Interview with Philip Pullman (from 2004)

I interviewed Philip Pullman back in 2004, before I started work on my book, Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan's Guide. It was an interesting experience, partly because I'd had car problems on the way there and arrived a little flustered. Looking at it again now, there are some ways in which I don't think I handled it all that well. If I'm honest, I guess I was somewhat intimidated. Anyway, here it is, for what it's worth (it's also available on the Culturewatch site, where it's been since 2004). With news today of his forthcoming book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, it seemed a good time to repost it here.

I interviewed Philip Pullman in his home near Oxford back in 2004, before I started work on my book, Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan's Guide. It was an interesting experience, partly because I'd had car problems on the way there and arrived rather flustered. Looking at it again now, there are some ways in which I don't think I handled it all that well. If I'm honest, I guess I was somewhat intimidated. Anyway, here it is, for what it's worth. With news today of his forthcoming book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, it seemed a good time to repost it here. At the start, he asked me to remind him who I was and what the purpose of the interview was. After I explained that the interview was for Culturewatch, a Christian website for which I was managing editor, he immediately started telling me about his experience of a church in Oxford.

Philip Pullman: About ten years ago I got very interested in the growth of these sort of home-based Christian groups. I wanted to find out how they worked, what they did, what motivated them and so on. I discovered a group that was holding regular meetings in one of the Oxford cinemas, and they’ve got an office in The Cornmarket in Oxford above a betting shop. So I went and knocked on the door and said I was interested. And it was very curious to talk to them, to talk to the chap in charge. But even more curious to go to this meeting on a Sunday in this big cinema in Broad Street, because here was quite a large group of people, all of whom were intensely bound together in sort of networks of fellowship and mutual aid: ‘So and so’s just had a baby – what can we do to help?’ That sort of thing. ‘So and so’s volunteered for baby sitting.’ All this sort of stuff. Everything was done by couples: Bob and Shirley, Tom and Mary, as if they didn’t have an individual existence but only a joint existence. And of course they had their own school, the King’s School, they call it.

It seemed to me that, invisible to the general population, certainly invisible to me before then, was a sort of secret welfare state, in effect. It was a strange thing because if you were in trouble there was instantly a dozen, two dozen, scores of people ready to help, keen and eager to help. You know, anything from babysitting to help with looking after a relative who was dying. All these people were there and ready to pitch in and help and so on. Which was fine and jolly good. But at the same time they went in for speaking in tongues in a rather self-conscious way. It was very odd, because they had this well-organised service, lasting about three hours, It was well organised because it seemed to be very casual and informal, and if the Spirit moved you, you went to the front and said something: ‘I’ve got a happy announcement – so and so’s had a baby. Isn’t it wonderful? Well done everybody.’ But you could see that it was very controlled and there were moments of excitement and emotional intensity, then again some friendly announcements, and so on.

There was a sort of controlling intelligence behind all this. At one point, during one of the moments of intensity, there were three or four chaps at the front, sort of praying. And one of them started going ‘gobbledygobbledy gobbledygobbledy’ and I thought, ‘Blimey, he’s gone mad. Oh no, he’s speaking in tongues.’ But the interesting thing was — because I’d never seen this before, as far as I was concerned it’s a lot of old fraud — as soon as the others saw him, you could see them [looking sideways at him] and then speaking in tongues themselves, or pretending to, because whether he was being moved in some strange way – maybe he was – they weren’t. They were doing what he was doing in order to join in. So it was a curious thing: here were these people doing all sorts of good things in a sort of social way, yet behaving entirely (it seemed to me) fraudulently when it came to that. I couldn’t get to grips with it. I was interested because I wanted to do a story, a novel against that sort of background but nothing came of it. It’s an experience which is just sort of there and hasn’t been used.

Tony Watkins: Filed away for future reference?

PP: Yes. Anyway, these people, it was plain had horizons that wide [hands close together]. They didn’t read anything other than Christian books; they didn’t listen to anything other than Christian music; they had no idea of the wider world. There was not a mention of anything other than Christian missions in Africa - that was the sole extent of their interest in the outside world. I knew from talking to this chap in the office above the betting shop that every attitude they had was filtered through several layers of what the Christian church would approve of before it got to you. It was about the time of a General Election and the Green Party were making a showing. I asked this chap, ‘What’s the attitude of your church to ecological issues, the Green Party and so on?’

‘Ah,' he said. 'Very interesting. Glad you asked me that. Did you see that party political broadcast on behalf of the green party the other night?’ I said I thought I had. ‘Because the interesting thing about it was that he asked everybody to believe, to be silent for a while, and let the spirit speak. Now if you’re not inviting Jesus to come into you that night, someone else will. These people are doing the Devil’s work.’

I expected, you see in my naivety, to have an answer on the lines of: ‘What do you think about ecological issues?’ ‘Well, the church teaches that we are the stewards of the world, that God’s put us in the world to look after it, it’s our responsibility and so on.' Not a bit of it. I thought, ‘Well, this is a bit odd.’ But anyway, that’s obviously not the background you come from.

TW: No. I come from an evangelical church that isn’t very charismatic but I spent a year in a church like that during a gap year after I left school and I was very well cared for. The church that I’m involved in takes the Bible very seriously. The Bible, we believe, is God’s communication to us so we take it seriously, it’s our final criterion. But there’s a whole lot of life out there and we want to be making the connections between the two. Because if, as I believe, we’re created in God’s image, and culture ultimately is God’s invention, then all of life should be involved in this - including the books I read and so on.

PP: There are several questions I want to ask you about that.

TW: I’m supposed to be interviewing you.

PP: Well, we’ll get on to that in a minute. If everything we do is a result of God’s will, what about Nazism; what about the extermination of the Jews? Is that God’s will?

TW: Well, that’s one of the hardest questions. The general problem of suffering is the hardest question for any worldview.

PP: Because if what we do is, you know, we do it because we’re the children of God, and because we’re created in God’s image and therefore what we do, and all our culture, is in fact the work of God’s will . . .

TW: That’s not quite what I’m saying. Culture ultimately is God’s invention. God is the originator of culture, but human beings are rebels against God, and therefore we twist it to our own agenda. Clearly the vast majority of people, whatever their faith, are not consciously seeking to work out the will of God in their lives and what they do and so on. So I wouldn’t want to say that Nazism and the extermination of the Jews was because of somebody who believed they were working God’s will out. Hitler was basically a Nietzschean, wasn’t he, with some spiritual philosophy, but at root he was a Nietzschean. But why those kinds of things happen is a killer question. My belief is that God has given us freedom, and that freedom is a dangerous thing. Freedom’s a fabulous thing but it’s also a dangerous thing.

PP: According to the Bible, God didn’t give us freedom, we took it. Man’s first disobedience.

TW: Alright, but before that we were given freedom, there was a genuine freedom.

PP: Really? I thought he said, ‘Don’t eat that . . . ’

TW: You’re free to eat from any tree in the garden. You’re free to do anything. There was one restriction and one restriction only. And they did go for that one thing. So yes, there was one restriction; it wasn’t a complete freedom, but there was genuine freedom.

PP: I don’t see it like that. I see the story as being a story of pets’ rebellion. But they don’t want to be pets any more, they want to have responsibility.

There’s another question I was going to ask you, which is, to what extent is the Bible metaphor? In other words, how literally can you take it?

TW: It depends which bit of it . . .

PP: Well, does it have to be creation in six days?

TW: Right, you’ve got to be sensitive to the genre question first. The Bible is stuffed full of different kinds of genres, and therefore they have different kinds of requirements in terms of interpretation . . .

PP: Well, that’s an advance on those people in the cinema.

TW: Genesis 1 is a very tricky passage because it’s written in a unique style of Hebrew. We can’t actually even confidently identify whether it’s prose or poetry. It seems to be in a class of its own somewhere between the two and there is nothing else to compare with it. So, it seems to me that when you get to verse 4 of chapter 2 of Genesis you get the little phrase appearing ‘This is the account of . . . ’ and the first one is, ‘This is the account of the heavens and the earth . . . ’ That phrase appears ten times through the rest of the book of Genesis dividing into two halves, the first half finishing at the end of chapter 11, just before the story of Abraham starts. And in each half you have a major story, then a minor story - often a genealogy - then a major story, then a minor story then a major story. Genesis 1 is outside all that, and it’s very structured but not quite poetry. Obviously you know that numbers are very important to the Hebrews and there are particular phrases that repeat, usually in multiples of seven. Within the six days (the seventh day is in chapter 2) you’ve got two halves. You’ve got light and darkness, sea and sky, and land in the first three days. Then in the second set of three days you’ve got stars to fill the space, if you like; fish and birds to fill the sea and sky; and animals to populate the land. And with that kind of very literary structure, it seems to me that what we have is a literary structure whose purpose is primarily theological, not to teach us timescales — a theological tract is not quite the right word, but a theological treatise for the early people of Israel to understand who they were in relation to God as opposed to the other creation accounts of the Babylonians, Egyptians and so on, some of which saw seven as an unlucky number — the Babylonians saw seven as an unlucky number; that was their equivalent of thirteen. So here we are working on a seven day principle and God establishing this principle of rest every seventh day. But I think it’s a literary structure.

But then, of course, it gets difficult when you get into chapters 2 and 3 where you have these very curious things like the talking serpent and the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which sound more like apocalyptic elements that you’d expect in Revelation. And yet because that phrase, ‘This is the account of . . . ’ goes through the rest of the book of Genesis where it is clearly intended to be taken as history – and I believe it should be – I think there’s something historical going on in that first section starting at verse 4 of chapter 2. I’m not entirely certain what it is. I do believe that Adam and Eve were historical characters — Jesus saw them as historical characters and I think they were.

PP: Jesus saw the world as flat too.

TW: Why did Jesus think the world was flat?

PP: Everybody did then.

TW: Well, yes. When did the Greeks work out the world was round? Yes, it’s an interesting question whether Jesus saw the world as flat.

PP: You ask the average Palestinian and they would have said it was flat.

TW: Yes but I don’t think Jesus would have given the same answer. I think he had a slightly different level of knowledge but we’ll leave that on one side for the moment. What my suspicion is – and it is only a suspicion because they’re clearly very difficult questions surrounding this – is that the position you end up with those early chapters of Genesis, to some extent, depends on what difficult questions you’re prepared to live with and say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that.’ Adam could have been, if you like, the head of humanity with some special degree of responsibility. But I do think he was a historical character.

PP: Do you believe the earth is only six thousand years old?

TW: No.

PP: So the fossil record is accurate?

TW: I think so. Clearly there are questions around interpreting the fossil record . . .

PP: Oh yes, there are problems with it of course, but by and large it’s accurate . . .

TW: Some of the dating mechanisms are used to correlate the other dating mechanisms that we use primarily. My background is physics so I’ve done a little thinking about it because it was an issue of huge concern to me. But Christians down through history have had one of five basic understandings of those early chapters of Genesis – people who are really trying to do justice to the text and say, 'Yes we believe this is God’s Word to us' but they have different ways of understanding it, from the young earth position exemplified by Archbishop Ussher, who was good in some respects but to try and date the creation of the earth to 9.00 am on the 27th October 4004 BC or whenever it was, is pushing it a little bit. But he was bringing a particular theological agenda to it, to try to make it fit. He made the sums work to fit his particular agenda which, personally, I think, is untenable.

For myself, I am quite happy to accept the possibility of the timescales and mechanisms of Darwinian evolution – up to a point. There are huge questions over the mechanisms of Darwinian evolution, but for me at present, there’s not a huge amount of doubt that some kind of process like that could have happened. The difference between me and Richard Dawkins would not be in terms of the mechanisms but whether there’s any direction to it or not.

PP: Have you come across John Polkinghorne?

TW: Yes, he has a wonderful little phrase: ‘God is the guarantor of the Schroedinger Equation’ — a bit of mathematics I had to contend with in my physics degree, it’s about quantum physics . . .

PP: The one about the cat?

TW: Yes, he was the guy with the cat experiment.


TW: Yes, why didn’t we put it like that in my exams? But maybe I wouldn’t have got the marks for it.

PP: So God guarantees this?

TW: Yes, what he’s saying is that the way the world works is an expression of God’s character. It’s not so much that God necessarily created in six days of instantaneous creation, but the whole process works because God is behind it and underpinning it . . .

PP: Well now, you see, this to me is the perfect example of what I’ve come to call epicycles. You remember that the difficulty with the Ptolomaic universe was that observation didn’t really correlate with the [assumption] that things were going round in perfect circles: sometimes they’d go fast, sometimes they’d go slow, sometime they’d seem to go backwards for a bit. And it took a lot of difficult working out by a lot of clever people but eventually they thought, 'Well, supposing they go round in perfect circles in little loops, in epicycles, that would account for it. Wonderful. Great.' And then time went on and observations were proved and that didn’t quite work out. So they said, 'Suppose we have epicycles around epicycles?' Then along came Kepler – was it? – or Copernicus, who said, ‘Well, just change the focus a little bit. Imagine we’re going round the sun, there’s no need for the epicycles at all, all is clear.’ And so it was until somebody else realised that actually we’re going in ellipses and not in circles, and then it was quite clear.

TW: That was Kepler.

PP: Now this business about God guaranteeing the Schroedinger Equation and other attempts to bring God into the place from which he’s absent – apparently – which reached a peak, I think for me, with Simone Weil who said something like ‘God whose very presence is felt in terms of his absence’ or something. I mean, a piece of such screaming nonsense, logically. I mean, how can a person be felt in terms of his absence? Absolute bollocks. That’s an epicycle. It’s an attempt – a ridiculous attempt – to bring all the resources of a profound intellect to bear on something that won’t bear that weight. So it’s an epicycle. It’s a way of accounting for something. Whereas if you make the sort of Copernican jump and think, ‘Well, instead of trying to account for the fact that God is everywhere but you can’t see him, so what’s he doing?’ say, ‘Well, God isn’t there.’ The need for epicycles vanishes. It’s a smooth, easy cycle. Take God out of it and you don’t need epicycles.

TW: But that’s very much a fundamental worldview question isn’t it? If you think there’s no God in the picture then that kind of reasoning appears to be epicyclical. It’s quite a good analogy. But if you think, 'No, actually I think there is a God there,’ and ask ‘What is the way God works?’ then it seems to me that . . .

PP: Well, then you constantly have to adjust to more and more discoveries about geology, to more and more developments in the moral sphere so that we come to see that slaughtering all our enemies isn’t really the best way of behaving despite the fact that God seems to say it is. So you constantly have to adjust, you see. You’re constantly having to adjust, put another epicycle in to make this relate this to that. Just do away with God and everything is much clearer, much simpler.

TW: No, that’s not how I see it at all.

PP: I didn’t think it would be. But that’s how I see it.

TW: Yes, I can understand that’s how it appears. But I do think that is such a fundamental worldview thing that it affects the way that you view everything. To me, it’s not about making adjustments, but rather, here is God working in consistent ways . . .

PP: But where is God? You say, ‘Here is God.’ But where is he? He’s not!

TW: Everywhere.

PP: No.

TW: You’re very adamant that God is not there. But sometimes you’ve said that you’re an agnostic because you talk about this little pinprick of light, don’t you, and there’s no evidence for God in the pinprick of light that is all you know.

PP: Well, of course, in the scale of things that I don’t know – the scale of things I do know is this little pinprick of light . . . Out there in the darkness, of course, who’s to say there’s isn’t anything else an agnostic isn’t sure about? But whenever anybody talks about God, the first question that crops up in my mind is, ‘Why are you bringing God into it? Why do you need to?’ There’s no evidence for it. You must be doing it for some other reason. What’s your psychological need to say that God is there, God is here? What is the need? I don’t feel it you see.

TW: Well, that’s very interesting. For me it doesn’t come down to a sense of psychological need. For me, originally it came down to: ‘I think there is evidence for God – probably in four or five different areas. Firstly, the fact that there is a world that works on orderly principles. One of the basic tenets of science is that the world works in an ordered way. So it’s reasonable to do an experiment here in Oxford and get the same results as an experiment in Bolivia or wherever. And that actually is an article of faith of science . . .

PP: But isn’t it possible to have universes in which things don’t happen in ordered ways, and that the fact that we’re sitting here in an ordered one means that out of the uncountable billions of possible universes, there’s bound to be one in which things happen like this?

TW: That’s a very unsatisfying argument it seems to me. Because . . . we’ll just hold that there for a moment. Can we come back to that one?

PP: I’m sorry, I’m hijacking this. I should be answering your questions rather than asking mine.

TW: There is a creation which works in very ordered ways and is incredibly finely balanced. Now it could be, as Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, says in Just Six Universes, that there could be multiple universes and we just happen to be in the one that works. But he does recognise that the balances are so fine it pushes you to one of three conclusions. One is, that this is it; this is all there is; there is only this universe. It just happened to have worked. It’s amazing but we’re just lucky. The second one is that it’s balanced this way because there is a designer behind it. And the third one is that maybe this one works and others don’t, which is what you’re suggesting. And he says, he doesn’t want to contemplate the idea of a designer, therefore he’s going to embrace the idea of multiple universes. But he’s honest enough to say that both of these are very difficult hypotheses. Both of these are not disprovable at some level or other. You can’t disprove the existence of God; you can’t disprove the existence of other universes. Neither can you prove them. They’re elements of faith.

PP: Well, to an extent they’re an element of faith. But hasn’t David Deutsch demonstrated through his analysis of the double slit experiment that there seems to be some evidence for multiple universes.

TW: I’m really not convinced by that. Having said that, I’ve been out of teaching physics for a few years but I’m really not convinced. But it’s a very hot issue in the world of physics right now . . .

PP: I know.

TW: Some would see David Deutsch as really out on a limb with what he’s saying; others wouldn’t. It is the big issue. I think there are philosophical issues. If they are actually separate universes, then what sense is there in talking about connections between the universes? If there are connections then they are not actually separate universes; they are one thing, not multiple things. So you haven’t actually solved the problem. Even if you accept the idea that there are multiple universes, as Stephen Hawking said in Black Holes and Baby Universes . . . In the first book he seems to be saying, ‘The mind of God is that there is no God’; if the universe has no beginning and no end, what is there for an infinitely lazy creator to do? . . . But in Black Holes and Baby Universes he gets a little more reflective about these kinds of issues and says: supposing I come up with my theory of everything, what is it that makes a universe for these equations to govern. Why is there something there? ‘What is it that breathes fire into the equations? I don't know the answer to that.’

PP: Well, that is the basic question: Why is there something rather than nothing? That is an unsolvable question.

TW: And we’ve both got an unsolvable mystery on our hands. Here are you saying, ‘There is no God.’ Where has matter come from? Has matter eternally existed? It’s a bit uncomfortable to talk in those terms. Has energy eternally existed? Something has always been there – you don’t get something out of nothing. Even the something out of nothing inflationary Big Bang theories still start with a quantum vacuum – there’s still a lot of energy floating around before something happens. My unsolvable problem is, ‘Where does God come from?’ Many is the person who’s not a Christian asks ‘Where does God come from?’ Richard Dawkins always likes to come out with this one. It’s a good but unanswerable question. If there is no God, where does matter come from? It’s a good but unanswerable question. My understanding of God as creator explains the existence of matter. If matter or energy is the basic reality then you’re forced to say that there’s a psychological reason for people to invent the idea of God.

PP: Well, I don’t find that difficult really. There are evolutionary adaptive arguments for seeing that it was useful at some stage, or advantageous at some stage, to invent this great being because that helps the human psyche cohere. So I don’t find that difficult to go along with.

TW: I don’t find that convincing. Matt Ridley talks about that in his books doesn’t he?

PP: Believing something doesn’t make it true.

TW: And not believing in something doesn’t make it untrue.

PP: Absolutely.

TW: The psychological basis for belief in God was really popularised by Freud. But Feuerbach and Schleiermacher, a theologian, before that were talking about some kind of emotional need for God, and projecting the idea of a father onto a cosmic plane. Freud really took that and ran with it. Freud has to a large extent been discredited in all except English and drama departments, media studies courses. He’s barely mentioned on psychology courses because he’s been discredited scientifically.

PP: Yes. You see, what Freud did was tell a very good story. A hell of a good yarn, the Oedipus complex. It’s a wonderful story about the unconscious mind. Oh, a wonderful yarn.

TW: It just doesn’t fit with reality.

PP: Exactly.

TW: It’s all very well saying, I have this longing for a father figure, therefore I project that need onto some cosmic plane. The trouble with that kind of argument is that it can be turned round too. I have this unconscious longing for there not to be someone to whom I am ultimately accountable, and therefore I’ll project his absence onto a cosmic plane. So there are some tough questions.

For me, another important factor in believing in God is the sense of a personal experience of God. Yes, you can explain it away psychologically but it feels to me like something profound happened that is difficult to explain.

PP: Well, that, of course, is impossible to confront or argue with. It’s also, of course, impossible to take it as conclusive evidence.

TW: It’s not conclusive evidence.

PP: It’s emotional.

TW: It can’t be conclusive evidence in our conversation. It can be significant evidence in my coming to terms with everything. But I think it’s unfair to say ‘You should believe in God because I have an experience of him. Now the real crunch for me is the person of Jesus, and this is one of the qustions I wanted to ask you.’

PP: OK, go ahead.

TW: Because Jesus gets one, well two mentions in His Dark Materials, from Mary Malone. But, it’s the same conversation; his name comes up twice. I was going to come to this later on, really, but since we’ve got on to it I’ll ask it now. You said once in one of the interviews I read, that as you were working through His Dark Materials, that you had to keep stopping and writing the underlying myth. And I was interested that Jesus, apart from Mary Malone saying she had given her life to Jesus, he is left out altogether. My guess is that in your thinking you’ve got a place for him, and I’d like to know what that is, really.

PP: Well, I can actually supply you with a copy of the myth if you like

TW: Would you? That would be great. Are you still working on the book of Dust?

PP: I haven’t started it yet, but I will do. The place of Jesus in my myth. Let me just look it up – it’s only a few strokes of the keyboard away – because I want to get it right . . . Now, I can sort of summarise this but it would probably be better if you read the whole thing through. I start from the coming into being of the figure I call the Authority, whom I think of as not the creator, but as simply the first conscious being. Matter I see as being potentially conscious. Matter loves matter, that’s the starting of it. Matter loves matter, it delights to join with itself and form organised structures. At some point when the complexity of the organisation becomes sufficient, matter begins to become conscious. And when matter becomes conscious of itself and is able to be self-reflexive, then it generates Dust, you see, and so Dust comes to life. At some point early in time a being arose of Dust, and he was the first thinking creature. He was the one I call the Authority. Because matter loves matter, and loves to form molecules and come together in structures and so on, inevitably other beings of Dust arose in time. He told them that he was the first one, that he had created them, and they believed him – why should they not believe him? And he told them they had to worship him. So they did. But as more time went on and more beings arose, one of them was wiser than him, which the early church and, indeed, the writer of the Old Testament book of Proverbs, knows as wisdom, Sophia. And she said to the being, who was calling himself by this time Lord, King, God, Father, Almighty, ‘Look, it would be better if you told the truth. I know what your game is – you’re not even our creator. Better if you told the truth. Lets have a bit of democracy round here.’ Anyway, as a result of all that, there was a rebellion and she was thrown out of . . . – it’s the revolt of the angels, that story. We have a sort of reversal of the polarities of the morality here, because the good guys are the rebels and the bad guy is the Authority. Time had been going on, and all over the place, in all the universes (which I conceive of as being split asunder in the shock of the battle – it’s not necessary but it’s a nice little picture), because of matter loving matter, the creatures were evolving and developing in all sorts of ways. And the rebel angels at the prompting of the Sophia decided to set about secretly advising these creatures how to gain the knowledge of themselves. To some they showed the tree that would bring them the Dust, to others they taught songs that would sing the Dust down from the stars, to others they gave a special helper called the dæmon with whom they could talk and develop the knowledge of themselves. In every world they found the best and the truest way for the creatures to become what they could truly be, and to rejoice in the Dust which was the true state of the matter that they were made of. Obviously, the Satan story of the Garden of Eden was that happening.

Right, now time went on, and all sorts of repressions were set in train by the authority, more rebellions by the rebels and so on and so forth. Time went on in a continual struggle between the might of the Authority and the subtle promptings of the rebel angels. From time to time, men and women or creatures of other kinds would listen to the rebel angels and to the quiet voice of Sophia, and grew towards wisdom themselves. The great moral leaders of mankind, Jesus included, were people of this kind, inspired by the rebel angels and Sophia, not by the Authority. Whenever such a one came along and upset the Authority’s order, the Authority soon arranged for his churches and priesthoods to punish them and pervert their teachings, and so on and so forth – churches and popes, and the inquisition and the burnings of the heretics, etc. So Jesus in my scheme was a human being prompted by the whisperings of wisdom and the rebel angels to tell people some truths about morality. The great moral teachings of Jesus are unequalled. And the church has never taken a blind bit of notice of them. Apart from the church in Southampton.

TW: [Laughs.] We’ll come back to that one a little bit later. That’s a great story within the context of His Dark Materials. What about your place for Jesus in the real world, if you like. How much of it still works?

PP: It all still works. He was a human being who . . . all his teachings, all his wisdom were human ones. We don’t need to have a divinity; we don’t need to involve God. God’s another epicycle. Except that he said he was the Son of God and so on and so forth.

TW: But why . . .?

PP: Deluded is one answer. C S Lewis has a paragraph about this, which when I first read it when I was a boy convinced me completely. He said Jesus was this man who did all these things, and he claimed to be the son of God. Now there are only three ways of looking at this, only three ways of interpreting it. Either he was a madman and his statements have no more value than that of a man who says he’s a poached egg; or he was the greatest liar in the history of the world, and we have to regard him as being the Devil; or what he said was true. There are only those three ways to interpret it. And that I thought, gosh, that’s right – it must be true; the other things can’t be true. Well actually, that’s a typical piece of CS Lewis bullying rhetoric, because there aren’t only three ways of regarding it, there are many, many other ways of regarding it. Firstly, he could have been speaking in metaphor, not literally. Secondly, it could be an error in translation. Thirdly, it could be his followers putting this into the story afterwards, because he didn’t write this – he was quoted as having said it by somebody who wrote seventy years after he died, etcetera, etcetera. There are all sorts of other ways of regarding it. So my way of looking at Jesus is seeing him as a moral genius who probably deluded himself into thinking that he was divine and was killed for political reasons.

TW: What then do you make of the claims for the resurrection?

PP: Just nonsense.

TW: Why?

PP: Because people either don’t rise from the dead, or they weren’t really dead in the first place. He could have been taken down before he was dead in a state of shock or something, and then revived later on. If that happened we don’t know. I mean, this was a very long time ago and I know from experience of seeing stories about me in the paper when I was only interviewed last week, and I know how wrong they can get it. I mean, for goodness’ sake!

TW: I’m sure, but some of the early church writers – like Paul, for instance, who says ‘There are people around whom you can talk to – they’re still alive – who’ve seen him.’

PP: Well, as I said in the bit of our conversation before we got on to your questions I was in a church with a lot of people – with a thousand people, possibly – who could swear blind that they had heard someone speaking in the tongues of angels.

TW: But clearly they had heard them talking something.

PP: It was gobbledygook! I’m rather sceptical about Paul, because he was a man who clearly had his own rather peculiar agenda. In the first place, he was convinced – wasn’t he? – that the world was going to end within his lifetime.

TW: No, there are some passages where he seems to think that, and passages where he doesn’t. What I’ve read suggests that he was probably saying Jesus is going to return at some point, and it could be our lifetime and therefore we need to be ready, not that he was convinced it was going to be within his lifetime.

PP: And he was also . . . well, being situated as he was at the sort of crossroads of a number of different cultural pathways and inheritances, there is a lot of Platonism.

TW: Or we have read Platonism into it.

PP: Well, isn’t that the same thing? Aren’t we seeing it there because it is there? When Paul says, for example, ‘Now we see through a glass darkly, then face to face,’ isn’t that the same as Plato’s famous image of the shadows in the cave? There is a truer reality elsewhere. Here the reality that we think we see around us is a mere shadow, a mere image in the glass. It isn’t the real thing, but the real thing is elsewhere. That’s pure Platonism. We’re not reading that into Paul; it’s clearly there. As well as that, you have his own issues (as we say now) with Judaism, and the sense that he had as a Jew, but a Roman Jew, or a Jew and a Roman citizen, that here was a message that transcended Judaism and was for Gentiles as well, and yet there still had to be circumcision – of the Spirit! But then he’s a crazy mixed up kid, and it’s Paul who’s responsible for much of what we now have as Christian doctrine whether it’s in the Epistle to Romans and its effect on Luther and all the rest of the stuff.

And the other thing about Paul and the reason that he’s so important a figure, is that he was also a literary genius. Whereas as far as we know Jesus wasn’t a literary genius although he was certainly a very great story teller – not necessarily the same thing. Paul was great with written words but I don’t think Jesus wrote anything that we know of . . . But he told stories, and the great thing about the stories and parables that Jesus told is that they are like fairy tales, or the great myths. And it doesn’t matter in what words you put them, the story makes the same effect on us because it operates at a level below literature or above literature, or beyond words anyway.

C S Lewis, who said a lot of very intelligent and sensible and profound things about the way literature works, said something like – I can’t remember where he said it – this is the true test of a myth. If you hear the story of Orpheus and Euridice, for example, it doesn’t matter who tells you the story or what version of the story, the story still makes its viceral impression because of what happens in the story, not because of how it’s told. And that’s the difference between a myth and a work of literature. If you tried to tell Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Darroway in other words it would be the flattest, dullest crap you could ever possibly imagine. The important thing is not what happened in it, but the way it’s told. That’s the difference. And Paul was a genius in the Virginia Woolf sense, the way he put words together – the famous passage on love or charity – that had its affect in fixing doctrines in certain ways and making some things expressible and thinkable and rendering other things not expressible and not thinkable.

So when you look at the history of the Christian Church, of course you have to look at Jesus. But you also have to look at Paul and the other writers of the epistles, and the early church fathers and everybody else – most of them acting within, in order to support, or outside, in order to destroy, some sort of human bureaucratic organised structure. Ever since there has been a church, and ever since there have been councils to decide what was OK to believe and what was not OK to believe, and ever since we have had human authority in the form of priests and popes and so on, this has had to be a central factor in what people say about Christian doctrine. Either you’re contradicting what the authorities say, or you’re supporting it or you’re undermining it or you’re clarifying it, or what have you. The more we go on the further we get away from what Jesus said. I don’t think that Jesus had anything at all to say about such matters as the assumption of the Virgin Mary, or the infallibility of the Pope, or whether or not HIV positive men are allowed to wear condoms when they make love to their wives . . .

TW: Absolutely.

PP: . . . but the church does, and this is what I’m agin.

TW: Or parts of the church do.

PP: Well, according to me, the only true church. That’s a great problem, because the Orthodox would say that they’re the only true church, and so would the snake-handling Baptists in Alabama say ‘We are the only true church.’ The problem for someone outside like me is: one of these is probably not telling the truth. Which? How do I know? I only have things to go on like common sense and human experience.

TW: That’s an entirely reasonable criticism, which is why for me, the important thing is to be going back to source documents. This was Luther’s stroke of genius, if you like, to say ‘No, our understanding is in our own hands because we have this text the Bible, and this is open and should be open for everybody to interpret themselves.’

PP: Of course and the 95 theses on the door of the church were a great step forward for the human race. Undoubtedly.

TW: So when I’m preaching, I’m going back to Jesus again and again and again to hear what he said. For myself I actually tend to use Jesus and the Old Testament more than I do Paul, simply because Paul gets used quite a lot. Not because I think Paul was a mixed up kid; I actually think Paul was an extraordinarily coherent and unified in his thought, drawing very heavily on Judaism, rather than on Greek thinking. Coming back to the Platonism thing, there are elements where Plato and Paul see things the same way, but I don’t think that’s the same as saying that Paul was a Platonist.

PP: No, but Platonism is such a strong current in the thought at the time that you see it all over – very strongly in Gnosticism, for example.

TW: Absolutely. And Gnosticism and some of those early church fathers you mentioned bought into Platonism very heavily and shaped understanding of Christianity for centuries. Later Thomas Aquinas drew very heavily on Aristotle and a lot of Platonism came in then, and I think some of your criticism of the church down through history – some of which up to a point is valid although in other respects I would want to disagree with you – but some of it comes down to the fact that we’ve brought Platonism in and started looking at Paul with Platonist eyes. So when he talks about seeing through a glass darkly, we say ‘That’s Platonism.’ But maybe actually that does come from something else, and Plato had something right there, and maybe Paul’s actually drawing on a different source as I believe he is. And that’s led to the supposed separation of body and soul, and I don’t think that that’s biblically true. I don’t think that you’d find that in the biblical texts. You criticise the church often for being anti-physical, anti-sex and so on. And again that’s something that came in with Gnosticism and Plato. I don’t think it goes back to the biblical texts.

PP: Certainly it was something that was bought into wholesale by the church.

TW: Yes, to a large extent. Wholesale may be too strong, but to a large extent at some periods of history, and should never have been – it was heresy, absolute heresy. And there I am answering questions again.

Let’s talk about heaven. What you have said in more than one interview is that the traditional idea of the kingdom of heaven has failed to deliver on certain key characteristics that you highlight. What do you think the key characteristics are, and why do you think it has failed to deliver?

PP: I’m not sure that I think that it’s failed to deliver. What I think has happened is that with the death of the king, what has happened to the kingdom? That is the question. The kingdom of heaven . . . I don’t know if you’ve read a piece of mine called The Republic of Heaven which is a sort of exploration of how and what I conceive of this notion? Because I look at it in terms of . . . well, actually it’s in a children’s literature context, so all my examples are drawn from children’s literature . . .

One of the consequences of the death of God is the absence of heaven. If God is dead, how can we believe in heaven? ‘What I’m referring to,’ – I’m just quoting from it now – ‘is a sense that things are right and good, and we are part of everything that’s right and good. It’s a sense that we are connected to the universe. This connectedness is where meaning lies; the meaning of our lives is their connection with something other than ourselves. The religion that is now dead did give us that, in full measure. We were a part of a huge cosmic drama involving a Creation and a Fall and a Redemption, and Heaven and Hell. What we did mattered because God saw everything, even the fall of a sparrow. And one of the most deadly and oppressive consequences of the death of God is this sense of meaninglessness or alienation that so many of us have felt in the past century or so.’ Myself included. So what I’m looking for is a way of thinking of heaven that restores these senses of rightness and goodness and connectedness and meaning and gives us a place in it. But because there ain’t no elsewhere, that has got to exist in the only place we know about for sure which is this earth, and we’ve got to make our world as good as we possibly can for one another and for our descendants. That’s what I mean by a republic of heaven. And we won’t ever finally get there.

TW: Why do you think it’s impossible, why do you think we will never finally get there?

PP: Because of entropy. There’s always a struggle against that.

TW: It’s a good answer for everything.

PP: The very tendency of matter to form molecules, because matter loves matter, is a struggle against entropy in a way. But we can have a lot of fun in a way before we all finally peter out in the cold and the dark.

TW: What chance do you think there is of us making a real go of it at all? Is it just a question of entropy, or do you think human beings are even up to making a good crack at it?

PP: Well, we’re making a better crack now in the liberal democracies of the West than has ever been made before. We’re making a better crack of it in terms of medical science and advances in caring for people who are sick and in pain than we ever have before; we have made progress in scientific ways. We have made progress in moral understanding too. It is now no longer acceptable for us to torture people to get answers out of them. By and large, most of the liberal democracies of the West have done away with capital punishment. By and large we now understand, for example, that it’s better to have a free press and freedom of speech than not. These are all moral advances. In parts of the world, of course, they haven’t reached it yet and they are fighting a great struggle against the forces of obscurantism in the form of fundamentalist Islam. So the odds against it are formidable, but we’re not powerless.
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TW: It’s very powerful, because of the sense of responsibility that’s there.

PP: This is what I find almost most important of all. We are responsible.

TW: The progress thing is interesting though, isn’t it? You’ve commented on technological progress . . .

PP: And moral. And political.

TW: But on the technological thing, that’s very much like the subtle knife. I think the subtle knife is a brilliant invention. I remember reading in one interview you saying what a cheap trick it is using magic just to get characters out of a scrape. But at times the subtle knife is a bit like that. If it gets a bit sticky you can just cut a hole and just jump through into a nice safe world. But it is very powerful because it is so double-edged . . .

PP: There’s always a cost, and there was a cost. And the cost is that you have to use it responsibly, and the temptation is always to use it irresponsibly. You can easily escape, you can just cut a hole and steal something, which is what led to all the trouble they had in the city of Cittàgazze, etcetera. And it’s a metaphor in that sense, of course, for every single technological advance we’ve ever made.

TW: It’s a very powerful metaphor. But there’s a lot of people around at the moment who would say that the techological progress we have made has been bought at too high a price. We have an environmental crisis. We have the nuclear threat hanging over us still – we forget it but it’s very much there – and all these other things. And the cost in terms of lives – sometimes lives that have been lost, sometime lives that have been blighted, has been too high. How do you respond to that?

PP: It is a very finely balanced thing and a very difficult thing to judge. But fears change and things happen to overcome them. I was just reading in the paper today or yesterday an example of this very thing. Just in the very recent past somebody said that in the year 2000 we would all be living in caves again because all the oil would have run out. Well it didn’t and it hasn’t. And things occur that we hadn’t predicted. Thirty, forty years ago nobody would have predicted the hole in the ozone layer. So we’re always overtaken by things that we don’t expect. But then we sort of begin to struggle to do something about them. And has our relatively pain-free dentistry been bought at the price of . . . well, it has been bought at the price of something. But maybe that was a price worth paying!

TW: Yes, maybe it was.

PP: But of course we’re never in a position to judge that and say, ‘Well, look at all the outcomes and all the consequences,’ because we’re in the middle of it rather than after it. We haven’t got hindsight, we have to say, ‘At this point, to the best of our judgement now, this seems to be working.’ In five hundred years time we could look back and think ‘I wish we hadn’t done that, but we didn’t know, we had to make the best judgment.’ And we have to bring all our knowledge to bear, all our information to bear, all our intelligence to bear, and all our wisdom to bear on these things and . . . well, you would say trust to God or providence or something, I would say keep my fingers crossed or something. I wouldn’t like to explain that to Richard Dawkins because he doesn’t agree with crossing fingers. But there is an element of chance in human life, and consequences which we don’t know. But we do have to act responsibly.

TW: This is an aside, but when Iorek is first examining the knife, and he says, ‘This knife has intentions that you don’t know’, did you know what they were at the point or did you just think to yourself ‘There’s something coming here and I need to work it out’?

PP: I sort of had a feeling that there were other things in it that I didn’t know what they were yet. My sense of the knife was rather like the sense one has of the system of natural numbers, namely that there are all sorts of patterns in there that we haven’t discovered yet, and once you set up a number system you’re going to discover that some of them are prime and so on. All sorts of extraordinary patterns emerge. All these things are kind of implicit in the system, and there are other things that are implicit in the idea of the subtle knife, and I don’t know – I’m sure I’ll discover more as I think about it.

TW: I’d love to ask you so much more about the process of storytelling and writing . . .

PP: Well, that’s the only thing on which I have any hope of speaking with authority to you. Most of my discourse this afternoon is pure flim flam.

TW: Going back to the progress thing again, yes, I think you’re right to say that we have made real progress in all kinds of respects. In other kinds of respects it doesn’t feel like we do make any progress – western democracies within the last few years are being torn apart by more internal tensions and lies and nationalism again and these kinds of things. And I begin to wonder, we’ve made fantastic progress down in South Africa, we’ve seen the end of apartheid, fantastic – I’m inclined to say ‘Praise God’ but that might not be appropriate in this context – and at the same time the Balkans are blowing up or whatever, and I wonder whether human being really are actually getting any better or if we’re just the same as we always were?

PP: In the first place we don’t know what we always were, what we know about is the about the last 3000 years because that’s the earliest recorded history. But 3000 years is the blink of an eye when it comes to evolution. As far as we can tell, human beings have the same sized brains and the same sorts of capacities 30,000 years ago as we do now. So we don’t know what we were like then, we have no written records of it, so to say that we’re getting worse is to [base it on] the tiniest little sliver of time.

Secondly, against the ‘we’re all getting worse’ argument is the odd psychological fact that everything seems to be getting worse all the time. Food doesn’t taste as good as it did when my granny cooked it. Even in one of the earliest documents we have, The Iliad, the old king Nestor is reproving his fellow kings while they are fighting the Trojans: ‘I fought beside your fathers – they were ten times the men you are! You’re all nancy boys these days!’ So even back then there was a sense of this odd psychological constituent, of the way we’re made up, we tend to see things as not as good as they used to be. So I think we have to take account of that, in any sense that humans beings are not getting any better. Perhaps they’re not, but I don’t think we’re getting any worse.

And thirdly, the thing I haven’t mentioned, there’s the effect of what you could call culture – transmitted habits and behaviour and association and the development of laws and so on. I’m just reading Stephen Pinker’s book [The Blank Slate] on human nature at the moment.

TW: Oh, what do you think about that?

PP: I haven’t got very far with it, but he’s sort of defending the view that there is a human nature . . .

TW: Yes, he’s put himself out on a bit of a limb in some ways.

PP: Well, I expect I shall find that, I haven’t got very far into it yet. But, he’s against, isn’t he, the view that there is no such thing as human nature, that human beings are incredibly plastic, and it’s all the effect of nurture. Against which he’s saying, ‘Yes there is a human nature; it’s come about through evolution and it’s like this, and it’s like that and so on.’ Obviously the truth is that they’re both right. Human nature might supply the armature, but the play on top of the armature is formed by society, by habits and customs, and stories, indeed, that are passed down from generation to generation and help to form us to a degree. So both things are important, and so my third point then is don’t ignore the effects of culture.

TW: You said in one of your interviews that we need to work at creating the Republic of Heaven as free equal citizens. I’m interested by this notion of equality. On what level are we actually equal? What does it mean to talk about equality? Because it’s a big concept in our society at the moment, and it’s a formal complex idea that many people have thought about, and I’m sure you’ve thought about it a bit more than most.

PP: Well, in one sense of course we’re not equal. We’re all different in ability, in potential, in physical gifts and so on. So we’re not equal. But that’s not the equality we’re talking about. The equality that we’re talking about, or at least when we talk in political parties, is something different. Here I like to think of John Rawls and his book The Theory of Justice with these two brilliant notions of, firstly the original position. If we could go back to the start before there was any society – lets imagine a society which started from scratch – and linked with this the idea of the veil of ignorance. What we have to do is to set up a society, but not to know in advance what place we are going to hold in that society. How can we set about in order to be satisfied with the outcome when we find ourselves where we are? Naturally, if that was the case and you really didn’t know where you were going to end up, you wouldn’t set up a society which was a religious tyranny – or any other sort of tyranny –where a handful of people reigned over a mass of Helots and slaves. So Rawls’ great notions of the original position and the veil of ignorance are a great help here I think.

TW: So when you say ‘equal citizens’ it’s very much a political equality that you’re talking about.

PP: Yes, its an equality of, for want of a better word, rights. And, of course, responsibilities. But remember, this [the republic of heaven] is a metaphor. I insist that it’s metaphor and I don’t want anyone to take it literally. I’ve had people asking me, ‘Well, who’s going to be the President?’ To which my answer is ‘Well, that’s like saying “What colour is the carpet on the stairs of the presidential palace?”’ It’s a meaningless question. This is a metaphor; this is a way of behaving to one another.

TW: It’s a very powerful metaphor, and it’s one that at some levels, because of what you’ve just outlined about responsibility and so on, it’s something that I’d go along with. On another level, it’s where that comes from – that the king is dead, or there never was a king, and therefore we need something to create the same feeling as the kingdom of heaven. And that’s where I have a difficulty, because I wonder whether that’s really what the Bible’s talking about in the idea of the kingdom of heaven.

PP: I don’t know. I think the Bible talks about the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of heaven.

TW: Yes, that’s right. What’s your understanding of that?

PP: Um . . . I’m not sure that I have a coherent understanding of it, but what I take from it, again, is metaphorical. The metaphor of kingdom and kingship, and the notion of ‘the king is dead’; ‘God is dead’. I like that way of putting it because it does express a sense that there was something which we felt was alive, but is no more and we are bereft because of it, and we have to find a way of dealing with a world where God is dead. Nietzsche – it was Nietzsche who first put it like that, wasn’t it? –

TW: Yes. I was going to ask you, are you a Nietzschean?

PP: Given that you’ve called Hitler a Nietzschean, I don’t really think so! I don’t think Nietzsche would think Hitler was a Nietzschean! No, I’m not a Nietzschean, I’m not an anythingean. The phrase ‘God is dead’ seems to me to encapsulate a much more truthful way of looking at it than to think there never was a God. There was a time when we all believed in God – very important, a central part of all our lives. Then it became impossibile to believe in it. It’s as if God has died. That’s the feeling I have. What are the consequences of this? Well, the consequences of this is that instead of seeing ourselves as creatures, children, or whatever, we’ve . . . Well, the parents are dead; we’re in charge. We have to look after the place.

TW: Can we talk about this business of growing up, because you’ve said that that’s what His Dark Materials is essentially all about. I’ve also seen you saying that its also essentially about truth rather than fantasy with Lyra’s . . ..

PP: Well, you could say that she’s learning to distinguish between truth and fantasy . . . learning to see the value in truth rather than just spinning lies is an important part of growing up. You must always be very sceptical about what any writer says about their own work. My interpretation of His Dark Materials is no more valid or privileged than anybody else’s. The only authority I have is that of someone who knows the text fairly well. That’s all. I’m not entitled to say what it means or how you should read this bit or what that bit signifies. If it will sustain an interpretation, then that interpretation is sustainable.

TW: Sounds a bit postmodern . . .

PP: Well, up to a point, but I stop well short of saying that the text wrote itself, and I don’t exist and so on. I know full well I wrote the bloody thing. It was hard work! No, its not postmodern, or if it is postmodern then postmodernism in that sense coincides with common sense. I’m just agin [against] the idea that there is an authoritative interpretation – I would be like the Pope instead of Luther! I’m in the position of Luther saying, ‘Here it is, read it. Make your own interpretation.’

TW: Your intention – or what you’re thinking as you’re writing – is not always what goes into the text is it?

PP: No, and I was discovering a lot of what I thought while I was writing it. So I started to write it without knowing – not without knowing what the outcome would be, but without knowing what the underlying plot meant. I discovered that on the way through, with a sense that this was the right way to go and that was the wrong to go, and the story wanted to do this and not to do that, and so I followed the story.

TW: But when you write it, you’re interpreting it to yourself – and more besides – as you write. Does that interpretation find itself working its way into the text? Is there not a sense in which that is authoritative?

PP: No, I’m not sure that interpretation is what’s happening. What you’re trying to do when you tell a story is . . . Well, in essence you can describe it very simply. The main thing with a story consists of thinking about some interesting events, putting them in the best order to bring out the connection between them and then recounting them as clearly as you can. Once you start interpreting it on the way through, and telling people how to read it and what it means, you’re doing something other than telling the story, and I don’t want to do that. Firstly, because I’m not really interested in doing that. Secondly, because its awfully boring to read books that are like that. One of my favourite lines which I’ve quoted many, many times is from Isaac Bashevis Singer: ‘Events themselves are far more wise than any commentary ever made.’ Once you start saying, ‘This is the way to read this story,’ and, ‘No, that’s the wrong way to understand that, what I meant was this instead,’ and, ‘This the way you should read it,’ . . . I don’t want to get into that kind of thing. I’ve done my best to tell a clear story as clearly as I could, and people may read whatever they like into it. I think the story allows some readings and discourages others. I think the story helps you understand it in some ways and, while not actually forbidding other readings, perhaps doesn’t make them as easy. But I wouldn’t want to tell people how to read it.

TW: I’ve heard some people say that that kind of reply is perhaps a little bit disingenuous when there’s a character like Mary Malone, say, who makes these very strong statements which then may coincide with the kind of statements that you make in real life about your own position. And the correlation between Mary Malone’s views and your views makes that sense of . . . Here’s Mary Malone interpreting her circumstances, if you like, and you are saying what she says.

PP: Wouldn’t it be slightly odd if I did have a position and yet I provided no mouthpiece for that within the book?

TW: Yes.

PP: Wouldn’t it be odd if I wrote a book in which all the characters who are articulate were articulate against me rather than for me?

TW: Yes, absolutely.

PP: But that’s not at all the same thing as saying that I agree with everything that Mary Malone said. It was important for me to have a character like her who could see certain things at certain moments. Who could see, for example, that although she had felt after she ceased to become a Christian that although the world was very interesting and intricate and beautiful, there was no meaning in it, no purpose in it. It’s very important for her at some stage in the book to say, ‘Well, I thought that there was no meaning but there is now! The meaning is that I’ve got to make it explicit. I’ve got to discover what it is and make it explicit. That’s the meaning, that’s the purpose! The world is full of purpose!’ Its important for me to have a character who discovers that, and that’s a discovery I’ve made so it would be surprising if there was no character who expressed that.

TW: I found Mary Malone an intriguing character in some ways. I loved her in many ways, but there was also a sense in which I was a little bit disappointed by her because you flagged up that she was the tempter but then it didn’t feel like much of a temptation when it came to it. I thought, ‘Well, what’s wrong with this?’ She’s telling her story and Will and Lyra realise that perhaps they love each other, but wouldn’t they have realised that anyway?

PP: No.

TW: Why not?

PP: I do think that there’s a profound psychological truth in that episode of Dante in which he’s talking about the two lovers, Paulo and Francesca, who happened to fall in love because they were reading together the story of lovers, and this put the idea into their heads and they committed adultery so they ended up in hell and that’s why Dante talked about it. Somebody asked the question – I forget who it was – ‘would anybody ever fall in love if they never read a love story?’ and I think that there’s a lot of truth in that. It’s an aspect of the general stress on telling stories which comes all the way through [His Dark Materials], and perhaps most importantly in the world of the dead sequence. We have to tell stories in order to tell the true story of our life. And Mary is telling a true story. She’s telling a story which educates, which tells Will and Lyra something they didn’t know before. After [Lyra has] heard the story . . . [Pullman reads from The Amber Spyglass]:

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body . . . She felt as if she’d been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, deep in the darkness of the building she felt other doors opening too, and lights coming on. She sat trembling … As for Lyra, she hadn’t moved a muscle since that strange thing had happened, and she held a memory of the sensations inside her . . . She didn’t know what it was, or what it meant, or where it had come from: so she sat still, hugging her knees, and tryied to stop herself from trembling with excitement. Soon she thought, soon I’ll know.’

Well, what’s happening there is just that – her body, her whole self, her nerves, her memory, her imagination are all stirred, are all quickened in exactly the same way that Eve felt with all her senses scrambling when she picked the apple that the serpent had told her would give her the knowledge of good and evil. That’s what’s happening at that moment, and of course it’s temptation, it’s the beginning of wisdom! When the angels, through the computer, talked to Mary the tempter using terms she would understand, they talked about Augustine and the natures of matter and spirit and so on – these are terms she will understand. She knows she has a very full and important part to play. But she doesn’t know how, she doesn’t know what. What she is doing, what the serpent is doing in Genesis, and what my Sophia and all the others are doing are bring enlightenment, bringing wisdom, helping us to go to the next [level]. They’re being fairy godmothers in the Cinderella sense.

The Fairy Godmother is a very interesting figure. The Cinderella story is more widely known throughout the world than any other story – there are four hundred, at least, different versions of the Cinderella story. Every culture in the world has a Cinderella story, and in all of them there is an equivalent to the Fairy Godmother. In some it’s the rose tree that grows on the mother’s grave, in others the doves that come down, and various other things. But always, it’s a surrogate for the parent. And the function of the Fairy Godmother in the Cinderella story is to help the girl who’s on the brink of adulthood to take the next step and become a mature grown-up, ready for sexual experience civilised by marriage, and maturity and so on. So you could say that the Cinderella story is a variant on the Adam and Eve story, and the Fairy Godmother plays the part of the serpent: ‘This is what you must do in order to go to the next stage – eat this fruit.’ Now the reason that the falling in love business is linked with the coming of wisdom, is that this is what happens to us – at the age of adolescence, when our bodies begin to change, when we have strange new, exciting, troubling, passionate feelings towards towards other people, towards members of the other sex usually, that’s also the age at which we become passionate intellectually too. We develop a passionate interest in mathematics or chess or art or science or biology or whatever it might happen to be. It’s all part of this great opening up, this great coming to maturity. That’s all I’m saying.
Of course, it all started with valerian and other sedatives, but she needed something stronger.

TW: It feels that you’re stretching it to compare that with what is going on back in Eden.

PP: Yes, because you’re looking at it from the other point of view.

TW: Yes, exactly. The Christian understanding of what Satan says is that he’s saying you’re going to be like God in what you know, knowing good and evil. In fact, they’ve already known good – they’ve known good all their lives up to that point and nothing but good. And they’ve known almost absolute freedom, just with this one restriction and by embracing that one restriction and going for that, they’re actually not finding wisdom, but they’re embracing rebellion, they’re embracing evil. They’re . . .

PP: I might say you’re stretching the truth to call it evil. I think they’re taking the first steps on the long, painful, difficult road towards wisdom. They’re leaving innocence behind and setting out towards wisdom. These are the two ends of the spectrum of human experience. Blake called them innocence and experience. I call them innocence and wisdom. Experience is what you need to get through in order to get to wisdom.

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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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