Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) has sold more than fifteen million copies and been published in more than forty countries. The first volume, The Golden Compass, was made into a major motion picture starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Pullman is at work on a companion His Dark Materials novel, The Book of Dust. He lives in Oxford, England.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
Your new book is called Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version. Now, most people know these fairy tale stories from the Disney movies, but the original stories are really a lot darker. What are some of the most horrifying things that happen in this book?
Oh, brutal punishments—eyes being pecked out by birds, people being put in barrels full of nails and rolled downhill, or sent out into the stormy sea in a ship where it’s going to sink. Things like that. But there’s always a principle of justice underneath it. It’s always the bad people who get punished, and it’s always the good people who get rewarded. So it’s not gratuitous, it’s not horror for the sake of horror.
There’s this idea that some people have that dark stories are somehow harmful to children. Do you agree with that at all?
Well, it depends on the circumstances. If you give a story like “The Juniper Tree”—which is one of the best of all the stories, but it has a pretty horrific episode early in the story—if you give that to a child and say, “Okay, goodnight, dear, here’s a story,” and leave them to read it by themselves, well, that’s a little bit irresponsible. I think that these stories are really for sharing with children—if you’re going to show them to a child at all, and they’re not necessarily children’s stories—but if you’re going to give them to a child, I think it helps to be there with the child, to read it to the child. If necessary—if you think the child is particularly nervous—then edit it a bit. But don’t be irresponsible about it, don’t just thrust the book into the hands of a child and go off and do something else.
Did you read the original Grimm’s stories your students when you were a teacher?
No, the stories I used for those children were Greek mythology. And I didn’t read them, I told them. I thought that was important because if you read them, the book is a sort of barrier between you and the class. I would make a point of knowing the story well enough to tell it without the book. And actually what happened was that I loved the stories so much, I wanted to tell them again and again and again, next year and next year and next year. And I know the kids remember the stories, because when I bump into a grownup now with children of their own, and they say that I used to teach them, they will say that they remember the stories. Children will forget most things you teach them, but they never forget a story.
But this was over twenty-five years ago. Now in Britain we have this thing called a “national curriculum,” and every teacher has to obey this curriculum and on the thirteenth Tuesday of the term they’ve got to do the semicolon or something like that. It’s ridiculous, and it’s obstructive, and it’s narrowing, and it’s restrictive, and it’s very hard to teach anything humane under that system, or so it seems to me. But that didn’t exist in my time. I was teaching at a time before that came in, so I had a pretty free hand, and I think it was better like that.
One thing that really struck me reading these fairy tales is how short they are, and I kind of feel in general that all books and movies are just way too long and bloated these days.
I couldn’t agree more, you’re absolutely right! But these stories are the length they were in the original Grimm, I didn’t see any need to extend them or enlarge them, nor to bring them up to date, actually. I wanted to give the story as it appeared to its original readers, but to put it into a modern kind of English. That was the brief I gave myself.
So why do you think people went from telling these really short stories to telling five-hundred-page-long stories?
Well, the word “franchise” might come into it, mightn’t it? You know, if you’ve got “Cinderella 2” and “Cinderella 3,” you can make three movies for the imaginative investment of one, and supposedly get more money for it.
To a modern reader, a lot of the Grimm stories seem broken—the second half has nothing to do with the first half, things like that. Did people at the time not really realize that, or did they just see stories differently than we do?
Well, that’s a very good question, because some of the stories in the book I did have to kind of join together or improve in that very way. There’s a story called “Thousandfurs,” for example, which is a notable example of a story falling into two parts. It begins very dramatically with a king falling in love with his own daughter and wanting to marry her, and she escapes and runs away, at which point we forget about the king and his incestuous lust for his daughter, and it turns into a sort of version of Cinderella. So that’s an example of a story that has two halves that ought to join up better. Did people notice this? That’s a good question. I don’t know. But it’s certainly like that in the original Grimm, so perhaps they didn’t.
You also recently produced another retelling of a well-known hero in your book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Having done both that book and the fairy tale book, what similarities or differences do you see between fairy tales and Bible stories?
The difference between the Grimm stories and the stories in the Bible, the stories in the Gospels, is the Gospel stories were written for a particular religious purpose. They were written in order to tell us what to believe, to say to us “This is true, you must believe it.” That’s not the case with the fairy tales of Grimm. They were just told for fun, basically. So when I was rearranging the story of Jesus, I did it with that sort of purpose in mind as well. I was arguing with the beliefs that led to the development of the Christian Church, but I wasn’t arguing with anything when I did my retellings of Grimm. I was just trying to make them read more easily than they would otherwise have done.
Do you think there’s something special about the kind of story that can become a religious story versus not? Do you think it would be possible, for example, to have people raised to be Brothers Grimm fundamentalists or Golden Compass fundamentalists?
[Laughs] I sincerely hope not. Because the last thing I want to do is start a new religion.
So given the controversy surrounding The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, I was actually surprised at how generous it is to Jesus. Do you think people imagine that the book will be more hostile than it actually is?
Oh yes, they do. I’m constantly referred to as a “militant atheist,” for example. There’s nothing militant about me whatsoever. People do have these assumptions, where atheism and religion are concerned, and they have them in richly colored forms. I do call myself an atheist, but I do treat religion respectfully because I find it an extraordinarily interesting phenomenon. That’s one way in which I differ from Richard Dawkins, for example. His argument with religion is that it isn’t true, and therefore it’s wrong. That’s not my argument with it at all. My argument with religion is that it gets ahold of power and uses power for the wrong purpose, and it becomes corrupted. And I’m very interested in how people believe things that I think are unlikely to be true, such as the Resurrection and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and things like that. And again, someone like Dawkins or Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett would think those things are not interesting. Well, I think they’re very interesting. My favorite book on the subject of religion is William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, which is a very respectful text. Fascinating book, and he approaches religion from a psychological point of view. What does it feel like to believe it? Which I think is the most fruitful and interesting way to do so.
Actually, speaking of some of the New Atheist writers you were mentioning, I don’t know if you read Christopher Hitchens’ review in The New York Times of your book?
I don’t think I saw that one. What does he say?
He basically characterizes your approach as being “I don’t believe in any of the supernatural elements, but Jesus was a wise teacher.” But he says that he doesn’t really feel that Jesus was a wise teacher, because Jesus was essentially preaching “Give up your family and your possessions because the world’s about to end.” And if the world’s not actually about to end, that’s not really wise teaching.
Well, yeah, he’s right there, I agree with him about that. That’s an aspect that I did try to bring out toward the end of my book. Jesus was one of those prophets who believed that the world was going to end very soon, in his lifetime. And like all the various prophets we’ve seen in recent years, they tell all their followers to go up onto the mountaintop because flying saucers are going to come on Tuesday, and they’re going to take them up to the planet Venus, and they’re all going to go to heaven. And they get up on the mountaintop and Tuesday comes, and those flying saucers don’t come, and they come down looking rather disconsolate on Wednesday and say, “Well, we got the date wrong. It’s next October.” That’s the usual way it happens.
And Jesus was one of these people, and if it weren’t for the Crucifixion, he would have been completely forgotten, or if he were remembered at all he’d be remembered like that. The Crucifixion did his reputation a great favor, because it allowed this new story to come in, that he was resurrected and he was actually God and so on. But the other complicating factor in the story of Jesus is that, unlike these people who say, “Come up to the mountaintop, the flying saucers are going to come on Tuesday,” unlike the rest of those people, he happened to be a storyteller of genius. The Parable of The Good Samaritan, for example, or The Parable of the Prodigal Son—you hear them once and you never forget them, and you can understand the moral point in the flick of an eye. It’s just brilliant storytelling. And that is so unusual a gift that, whatever his religious convictions, he would be remembered for that alone.
But you do think he was a wise moral teacher?
Some of his moral teaching was utterly remarkable and for its time practically reaches the stage of genius. You know, forgive your enemies. Who else had ever said that? Look to the flowers, they’re more beautiful than jewels. Who else had ever said that? But of course we do have to remember that this was all given in the light of his belief that the world was going to end very soon. You cannot give all your possessions away and wander around like a hobo. The world wouldn’t last like that. We can’t do that, because we know the world is not going to end on Tuesday.
When people say that Jesus was a revolutionary moral teacher, it just seems to me that ancient Greek philosophers had probably already said anything wise that Jesus said, in terms of pacifism or things like that.
Yeah, I guess so, but few people have said them with such force and clarity, and illustrated them with such brilliant stories. His parables are unforgettable.
One of our friends asked us to tell you that His Dark Materials was very important to her as a kid when atheism was much more stigmatized than it is today. Have you gotten a lot of feedback like that from young atheists?
Yes, I have, and that’s very encouraging, that’s very cheering to find young people writing to me and saying that my story helped them realize some things about themselves, some things about the way they view the world. That’s a very flattering thing to hear.
Was that in your mind at all when you wrote the books, that this would be something that would provide encouragement to nonbelievers?
No, not at all. Not for one single second. I just wanted to tell the story. That’s all I wanted to do, and I wanted to tell it as well as possible, and I thought I’d reached a stage in my life, in my storytelling, when I knew how to do it. Having got hold of this big story, I knew I could tell it, but I didn’t think it would have that sort of effect, no, not for a single second. I didn’t think many people would read it, actually. I thought it would sell maybe a thousand copies and then would be forgotten. That’s what had happened to all my other books. [Laughs] So I saw no reason why that should be different. But it seemed to attract a lot of attention, and that was something very unexpected and very, very welcome.
During the publication process at any point, did anyone sort of raise a red flag and say, “Uh, I don’t know if we should expose this to children”?
No, not at all, because it was published in the UK first. I mean, we don’t go for that sort of thing over here. And my American publishers were very strong-minded, or open-minded. They supported it fully. Maybe there were a few objections—there were a few school boards that banned it from the libraries, there were a few teachers who refused to let it into the classroom, that sort of thing, but not very many. And these people who do this never learn, they don’t realize that if you ban a book, it’s the most powerful incentive for kids to go and read it.
But when it came to The Golden Compass movie, it really did seem that the boycott campaign against it in the United States hurt it at the box office.
In the United States, but not in the rest of the world. It was a big, big hit in the rest of the world. Made over $300 million. It made a loss in the States, but that was because the studio had pre-sold all the foreign rights. If they had kept the foreign distribution rights, it would have made a healthy profit. So in the rest of the world, there was no problem with it. I do agree, yes, the religious boycott probably did hurt it at the US box office, but there’s another big world out there outside of the United States.
But why do you think that that boycott in particular was successful when, as you’re saying, the general pattern is that boycotts don’t work?
Well, movies are different, aren’t they? You can buy a book yourself and conceal it at home and read it by yourself, but whether you see a movie or not depends on whether the big movie theaters will distribute it.
I’ve heard people who worked on the film say that the studio was really tampering with it, and that a director’s cut would be much longer and much better?
Yes, I think that’s probably the case. They did shoot the whole of the story of the first book, so it’s there somewhere . . . if they haven’t thrown it away. And one day there might be a cut, whether it’s a director’s cut or another sort of a cut, I don’t know, where the whole story would be available. But the problem is that, even if they put the whole of the first book there, they didn’t film the second book and the third book, and it is, of course, not three separate books, but one long story. There was no urgent desire on the part of the studio to make the second movie or the third one, and now it would be impossible, at least with the same cast. The little girl, Dakota Blue Richards, who played Lyra, is now eighteen or nineteen years old. And Daniel Craig, who played Lord Asriel, is much more expensive, being the new James Bond. So a continuation of that first movie in parts two and three is no longer possible. So if it is going to be seen on the screen again, it will have to be in another form altogether.
Speaking of movies, after our interview with you we’re going to be talking about Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit movie. Have you seen that or are you planning to?
No, I haven’t seen that, and I’m not sure that I will. I’m not very keen on Tolkien. I saw the first of the Lord of the Rings movies, and I thought it was impressive, but I wasn’t sufficiently interested in the story. I read it, of course, when I was a teenager, and I’ve tried to read it since, but unsuccessfully, because it doesn’t seem to me similar enough to real life. Maybe that’s a silly thing to say about a fantasy, but the most successful fantasies, in my view, are those where some aspect of real life is dealt with, is examined or talked about or looked at. My favorite example here, as far as The Lord of the Rings is concerned, is to look at Wagner’s Ring, the four operas that make up his Ring Cycle. Now there you do get lots of real human life, principally in the field of sexuality and love. There ain’t none of that in The Lord of the Rings, it just doesn’t happen. And for a book of that length to leave out that entire aspect of human life, to me seems like cheating, seems like being chicken. He didn’t want to look at it, so he ran away, didn’t face it.
Have you read The Hobbit? What do you think about that one in particular? Since it’s a children’s book, you wouldn’t expect it to have a lot of sexuality in it.
No, it’s not just that I want everything steaming with sexuality, I just want to feel that the people in it are sufficiently like me to be interesting. The only interesting character in the whole of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, really, is Gollum. The rest of them are just made of cardboard.
I’ve heard you say that you’re generally not a fan of fantasy because of the lack of moral ambiguity, but in recent decades there’s been this big trend toward gritty, morally ambiguous fantasy novels—George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones would be a notable example of that. Have you read any of those kind of novels in the last ten or twenty years?
No, I haven’t. People tell me I should read that, so maybe I should.
In 2010 you publicly left the Liberal Democratic Party. Why was that and how do you identify politically these days?
Somebody’s been reading Wikipedia.
Is that not true?
No, I was never a member of the Liberal Democratic Party.
That’s interesting, because it’s not just on Wikipedia. There are actual newspaper articles that say that.
Well, they’re all quoting Wikipedia. [Laughs] This is self-reinforcing. I don’t correct it, I don’t write to Wikipedia and say, “You’ve got this wrong,” because frankly I can’t be bothered. And also I like a little bit of ambiguity and untruthfulness trailing in my wake. However, I am telling you The Truth. I was never a member of the Liberal Democratic Party. Although I was briefly a member of the Labor Party. I have voted Liberal Democrat, but I was never a member of the Liberal Democrat Party. And now that the Liberal Democrats have blotted their copybook by entering into a coalition with the Conservatives, I shall probably not vote for them in the next election. I might vote Labor, I might vote Green.
You’ve also recently been quoted in the press on causes ranging from the teaching of phonics to the closing of public libraries. How much of an effect do you think those comments have had?
It’s very hard to measure. I think my intervention on the libraries issue did have some effect, because the speech I made was quoted—and quoted, for the most part, accurately—in a number of places, and referred to in a number of places. And because the Prime Minister—then Gordon Brown—wrote me and sent me a copy of a book he’d written and said, “Thank you very much for making that speech. It was very impressive.” Or something. So somebody must have listened to it and passed it on to him. So I know that intervention did have a bit of an effect. But the other things I’ve spoken about, human rights and so on? Probably very little effect.
Do you ever get people saying that you’re a novelist and you should just stick to writing fiction and not poke your nose into politics?
Well, if anybody did say that to me, I’d say, “Look, you’re a bank manager, you keep your mouth shut about other things that don’t concern you.” [Laughs] I have the right of every citizen to open my mouth on public affairs.
How about the teaching of phonics. What’s the story with that?
Phonics? Oh yes, well, that’s the most extraordinary thing. I don’t know quite how that worked. It’s a way of teaching reading which depends on making sounds, so instead of looking at whole words you look at the sounds that the word is made up of. Now, for some reason—and this is the extraordinary thing—the teaching of phonics came to be a right-wing thing, came to be a conservative thing. There’s nothing intrinsically about it that would make it conservative or liberal or anything else. But for some reason the Conservative Party picked it out and said, “This is the way to do it, this is the way to teach reading. We shall only teach Phonics, shan’t use anything else,” and from then on it became a right-wing thing, and if you wanted to teach children using whole books and the enjoyment of stories and all that sort of thing, you were left-wing, you were liberal, and so on. And of course the sensible way to teach reading is to use phonics as well as other things, but the problem was, when phonics came in, it wasn’t used with anything else. You just had to go, “Buh, ah, puh, fff, aat, kuh, att, cat.” A better way of deadening the whole reading experience I can’t imagine.
I’ve heard you say that as a writer that you make use of imaginary beings like angels and demons in the same way that a mathematician might make use of imaginary numbers. Could you talk about that?
Well, the square root of minus one doesn’t really exist. I mean, you can’t see the square root of minus one, but you can use it in a lot of different contexts to give meaning and expression to all sorts of ideas that do have very rich consequences, such as chaos theory, for example. So the comparison I was making was between the square root of minus one and things like angels and demons that don’t exist, but which—if you use them in a story—again, you can do certain things that you couldn’t do without them. John Milton, when he wrote Paradise Lost, could not have done it without the use of angels and devils, couldn’t have told that story. So if some censor were to come to him and say, “You can’t use these things in a story, they don’t really exist, you must only write stories about human beings that do exist,” well, we’d be without that great work of literature. It’s important that we should be able to write about devils and angels and so on, even though, as an atheist, I don’t really think that they do exist. But I strongly defend my right to use them in stories.
Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Yes, having cleared Grimm and Jesus out of the way, and all the other things I was doing, I’m now able to concentrate on The Book of Dust, which is the sequel to His Dark Materials. I’m going to clear the whole of next year, and most of the year after, and I’m not going to accept any invitations or do anything, make speeches, go anywhere, do anything at all. I’m staying at home at my desk, and I’m going to write The Book of Dust until it’s completed. From now on, nothing more at all. Silence will descend. I’ll be in my room, with my pen and my paper, writing The Book of Dust.
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