Why I'm still in love with fairy tales

The author of His Dark Materials is excited to see his new story, I Was a Rat!, performed on stage in Birmingham

It began with a picture in my mind, as most of my stories do. A moonlit doorway, an apprehensive old couple looking out, and a little boy in a ragged page's costume saying to them "I was a rat!"

What would happen after that I had no idea. I seldom do. But I could see ahead as far as the little boy sitting down at a table and trying to eat by putting his face into a bowl of bread and milk. I don't know if any children are still given bread and milk, but it was a staple of my childhood: there was something profoundly comforting about it, and I wanted to show the old couple (who by now were called Bob and Joan) knowing exactly the right thing to give this little lost boy who said he'd been a rat, and the little boy doing just what a rat would do when presented with it.

The old couple, of course, had always wanted a child but had never had one. This is a fairy tale, and very little in a fairy tale is new or unexpected or original. The couple who have no child but want one turns up in many of them. They turn up in one of the Grimm's very best, Hans-my-Hedgehog, and they turn up in another of mine, Clockwork, or All Wound Up, and here they are again, with the little boy who'd been a rat, and who certainly seems to be ratty in his habits.

One of the delights of fairy tales is this very lack of originality. It's similar to another quality they have: the characters in a fairy tale have no depth, no psychology. They don't fret about their feelings; they often don't appear to know that they have any feelings. Everything they do is on the surface, because the surface is all there is. Even when a character is sly and deceptive, we can see that immediately, although the other characters can't. Is there any reader who is deceived by the smooth words of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood?

So in I Was a Rat! Bob and Joan are all goodness, the little boy is all puzzlement and honesty and wants to do things in the right way, if only he knew what that was, and the villains are all villainy in their various forms. After writing a novel, where you try and give your characters the semblance of depth and self-contradiction and the ability to reflect on their lives, it's immensely refreshing to go back to the fairy tale, where everything can be exactly as it seems.

But you can still be taken by surprise. A short way into this story, when I still didn't quite know where it was going, it occurred to me how the little boy had got into this predicament. He must have been one of the rats that Cinderella's godmother had changed into pageboys for the course of the evening, and he'd failed to get back to the coach at midnight, and remained as a boy. So it was a story set in the Cinderella world.

And there could be an infinity of those. The world in which Cinderella happens contains any number of possibilities. Suppose the royal orchestra is discontented, and go on strike for more pay: will the matter be settled in time for the ball? There's another story. Suppose the fairy godmother comes to the wrong house: there's another. Suppose it's Cinderella's sisters who are kind and helpful, and the fairy godmother who is devilish and cruel: there's another. If a story is a line connecting a number of events and situations, we can imagine a thousand events and situations in the Cinderella world and draw a million lines connecting them in various ways.

Some, of course, are much better than others, and that's where the skill of the storyteller comes in; but they're all possible. In this variation, the Cinderella figure comes in only briefly, because it isn't her story; but she's very important.

And now I Was a Rat! is on the stage. The Birmingham Rep, 100 years old this year, has allowed my story to be one of its centenary productions, which makes me very pleased. In my conversations with Teresa Ludovico of the Italian company Teatro Kismet, who has created this version, I was reminded of the great Italian tradition of the commedia dell'arte, where the masks have as little depth as the characters in fairy tales, but just as much vigour and narrative power. I'm hoping for absurdity, pathos, and a happy ending.

Philip Pullman's 'I Was a Rat!', Birmingham Repertory Theatre (0121 236 4455, iwasarat.co.uk) to 2 March; then touring until June

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone