British author Philip Pullman’s trilogy, ‘His Dark Materials’, has often been compared to Tolkien’s masterpiece, Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis’ popular fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. While this comparison would have pleased many authors, Pullman has always disliked such associations and vehemently criticised Lord of the Rings for being ‘trivial’ and The Chronicles of Narnia for being ‘racist’.
Pullman, who has given fantasy literature a memorable heroine like Lyra Belacqua, has also often pointed out how Tolkien’s famous book had failed to introduce any strong woman character, and the Narnia series has been ‘disparaging towards women’.
It isn’t just literary stalwarts though, Pullman has seldom minced his words while talking about religion, politics or socio-cultural issues.
Pullman’s series ‘His Dark Materials’ began with The Golden Compass (published in 1995) followed by The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000) and has courted several controversies in the last two decades. Seemingly a book for teens, it is a beautiful retelling of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The series grapples with many existential questions and the intricate relationship of philosophy, science and religion. It criticises authoritarianism, and religious authority, which leaves little room for dissent or pluralism of views. The series has also not shied away from exploring the sexual awakening of its young protagonist.
While a big-budget film on the first book of the series, The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, got a lukewarm response at the box office, the series is still wildly popular and is currently being aired as an HBO series called His Dark Materials. The third and final instalment of the drama is likely to air this year.
In an interview with News18.com, Pullman talked about religion, authoritarianism during the Trump Era, how libraries and books are fodders for human lives and souls. Here are a few excerpts from the interview:
>‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy seemed very pertinent 25 years after the publication of The Golden Compass, as the world grappled with authoritarianism during the Trump era and braved a pandemic, during which misinformation invalidated the scientific approach. How did you feel to see the themes you have explored in your books take centre stage in International politics?
I think that themes and issues like these have been rising slowly for a long time. I don’t claim any particular prescience. The growing power of religious orthodoxy was there for everyone to see - well, it’s been visible in Europe for five hundred years at l east! What interested me especially was the way power of one sort can be transformed into another and the way religious authority, in particular, doesn’t allow any scope for argument or dissent. When religions get their hands-on political power - that’s the time to beware. And the scale makes no difference. The absolute authority of being able to say ‘God tells me this is right and you must do what I say’ holds true both across a whole nation and in the much smaller space of a single-family. It’s absolutism that is particularly terrifying. As we saw recently in Washington D.C., there is no arguing against the conviction that can maintain a blatant lie (‘ The election was stolen’). When truth itself withers and decays, bad things begin to happen very swiftly.
>If you had ever met J.R.R. Tolkien, what would you have asked or told him?
As a matter of fact, I did meet him once, near the end of his life, when I was an undergraduate. Two friends and I were invited to dinner by the head of our college in Oxford to meet the great man. We were overawed, of course, and I don’t think he was particularly interested in the opinions of callow youths like us in any case. Actually, I’ve long come to dislike the Tolkien kind of fantasy: I think it shuts out too much of what we know to be real.
If I had the chance to ask him now, I’d want to know why he lets women play such a small part in the story of the ring. There is absolutely no awareness of sexual power and mystery in the book. Children might as well be delivered by post. I think that, like many Englishmen of his generation, he was actually afraid of women and much preferred the company of men (no women among the Inklings). ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a dead-end, in my opinion.
>What is the hardest thing about writing fantasy?
I’m not sure if ‘His Dark Materials’ is fantasy at all. Actually, I find writing realism far more difficult because I feel I know so little about the way the world really works. I am extremely naive. I’m sure I’d get it all wrong. At least in the sort of books, I write I can say, ‘This is my world. I can make things happen in any way I like.’
>There has been more than one onscreen adaptation of His Dark Materials books. How does it feel to see characters that you invented come alive on screen?
I suppose it must be quite a good story … I’m flattered, of course, and interested, to an extent, to watch it happen; but I’m always much more occupied by the book I’m writing at the moment (Pullman started another trilogy titled The Book of Dust in 2017. This series has two published books so far: La Belle Sauvage and The secret Commonwealth). It’s curious how people talk about ‘bringing the story to life on the screen - isn’t it alive already on the page? If it isn’t, I’ve failed. But every adaptation brings something different and new, including the constraints and possibilities of a different form. A long-form T.V. version gives you the scope to tell a long story, whereas a movie has a much tighter time-limit; but a movie can embody and display a grandeur of scale that even the biggest T.V. set finds hard to match.
>If you were to have a dæmon, which animal would it be, and why? How did you come up with the idea of dæmons?
I think my dæmon is probably a raven. Or a crow, or a magpie – one of those bits that steal things. That’s what storytellers do, after all. The idea of dæmons came to me when I was trying to write the first chapter of the first book, and Lyra was on her own, and I wanted someone for her to talk to. I decided she had a dæmon, and it all grew from there.
>How do you think libraries will evolve in the near future?
That’s interesting. Public libraries in the U.K. have been under threat for some time now, partly because of the dogmatic market economy that we’ve been forced to live under. The idea of supplying books free to people who want to borrow them seems like an offence against nature in the eyes of free-market zealots. Besides, now we have Kindles and e-books, and what have you, aren’t actual books redundant and no longer necessary? I regard that idea with suspicion, not least because I think the actual physical book, a thing made of paper fastened along one edge with printing on both sides of the page, a much greater and more important invention than the internet. The e-book distances us from the physical world; the real book brings us close to it, which is vitally important to our lives and (if we have such things) our souls.
> Editor’s note: Philip Pullman is a speaker at the ongoing 14th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival. His session is scheduled for 26 February, 2021.