I wanted to gather in one spot a handful of interviews with Pullman. I have to imagine that there is a list somewhere with them, but I could not find them. They all make for interesting reading and I have drawn some excerpts from them.
Just a short walk away from the Pullmans’ house is the grave of another Oxford master of fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien. Comparisons, notes Pullman with a heavy sigh, are inevitable. There’s the Oxford connection, and the invented worlds, and both Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and “His Dark Materials” consist of one (very) long story in three volumes. But Pullman insists the similarities stop there. “What I’m doing is utterly different,” he says. “Tolkien would have deplored it.” So, too, would have another famous Oxford fantasy writer, C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian whose children’s series “The Chronicles of Narnia” exemplified his religious convictions. “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief,” says Pullman. “Mr. Lewis would think I was doing the Devil’s work.”
Dave: That raises one question right away. In an interview after the publication of The Subtle Knife, you denied that the trilogy was pure fantasy. You called it stark realism.
Pullman: I’ve had to deal with that frequently in the last couple days at this festival. People say, “What were you talking about? Of course you’re writing fantasy!”
Well, when I made that comment I was trying to distinguish between these books and the kind of books most general readers think of as fantasy, the sub-Tolkien thing involving witches and elves and wizards and dwarves. Really, those authors are rewriting The Lord of the Rings.
I’m trying to do something different: tell a story about what it means to grow up and become adult, the experience all of us have and all of us go through. I’m telling a story about a realistic subject, but I’m using the mechanism of fantasy. I think that’s slightly unusual.
Dave: There’s bound to be more attention on this book after the whole Harry Potter craze.
Pullman: I’m kind of relying on Harry Potter to deflect all that, actually. I was quite happy for Harry Potter to get all the attention so I could creep in underneath all of it.
Dave: Either way, you’re hardly the first author of children’s books to present ideas that aren’t universally accepted. For instance, you made some comments in previous interviews about C.S. Lewis and the perspective his narrator brings to those stories. You singled out a scene in Prince Caspian when the narrator is picking on a little girl with fat legs.
Pullman: He does. But I think it makes a big difference if you read those books as a kid. I read them when I’d already grown up, and I thought they were loathsome, full of bullying and sneering, propaganda, basically, on behalf of a religion whose main creed seemed to be to despise and hate people unlike yourself. Whatever Christianity says, I don’t think it’s that.
Can you elaborate what you mean by the phrase ‘the republic of heaven’, which appears in the last line of The Amber Spyglass?
The kingdom of heaven promised us certain things: it promised us happiness and a sense of purpose and a sense of having a place in the universe, of having a role and a destiny that were noble and splendid; and so we were connected to things. We were not alienated. But now that, for me anyway, the King is dead, I find that I still need these things that heaven promised, and I’m not willing to live without them. I don’t think I will continue to live after I’m dead, so if I am to achieve these things I must try to bring them about – and encourage other people to bring them about – on earth, in a republic in which we are all free and equal – and responsible – citizens.
Now, what does this involve? It involves all the best qualities of things. We mustn’t shut anything out. If the Church has told us, for example, that forgiving our enemies is good, and if that seems to be a good thing to do, we must do it. If, on the other hand, those who struggled against the Church have shown us that free enquiry and unfettered scientific exploration is good – and I believe that they have – then we must hold this up as a good as well.
Whatever we can find that we feel to be good – and not just feel but can see with the accumulated wisdom that we have as we grow up, and read about history and learn from our own experiences and so on – wherever they come from, and whoever taught them in the first place, let’s use them and do whatever we can do to make the world a little bit better.
And this, incidentally, is one of my quarrels with Lewis: the children in the Narnia books who have gone through all these experiences aren’t allowed to stay in the world and make it better for other people – they’re whisked off to heaven. That’s not a Christian attitude.
They spent quite a long time in Narnia, didn’t they, as kings and queens, bringing peace and justice?
Not in this world. They’re still children. They’re off on holiday with their parents and they’re all killed in a train crash. That’s grotesque.
Maybe it’s an artistic flaw…
It’s a bloody great big one.
It seems to satisfy a lot of people.
It disgusted me when I read it.
Lewis is a contradictory sort of character for me. I loathe the Narnia books, and I loathe the so-called space trilogy, because they contain an ugly vision. But when he was talking about writing for children, and about literature in general, Lewis was very, very acute and said some very perceptive and wise things. As a critic… And as a psychologist – The Screwtape Letters, for example, is full of very shrewd stuff about what it’s like to be tempted. I rate him very highly, but I do detest what he was doing in his fiction.
Your books make me think about what it would mean if there were parallel universes. I suppose that in effect there are parallel universes, depending on the level of magnification of things.
The further down you go in the scale of measurement, the weirder things get. By the time you get to quantum physics and quarks it is beyond the reach of logic or reason entirely. There are quite solid theoretical foundations to the idea of parallel worlds that would allow a multiplicity of universes differing in some slight degree: something falls down heads instead of tails. The guru of this idea, David Deutsch, argues that the existence of parallel universes explains certain puzzling phenomena, such as the wave/particle effect: if you fire a photon through a slit in a piece of card, the light has wave-like properties, though it’s only being fired one particle at a time. But, if in parallel worlds other photons are being fired at the same time, each individual photon would be part of a wave in a multiplicity of worlds, and that would explain why wave interference is manifested by the light particles in each of these worlds.
As a writer, how do you respond to that idea?
It’s full of possibility. Many stories depend upon the existence of other universes. All sorts of ingenious ways to get from one to another have been devised. Lewis Carroll gets Alice into Wonderland by going down a rabbit hole or through a looking-glass. In The Thirty-fifth of May, a wonderful children’s book by Erich Kästner (who is better known for Emil and the Detectives), a little boy called Conrad has to do an essay about the South Seas; he grumbles about this to his uncle who takes him to the back of a wardrobe and there they find themselves magically transported to the South Seas. I wonder if that gave C.S. Lewis the idea of wardrobes as an entrance to another world?
C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books have a level of Christian allegory. I gather you’re not keen on that sort of thing.
What I don’t like is the notion that the world is a cruel and imperfect copy of something much better somewhere else. Seen from that perspective, which is not exclusively Christian, life is shabby and second rate, shot through with failure and corruption and evil. Both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien seemed to believe this, but I don’t, not for a second. In my trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’, I bang the drum for the primacy of the physical world that we live in. As far as I can see we only get one shot at life, and that is in the here and now. It’s a sort of betrayal of life to long for death, as C.S. Lewis expresses in the Narnia books, which climax with the children being killed in a railway accident; their deaths are presented as a release from this ghastly life on earth. I think it would have been a braver – even, a more Christian – choice for Lewis to have let those children grow into fulfilled adulthood.
The book ends with Lyra, the trilogy’s heroine, having a vision of a Republic of Heaven. What are the key values in the Republic, rather than the Kingdom, of Heaven?
Firstly, a sense that this world where we live is our home. Our home is not somewhere else. There is no elsewhere. This is a physical universe and we are physical beings made of material stuff. This is where we live.
Secondly, a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of a real and important story, a sense of being connected to other people, to people who are not here any more, to those who have gone before us. And a sense of being connected to the universe itself.
All those things were promised and summed up in the phrase, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’. But if the Kingdom is dead, we still need those things. We can’t live without those things because it’s too bleak, it’s too bare and we don’t need to. We can find a way of creating them for ourselves if we think in terms of a Republic of Heaven.
This is not a Kingdom but a Republic, in which we are all free and equal citizens, with – and this is the important thing – responsibilities. With the responsibility to make this place into a Republic of Heaven for everyone. Not to live in it in a state of perpetual self-indulgence, but to work hard to make this place as good as we possibly can.
Now, not even the Catholic Herald can find anything to argue with in that.
How do you respond to the claim that your books are anti-Catholic and promote atheism? Lyndsay Petersen, Parkersburg, Iowa
Hello, Lyndsay: In the world of the story — Lyra’s world — there is a church that has acquired great political power, rather in the way that some religions in our world have done at various times, and still do (think of the Taliban in Afghanistan). My point is that religion is at its best — it does most good — when it is farthest away from political power, and that when it gets hold of the power to (for example) send armies to war or to condemn people to death, or to rule every aspect of our lives, it rapidly goes bad. Sometimes people think that if something is done in the name of faith or religion, it must be good. Unfortunately, that isn’t true; some things done in the name of religion are very bad. That was what I was trying to describe in my story.
I think the qualities that the books celebrate are those such as kindness, love, courage and courtesy too. And intellectual curiosity. All these good things. And the qualities that the books attack are cold-heartedness, tyranny, close-mindedness, cruelty, the things that we all agree are bad things.
Is there an underlying message for atheism in your book or did you simply want to write a fantasy story, like Tolkien? Kim Mapstead, Friday Harbor, Wash.
Hello, Kim: What I was mainly doing, I hope, was telling a story, but not a story like Tolkien’s. (To be honest I don’t much care for “The Lord of the Rings.”) As for the atheism, it doesn’t matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I’m not promoting anything of that sort. What I do care about is whether people are cruel or whether they’re kind, whether they act for democracy or for tyranny, whether they believe in open-minded enquiry or in shutting the freedom of thought and expression. Good things have been done in the name of religion, and so have bad things; and both good things and bad things have been done with no religion at all. What I care about is the good, wherever it comes from.
PTC: If I can move from the personal to the communal or societal, would you say that substituting a God-less “Republic of Heaven” for the “Kingdom of Heaven” might be a form of “radical surgery”? Does atheism benefit from the Christian heritage, and how can a society that turns to atheism survive without it? (As you noted, one of the worst regimes we have ever known was Soviet Russia — a system that, while theocratic in form perhaps, was certainly officially atheistic.)
PP: But the problem with Soviet Russia wasn’t the atheism, it was the totalitarianism. The totalitarianism is also the problem with Saudi Arabia, as it was with the Taliban’s Afghanistan, with Calvin’s Geneva, with the Inquisition’s Spain …
Does atheism benefit from the Christian heritage? Of course it can benefit from the best of it. I would hate to live in a world where all the Christian art, philosophy, literature, music, and architecture, not to mention the best of the ethical teaching, had been obliterated and forgotten. My own background, as I’ve said many times, is Christian to the core. Christianity has made me what I am, for better or worse. I just don’t believe in God.