A dark agenda?
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Date: November 2002

Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman.
Photo: PA
 
'What 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.'


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 Prize.

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 this world.

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 earth.

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.

But would 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.

I'm 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 I have.

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.

But when 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.

That's the 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 books.
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 on.

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.'

This seems 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 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.


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