Years ago, when British writer Philip Pullman was traveling with his family in Austria, they stayed in a hotel where the restaurant service was particularly slow. Every evening as they waited for dinner, Pullman would entertain his 6-year-old son by telling him a portion of "The Odyssey."
"I spun it out, calculating all the time, watching the kitchen and seeing when the food would arrive, and ending on a cliffhanger every night," recalls Pullman. "We got to this point in the last night where the most exciting bit of the story happens, when Odysseus comes back to the island." As the tension built and the hero prepared to string his great bow, Pullman's narrative was shattered by a startling and terrible crunch. His son, totally engrossed by the story, had bitten right through his water glass. "The waitress who was coming just at that moment saw this and was horrified, and she dropped the food," exults Pullman. "It was chaos! It was wonderful!"
Anyone wanting additional proof of Pullman's superior storytelling skills will find them in "His Dark Materials," his best-selling trilogy for young adults. The critically acclaimed books -- "The Golden Compass," "The Subtle Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass" -- have been published in 21 languages. In the United States, combined sales of the three volumes have totaled more than 1 million. For most weeks since its publication last October, "The Amber Spyglass" has occupied the No. 5 slot on the New York Times Book Review ranking of children's bestsellers, just under the four Harry Potter adventures. Like the Potter books, the trilogy is attracting readers who are much older than the target audience. Yes, teens and preteens are reading it, but their parents are, too.
But unlike J.K. Rowling's tales of a young wizard, Pullman's trilogy delves into the moral complexities of weighty philosophical and religious questions. The epic story, which was inspired by Milton's "Paradise Lost," subverts fundamental Western religious principles and is populated by compassionate witches, malevolent theologians and a feeble, disingenuous God.
The first book, "The Golden Compass" (1996), introduces readers to 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua, a half-wild orphan who is being raised at an Oxford college. Lyra's Oxford is very different from Pullman's. In her world, every human has a "daemon," an animal familiar that serves as the embodiment of a person's soul. The golden compass of the title is a truth-telling "alethiometer," which proves to be invaluable as Lyra journeys to the frozen North to rescue her best friend and other kidnapped children from terrible experiments being carried out by the church. In "The Subtle Knife" (1997) she meets Will, a sober boy burdened by adult responsibilities, and together they travel to other worlds in search of Will's missing father. Along the way, Will acquires the immensely powerful knife of the title. Lyra is pursued by an assassin in "The Amber Spyglass," which recasts the biblical Temptation and Fall as the beginning of true human freedom. The final volume also wraps up myriad plot developments with a great war in Heaven that results in the death of God.
While many readers might find such content objectionable, attacks on "His Dark Materials" have been few. This is particularly surprising given that religious fundamentalists have criticized the relatively innocuous Harry Potter series as glorifying witchcraft. A recent article in Publishers Weekly speculated on why the trilogy hadn't stirred similar controversy, and the explanation is: No one's really sure.
Pullman's U.S. editor, Joan Slattery, publishing director of Knopf Books for Young Readers, says she's "pleasantly surprised and relieved" that she's not hearing any complaints. "Kids are reading these for the wonderful adventures," she says. "The adults who are reading it are fairly sophisticated. I think it's a testament to the intelligence of his fans that nobody has objected to it."
After "The Subtle Knife" was published, Pullman received a handful of letters from readers accusing him of endorsing Satanism. "My response to that was: 'You haven't read the whole story yet. You wait and see what happens in the third book. If you find that you inadvertently become a Satanist, you can write to the publisher and get your money back.' "
Pullman acknowledges that a controversy would be likely to boost sales. "But I'm not in the business of offending people," he says. "I find the books upholding certain values that I think are important. Such as that this life is immensely valuable. And that this world is an extraordinarily beautiful place, and we should do what we can to increase the amount of wisdom in the world."
He says he recently received a review in the mail from a vicar who found the books' "moral base" to be secure. "What he meant," Pullman explains, "is that the qualities and the actions which the story seems to be saying are good -- such as courage, love, kindness, compassion and so on -- are ones that we can all agree on. . . . It's saying things that we generally agree on, so what is there to disagree with?"
It's No Narnia Pullman, 54, lives with his wife and three dogs in a tranquil Oxford suburb. The study is cluttered with hundreds of books, but Pullman doesn't write there. He works in a rickety-looking garden shed in the back yard, where, when he's writing, he produces exactly three hand-scrawled pages a day. After lunch, he always watches his favorite television show, the Australian soap opera "Neighbours." He enjoys tracking what he describes as the "ancient story patterns," the love triangles straight out of classic literature.
Pullman's father was a pilot with the Royal Air Force, and so Philip was a well-traveled child. For a time, the family lived in what was then Rhodesia. After his father was killed in a flying accident, his mother married another RAF flier and they moved to South Africa and then Australia. As an adult, Pullman settled in Oxford, where he taught the British equivalent of junior high school for 13 years. For several more years, he instructed teachers-in-training on children's literature. Eventually he quit to write full time, turning out young-adult and children's volumes that have included another trilogy ("The Ruby in the Smoke," "The Shadow in the North" and "The Tiger in the Well"), "The White Mercedes" and "I Was a Rat!"
Just a short walk away from the Pullmans' house is the grave of another Oxford master of fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien. Comparisons, notes Pullman with a heavy sigh, are inevitable. There's the Oxford connection, and the invented worlds, and both Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and "His Dark Materials" consist of one (very) long story in three volumes. But Pullman insists the similarities stop there. "What I'm doing is utterly different," he says. "Tolkien would have deplored it."
So, too, would have another famous Oxford fantasy writer, C.S. Lewis, a devout Christian whose children's series "The Chronicles of Narnia" exemplified his religious convictions. "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief," says Pullman. "Mr. Lewis would think I was doing the Devil's work."
Pullman read the Narnia books as an adult and found them deeply disturbing. "Lewis was celebrating, upholding certain activities and attitudes which I am explicitly against, such as bullying, racism, misogyny. Girls are no good, says C.S. Lewis. Girls are only good as long as they act like boys. If they're tough, they're okay, but intrinsically they're inferior. People with dark skins who probably come from somewhere sinister like the East, and almost inevitably smell of garlic, are always a sign of evil or danger."
In the final Narnia book, "The Last Battle," the older girl is excluded from salvation because she has become too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. "In other words, she's growing up. She's entering adulthood," says Pullman. "Now this for Lewis, was something . . . so dreadful and so redolent of sin that he had to send her to Hell. I find that appalling."
The coming of age of Lyra and Will, which serves as the culmination of the trilogy, represents an alternative view of the business of growing up. "This is the moment when they become truly what they could be," says Pullman. "Mr. Lewis would have hated it."
Both Lewis and Tolkien stressed "the otherness" and superiority of their fantasy worlds. Pullman is passionately opposed to that, too. He gazes out the window and watches the unending downpour that is turning his yard into a mucky pool. "I want to open people's eyes if I can, and their hearts and their minds to the extraordinary fact that we're alive in this world, which, although it is full of rain and mud, is nevertheless extraordinary and wonderful. And the more you explore it and discover about it -- scientifically, imaginatively, artistically -- the more wonderful and extraordinary it becomes."
The author would also like to help readers discover the possibilities within themselves. "Harry Potter was born to be a wizard, and I don't really like that idea. I wanted to get away from the notion that somebody is born with a particular destiny," he says. "Lyra is a very ordinary child, and so is Will, and there are hundreds of thousands of millions of kids like Will and Lyra all around the place. The great things they do are doable by all of us. . . . Lyra's and Will's responses are the responses of every young person who is faced with something difficult and is courageous enough to deal with it. "
The Realism of Fantasy
Many adult readers of general literary fiction don't care for the fantasy genre and its endless quests for sacred objects and places with strange spellings. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to speculate that if "His Dark Materials" had been published for adults, it would have been relegated to the fantasy aisle -- and reached a far smaller readership.
While the trilogy relies on such standard fantasy elements as talking animals and dramatic prophecies, it departs from the genre's conventions. "What I'm interested in is what people are like as human beings, and how we grow up and how we love each other and how it's difficult to live with each other," says Pullman. "Traditionally, that sort of stuff has belonged in the domain of realistic fiction. But why not put that in a fantasy context? I wanted to make this fantasy as realistic in psychological terms as I possibly could."
The trilogy's animal familiars are a fanciful device that serves as a shortcut to characterization (or, possibly, species stereotyping). Children's daemons change according to their mood -- when Lyra is angry, hers often transforms into a polecat -- but once a person matures into adulthood, his daemon settles into a single form. Servants' daemons are always dogs. The villainous Mrs. Coulter's daemon is a golden monkey, while the fearsome Lord Asriel's is a powerful snow leopard.
Readers frequently ask Pullman what sort of daemon he might have. "I think she would be one of those birds who steal bright things, like a jackdaw," he says. "Storytellers work by picking up little bright bits of experience or gossip or something they've read that sort of sparkles. So you pick it up and take it to your nest."
Pullman's influences range far and wide. Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, who has called the trilogy "the best, deepest and most disturbing children's fantasy of our time," assembled a remarkable list that includes "Paradise Lost," the poetry of William Blake, the Jewish cabala, Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungs," "Peter Pan," "Star Wars," superhero comics and Ursula K. Le Guin's "Earthsea" books.
Pullman devised the names for some of the trilogy's most beloved characters by borrowing from a variety of sources. The author came up with "Iorek Byrnison" for the armored bear by thumbing through a book of old Norse poems. "Iorek means something like bear," he explains, "and the second part of his name comes from 'byrne,' which means something like armor. Then I added a typical Nordic suffix." Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby was derived from actor Lee Van Cleef and arctic explorer William Scoresby. As for the elegant and beautiful witch Serafina Pekkala, Pullman took that name right out of a Helsinki telephone book. "It's a really common name in Finland," he says.
Pullman was very involved in the award-winning audio versions of the trilogy -- he read the narration -- but his participation in any upcoming film version will be considerably less. The movie rights have been sold to a company that's talking to various studios, he says, and that's all he knows. "Whether they will make a film at all, whether it will be one film or three, whether it will be animated or not, I really don't want to be involved. If somebody buys the rights, that's what they buy -- the rights. If they want to turn Iorek Byrnison into an armored giraffe and Lyra into a boy . . . they can do that. I could say, 'You shouldn't do this,' but they don't care what some damn fool writer in England says. I don't want an argument. I want to be writing another book."
Another book? Could there be a sequel to the trilogy? The answer is a not particularly firm "no." For now, he says, he's contemplating prequels, but he hasn't ruled out more on Lyra and Will. Up next, he says, will be "The Book of Dust," focusing on what he calls "the mythical dimension" of the trilogy. He's also considering the early life of one of his favorite characters, Lee Scoresby, and how he came to be friends with the armored bear. Then there's the story of Serafina Pekkala and the human she once loved . . .
"There are all kinds of stories, thousands of stories, that could be set in this world," he says. The expert storyteller's dramatic pause. "And I may write them."