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> Phillip Pullman
Date: November 2002
Writer Philip Pullman's books are selling in their millions. The Amber Spyglass, the
third book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, has won the prestigious Whitbread
I find particularly objectionable in C.S. Lewis is the fact that he kills the
children at the end of the Narnia stories. For the sake of taking them off to
a perpetual school holiday or something, he kills them all in a train crash. I
think that's ghastly. It's a horrible message.'
Some people have accused Pullman of nurturing a dark agenda and an anti-Christian
purpose. He was recently described in The Mail on Sunday as the most dangerous
author in Britain.
Susan Roberts talked to Philip Pullman about God, the church
and the meaning of life
You've said that you believed in God until
you were a teenager. What happened after that?
My grandfather was a clergyman,
a Church of England rector in a parish in Norfolk. I spent a lot of my childhood
in his household, because my father died when I was seven.
We were brought up
quite a lot by my grandfather. This involved, of course, going to church and going
to Sunday School and listening to Bible stories and all the rest of it.
He was a very good, old-fashioned country clergyman and a wonderful storyteller,
too. He knew all the stories that one should know from the Bible.
So it was a
very familiar part of my background and it was something that one didn't question.
Grandpa was the rector, Grandpa preached a sermon and of course God existed one didn't even thinking of questioning it.
Then, of course, as I grew
up and began to look around and see how other people thought about things, and
read books and so on, naturally I began to question this, as people do. And I
eventually came after a lot of swinging this way and that, and trying things
out to the position I hold now.
I know full well that the total
amount of the things I know is a tiny little pinprick of light compared with the
vast unlimited darkness that surrounds it which is all the things I don't
know. I don't know more than a tiny fragment of what it's possible to know about
As for what goes on outside it in the rest of the universe, it's a
vast darkness full of things that I don't know. Now, somewhere in the things that
I don't know, there may be a God.
But if we come down like coming
close up with a camera getting closer and closer to this little pinprick
of light, so that it begins to expand and gets bigger and bigger until we find
ourselves inside it... I can see no evidence in that circle of things I do know,
in history, or in science or anywhere else, no evidence of the existence of God.
So I'm caught between the words 'atheistic' and 'agnostic'. I've got
no evidence whatever for believing in a God. But I know that all the things I
do know are very small compared with the things that I don't know.
So maybe there
is a God out there. All I know is that if there is, he hasn't shown himself on
But going further than that, I would say that those people who
claim that they do know that there is a God have found this claim of theirs the
most wonderful excuse for behaving extremely badly.
So belief in a God does not
seem to me to result automatically in behaving very well.
you say that your books have an anti-Christian purpose? Mary Malone in The Amber
Spyglass, an ex-nun who has lost her faith, says that Christianity is a very powerful
and convincing mistake.
Well, Mary is a character in a book. Mary's
not me. It's a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work of philosophy.
telling a story, I'm showing various characters whom I've invented saying things
and doing things and acting out beliefs which they have, and not necessarily which
The tendency of the whole thing might be this or it might be that, but
what I'm doing is telling a story, not preaching a sermon.
you look at organised religion of whatever sort whether it's Christianity
in all its variants, or whether it's Islam or some forms of extreme Hinduism wherever you see organised religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty
and tyranny and repression. It's almost a universal law.
It's not just
Christianity I'm getting at. The reason that the forms of religion in the books
seem to be Christian is because that's the world I'm familiar with.
world I grew up in and I knew. If I had been brought up as an orthodox Jew, I
would no doubt find things to criticise in that religion. But I don't know that
world as well as I know Christianity.
Some theologians have been
alarmed at your use of words like 'Magisterium' and 'Oblation' (the Church's General
Oblation Board in His Dark Materials is responsible for the disappearances of
children). They say these words go to the heart of their beliefs and you seem
to be using them lightly.
Well, I'd question that. 'Magisterium' and
'oblation' are church terms, they are terms of church organisation. These are
administrative things. These are bureaucratic things. How can an attack on those
be construed as an attack on God?
These are human things which human beings have
constructed in order to wield power. That's not a contentious thing to say. That
is simply true. These are forms of political organisation and no more than that.
You've been very vocal in your criticism of C.S. Lewis and his Narnia
There's a distinction between the things Lewis says as a critic,
which are very acute and full of sense and full of intelligent and sometimes subtle
judgements much of which I agree with and the things he said when
was possessed by the imp of telling a story, especially in his children's fiction.
Narnia has always seemed to me to be marked by a hatred of the physical
world. When I bring this up, people say, oh no, what nonsense! He loved his beer,
loved laughter and smoking a pipe, and the companionship of his friends and so
And so he might have done. But that didn't prevent perhaps his unconscious
mind from saying something quite different in the form of a story. I'm by no means
alone in attacking Lewis on these grounds.
You're not alone in attacking
Lewis but you are really vehement in your criticism. You've called his books 'detestable'.
Why do you feel so strongly about them?
Because the things he's being
cruel to are things I value very highly. The crux of it all comes, as many people
have found, with the point near the end of the Last Battle (in the Narnia books)
when Susan is excluded from the stable.
The stable obviously represents salvation.
They're going to heaven, they're going to be saved. But Susan isn't allowed into
the stable, and the reason given is that she's growing up. She's become far too
interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly:
'She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.'
to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality.
Here's a child whose body is changing and who's naturally responding as everyone
has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place
in one's body and one's feelings. She's doing what everyone has to do in order
to grow up.
Maybe one day she'll grow past the invitations and the lipstick
and the nylons. But my point is that it's an inevitable, important, valuable and
cherishable stage that we go through. This what I'm getting at in my story. To
welcome and celebrate this passage, rather than to turn from it in fear and loathing.
That's what I find particularly objectionable in Lewis and also
the fact that he kills the children at the end. Now here are these children who
have gone through great adventures and learned wonderful things and would therefore
be in a position to do great things to help other people.
But they're taken away.
He doesn't let them. For the sake of taking them off to a perpetual school holiday
or something, he kills them all in a train crash. I think that's ghastly. It's
a horrible message.
What's your response to the reactions of the
religious right to your work? The Catholic Herald called your books the stuff
of nightmares and worthy of the bonfire.
My response to that was to ask
the publishers to print it in the next book, which they did! I think it's comical,
it's just laughable. According to Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday, I'm the
most dangerous author in Britain. Apparently I have my own sinister agenda.
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
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
Now, not even the Catholic Herald can find anything to
argue with in that.
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