Illustration by Jody Hewgill. The British author Philip Pullman was raised on the tall tales of his grandpa, an Anglican vicar, but his own life has taken plenty of dramatic turns. When he was seven, his mother received a telegram: His father, a Royal Air Force pilot, had gone down over Kenya. "There's a suspicion that he might have been drinking too much or he might have crashed on purpose because he was in all sorts of trouble—women trouble and money trouble and God knows what else," recalls Pullman, who is now 66.
The family relocated to Australia and finally to North Wales, where Pullman devoured books and "grew up intellectually, and emotionally, I suppose." He later attended Oxford and then spent years teaching English, honing his storytelling chops on captive middle-schoolers and publishing a dozen or so politely received books and plays before hitting pay dirt with His Dark Materials, the wildly popular young-adult trilogy consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.
HDM, which has sold well over 15 million copies and been translated into at least 39 languages, has earned Pullman some of the most prestigious awards in children's literature. In this epic twist on Adam and Eve—replete with angels, witches, and ursine warriors—the church is a malevolent force, characters have animal soulmates called dæmons, and, far from sinful, the loss of innocence of protagonists Lyra and Will is a saving grace.
The series (a sequel called The Book of Dust is in the works) and Pullman's public antipathy for organized religion (never mind 2010's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, wherein Jesus is betrayed by his weak-willed twin brother) have raised holy hackles; the Catholic League complained that Pullman is "using a fantasy to sell atheism to kids."
I reached the author at home in Oxford to discuss his new book—a retelling of Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm—his writerly superstitions, and what he'd like to ask Jesus over dinner. (Pullman's spot illustrations are used with his permission.)
Mother Jones: The Grimm stories have been told and retold for generations. What made you want to return to the originals?
Philip Pullman: It was sort of returning to my roots, really. I wanted the chance to look again at these very famous stories and see what made them work well, whether there were any ways in which they could be improved. Because the great thing about fairy tales and folk tales is that there is no authentic text. It's not like the text of Paradise Lost or James Joyce's Ulysses, and you have to adhere to that exact text. I thought there were things maybe I could play around with.
MJ: Were you also hoping to remind us that they don't belong to Disney?
"I like the psychological flatness" of the Grimm characters, "the fact that they're more like masks than individuals."
PP: Disney is a huge presence when it comes to fairy tales because he's made of them such brilliant artifacts in terms of movie-making. But it's very hard to ignore what he's done to them—the characters of the seven dwarves, for example: Sneezy, Happy, all those things. They're not like that in Grimm, and I didn't feel that was a very interesting path to go down. But I'm not interested in denigrating Disney or even commenting on him very much. I'm more interested in seeing what I can do with the stories myself.
One thing that did strike me was how different these stories are from novels. You almost never see an adverb—"he said ruefully"—anything like that. That doesn't happen. You just get what he said, what she did, that absolutely bald statement. And I like that. I wanted to avoid what some modern tellers have done, quite legitimately, to make them more like novels and short stories, to characterize the heroes and the heroines much more than they are characterized in Grimm. I like the psychological flatness of them, the fact that they're more like masks than individuals.
MJ: It's clear why some of the old versions have fallen out of favor with parents. "The Robber Bridegroom," for instance, is pretty disturbing. At what age would you say they're appropriate for kids?
PP: I'm with the Grimms on this: stories for young and old. You can't characterize them any better than that. I guess their intention was to have them told around the fire in the evening to the whole family.
MJ: That's funny, because I actually read your "Cinderella" to a big group of kids around a campfire last weekend, and when the birds pecked out the mean sisters' eyes, the kids laughed!
PP: That's right!
MJ: Maybe it was the delivery. Or maybe kids just appreciate biblical justice.
PP: [Laughs.] I think it may be both! But you're right, the justice of it seems to children correct and right—I mean, we laugh at it! We underestimate children's ability to know what is a story and what isn't.
MJ: My kids want to know why all the fathers are so feckless, while the women tend to be greedy or ambitious or evil.
PP: Yeah, people don't come out of these stories very well, do they? I mean the father in "Rumplestiltskin" is a hopeless man. An even worse case is the father in "The Girl With No Hands."
MJ: And "Cinderella." And "Hansel and Gretel."
"If you were an actor, the mother would be the part to play. The fathers are such feeble characters."
PP: Yeah, they're all hopeless. They're all unable to protect their children against what happens. They send their them into the wild forest without the slightest compunction. They're a dreadful lot of beings on the whole. But I suppose if they didn't do that, we wouldn't have a story.
MJ: The Grimms originally had the mother as the bad character in some of the tales, and then changed it to the stepmother in later editions. Why is that?
PP: They must have felt that it would be a little too frightening for a child to think that his or her mother could actually abandon them in the forest and let them starve to death. In one story, we see them changing halfway through the text from Mutter to Stiefmutter—they must have forgotten to correct it. But if you were an actor, the mother would be the part to play. The fathers have so little to do; they're such feeble characters.
MJ: You're the father of two grown boys, but you tend to prefer girl protagonists. Are you trying to remedy a dearth of—
PP: No, absolutely not! It's not my business to remedy dearths! It's my business to tell stories. Lyra and the other heroines didn't come with placards saying, "Make this a feminist story!" I'm glad people enjoy seeing a female protagonist in a big adventure story, but I didn't do it for political reasons.
MJ: So I gather that you, not unlike Lyra, your Dark Materials heroine, had a largely absent father and perhaps a slightly Mrs. Coulterish mother. [Mrs. Coulter is Lyra's mother.]
"Children aren't interested in the least about your appalling self-consciousness. They want to know what happens next."
PP: [Laughs.] My mother Mrs. Coulterish? I never thought of her like that, but perhaps you're right. I remember her getting dressed to go out in the in the evening with sort of early-1950s glamour. The perfume she used to wear was called Blue Grass, by Elizabeth Arden. I still remember it. My mother wasn't absent, but my father was. My mother married again after my father's death—another Royal Air Force officer, and a very different kind of man. We went to Australia when I was eight or nine. We lived there for a couple of years, and then came back and lived in North Wales for the whole of my teenage years, the whole of my secondary schooling—The Broken Bridge was a love letter to that landscape of North Wales that I love so much. I learned how to play the guitar a little. I learned how to draw a little. I learned how to write poems quite a lot. I just had a good time reading and reading and reading. So that's where I did most of my growing up.
MJ: So you were a happy kid?
PP: Yeah! Very happy in retrospect. I seemed to have spent the whole time either reading, which I loved, or laughing, which I love, or fooling about, which I loved. There was the usual teenage angst: "Nobody understands me" and "I'm the only genius in the world" and all that stuff. But that didn't get very deep.
MJ: What were some of the books that you couldn't get enough of?
PP: I loved Kipling—still do, really. The Just So Stories were marvelous, and The Jungle Book. I loved also the novels of Arthur Ransome. He was pretty big over here from the '30s onwards. Very realistic stories, about ordinary children having adventures in their summer holidays and sailing boats and climbing mountains and that sort of thing. I also loved the Moomin books of Tove Jansson.
MJ: My family loves the Moomins!
PP: Oh, good. I think they're a particular taste. You have to hit the Moomins at the right moment and then you're a Moomin fan for life.
MJ: What are you reading now?
PP: A very fascinating book by Robert Caro, the biographer of Lyndon Johnson. I'm reading his first book, The Power Broker, about Robert Moses and his history as a builder of New York. That's amazingly good. I'm a great fan of James Lee Burke. I'm reading the first of his Dave Robicheaux novels, Neon Rain. I think I've read most of the others. I read a lot of books of crime and thrillers. James Lee Burke is a particular favorite of mine. He's a wonderful writer.
MJ: Lost innocence is obviously a major theme in your work. Does your own literary loss of innocence, your experience as a storyteller, interfere with your enjoyment of reading?
PP: That's a very interesting and a very big question. I thought of this a lot when I was writing His Dark Materials. The central moment in the account of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis is when they sort of come to after they've eaten the fruit and they realize they're naked and try and cover themselves with fig leaves. That seemed to me a perfect allegory of what had happened in the 20th century with regard to literary modernism. Literary modernism kind of grew out of a sense that, "Oh my god! I'm telling a story! Oh, that can't be the case, because I'm a clever person. I'm a literary person! What am I going to do to distinguish myself? I know! I'll write Ulysses." [Laughs.] Actually, I don't think that was Joyce's motive—but a lot of modernism does seem to come out of a fear of being thought an ordinary storyteller. So they tell it backwards and they tell it in the present tense and they cut loose the pages and shuffle them around—all that kind of stuff. When I first started writing, I tried to do that sort of thing, but I realized that there was a limited value in that. And it also made it difficult to read, and I didn't really want my books difficult to read. This is the value for me of writing books that children read. Children aren't interested in the least about your appalling self-consciousness. They want to know what happens next. They force you to tell a story.
"Teachers often make the mistake of thinking they're the boss of the class; they're not."
MJ: I gather you kind of used your middle-school students as guinea pigs.
PP: I didn't care about them. [Laughs.] If it kept them quiet for half an hour, good, that's fine. My real purpose in telling them stories was to practice telling stories. And I practiced on the greatest model of storytelling we've got, which is "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." I told those stories many, many times. And the way I would justify it to the head teacher if he came in or to any parents who complained was, look, I'm telling these great stories because they're part of our cultural heritage. I did believe that. But mainly I wanted to practice again that bit where Achilles looks over the walls of the Greek camp and looks across as the sun's setting and sees the man who's just killed Patroclus! That was the best training I could possibly have had, and it rid me forever of self-consciousness as a storyteller.
MJ: What were some of the tricks you employed to tame your students?
PP: The range of individuality in children is infinite, but every class of children seemed to have the same groups. And there was a chief girl and a chief boy—a girl that all the other girls of that age looked up to and imitated and a boy that all the boys looked up to and imitated. I realized that if I got them on my side and exclusively taught them for a couple of weeks, maybe for the first full term, then I wouldn't have any trouble. Teachers often make the mistake of thinking they're the boss of the class; they're not. The boss of the class is sitting down there somewhere.
MJ: So, I've read that you were close to your grandfather, an Anglican vicar.
PP: He was a lovely man. He was kindly, funny in the sense of being little bit physically clumsy. [Laughs.] I remember one year when we were having a box of fireworks, he dropped a match into it and of course, they all went off. That was sort of thing Grandpa did. He was a great storyteller. All the stories of the Bible that I know came to me first from my grandfather's lips. He would see stories in everything. We would be going out for a walk, and we'd come to a long, straight stretch of road with a tree at the end of it: "That's the Trail of the Lonesome Pine. That's what this road is called, boys." [Laughs.] "That oak tree there? That's the very one Robin Hood used to hide in." He told stories very easily and very generously, so I loved him for that. He was a simple man, a Victorian; he was born in 1890-something. He saw no reason and had never seen any reason to question his Christian faith. His faith was strong and simple and that's it. And I, like his other grandchildren and the children in his parish, sheltered underneath it.
MJ: So you believed in God when you were a little kid?
PP: Yeah, of course, because Grandpa told me he existed.
"In the great darkness beyond this little spark of light where I live, of course there may be all kinds of things…So I'm really an agnostic."
MJ: But Grandpa made up stories.
PP: I kind of believed in them as well. [Laughs.] No, there was a different quality to the biblical ones: They were really true. Jesus really was there and David really did go down to the riverbed and choose some stones.
MJ: When did you know you were an atheist?
PP: Well, I still don't. Let me put it like this: I don't see any sign of God in this world, in the place where we live and things we know. It can all be explained to my mind perfectly satisfactorily without God. But in the great darkness beyond this little spark of light where I live, of course there may be all kinds of things. There may be a god. So I'm really an agnostic.