Philip Pullman is a writer, author of a number of books mostly aimed at older children, including I was a Rat, The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well and The Tin Princess. But he is best known for His Dark Materials – a trilogy of books centred on a young girl Lyra who lives in another world and finds herself caught up in the most ambitious plan ever conceived by a human being – the destruction of God himself.
This anti-Christian stance (which is nowhere near as obvious in most if not all of his other books) has brought Pullman into the firing line for a lot of criticism. ‘The most dangerous author in Britain’ was Peter Hitchens’ description of him in The Mail on Sunday.
Who is Philip Pullman?
Philip Pullman was born in 1946 in Norwich. He was the son of RAF fighter pilot who was shot down and killed in Rhodesia seven years later during the Mau Mau rebellion. In an interview on Amazon.com, Pullman says,
‘Peter Dickinson and I were talking one day and this subject came up and we agreed how strange it was that so many children’s authors had lost one or both parents in their childhood. My father died in a plane crash when I was seven, and naturally I was preoccupied for a long time by the mystery of what he must have been like.’
His mother remarried two years later to another RAF pilot, and Philip and his brother moved to Australia with them for 18 months. This early experience of travelling long distances by sea, and then living in a very different place, had a significant impact on Philip and his subsequent writing.
He came back to school in Britain – a prep school in London, and then boarding school in north Wales. It was not easy being a new boy at school – particularly when feeling rather rootless. But His English teacher at secondary school, Enid Jones, was a major influence on Philip Pullman. She introduced him to John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost when he was sixteen and he fell in love with it:
‘I found it intensely enthralling, not only the actual story. . . but also the landscapes, the power of the poetry and the extraordinary majesty of the language.’
Another significant figure in Philip Pullman’s childhood was his grandfather:
‘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.’ (interview with Susan Roberts on fish.co.uk)
But in time Philip Pullman lost any he had confidence in this:
‘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.’ (Interview with Susan Roberts, fish.co.uk)
Pullman’s position is that he rejects any belief in God. He acknowledges that God may be out there somewhere, but insists that he has seen no evidence for his existence:
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. (Interview with Susan Roberts, fish.co.uk)
He is now a supporter of the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society
Philip studied English at Exeter College, Oxford, which was later to form the basis for Jordan College inHis Dark Materials. After graduating he worked in the gents’ outfitters, Moss Bros, and as a librarian before training as an English teacher. He taught in middle schools (ages 9-13) until 1986. From 1988 until 1996 he was a part time lecturer at Westminster College, Oxford. While he was teaching he wrote a number of plays, and started writing books.
His Dark Materials
In 1993 Philip Pullman began work on Northern Lights, the first book of His Dark Materials, which was published in 1995 (published in the USA as The Golden Compass).
‘I started with a picture of Lyra hiding in the wardrobe, and overhearing things that she wasn’t meant to hear. And I had pictures of other things in the story – the bear in armour, and the witches coming up through the clouds.’
‘I knew exactly where it was going to end. I knew it was going to end in a garden . . . I knew that Lyra was going to meet Will, and I knew that Will was going to have to search for his father.’ (School Library Journal)
Northern Lights was a huge success with readers and critics. It sold strongly with little hype and attracted readers of all ages and in many countries. Northern Lights won the Carnegie Medal, England’s highest honour for children’s literature, and The Guardian Children’s Fiction Award.
The Subtle Knife followed two years later in 1997. By this time there were many fans who were desperate to get their hands on the third volume of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass. When it didn’t appear in 1999, the fans started getting worried. One of them sent Philip a letter with a picture of a cute little squirrel and a note saying, ‘I want you to admire this squirrel. Now that you’ve admired the squirrel, please think about your book which the world has spent aeons waiting for. Now, put those two things together. Finish your book, or the squirrel will die.’
Pullman finished the first draft of The Amber Spyglass in 1999, and it was published the following year. Philip Pullman went on a tour promoting the book and often told the squirrel story. Often children at these events claimed to be a friend of the person who had sent the letter. But at the last event a young girl approached Philip saying that she herself was the author of the note, and was able to prove it by pointing out that he had misquoted her. Instead of saying ‘which the world has spent aeons waiting for,’ he said, ‘which the world has spent so long waiting for,’ on the basis that a young audience might not understand aeons. She presented him with a toy squirrel with a kitchen knife embedded in it – it sits proudly on a shelf in Pullman’s study.
The Amber Spyglass won the Whitbread Prize for Children’s literature and the overall Whitbread Prize in 2000, the first time that a children’s author had won this major literary award. It was also long-listed for the 2002 Booker Prize, the first time a children’s author had been listed.
Philip Pullman is clearly a writer who has won over both readers and critics. And reasonably so – he’s a great craftsman. Publishers Weekly said that he ‘is a master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension.’ And he is fabulously inventive.
You don’t need to read much of Northern Lights before discovering that it’s set in another world which is like ours in some ways and quite different in others. In Lyra’s world electricity is just beginning to replace naphtha for lighting but it is generated by nuclear energy. The Reformation never happened and the church is the government, but the Lapland witches have a consulate in Trollesund. There are talking armoured polar bears and arctic foxes that have no conception of past of future.
But probably the biggest difference between this other world and our own is that everyone in hers has a dæmon:
Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. The three great tables that ran the length of the hall were laid already, the silver and the glass catching what little light there was, and the long benches were pulled out ready for the guests. Portraits of former Masters hung high up in the gloom along the walls. Lyra reached the dais and looked back at the open kitchen door, and, seeing no one, stepped up beside the high table. The places here were laid with gold, not silver, and the fourteen seats were not oak benches but mahogany chairs with velvet cushions.
Lyra stopped beside the Master’s chair and flicked the biggest glass gently with a fingernail. The sound rang clearly through the hall.
‘You’re not taking this seriously,’ whispered her dæmon. ‘Behave yourself.’
Her dæmon’s name was Pantalaimon, and he was currently in the form of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show up in the darkness of the hall.
(Northern Lights (Point, 1995) p.1)
A dæmon is an animal that stays with a person throughout their life. But it’s no ordinary animal; a dæmon is part of the human and the two of them are inextricably and invisibly connected. Sally Vincent, writing in The Guardian says:
Your daemon, according to Pullmanesque lore, is the creature of your deepest essence; a bird, reptile, insect or animal, attached to you by an inevitable thread, like an externalised soul. It is your guardian angel, your confidante, your conscience, your representative. In childhood, while you make the choices that form your character, your daemon changes; when you become an adult, it is what you have created, and it stays like that until you die. A slimy snake, a sly monkey, a fierce tiger, an obedient dog, a pussy cat: it’s yours. It’s you. You’re never alone with a daemon. The Guardian (10 November 2001)
These descriptions – externalised soul, guardian angel, confidante, conscience, representative – are partly right but not entirely. It is not that the human has no soul, no conscience. The human and dæmon are fuzzy, overlapping parts of the same thing.
Pullman says, ‘It was the richest idea I’ve ever had. There were so many different things I could do with it. But it works, and it’s actually saying something about the business of being human – it’s not just decorative.’
But the idea isn’t entirely original to Philip Pullman. The concept of dæmons goes back to the Greeks. One dictionary defines a dæmon as:
‘One’s genius; a tutelary spirit or internal voice; as, the dæmon of Socrates.’
You sometimes find dæmon in this classical sense spelt as ‘demon’ but there are no evil overtones to this concept. Over time the meaning of the word shifted to have the sense that it does today – an evil spirit. Pullman draws on this original idea and turns it into something visible – the companion animal.
The idea of the dæmon having an animal form is actually part of traditional southern American shamanism. Anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis describes how Ignacion, a Makuna shaman, becomes a jaguar in spirit form under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug (Millennium, 1992). Neither this nor the Greek idea of dæmons are quite how Philip Pullman uses dæmons in His Dark Materials, but these things underpin his invention.
As Pullman says, it’s ‘saying something about the business of being human.’ One aspect of this is the business of growing up. While you’re still a child, your dæmon can change form. It can be a moth one moment and a wildcat the next and then a sparrow. But sometime around adolescence, the dæmon begins to change less and less until it finally settles into one form. It’s not until then that a person really knows what kind of person they are and what they want out of life.
Lyra asks a sailor why dæmons have to settle. He replies, ‘Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That’s part of growing up. There’ll come a time when you’ll be tired of his changing about, and you’ll want a settled kind of form for him’ (Northern Lights p. 167). Lyra can’t believe she would ever want this to happen but it is inevitable if she is going to stop being a child. The sailor tells Lyra that there are compensations:
‘Knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She’s a seagull, and that means I’m a kind of seagull too. I’m not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I’m a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That’s worth knowing, that is, And when your daemon settles, you’ll know the sort of person you are.’
‘But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don’t like?’ [asked Lyra]
‘Well, then, you’re discontented, en’t you? There’s plenty of folk as’d like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is.’ (Northern Lightsp. 167)
So a dæmon’s form shows the kind of person you are, and you cannot choose it yourself. Philip Pullman says:
So, you see, you cannot choose your dæmon, and so no matter how much I might like to have a bird or a cat or something graceful or elegant, I’d probably turn out to have a crab or a slug. But one aspect of this business which has been picked on by some critics, notably in America – somebody criticised me for being terribly class-ridden and British and snobbish because all servants are people whose dæmons are dogs. This critic thought that I was saying if your dæmon’s a dog you have to be a servant. It’s not like that at all, as Lyra explains elsewhere to Will (who doesn’t know about dæmons). ‘If your dæmon turns out to be a dog, that means you’re the sort of person (and there are plenty of those about) who enjoys knowing where they are in a hierarchy, who enjoys following orders and pleasing the person in charge.’ There are people like that, and they make good servants. We don’t have servants any more in our society but we do in Lyra’s world. If your dæmon is a dog that is a sign to you that that’d be a career that you’d enjoy doing and that you’d be good at. So that’s what having a dæmon says – one of the things that having a dæmon says to you. But I do not know what my dæmon would be, and I cannot choose. The way to find out what your dæmon is, is to ask your friends to write it down anonymously. Then you will find out. (interview on Avnet.com)
It’s revealing that almost all of the religious characters in the books have unpleasant dæmons – frogs, toads and snakes. Dæmons are usually of the opposite sex – presumably a consequence of the fact that we all have aspects of our personality that can be thought of as primarily masculine and some that are primarily feminine.
Occasionally, no doubt, people do have a dæmon of the same sex; that might indicate homosexuality, or it might indicate some other sort of gift or quality, such as second sight. I do not know. But I don’t have to know everything about what I write. (interview on Avnet.com)
Philip Pullman also uses dæmons to say something about the pain of separation, about depression and about death. It’s a rich metaphor which he uses very creatively. He says, ‘right at the end of Amber Spyglass, after 1200 or more pages, I was still discovering new things I could do with this human-dæmon link’ (interview on Avnet.com).
Central to the story is the existence of some very mysterious particles. We first learn about them when Lord Asriel shows some slides of his recent Arctic expedition to the scholars of Jordan College. Lyra lives in Jordan College under the care of the scholars, her parents having apparently died in an airship accident. She believes the wealthy and dashing Lord Asriel to be her uncle and she is now hiding in the wardrobe of the Jordan College retiring room, listening to what he tells the scholars.
[Lord Asriel] lifted out the first slide and dropped another into the frame. This was much darker, it was as if the moonlight had been filtered out . . . But the man had altogether changed: he was bathed in light, and a fountain of glowing particles seemed to be streaming from his upraised hand.
‘That light,’ said the Chaplain, ‘is it going up or coming down?’
‘It’s coming down,’ said Lord Asriel, ‘but it isn’t light. It’s Dust.’
Something in the way he said it made Lyra imagine Dust with a capital letter, as if this weren’t ordinary dust. The reaction of the scholars confirmed her feeling, because Lord Asriel’s words caused a sudden collective silence, followed by gasps of incredulity . . .
‘It’s Dust,’ Lord Asriel repeated. ‘It registered as light on the plate because particles of Dust affect this emulsion as photons affect silver nitrate emulsion . . . Now I’d like you to look at the shape to his left.’
He indicated the blurred shape of the smaller figure.
‘I thought that was the man’s dæmon,’ said the Enquirer.
‘No. His dæmon was at the time coiled around his neck in the form of a snake. That shape you can dimly see is a child.’
‘A severed child – ?’ said someone, and the way he stopped showed that he knew this was something that shouldn’t have been voiced.
There was an intense silence.
Then Lord Asriel said calmly, ‘An entire child. Which, given the nature of Dust, is precisely the point, is it not?’
(Northern Lights (Point, 1995) p. 21, 22)
Dust is the subject of intense speculation among experimental theologians (physicists) and is deeply disturbing to the Church authorities. They are particularly interested in the fact that Dust does not seem to be much attracted to children before adolescence whereas it is strongly attracted to adults. As a result, the Church suspects that Dust is related to sin. One of the Church bodies, the General Oblation Board, is conducting some terrifying experiments on children in an attempt to prevent them becoming sinful. The glamourous Mrs Coulter, the driving force behind the General Oblation Board, explains it to Lyra:
Dust is something bad, something wrong, something evil and wicked. Grown-ups and their dæmons are infected with Dust so deeply that it’s too late for them. They can’t be helped . . . But a quick operation on children means they’re safe from it. Dust just wont stick to them ever again.
(Northern Lights, p. 284)
The attraction of Dust to an adult is linked with the dæmon taking on a settled form. Mrs Coulter continues:
Your dæmon’s a wonderful friend and companion when you’re young, but at the age we call puberty . . . dæmons bring all sort of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in.
(Northern Lights, p. 285)
At the end of Northern Lights, Lyra realizes that everyone she doesn’t trust believes Dust to be a bad thing, so she concludes that it’s probably the opposite:
Pantalaimon went on:
‘We’ve heard them all talk about Dust, and they’re so afraid of it, and you know what? We believed them, even though we could see that what they were doing was wicked and evil and wrong . . . We thought Dust must be bad too, because they were grown up and said so. But what if it isn’t? What if it’s -‘
She said breathlessly, ‘Yeah! What if it’s really good . . .’
She looked at him and saw his green wildcat-eyes ablaze with her own excitement. She felt dizzy, as if the whole world were turning beneath her.
If Dust were a good thing . . . If it were to be sought and welcomed and cherished . . .
‘We could look for it too, Pan!’ she said.
That was what he wanted to hear.
(Northern Lights, p. 397, 398)
And Lyra and her dæmon set off across a bridge into another world to search for it.
In The Subtle Knife, Lyra comes to our world and finds a physicist in Oxford, Dr Mary Malone, who is researching into Dark Matter. Dark matter is one of the great mysteries of modern physics. It’s possible to calculate how much mass there is in the universe but about a third of it cannot be accounted for – there simply aren’t enough stars, planets, gas clouds, etc. to constitute all the mass in the universe. Physicists have been searching for some time to find out what and where this missing mass is. Since it must be elementary particles that we can’t see, it is known as ‘dark’ matter. Currently a lot of interest is focused on neutrinos as the answer to this mystery.
But, in The Subtle Knife, Mary Malone has not only discovered the existence of new elementary particles but has also found that they are conscious:
‘. . . our particles are strange little devils and no mistake. We call them shadow-particles, Shadows . . . You know what? They’re conscious. That’s right. Shadows are particles of consciousness.’ (The Subtle Knife p. 91, 92)
What Mary Malone calls Shadows are what Lyra thinks of as Dust.
Philip Pullman has cleverly combined two of the greatest puzzles of modern science – dark matter and the nature of consciousness – into one very powerful element within his narrative, and has linked it with the difficult transition from childhood to adolescence. The suggestion is that children are not fully conscious, perhaps not fully self-conscious, until adolescence. At that point these particles of consciousness start streaming into them and their dæmons settle into a fixed form.
Note: This article is incomplete because it developed into a book, Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Philip Pullman.