Philip Pullman: Material worlds

Philip Pullman has returned to fairy tales to carve a new story about goodness. The master craftsman tells Christina Patterson how to avoid 'moral woodworm'

Philip Pullman is making a rocking horse. He likes the challenge of working with the grain of the wood, of getting the chisels sharp and matching a joint. He likes the "engagement with the world of materials". He's finished making a table for the hall, but now, with the horse, he's got to carve. "If the eyes are slightly skew-whiff," he says with a smile, "the whole thing can look terribly sinister."

He's better known, of course, for materials of a different kind: His Dark Materials, the multi-award-winning trilogy that began with Northern Lights and ended with The Amber Spyglass. It was voted the nation's third favourite book in the BBC's Big Read and has sold more than seven million copies worldwide. Even the most jaded critics were swept away: "A genuine masterpiece of intelligent, imaginative storytelling," said Terence Blacker. "Is he", asked one critic, "the best storyteller ever?"

The "best storyteller ever" is sitting at a round table in the book-lined offices in Oxford of his publisher, David Fickling. Tall, solid and slightly owlish, he is courteous, but matter-of-fact. He agrees that his work with wood is an apt metaphor for the art of telling stories. "I could do an extended riff on working against the grain and not against the grain," he says drily. "There are," he adds, after a moment's pause, "similarities and differences." The supreme rationalist, whose work has transported so many into the icy wastes of a magical north and its interlocking worlds, is anxious to be accurate. "You probably use a different part of the brain," he declares. "You have to get it right and that means knowing the properties of the wood."

If anyone knows the properties of his materials, it is probably Pullman. Contrary to his image as some kind of genius who sprang into the literary landscape from nowhere, he has been writing all his life. Northern Lights was just the culmination of an extraordinary range of storytelling skills that he had been honing in a variety of contexts for years: in his work as a teacher, where he would read the children fairy tales and write plays for them to perform, and in a range of books for younger readers.

His first book for children, Count Karlstein, was published in 1982 and followed, over the next decade, by a quartet of books featuring the young Victorian adventurer, Sally Lockhart. These were followed in turn by the now internationally famous trilogy, but also by a series of books for younger readers. He calls these books (all re-issued by Doubleday this month) "the fairy tales".

All three work at many different levels. The Firework-Maker's Daughter is both an adventure story and an extended metaphor for the making of art. Clockwork is a gothic fantasy with a sinister twist, which draws heavily on German Romanticism. It's also a philosophical parable, playing with notions of free will, cause and effect. I Was a Rat! is a rollicking romp about Roger the rat-boy, but - as the title implies - it's also a brilliant parody of the sleazier reaches of journalism. "What I hope," says Pullman, "is that the stories I write will entertain both the young readers and the older ones. What I don't want to do is to write the sort of book that has silly slapstick for children and clever stuff for the grown-ups. I want them all to enjoy the same bits for the same reason - but maybe see different things in it."

But does he really expect his younger readers to appreciate the finer points of philosophy? Or the nuances of his parody? "Well," he replies, with just a hint of the school-teacher, "they all know about David Beckham and how the papers set him up. And," he adds, "Big Brother, of course." Well, OK, but what about words like "epistemology" or "psychoanalysis"? "They might" he suggests crisply, "be interested enough to look them up."

If his younger readers don't necessarily spot shades of Candide in his new book, The Scarecrow and His Servant (Doubleday, £10.99), they can't fail to be enchanted by the character's sweetness. The tale begins, like so many of the best ones do, with a thunderstorm. When the scarecrow is struck by lightning, he blinks with surprise and comes to life.

He meets a boy, Jack, and together they set out on a journey. It seems to involve an exciting array of adventures - from battles and a shipwreck to encounters with tricksters, brigands and the evil Buffalonis. It's a charming, funny tale that's also a touching exploration of what it means to love, and to be good.

It was, says Pullman, during a production of Bernstein's Candide at the National Theatre that the idea for the story struck him. "The relationship between the master and the servant," he points out "is something that goes right back to Greek and Roman comedy and henceforth through Shakespeare and ends up in the hands of PG Wodehouse. On the one hand is all the financial power and on the other the intellectual power. It's an interesting mutual dependence. I wanted," he adds, "to get the power and cleverness and the sort of naive optimism - and also the sense of righting wrongs."

The scarecrow is, as instructed in the dying wishes of his farmer-creator, "courteous... brave... honourable and... kind". He is, in fact, the kind of character who rarely features in fiction. In the tradition of Satan as the most interesting character in Paradise Lost, and perhaps of the not-so-tragic death of Little Nell, writers have a tendency to conflate the good with the boring. Pullman begs to differ: "I actually find good characters, characters who are struggling to be good and to be brave, interesting and attractive. Think of Bertie Wooster. His impulses are good - and yet he's never boring. We enjoy what he gets up to. Perhaps," he muses, "it's only when you've got someone who's slightly zany: a dumkopf."

This particular dumkopf's infectious optimism is in stark contrast to many of the characters and impulses in Pullman's work for older readers. Does he make an effort to present a world for the younger ones that isn't quite so bleak? Like Jacqueline Wilson, in fact? Pullman nods."I don't think I've heard her say this, but I'm sure she'd agree with it - Dr Johnson's remark that the true aim of writing is to enable the reader the better to enjoy life or the better to endure it."

Pullman offers an energetic engagement with the world, of life as a quest for love and truth. We're told in The Scarecrow and His Servant that "although the Scarecrow's heart was broken, his curiosity about the world was undimmed". Insofar as literature offers lessons for life, would he agree this is his central theme? He pauses before replying. "Yes. Curiosity is a great virtue. So is hope. You mentioned optimism," he says. "Actually, the word I'd use is hope. It's not the name of a temperament. It's the name of a virtue."

It is precisely the absence of this virtue that triggers his quarrel with CS Lewis, whose Narnia books are the clear precursor of His Dark Materials. "What I object to," Pullman explains, "is not the presence of Christian doctrine, it's the absence of Christian virtue. If you were an otherwise intelligent person and you knew nothing of Christianity, and you heard that the Narnia books were great examples of Christian fiction, you would never know that the greatest virtue was supposed to be love."

Pullman is currently grappling with a moral dilemma of his own. With fame - and fortune - has come a torrent of demands on his time: requests for talks and readings, letters from his young fans. "You've got to be cruel and heartless," says Pullman, "but if you make one part of yourself heartless it can infect you like a sort of moral woodworm. Who do you belong to? Do you belong to the people who would read the books that you're going to write or do you belong to the people who want you to talk to them? I've decided," he declares, "I've got to write".

In his precious spare time, he is writing an introduction to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. He loves the "sense of this enormously powerful vortex of hideous darkness." It's clearly an interest that's not entirely academic. "I'm familiar with melancholia," he confesses, "familiar enough to find it utterly terrifying. It's a curious thing that many writers seem to be affected by it. But," continues our most popular storyteller with a rueful smile, "I dare say a lot of electricians are, too."

Biography: Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman was born in Norwich in 1946 and lived in England, Zimbabwe and Australia before moving to north Wales. After reading English at Oxford, he taught at middle schools in Oxford, where he still lives. In 1986 he moved to Westminster College, where he spent eight years teaching BEd students. He published his first children's book, Count Karlstein, in 1982. It was followed by The Ruby in the Smoke (1986), the first in the Sally Lockhart quartet. He has also written shorter stories, which he calls "fairy tales": The Firework-Maker's Daughter (1995), Clockwork (1996), I Was a Rat! (1999) and, now, The Scarecrow and his Servant (Doubleday, £10.99). He is best known for the His Dark Materials trilogy: Northern Lights (1995), which won the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Children's Book Award, The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), the Whitbread Book of the Year. The National Theatre production of His Dark Materials returns on 20 November, and a stage version of The Firework-Maker's Daughter opens at the Lyric, Hammersmith on 26 November.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat