EKKI HANDA BÖRNUM: Not for children
Philip Pullman gives his readers precisely the satisfactions they look for in a novel
Sunday October 22, 2000
A few months ago, the writer Philip Pullman gave a speech to some booksellers and publishers in which, inter alia, he exclaimed: 'Down with children's books!' To put this in context, he added that: 'When you say, "This book is for children", what you are really saying is, "This book is not for grown-ups.' " He went on: 'But I don't care who's in my audience - all I care is that there should be as many of them as possible.'
To those who are acquainted with Pullman's work, this was a slightly puzzling rallying cry. If Mr Pullman is famous for anything (and he is), it's for two things. First, books for children such as The Broken Bridge and The Butterfly Tattoo, and, second, genre fantasy fiction, notably the acclaimed trilogy, His Dark Materials - Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and now The Amber Spyglass, an ambitious tale inspired by Paradise Lost with a radical view of religion that may well contain the most subversive message in children's literature in years
This week, The Observer has taken Philip Pullman at his word. We have presented our evaluation of his long-awaited, latest novel at the front of this section, just as we might Kazuo Ishiguro, Tom Wolfe or Julian Barnes - ie, like any important adult writer.
We are not under any illusion that this will change the way people look at children's literature, but we do rather fervently hope that it will help to have Philip Pullman evaluated as an important contemporary novelist who happens to write in a certain genre, a significant writer to be spoken of in the same breath as, say, Beryl Bainbridge, A.S. Byatt or Salman Rushdie.
As such, Pullman is simply the most distinguished and probably most talented of a bunch of writers whose work is known chiefly to children and teenagers, writers such as Darren Shan, David Almond and Peter Dickinson. In this respect, Pullman has suffered critical neglect in the same way that some very successful crime, science fiction and thriller writers have been overlooked by the bien pensant literary commentariat.
Leaving aside the vexed question of modern literary snobbery for the moment, why does Philip Pullman appeal so strongly to such a disparate band of readers, including (I happen to know) quite a number of well-known writers ?
Well, you can enumerate any number of qualities that separate Pullman from the herd, but at the end of the day, it's because he grounds his fantasy in well-observed reality and is not afraid to acknowledge the importance of plot in his work. 'When you are writing for children,' he told the Bookseller in 1996, 'the story is more important than you are. You can't be self-conscious, you just have to get out of the way.' Because it is easier to write description and dialogue than tell a good story, very many contemporary novelists write bad plots - bad plots that are full of inexplicable lacunae and wonky motivation. Pullman seems to know this. His writing has the hallmark of work that has been held up to the light and minutely inspected from every angle. Look at it where you like - it is seamless.
It's in the importance he attaches to narrative that sets Pullman apart from all those highly-praised contemporary writers who cannot plot for toffee. And, one might add, it is this that puts him squarely alongside J.K. Rowling, another popular writer for children whose appeal transcends her chosen genre. Pullman, however, is far superior to Rowling. As well as giving his readers stories that tick with the precision, accuracy and grace of an eighteenth-century clock, he also writes like an angel.
He may never win the Booker Prize - more's the pity - but he gives his readers precisely the satisfactions they look for in a novel: well-made, absorbing characters, supreme elegance of style and tone, a richly inventive imaginative landscape, and, finally, some very big ideas fearlessly explored. It's not too much to ask, but it's rarer than hen's teeth. And, by the way, it will more or less guarantee the writer who provides it with a broader audience than children and teenagers.
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Epic children's book takes Whitbread
Historic first for author as judges shelve doubts
Fiachra Gibbons, arts correspondent
Wednesday January 23, 2002
Philip Pullman became the first children's writer to win the Whitbread prize last night with The Amber Spyglass, the final instalment of his magical His Dark Materials trilogy.
He has also finally eclipsed his great rival JK Rowling and her Harry Potter stories by writing the first children's book - albeit an epic, complex and highly sophisticated one - to take one of the big two literary awards. His victory is a remarkable turnaround for a man who refused to have his first books entered in any book prize.
Betting on the 55-year-old Pullman - who writes from a shed at the bottom of his Oxford garden and has as many adult as teenage fans - was so heavy that William Hill closed their book on Friday after a late flurry of huge bets. Last night their worst nightmare came true as Pullman romped through to take the Whitbread children's and the overall Book of the Year awards.
The judges took only two minutes to make up their minds, according to their chairman, Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow. "Pullman is in a league of his own. We worried about whether the book could be judged on its own, because you never escape the feeling that it is part of a huge work. It is a superlative achievement, head and shoulders above everything else we read."
He admitted that the judges fretted about giving the £25,000 top award to a children's book. "If I am honest, the wind was against Pullman at the very beginning. We did worry about giving such a literary prize to a children's book, but then we thought of CS Lewis and that was that."
The comparison with Lewis and his Narnia books has been often made of Pullman, who has never shied from tackling the big issues of love, belief and death. Indeed Snow worried that it was more of an adult book than a children's one until the two teenage judges of the children's panel put him right.
"We are more taken, it has to be said, with the [agnostic] Pullman's view of God than Lewis's," he added.
Snow said that only the veteran Eva Ibbotson's Journey to the River Sea ran Pullman any way close in the children's category: "Pullman's world is so complete and perfect and his canvas so enormous it had to be him."
Snow said the judges of the overall award had been very impressed by 51-year-old Sid Smith's debut novel Something Like A House, which was set in China even though Smith had never been there. He added: "Failure to win the Whitbread seems to sell more books these days than winning it."
Also competing for last night's title were Patrick Neate's Twelve Bar Blues (best novel), Selima Hill's Bunny (poetry) and Selkirk's Island by Diana Souhami (biography).
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A wizard with worlds
The long-awaited final part of Philip Pullman's trilogy puts his rivals in the shade
Sunday October 22, 2000
Philip Pullman is an extraordinary writer who shares his surname with a train when he ought to be represented by a fantastical, winged vehicle. At the moment, though, what he needs is a winged pen. It takes him an entire day, each week, to answer fan letters.
Adults and children alike have been bowled over by the first two books of His Dark Materials trilogy. His first book, Northern Lights, won the Carnegie Prize. His second, The Subtle Knife, was likened, in its ambition, to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. His work is demanding and unusual, children's literature at its best. His heroes make Harry Potter seem no more than a bumptious cartoon. J.K. Rowling encourages a jolly return to childhood; reading Pullman is not a 'return' to anything. He is sophisticated, metaphysical, unhackneyed.
The Subtle Knife, published in 1997, ended in suspense. Since then, there has been in Pullman-fixated households a sense of expectation tinged with despair as he has missed one publishing deadline after another. When would he get his act together and finish the trilogy? By the time I met him, I was no longer complaining. I congratulated him at once on The Amber Spyglass, published on 1 November.
It is a tremendous enterprise. Pullman country is no single place: he conjures parallel universes, like a possessed juggler. He is in command of the grand sweep and the tiniest of botanical details. I asked him about the world of the dead, which appears in the new book. Pullman proposes that each one of us has 'a death' that goes with us through life 'a meek, pale chaperone'. His world of the dead is a terrible, understated, monochrome place.
I told him that I was scared by it - I longed to get out. Did my reaction worry him? 'No,' he said, visibly pleased. He wants his readers to value life. His living worlds are iridescent, populated with marvellous, outlandish creatures: shaggy blue bison, foxes which can only understand the present tense, angels with a taste for Kendal mint cake. But none of this is at the expense of our world. There will eventually be a return to reality, a second, gloriously reconstituted Fall.
Pullman is an original but would be the last person to agree. He disarmingly claimed to have 'stolen ideas from every book I have ever read'. His heroes are Homer, Milton and Blake; Swift and Dickens are in there too. His landscapes tend to be romantic. His heroine, Lyra, is tomboyish, fearless.
I told him that Lyra's mother Mrs Coulter (one of the most fascinating villains in children's literature) was my favourite character. She turned out to be his favourite, too. But even Mrs Coulter cannot compete with his boldest invention: daemons. A daemon is an alter-ego, a soulmate, the outward manifestation of an inner life. It can take any form: a butterfly, a snowy leopard, a barn owl. Children's daemons change all the time. An adult has one fixed daemon. What would his own daemon be?
'You can't choose your daemon,' he replied hastily. 'You have to make the best of whatever you turn out to be.' His daemon would be a dolphin - for intelligence, agility - and also for a way of diving under subjects. In appearance, he could not be less like a dolphin. He looks like what he once was, a schoolteacher: tall, balding, bespectacled, in his fifties, with a comfortable, lively face. How much of the trilogy did he plan in advance? He said he had a sense of its overall 'architecture' and its ending but 'did not know what was going to happen on the way. What I am given is the story. What I have to contribute is my telling of it.'
He was born in Norwich in 1946 in a service family. His father was in the RAF and posted abroad. 'We had no roots,' he said. He spent the early Fifties in southern Africa and Australia. But it was the travelling by boat across the world that helped to shape his imagination: it gave him a sense of the world on an epic scale. He savoured the remembered names: 'Las Palmas, Bombay, the Suez canal.' And he talked about the sea with gusto, almost as if it were in the room with us : 'It changes colour, the shapes of the waves change. That way of travelling is irreplaceable.'
He spent his teens in North Wales, read English at Oxford (where he still lives) worked for a while at Moss Bross, 'an extraordinary experience' which he promises himself he will write about one day. He also worked as a librarian before training to become a teacher. Until he was 40, he taught in an Oxford middle school. He used to delight in telling them Greek myths. He also wrote school plays which he later adapted into novels. He would have been a friendly, occasionally fierce, teacher. He is glad he no longer teaches, saying that the national curriculum and the failure to trust teachers had 'destroyed everything that made teaching a pleasure'.
Curiously, he describes himself as if he were not a writer either, but part of an oral tradition. He compares himself to a busking story-teller 'sitting on a carpet in a market place'. He likes to imagine people coming to 'sample' his stories. Those who enjoy them 'can stay and put coins in the hat'. He believes in the story-teller's power and told a tale to prove it.
About 13 years ago, on a family holiday, it was his job to keep his five-year-old son, Tom, amused by telling him The Odyssey while waiting for supper to arrive: 'I'd wind up neatly as soon as I could see the food coming.' By the end of The Odyssey, 'Tom was sitting with a glass in his hand like this [Pullman pressed hard on the sides of an imaginary glass]. At the climax, he was so galvanised he bit a chunk out of the glass. That's the power of story-telling,' he concluded calmly, adding: 'Thank you Homer.'
But not everyone who comes to sit on Pullman's carpet is inclined to put coins in his hat. He was described in the Catholic Herald as being 'far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry Potter' and 'a million times more sinister'. This is nonsense, but not a surprising reaction. Pullman is an atheist with a mission. He describes science as the 'most successful achievement of the human race'.
Earlier this year, he gave a remarkable speech called 'The Republic of Heaven' in which he succeeded in converting the words 'God is dead' into something positive. He refreshingly recruited Jane Eyre to his cause while giving Tolkien and C.S. Lewis the thumbs down for failing to salute the real world. He is not short of faith but it believes in humanity and in goodness, not in God. He believes we need this 'thing which I've called joy'. His is an engaging moral optimism. He laughs easily but has a stoical approach to everything that lies outside his control. The film rights for the trilogy have been sold. Did he fear his books would be ruined? 'No. Waste of time. Take the money and forget it. I have no power.'
I asked him if reality seemed lacklustre after returning from his imagined worlds? 'No, the real world is better than stories.' I asked if he was able to live in the present, as his invented foxes do? He replied adamantly: 'There is no elsewhere.' But surely it is hard? 'Yes, but I believe in the absolute preciousness of the here and now. Here is where we are and now is where we live.'
Philip Pullman: the facts
Born: Norwich, 19 October 1946
His Dark Materials Trilogy:
Vol 1: Northern Lights (1995)
Vol 2: The Subtle Knife (1997)
Vol 3: The Amber Spyglass (2000)
The Sally Lockhart Novels:
The Ruby in the Smoke (1985)
The Shadow in the North (1986)
The Tiger in the Well (1991)
1996: Carnegie Medal, Guardian Children's Fiction Award, British Book Award
1998: United Kingdom Reading Award
1988: International Reading Association Children's Book Award
23.01.2002: Epic children's book takes Whitbread
22.10.2000: Robert McCrum: Not for children
22.10.2000: Interview: Philip Pullman
Read an extract
28.09.2000: Extract: The Amber Spyglass
Viðtal við hann eftir verðlaunaafhendinguna í The Guardian
'I didn't expect to win'
My week: Philip Pullman
Friday January 25, 2002
Philip Pullman, 55, became the first children's writer to win the £25,000 Whitbread Book of the Year prize on Tuesday, with The Amber Spyglass, the third instalment of the magical His Dark Materials trilogy.
I did some writing in my shed on Saturday morning. It's a shorter book than the last one - a fairy tale along the lines of I Was a Rat which was recently dramatised by the BBC. After shopping in the afternoon, my wife and I walked the dogs. They are brother and sister pugs - his name is Hogarth or Hogy, and she is called Nellie.
That evening I answered letters - "I wish I could come and talk at your school, but..." or "That's an interesting idea and I would love to write for your newspaper but..." - which I continued doing throughout Sunday and Monday.
Tuesday was Whitbread day so I pottered about all morning wondering which shirt to wear. We took the dogs out early and then I got into my dinner jacket and all the clobber. They sent a nice, big, comfy car to deliver us to the Whitbread Brewery building. We chatted and snoozed on the way. I was feeling alright because I was convinced Eva Ibbotson would - deservedly - win the children's book prize. I was just looking forward to seeing friends at the party.
On arrival I did an interview for Radio 4's PM programme which was good because I got to meet Philip Hensher, whose books I admire. And then the huge reception room started filing up with dinner jackets. The awards were after the meal. I genuinely believed I wouldn't win anything so my mouth wasn't dry with nerves. I was peaceable. It was a huge surprise when they announced I'd won the children's book prize.
I went up and told them I hadn't got a speech but at least managed to thank all the right people - I hope. It was another half hour before they announced the Book of the Year. I've been on Booker panels before and know how unpredictable they can be. Getting into the shortlist is where the merit lies. You win because you were lucky. Suddenly they flashed my book up on the screen and I knew I'd won. I was glad they did that because it would be excruciating if you misheard, thinking they called your name when they didn't. Afterwards I faced the photographers and interviews. I did a live link-up interview for Newsnight but couldn't hear them in the studio and had to guess what they were asking.
My Wednesday began in a Radio Oxford studio at 8.15am, and ended in a Radio 4 studio at 7.45pm, with more of the same in between. I went home with a Chinese takeaway and started addressing the whisky question: should I or shouldn't I?
Thursday morning, amid more interviews, I received congratulatory messages, including a long list of celebratory words from the writer Dick King-Smith.
This is a very busy time, and a very pleasant time. But it'll be nice to get back to quietly writing. I wouldn't call my next book a prequel to the trilogy, but it will be more stories from the same world, with some of the same characters.
The Whitbread judges made the right choice. Philip Pullman's extraordinary novels are not just for children
Thursday January 24, 2002
For Philip Pullman, one of the supreme literary dreamers and magicians of our time, yesterday must have had some of the qualities of a fantasy. Reporters and TV crews trekked in relays up the path to the Oxford garden shed where he writes. It was suddenly new, unmapped and rather frighteningly populist territory.
All this sprang from the barely hoped for moment on Tuesday night when Pullman heard that - against all the odds, except those of the bookies and the public - he'd won the Whitbread prize.
An author who has been shoved into a ghetto as just a children's entertainer had won one of the world's two highest book awards. In an extraordinary and probably short-lived shift in values, the judges gave the crown not to a novel set in the confines of contemporary Gloucestershire or Kilburn, but to a story grounded in alternative worlds: to a narrative which deals with love, moral conduct, power, nature, paradise, hell and the existence or otherwise of God, the universe and everything, some of the oldest themes of art.
As Pullman has bitterly said, you often find so-called children's literature tackling these themes while the English literary novel - at least since the deaths of William Golding and Graham Greene - is today queasy and tense about them. "We still need joy and delight, the promise of connection with something beyond ourselves," he has said. "Perhaps children's literature is the last forum left for such a project."
Readers seem to agree. In the seven years since his Dark Materials trilogy first came out, it has quietly, without a gramme of hype, sold about a 10th of Harry Potter's total; figures which his most nearly comparable fellow authors (CS Lewis with the Narnia books and Tolkien with Lord Of The Rings) took decades to build up to. As one literary editor said yesterday, adults read JK Rowling because she is not complicated; children like Pullman because he is. Hundreds of readers' reviews on amazon.co.uk bear that out.
His win has also given pleasure to some of us who have reported the literary award scene for the past few years but found nothing to match his three books - Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass - in scope or achievement. Ian McEwan's Atonement, this winter's Booker prize runner-up, is a fine, gracefully moving novel whose three sections do not quite fit together. The Booker winner, Peter Carey's True History Of The Kelly Gang, is a less fine but bold attempt to ventriloquise an outlaw who spoke rather better through his own writings.
From last year's Whitbread prize entry, the story which has stayed with me most is not Matthew Kneale's reasonably estimable winner, English Passengers, but David Almond's Heaven Eyes - a children's story about waifs in a disused dock. Not a literary novel so, with the usual mindset of judges and literary commentators, barely a dog's chance of winning.
None of these books touch Pullman's, which take off like skyrockets, as sumptuously as any adult magical realist novel of the 70s and 80s. They are about two tough, decent 11-year-olds, Lyra and Will, who are drawn from their own two overlapping alternative worlds into a quest to depose the senile, tyrannical creator of the universe and establish a republic of heaven.
Their companions and foes include angels, fellow-humans, spectres, a cavalcade of ghosts and an armoured bear-warrior called Iorek Byrnison. Perhaps the writer's most cherished invention is that humans in some worlds have "daemons" - not demons, but compan ion spirits and alter egos which materialise as shape-changing animals or birds.
Pullman went behind early Christian theology to take that concept from Aristotle. And he has taken the rest of his almost unparalleled mix of animating ideas from quantum physics and sources including Milton's Paradise Lost, Tom Paine's Rights of Man and the apocryphal biblical story of the harrowing of hell; except that in his version it is someone more astonishing and modern than Christ who liberates hell. One passage in The Amber Spyglass (the Whitbread winner), challenges the visit to the world of the dead described in Homer's Odyssey: not - quite - in quality but in the tenderness, range and inven-tive reach of the writing.
On paper it sounds impossible - much more impossible than an independent school for wizards and witches - but it works as a story for a great many readers. The trilogy has already generated a perceptive academic thesis from Richard Poole in the New Welsh Review. "To turn to His Dark Materials after a diet of contemporary fiction is a liberating experience," Poole writes. "The qualities which Alain Robbe-Grillet [the French experimental novelist] declared dead in his theoretical work and did without in his novels - plot, character, linear development - return with a vengeance."
Other scholars, social historians and theologians - plus the usual gang of quarrelling litteratéurs and fixers - are likely to spend years arguing about why, in the early, largely agnostic 21st century, it works so well.