phrase that ends the book - “the republic of heaven.”  If the authority is no more - if the king is dead - what happens to the kingdom of heaven? 

The idea of heaven stands I think very important.  It stands for a sense of community.  It stands for joy.  It stands for a sense that the universe and we together, have a common meaning and a common destiny, and a purpose.  It stands for connectedness between these things.  All these things are so important, so fundamental to what keeps me alive that I don't want to be without them.  I don't want to do without heaven, but I can no longer believe in a kingdom of heaven, so there must be a republic of heaven of which we are free and equal citizens - and it's our duty to promote and preserve this.

IV            So, we are citizens here and now.

PP           Here and now, because there ain't no elsewhere.

IV            And  there's no life after death?  What's going to happen to us?

PP           This is one of the difficult points of course, for giving up believing.  It's probably the last thing that goes when your Christian belief leaves you, you know, your belief in some sort of after life, is a very precious, very difficult to relinquish thing.  But in the course of The Amber Spy-glass, I think I've told a story about death and what happens afterwards, which satisfies me both emotionally and aesthetically and intellectually.

What happens when we die is that we are sort of recycled.  I mean, our bodies are clearly recycled and the different little bits, atoms, constituent parts, motes of dust that make up our consciousness, are also recycled.  Nothing's lost. 

IV            We all go through life in your book, with a demon perched on our shoulder, or indeed travelling round our body, but are present with us, which is a sort of soul.

PP           It's an aspect of our personality, which in Lyra's world, has become visible.  Now, in my myth that I was writing, the demon is conceived of as being the gift of the rebel angels.  Now, in the course of the myth, the rebel angels are on the side of right and decency and goodness and consciousness, and all these things.

IV            Lyra's side.

PP           Lyra's side.  And they're lead by a figure called the Sophia - wisdom - who's a figure which I've sort of borrowed from Gnostic myth.-  the rebels angels led by Sophia gave to the beings in each world who were evolving, a gift that would help them understand themselves and become wise.  In some worlds, they gave them a demon.  In other words, they gave them a song that could pull down wisdom from the stars. In a world which we visit in the course of The Amber Spy-glass, they gave them the gift of riding on wheels so that they could… and this… Well, you have to read the story-

IV            Oh that's very funny … everyone going round on tricycles.

PP           But in each case you see, what it does, this gift  is to help one achieve wisdom.  Wisdom, which is the sort of natural status of life and consciousness, towards which we move almost gravitationally, and this is where it's helping us towards that.

IV            Do you feel as a teller of stories on such a scale, and with such a constituency of young readers, the responsibility of the story-teller?

PP           There are many responsibilities the story-teller has.  To the audience, certainly.  And when you have a young audience, or an audience which includes young people - I think you have a duty to remember the wisest thing, that Dr Johnson said which is, the only end to writing is to enable the reader better to endure life, or better to enjoy it.

Children need these forms of consolation just as much as adults readers do, and that's one of the responsibilities of the story-teller.  There are many such responsibilities.  A story-teller also has a responsibility towards language, for example.  And when it comes to difficult words and complex figures of speech and so on, your responsibility there is not to avoid them.  Not to think, ah, that's a jolly good idea; too clever for this story though, I'll use it somewhere else.  No.  You put it in.  The young reader will follow it if the story's strong enough. 

But the greatest responsibility of the story-teller is to the story. Towards the story, you are in a position of servant to master or mistress. And the job of the servant is to perform a job conscientiously, to turn up for work on time, to be sober in working hours, to do all the work that's necessary to prepare the way; and also, to give up common sense when the master - or the story - demands it. 

Ah, the windmills.  Those are giants.  I'm going to kill the giants for you.  No, master, don't be silly; they're not giants, they're windmills.  Ah, nonsense.  They're giants I tell you. Ah, don't worry, I'll deal with them.  All right, master as you say, giants they are.  The story is the boss, so the story-teller has to serve the story, no matter how crazy it is.

IV            Do you feel a responsibility though perhaps just to your own personality as expressed in your imaginative life, to have an optimistic hope somewhere in the story, and a feeling that you must help people live on their life without giving up?

PP           Yes, certainly. And one of the things I was trying to do in the story, though not in an educational way, but simply because that's the way I do things, is to show my characters revelling in the beauty of the world; and seeing, as if with new eyes, how extraordinarily precious and wonderful the physical world is. 

IV                Philip Pullman, thank you.

PP           Thank you.