Heat and Dust
I interviewed Philip Pullman for Third Way
on the 13th February 2002, shortly after he had won
the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for the third volume
of the trilogy His Dark Materials. He told me
later that the published interview was the best
Ive ever read. I like to think that wasnt just soft
He became a bit combative at times, but there was no animosity
in the argument, though maybe some comes across. Throughout,
I was assailed by his two pugs, the funniest dogs I
think I have ever encountered, who wheezed and snored
in my ear and occasionally tried to snog me.
A lot of people known as childrens writers
seem to have had irregular or disturbed childhoods.
Was that the case with you?
Well, my father, who was an RAF officer, died when I was
seven, during the Mau Mau rising in Kenya we were told
he was killed in combat, but Ive never really got to
the bottom of what happened and for a while then my
brother and I lived with my mothers parents in Norfolk.
And then she married again and with my stepfather (who was
also an RAF officer) we went to Australia for a couple of
years, and then to Wales. And then I grew up and went to university.
What were the values that were instilled into you?
The conventional middle-class ones of the time. My grandfather
was a clergyman and so every Sunday I went to Sunday school
and church. I was confirmed, I was a member of the choir,
all that sort of stuff.
We still had the Authorised Version of the Bible, and the
Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern all those old forms of worship that had given comfort
and joy to generations were still there for me to enjoy.
Nowadays its all been swept away, and if ever I go
into a church and look at the dreadful, barren language that
disfigures the forms of service they have now, I am very thankful
that I grew up at a time when it was possible for me to go
to Matins and sing the Psalms in the old versions.
A lot of Christians are nonplussed by the picture you present
of the church in His Dark Materials, which is unrelievedly
cruel and oppressive. It doesnt sound like the church
you grew up in.
No. Grandpa was a very kind man though a man of his
own age, mind you: he was a Victorian, born in 1890 or so
in a little Devon village, the sixth son and 13th child of
a poor farmer, and unquestioningly both conservative and Conservative.
His values were already beginning to look a bit dated by the
middle of the century. For example, as the chaplain of Norwich
prison it was his job from time to time to attend executions,
to be with the condemned man for the last hour of his life
and give him Holy Communion and go to the scaffold with him.
It caused him a great deal of anguish, but he didnt
question it or rebel against it.
But he was a very good man who was full of love for me and
my brother. He was a wonderful teller of stories, from the
Bible and from his own experience here, Ill give
you an example.
When the First World War came, he joined his local regiment,
along with a friend from the village called Fred Austin, a
big, powerful man and a wonderful horseman. Fred Austin didnt
have any leave for 18 months or so, and when eventually he
came home his little daughter didnt know who this frightening
man was and she fled from him. But he was very gentle with
her and he didnt force the issue, he just spoke quietly;
and after a few days the little girl came to him and let him
pick her up.
And Grandpa used to say that this was like God. Were
frightened of God at first, but God is gentle with us and
he loves us and wants us to come to him, so he doesnt
force himself on us but he waits until were ready to
come to him. And that was the sort of values Grandpa would
try to put across.
Youre not really giving us any clues to the source of
the extreme antipathy to the Church in your books.
Well, all right, it comes from history. It comes from the
record of the Inquisition, persecuting heretics and torturing
Jews and all that sort of stuff; and it comes from the other
side, too, from the Protestants burning the Catholics. It
comes from the insensate pursuit of innocent and crazy old
women, and from the Puritans in America burning and hanging
the witches and it comes not only from the Christian
church but also from the Taliban.
Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up
by persecuting other people and killing them because they
dont accept him. Wherever you look in history, you find
that. Its still going on.
But why is there no light and shade? Its striking
that you dont portray the rebels as particularly good
Lord Asriel is as wicked as Mrs Coulter, I would say
and yet the followers of the Authority are monolithically
odious, even though you admit that in real life there are
decent people among the servants of God.
OK, thats an artistic flaw.
A flaw in the artistry or a flaw in the argument?
Im not making an argument, or preaching a sermon or
setting out a political tract: Im telling a story. And
I accept that if Id had more time to think about it,
no doubt I would have put in a good priest here or there,
just to show theyre not all horrible.
But there we are. If youre writing a novel, especially
a long story of thirteen hundred pages, there are always going
to be things you wish youd done differently. Artistic
perfection is not achievable in anything much over the length
of a sonnet.
And amongst the host of parallel worlds that you envisage
can you imagine that there are some in which the Church has
done more good than harm?
I certainly can. I might well write about such a place in
the next book.
But this world we live in isnt one?
No, not yet.
But there are lots of individuals I like and admire who belong
to bodies such as the Unitarians, for example, or the Quakers.
I dont agree with the supernatural aspect of what they
say, but they maintain a respect for differences of opinion,
and on the whole they think that whats important is
what you do and not what you think. Ive always believed
Many of the commentators in the media have seen you as a conscious
antidote to C S Lewis, seeking to do for a moral atheism what
he did for Christianity.
Yeah, well, its largely nonsense, of course.
What is your purpose in writing your books?
My intention is to tell a story in the first place
because the story comes to me and wants to be told.
Thats not an affectation, the way storytellers like
to talk about things? Thats your genuine experience?
Thats what it feels like. I am the servant of the story
the medium in a spiritualist sense, if you like
and it feels as if, unless I tell this story, I will be troubled
and pestered and harried by it and worried and fretted until
I do something about it.
The second reason I do it is that I enjoy the technical business
of putting a story together in a way that excites and gives
pleasure to an audience. The third reason is that I need to
earn a living and there is another range of reasons
beyond that which might include at some point the desire to
make sense of the world and my experience of it and give a
sort of narrative account of why things are as they are.
But I must come back to what you were saying about Lewis.
I dont think he did set out to evangelise. How many
children do we know who have read the Narnia books and didnt
realise they were about Christianity? If he was trying to
evangelise, he would have made it jolly clear that Narnia
He wrote those books at great speed and under great
emotional pressure, and Im inclined to think this began
with that famous debate when the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe
carved chunks out of him.
I understood that he wrote the books to smuggle the values
of the gospel into the imaginations of children past what
he called their watchful dragons.
Well, so he claims, but I dont think he did. The values
depicted in the Narnia stories are certainly not the values
I read in the Gospels. Hatred of the flesh? Condemning children
for growing up?
In The Amber Spyglass, Mary Malone tells Lyra and Will
that the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing
mistake. Is that your opinion?
I think Id agree with her, yes.
What do you find powerful and convincing about it?
Its a very good story. It gives an account of the world
and what were doing here that is intellectually coherent
and explains a great deal. But then so do other stories. The
Gnostic myth, for example, explains a great deal in a very
different way. Very different.
The Christian story gives us human beings a very important
and prominent part. We are the ones who Jesus came to redeem
from the consequences of sin, which our parents you
know. It is a very dramatic story and we are right at the
heart of it, and a great deal depends on what we decide. This
is an exciting position to be in, but unfortunately it doesnt
gel at all with the more convincing account that is given
by Darwinian evolution and the scientific account is
far more persuasive intellectually. Far more persuasive.
And, as I have said, there is another consequence of any
belief in a single god, and that is that it is a very good
excuse for people to behave very badly.
Is it not fair to say that a great deal of bad behaviour
in the last century was the work of regimes that were atheistic,
if not scientistic? Wasnt Nazism, for example, based
on a twisted reading of Darwinism?
Yes, but they functioned psychologically in exactly the same
way. They had a sacred book that provided an explanation of
history which so far transcended every other explanation as
to be unquestionable. There were the great prophets
Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung men so far
above the human race that they might as well be exalted as
gods. They were treated in just the same way as the Pope.
Every word they said, every thing they touched, was holy;
their bodies had to be preserved and filed past in reverential
silence. The fact that they proclaimed that there was no God
didnt make any difference: it was a religion, and they
acted in the way any totalitarian religious system would.
Well, perhaps. But you insist that the problem with monotheism
is that it leads people to behave in an oppressive way. From
the evidence of the last century one could say that atheism,
too, leads people to behave in that way. And no Christian
authority has ever killed anything like the tens of millions
No, but give them the chance! If they had had
Even proportionately. Also, there is, I think, good evidence
that the Inquisition burnt far fewer people than the secular
French state did.
Well, that was very comforting as the flames were licking
round your toes
I think the religions are special cases of the general human
tendency to exalt one doctrine above all others whatever
it is, whether its Marxism, Islam or whatever it is,
there is a depressing human tendency to say, We have
the truth and were going to kill you because you dont
believe in it.
When did you realise that Christianity didnt convince
you? And what was it that gave the game away?
It was the usual questioning that takes place in adolescence.
It began to seem impossible to reconcile the creation story
with the scientific account. It became increasingly implausible
that life continued after the body died. The claims of some
religions the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven,
the infallibility of the Pope seemed to me such howling
But you were brought up an Anglican.
Yeah, but it was things like 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 Im not willing to live without them. I
dont think I will continue to live after Im 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 mustnt 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, lets use
them and do whatever we can do to make the world a little
And this, incidentally, is one of my quarrels with Lewis:
the children in the Narnia books who have gone through all
these experiences arent allowed to stay in the world
and make it better for other people theyre whisked
off to heaven. Thats not a Christian attitude.
They spent quite a long time in Narnia, didnt
they, as kings and queens, bringing peace and justice?
Not in this world. Theyre still children. Theyre
off on holiday with their parents and theyre all killed
in a train crash. Thats grotesque.
Maybe its an artistic flaw
Its 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 its like to be tempted. I rate
him very highly, but I do detest what he was doing in his
To go back to your republic: a lot of people now dont
want to live in either a kingdom or a republic, but in a kind
of moral anarchy. As long as I dont hurt anyone
else, they say, you can just leave me alone.
Yes, well, Im against that.
But a problem many Christians see in atheism is
The dogmatic certainty.
I was going to say that its logical conclusion seems to be
Can I elucidate my own position as far as atheism is concerned?
I dont know whether Im an atheist or an agnostic.
Im both, depending on where the standpoint is.
The totality of what I know is no more than the tiniest pinprick
of light in an enormous encircling darkness of all the things
I dont know which includes the number of atoms
in the Atlantic Ocean, the thoughts going through the mind
of my next-door neighbour at this moment and what is happening
two miles above the surface of the planet Mars. In this illimitable
darkness there may be God and I dont know, because I
But if we look at this pinprick of light and come closer
to it, like a camera zooming in, so that it gradually expands
until here we are, sitting in this room, surrounded by all
the things we do know such as what the time is and
how to drive to London and all the other things that we know,
what weve read about history and what we can find out
about science nowhere in this knowledge thats
available to me do I see the slightest evidence for God.
So, within this tiny circle of light Im a convinced
atheist; but when I step back I can see that the totality
of what I know is very small compared to the totality of what
I dont know. So, thats my position.
A lot of people assume from The Amber Spyglass that
you must be an atheist.
Well, they can assume what they like. Of course, I dont
say, There is no God. I say: There is a
God, and here he is dying and this is what I
was particularly pleased with 'as a result of an act
of charity'. And he goes with a sigh of the most profound
and exhausted relief.
But God is an impostor
Hes the first angel
Who is himself the accidental by-product of a meaningless
Its not meaningless. It was meaningless before, but
its not meaningless any more.
This is the mistake Christians make when they say that if
you are an atheist you have to be a nihilist and theres
no meaning any more. Well, thats nonsense, as Mary Malone
discovers. Now that Im conscious, now that Im
responsible, there is a meaning, and it is to make
things better and to work for greater good and greater wisdom.
Thats my meaning and it comes from my understanding
of my position. Its not nihilism at all. Its very
far from it.
Throughout His Dark Materials theres a strong
sense of ought. All the most attractive characters
Lyra and Will, Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison, Mary Malone
are driven in the end by a sense of duty, at least
to their loved ones if not to the world. Where in a world
without God does that sense of ought come from?
Im amazed by the gall of Christians. You think that
nobody can possibly be decent unless theyve got the
idea from God or something. Absolute bloody rubbish! Isnt
it your experience that there are plenty of people in the
world who dont believe who are very good, decent people?
Yes. Im just curious to know where it comes from.
For goodness sake! It comes from ordinary human decency.
It comes from accumulated human wisdom which includes
the wisdom of such figures as Jesus Christ. Jesus, like many
of the founders of great religions, was a moral genius, and
he set out a number of things very clearly in the Gospels
which if we all lived by them wed all do much better.
What a pity the Church doesnt listen to him!
Yes, absolutely. How, by the way, do you react to his statement
Unless you become like children, you will never enter
the kingdom of heaven?
He wasnt right all the time.
So, youre with Paul there, that its all about
putting away childish things.
No, Paul was wrong as well, because you dont put them
away: you keep them with you as you grow.
Did you see the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
Yes. I liked it very much.
Part of its message seemed to me to be that its two main
characters had been wrong, as they themselves felt at the
end, to sacrifice their love for each other for the sake of
what they saw as a spiritual duty
Thats what I felt.
What surprised me at the end of The Amber Spyglass
is that that is just what you require of Will and Lyra. Suddenly
you sound like a stern Christian moralist.
Its kind of you to say so. No, I hope Im clear
that theyre not turning away from what you might call
sexual bliss because they think they should. Its
not that at all. They have their moment of bliss whatever
it is (and I dont know what it is)
Im interested you say that, because I read a review
that protested that they consummate their relationship and
I thought, I must have missed that.
I dont know what they did. I wrote about the kiss
thats what I knew happened. I dont know what else
they did. Maybe they did, maybe they didnt. I think
they were rather young to, but still
No, the reason they have to part in the end is a curious
one and its hard to explain except in terms of the compulsion
of the story. I knew from the very beginning that it would
have to end in that sort of renunciation. (I dont know
how I know these things, but I knew.)
Its very traumatic for the reader
Do you think it wasnt traumatic for me? I tried all
sorts of ways to prevent it, but the story made me do it.
That was what had to happen. If Id denied it, the story
wouldnt have had a tenth of its power.
A Romantic might have thought, Why cant Will
and Lyra go and live in a third universe and live fast, die
young? What a wonderful story to tell the harpies!
Live fast, die young is exactly what responsibility
and wisdom set their faces against. These two children are
setting out on a far more difficult and more valuable journey,
which is the journey towards wisdom. This is a story about
So, your inversion of Paradise Lost is quite different
in that, whatever Lord Asriel stands for, what emerges at
the end is not in any way the triumph of self-will or self-interest.
Its really quite Stoical
But of course the Satan figure is Mary Malone, not Lord Asriel,
and the temptation is wholly beneficent. She tells her story
about how she fell in love, which gives Lyra the clue as to
how to express what shes now beginning to feel about
Will, and when it happens they both understand whats
going on and are tempted and they (so to speak) fall
but its a fall into grace, towards wisdom, not something
that leads to sin, death, misery, hell and Christianity.
And yet shortly after they have to renounce it.
OK, so we have both possible outcomes of Genesis 3. They embrace
it and then they renounce it.
You know the maxim Never trust the teller, trust
the tale. You say that growing up is what life is all
about, but what the ending of The Amber Spyglass seemed
to me to say was that actually all the adventure of living
comes when youre a child. Life for Lyra and Will from
now looks set to be dull, if not grim.
In that case, I guess Id better write another book.
There are many other stories that remain to be written, and
maybe some of them are stories of what happened to Lyra and
Many peoples experience of growing up is that life
brings disillusionment and bitterness. Is it possible to keep
the innocence of childhood and add to that the wisdom of experience?
How do you avoid losing what was good and ending up with nothing
That is an interesting question. I dont know, and I
wonder whether it isnt anyway partly a temperamental
matter. There are people who are inclined towards pessimism
or melancholy and who naturally see disillusion as being the
natural state of things. It may be that there are people who
are temperamentally eupeptic and constantly see everything
as turning out for the better.
But I think its probably a bit more than that, and
my recipe for seeing the good side of things is to look at
the whole picture. If you look at a bit, you can sort of select
for any emotional tone by choosing the right bit of history
or your own experience. Look at the whole of it. Look at your
experience in the context of everybody elses experience.
Always cast your eyes around as widely as you can. Use as
much of your knowledge and your memory and the things you
can find out if for no other reason than that if you
develop the habit of looking around you, if you encourage
your own curiosity, youll find an endless wealth of
things to be curious about.
What is it Robert Louis Stevenson says?
The world is so full of a number of things,
Im sure we should all be as happy as kings.
(Happy Thought from
A Childs Garden of Verses )
Hes absolutely right. Theres no shortage of extraordinary
and beautiful things to be struck by and to be amazed afresh
Does that mean you are fundamentally an optimist?
I dont know. Im not actually at all interested
Oh. I was hoping you could tell us what your daemon would
be if you had one.
She would probably be a jackdaw or a magpie, because those
are the birds that are traditionally interested in little
shiny things and go and pick them out. They dont really
distinguish between a diamond ring and a bit of Kit-Kat wrapper.
Or between Paradise Lost and Neighbours maybe.
Good example. Of course, I know there is a difference between
Paradise Lost and Neighbours, but in terms of
story stuff theyre the same sort of thing theyre
both shiny. When you read:
High on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
(Paradise Lost, Book II, ll1-5)
Whats going to happen next? Whats he going to
do? And when Drew lends Scotty some money and Scotty says,
Ive put it all on a horse, you want to know:
Whats going to happen next?
Thats why gossip is a great leveller: we all want passionately
to know what happens next. Even the most extreme academic
postmodernists, who believe that there is nothing outside
language and that stories are written by themselves and fiction
is just, you know, a play of signifiers without any ultimate
significance and there is no such thing as narrative and everything
is self-referential and you cant trust the narrator
and all this sort of stuff, as soon as you say to them in
the senior common room, Do you know who I saw going
into the stockroom with so-and-so yesterday? its
Tell me more! What happened?
You observed some years ago that, while childrens
writers are addressing the deep questions of life, the novelists
who write for adults only want to cut artistic capers.
Is that still the case?
Oh, I think so. I said it to be provocative, mind you.
I think it has to do with this story business again. You
see, when you write for an audience that largely consists
of children, you have got to put the story at the centre of
what youre doing, and when you do that, you cannot be
self-conscious and postmodern and tricksy and self-referential
and all that sort of stuff that the literary types like. But
that is actually a great advantage to you as an artist, because
stories can say things more wisely and more profoundly and
more directly than any commentary on stories can.
© Third Way 2002
Back to the top