This Day In Writing History
On October 19th, 1946, the famous British novelist Philip Pullman was born in Norwich, England. His father, Alfred Pullman, was a Royal Air Force pilot. His job allowed the family to travel frequently; Philip once attended school in Southern Rhodesia. When he was seven years old, his father was killed in a plane crash. His mother later remarried and the family moved again, first to Australia, then Wales, then back to England.
Around this time, Philip Pullman became interested in comic books, a medium he continues to express his admiration for, from the old style comics to the modern graphic novels of today. As a middle school student, he read John Milton's classic epic poem, Paradise Lost, which would prove to be a major influence on his most famous series of novels, a trilogy whose title comes from a line in Milton's poem.
Pullman received his college education at Exeter College, Oxford, but "did not really enjoy the English course." He graduated in 1968 and embarked on a career as a teacher. While he taught middle school children, he also wrote school plays and began work on his first book, The Haunted Storm, a fantasy novel geared toward young adult readers, which would be published in 1972. Although it won him the New English Library's Young Writer's Award that year, Pullman considers The Haunted Storm his worst book and refuses to discuss it.
Pullman's second book, Galatea, a fantasy novel geared toward adults, was published six years later, in 1978. He did not publish another novel until 1982, when Count Karlstein was released. Originally written as a school play for his students, it made Pullman's name as a young adult novelist. Count Karlstein is set in Karlstein, a Swiss village, circa 1816.
The evil nobleman Count Karlstein obtained his wealth and position by making a deal with Zamiel, the Demon Huntsman. The Count's part of the bargain requires him to present Zamiel with a human sacrifice within ten years, on Halloween night. The time has now come, so the Count plans on sacrificing his young nieces, Lucy and Charlotte, to the Demon Huntsman. His maidservant, Hildi Kelmar, overhears his plan and determines to save the girls.
Pullman would continue to write great young adult novels. Spring-Heeled Jack (1989), was a comic adventure inspired by the real life monster that supposedly haunted Victorian England. In Pullman's novel, Spring-Heeled Jack is not a monster at all but a superhero mistaken for a monster. He tries to save three orphaned children from evil orphanage director Mr. Killjoy and his horrid assistant, Miss Gasket, in a delightfully demented parody of Dickens.
In addition to his fantasy novels, Pullman has also written some great non-fantasy novels. In The Broken Bridge, (1990) 16-year-old Ginny, a half-English, half-Haitian girl, lives with her father in a coastal Welsh village. A social worker arrives with some shocking news: Ginny's father had a child with another woman. The woman is dying, and her son needs a home. The revelation that she has a white half-brother she never knew about turns Ginny's world upside-down and inspires her to investigate the mystery of her own life, and that of her long-dead Haitian mother.
Five years later, in 1995, Philip Pullman published the first volume of his most famous work - a series of novels called the His Dark Materials trilogy. This brilliant, dazzling series is set in an alternate universe, on a world similar to Earth, in a country similar to Victorian England, where everyone has a daemon - an externalization of the soul that takes the form of a shape-shifting creature (and dear friend) that always remains by their side. The heroine is a bright, brash, imaginative, and mischievous 12-year-old girl named Lyra Belacqua. Her daemon is called Pantalaimon. Lyra is an orphan who lives with her uncle, Lord Asriel, at Oxford University.
In the first book, Northern Lights, (retitled The Golden Compass for its U.S. release) Lord Asriel makes an important discovery - the true nature of Dust, the fabric of the universe. This discovery threatens to invalidate the Catholic-esque monotheistic religion whose cruel and repressive clerical body, the Magisterium, rules the world. His life is now endangered. Meanwhile, Lyra finds herself at the center of a prophecy. She is the chosen one who will not only bring down the Magisterium on her world, but bring about a revolution in Heaven as well. The being worshiped as God is actually not a benevolent creator god but an evil, dictatorial angel called Metatron who seized power over Heaven and the universe from The Authority - the first angel to emerge from the Dust - who is now aged and dying.
In The Subtle Knife, the second book in the trilogy, Lyra meets Will Parry, a boy her age from another universe and world (ours) who becomes her first love and partner in the prophecy, which is a reversal of Milton's Paradise Lost. Lyra and Will become the new Adam and Eve, but instead of causing the fall of Man with their sin of fornication, they cause the fall of Metatron (God) and save Man. Where the Harry Potter novels invoked the wrath of religious conservatives over the issue of witchcraft, the His Dark Materials trilogy made them go ballistic, accusing author Philip Pullman of blasphemy, anti-Catholicism, and promoting atheism to children. Others complained about the books' violence, gore, sexual content, and the heroine who is disobedient by nature and an accomplished liar.
The most (allegedly) objectionable elements of the story occur in the third book, The Amber Spyglass. Lyra and Will free the Authority from confinement so he can die peacefully and return to the Dust. Although an act of mercy, critics see this as the symbolic killing of God. In order to fulfill the prophecy, Will and Lyra make love. The sex scene is tastefully handled, as is a previous awakening of sexual feelings within Lyra. While Pullman's American publisher, Scholastic, Inc. (who also published and doctored J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels) censored some passages in the U.S. version of The Amber Spyglass, the entire trilogy of novels still faces challenges and bans in the United States.
While conservative British columnist Peter Hitchens denounced the His Dark Materials novels as an atheist rebuttal of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series, (which Pullman hated) surprisingly, the novels and Pullman's outspoken criticisms of religion were defended by, of all people, Rowan Williams, England's Archbishop of Canterbury, who also said that the author's criticisms of organized religion were valid.
In December of 2007, Hollywood studio New Line Cinema released a feature film adaptation of the first book of the His Dark Materials series, The Golden Compass. Unfortunately, squeamish studio bosses demanded a film that would not offend religious groups, so the screenplay obliterated most of the storyline. That didn't stop religious groups from mounting protests against the film.
The movie proved to be a huge critical and commercial failure for New Line Cinema. It cost around $200 million dollars to make, and only earned the studio a total of $70 million at the box office. The movie performed surprisingly well internationally, earning nearly $300 million more, but New Line Cinema didn't see a dime of it. Those profits went to overseas distributors, as New Line had sold them the rights to finance the expensive project. Ultimately, it wasn't the protests but New Line's decision to radically change the story to appease religious groups that sank The Golden Compass at home. The studio announced that it would not adapt the rest of the His Dark Materials series for the screen.
Philip Pullman continues to expand the His Dark Materials series. He has already published two companion novellas, Lyra's Oxford, (2003) and Once Upon A Time In The North. (2008) He is currently working on the fourth novel in the series. Tentatively titled The Book Of Dust, it figures to be the longest book in the series yet.
Pullman's latest novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, published in the spring of 2010, is a fictionalized biography of Jesus. In it, the Virgin Mary gives birth to identical twin sons - Jesus and his brother, Christ. While the outgoing and sickly Jesus becomes the popular one, his devoted brother Christ observes his ministry and records his every word and deed, making ordinary acts seem like miracles through his embellishments. Although he means well at first, Christ allows himself to be swept up in the politics and plots of corrupt, power-hungry men, which ultimately results in the formation of the institutional Church.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ may prove to be Philip Pullman's most controversial novel.
Quote Of The Day
"We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts. We need books, time, and silence. Thou Shalt Not is soon forgotten, but Once Upon a Time lasts forever." - Philip Pullman
Today's video features a lecture given by Philip Pullman at Open University in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England. Enjoy!