Pullman, Philip

Tagged: Author

(1946-    ) UK author, mostly of books for children and the Young Adult market, and mostly fantasy; his first novel, however, The Haunted Storm (1972) as Philip N Pullman, is a nonfantastic Bildungsroman for adults, though its climax in a devastated Mithraic temple hints at the shape of future work. In his second, Galatea (1978), also for adults, the protagonist's quest for his missing wife changes by stages into a Fantastic Voyage through Lost Worlds and obscured Utopias, with Monsters and sages and Zombies and other creatures along the way, all ending in an affirmation that all forms of reality "come about because of the amorous inclinations of matter." – curiously reminiscent of the underlying burden of Edgar Allan Poe's Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848) – an elevated but secular conclusion Pullman has consistently re-affirmed.

More typical of his later career is his third novel, Count Karlstein (1982), a Gothic fantasy for older children whose young protagonists must escape being traded to the Devil, who needs them for his Wild Hunt; Count Karlstein; Or, the Ride of the Demon Huntsman (1991) retells the story for younger children, in entirely different words. Pullman's intensely storyable strategies throughout his work are first evident on a larger scale in the Sally Lockhart sequence, comprising The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), The Shadow in the Plate (1986; vt The Shadow in the North 1987), The Tiger in the Well (1990) and The Tin Princess (1994), where homages explicit and implicit to Charles Dickens and his London can everywhere be felt. The melodrama of Sally's life – she is an orphan who grows up in Victorian London to become something of a financial wizard and tycoon (see Feminism, Women in SF) – begins within the frame of the nonfantastic, but Inventions and exorbitant coincidences stretch that reading; the fourth volume leaves Sally Lockhart (for the most part) and London for Ruritania.

Pullman's next major series, the central work of his career to date, is the His Dark Materials sequence comprising an initial, massively extended three-volume narrative – Northern Lights (1995; vt The Golden Compass 1996), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), all three assembled as His Dark Materials (omni 2001) – plus two short additional titles, Lyra's Oxford (2003 chap) and Once Upon a Time in the North (2008). The first volume – which won the Carnegie Medal – was filmed, with a sense of unjoyful truncation throughout, as The Golden Compass (2007) directed by Chris Weitz; the trilogy's secular premise was carefully detoothed, presumably by Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, though this did not entirely prevent protests from the Christian Right. One of the most challenging creations of the past decades – certainly for its ostensible Young Adult readership – Dark Materials inhabits an Alternate Cosmos in which the material cohesion of the cosmos can be seen as "Dust", a physical manifestation of the angel-like dance of all matter (see Cosmology) which, aggregated, may be conscious. But this universe is beginning to show signs of severe Entropy, expressed through a literal Thinning [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] of the Dust. The ageing of reality – this dying of the light – is partly laid down to the life-denying actions of the Magisterium (Christianity, though not mentioned as such, is clearly being described here), and to the lesions caused by the use of the subtle knife, an instrument capable of cutting windows into Alternate Worlds. Even though the elimination of God in the third volume (see Religion) relieves the cast and the cosmos of an unwanted burden, the central problem remains: how to redeem the world. In the end, this task laid down to the two young protagonists, Lyra and Will, who must reverse the life-denying Miltonic claim that knowledge is evil, and that Adam and Eve sinned through "knowing" themselves as sexual beings. Lyra and Will, an Adam and Eve liberated from this extraordinary doctrine, must purify themselves by having sex together, so that the Dust may live, and a secular Kingdom, a "republic of heaven", may come into being.

The second significant array of works set in this universe – the Book of Dust trilogy beginning with La Belle Sauvage (2017) – narratively surrounds the first trilogy; in the first volume, Pullman conveys the task of saving the infant Lyra from the Magisterium through an intensely storyable use of familiar (and unfamiliar) plot devices, including a great flood that drowns Oxford, and an insinuating villain who seems clearly intended to evoke the "preacher" Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter (1955) directed by Charles Laughton.

Some other works are of interest, including Clockwork; Or, All Wound Up (1996 chap), in which a malign figure (who may be the Devil) argues for a universe in which "you wind up the future like clockwork". The story itself, as intricate as a clock but wiser, ends in a redeeming rapport between a young girl and a clockwork prince, for she – in yet another example of Pullman's central argument that "amorous inclinations of matter" make the world – has given her heart to him. A later, otherwise unconnected tale, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010), further articulates Pullman's deeply secular understanding of the world. [JC]

see also: Eastercon.

Philip Nicholas Pullman

born Norwich, Norfolk: 19 October 1946




Sally Lockhart

New Cut Gang

His Dark Materials

  • Northern Lights (London: Scholastic, 1995) [His Dark Materials: hb/David Scutt]
    • The Golden Compass (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1996) [vt of the above: His Dark Materials: hb/Eric Rohmann]
  • The Subtle Knife (London: Scholastic, 1997) [His Dark Materials: hb/David Scutt]
  • The Amber Spyglass (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2000) [His Dark Materials: hb/Eric Rohmann]
    • His Dark Materials (London: Scholastic, 2001) [omni of the above three: His Dark Materials: hb/David Scutt]
  • Lyra's Oxford (Oxford, Oxfordshire: David Fickling Books, 2003) [chap: His Dark Materials: illus/hb/John Lawrence]
  • Once Upon a Time in the North (Oxford, Oxfordshire: David Fickling Books, 2008) [His Dark Materials: illus/hb/John Lawrence]

The Book of Dust

individual titles (selected: excluding picture books)

plays (selected)

works as translator


about the author


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