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Humanist News Network Interview with Philip Pullman

Matt Cherry from the Humanist Network News interviews Philip Pullman.

Matt Cherry from the Humanist Network News (Part of the Institute for Humanist Studies) interviews Philip Pullman.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
Philip Pullman, thank you so much for finding the time to talk to Humanist Network News just one day after the world premiere of The Golden Compass. I am a huge fan of your work and I hope that through this interview, we can get some of our listeners to catch the Pullman bug, too.

We don't have long, so I want to focus on the humanist aspects of His Dark Materials, the trilogy that starts with The Golden Compass. When did you start identifying yourself as a humanist and why?

Philip Pullman:
Well, identifying oneself as anything, for a writer, for a novelist, is a perilous thing because then you find yourself acting as a spokesman for this cause or that cause. I have always tried to avoid saying "I am an agnostic", "I am an atheist", "I am a humanist", "I am an anything else" because that way you are limiting the way that your books are received. And I don't want to do that. I want to be a bit more democratic about it and let people discover for themselves what cause is being espoused, if a cause is indeed being espoused. And I suppose some of my stories do espouse a particular cause.

So I have always hesitated really before describing myself as anything and that includes "humanist." However, I can tell you when I began to believe that there was probably not any supernatural influence on the course of world events and that was when I was a teenager. And I began to read a little bit of philosophy that I could understand and a bit about science, too, and came to the conclusion that probably the stories I had been told in church were not actually literally true. So I guess that my lack of religious belief dates from quite a long time ago, now over 40 years.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
So how do your humanist views show themselves in His Dark Materials?

Philip Pullman:
Well, I am not entirely sure that the views that I express in that are entirely "humanist." It's just a question of labels you see. My interest, though, as a storyteller has always been in human nature and in its relation to the world we find ourselves in. The universe, putting it most broadly of all.

I think that is the proper subject for fiction of any sort, really. The tendency of the story, if I can put it like that, is to celebrate what makes us human, very much including the intellectual curiosity which is being so deplored by generations of Jewish and Christian religious people because it is what led to "the Fall" in the third chapter of the book of Genesis.

Eve was tempted by the serpent, not by lust, not by greed or for money or anything else, but for curiosity. "You eat the fruit," said the serpent, "and you will grow wise." That was what tempted Eve. And I think we should put up statues to Eve. I think we should celebrate Eve. We should have a national Eve Day, because this act of curiosity was the first thing that led us away from being the pets of God, so to speak, the little creatures who were allowed to run about and have fun in his beautiful gardens, and to become sort of fully autonomous human beings.

Now this is a myth. In other words, some people see this as literally true but it is sort of psychologically true. And I see this as being almost the central human myth, which is why I was writing about it in my novel. It has also been written about in "Paradise Lost" by John Milton, and I am sure many, many other stories and will be told many times again.

But that for me is the central human myth because it is about how we become human, how we become fully ourselves, fully conscious, how we move away from the old idea that everything that exists does so because of a God or gods.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
So, although you are reluctant to accept labels, it sounds like any work that really grapples with the human condition is bound to reflect to some extent the author's views about the human condition?

Philip Pullman:
Oh inevitably, inevitably. When you do something, when you do a long complex task that lasts for seven years, as the writing of this novel did, this long story in three volumes, you have to take it seriously or you can't do it. You can't do a trivial task for seven years with all your attention and all your effort. It's not psychologically possible.

So, when you are putting all of yourself into something, then that something that is produced at the end of this long time and this immense effort will inevitably show the views you think important. Because these will be the values and the views that have underpinned the doing of the work.

So I'm sorry to be sort of reluctant to accept labels, but one of the reasons for this is that I don't like telling people how to read texts. This is the sin that the fundamentalists commit, in my view. They say, "You must understand this book literally." Of course this business where it says you can sell your daughter into slavery, people think that is a metaphor, but all the stuff about homosexuals, they take that as literal. And that is the way homophobic and misogynistic fundamentalists behave.

I don't want to tell anyone how to read my story. If they read it with an open mind, I think they will find the values in which I believe are clearly present. But I'm not going to tell anyone in advance what those values are.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
You just went to the world premiere of The Golden Compass. Do you feel that the movie makers were literal enough or managed to capture those humanistic themes of the book?

Philip Pullman:
Well, in the first part of the story, which is the film that's just come out, The Golden Compass, the story concerns the actions of a little girl who finds herself bound up in events much bigger than she could have dreamed of. Because she, like Eve in the story, does something out of curiosity. She goes into a room where she's not supposed to be and she overhears something she's not supposed to overhear and it all follows from that. They told the story really pretty well.

The film has all sorts of cinematic virtues: it looks spectacular; the performances are wonderful, including that of the little girl who plays the central character; and the special effects, because it's that sort of film, are beautifully realized. But I was very pleased to see that they told the story clearly and well. The first part of the story is fairly simple and straightforward to do that with. When they come to the second film and the third film -- if they decide that they can go ahead and make the other films -- they'll have to grapple more closely, I think, with the issues that the story does make plain.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
Now, in the second and the third books there is a much stronger focus on "The Authority" who is a God figure, and the rebellion against the Authority. And I know there was some concern in atheist circles that Hollywood was toning down -- or would tone down -- the anti-theistic elements by making it less obvious that the heroes are rebelling against God. Do you think this is going to be the case?

Philip Pullman:
I don't know. Because we haven't got there yet. Whether there's a second film or a third film at all depends on the box office for the first one. That was always the case; everyone always knew that.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
Well, one factor that may affect the box office is the boycott that's being urged by some Christian groups who are claiming that your work is anti Christian, or even more specifically anti Catholic. How do you respond to that?

Philip Pullman:
Yeah, that's correct -- I mean, it's correct that they are trying to organize a boycott. I think these people are...it's ridiculous. It really is absurd. They never learn. They never learn that if you want to draw attention to a film to make everybody curious to go and see it, then make a fuss about it. It always happens, every single time they try to do this. They never learn.

And the other thing they never seem to notice is that they are behaving exactly in the way I describe the religious authorities -- who have got their hands on political power -- as behaving. In other words, they are repressing arguments, they are repressing freedom of speech, they are trying to prevent people from understanding things; they are doing exactly what I describe in the book. It's not surprising that they are creating a fuss. But I do wonder that they never learn that the result is always the opposite of what they claim they want.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
Well, maybe they'd actually have to read your books to learn they're acting in the way you describe, and I suspect many of them haven't read it.

Philip Pullman:
Well, they dare not, you see. They don't like to put themselves in awkward -- they don't like to open their minds to things that are not exactly what they know they're going to get in advance.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
So do you welcome this controversy because it attracts more attention to your works and more discussion of them?

Philip Pullman:
Well, I wish we all lived in a world where everyone was full of good intentions but unfortunately we don't. And while I would rather, of course, the making of the film could proceed without any pressures or any problems at all and everybody would go see it and love the films... but it's probably bound to happen.

I do have to say, though, in due deference to my American readers, this kind of intense reaction to religious questions only seems to occur in America --with the exceptions of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and probably Afghanistan under the Taliban, it doesn't occur anywhere else in the world, as far as I know. The rest of the world is pretty laid back about this sort of thing.

But America was a nation founded, I suppose you can say, by the Pilgrim Fathers who were these zealots who found England too lax for them and left to go found a new nation somewhere else, and America's had a very intense and passionate and disturbed and almost frenzied at times relationship with religion ever since.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
Philip Pullman, you are constantly compared to Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who were both Christian apologists. Was His Dark Materials a conscious response to their work?

Philip Pullman:
No, not a conscious response. And there's an interesting difference between Tolkien and Lewis. Tolkien never mentions Christianity of any sort in his Lord of The Rings. He was a Catholic. And for him, all the big questions of life -- what was right, what was wrong, what our duty was, what happened after we... -- all those things, were all settled already: the Church had the answers.

Now Lewis by contrast was a Protestant, a Belfast Protestant, an old Irish Protestant of the most intense sort. Initially, as I understand it, he was very suspicious of Catholics. He used to call them "bog trotters", which was the old insulting name for the Southern Irish. And he came from a tradition, Lewis came from a tradition of personal argument and wrestling with conscience and reading the bible and studying and praying earnestly by yourself. So, the odd result is that the Narnia books, although I really dislike them for the conclusions they come to, nevertheless they do touch on big questions of faith. Is there a God? If there is a God what is he like? What would a false God be like? What must we do to be saved? Things like this. Big, intense, earnest questions pounding away in these books. And I do respect him for tackling these questions; although, of course, I dislike the conclusions he came to.

You don't find any of that in Tolkien. There's no doubt in The Lord of the Rings who's good and who's bad or why they're good or why they're bad or what the good is. It's all there. It's all firmly settled. Which is why I find, for all its enormous narrative complexity and intellectual underpinning, I find it a trivial work. Whereas Narnia is not a trivial work, although I dislike it. So to lump them both together as Christian apologists is to mistake the very big differences between them.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
So what is it you dislike about Lewis' conclusions and how do your characters and conclusions differ from his?

Philip Pullman:
What I dislike most of all is his fear and suspicion amounting to hatred of this world where we live. The extraordinary thing is that after taking his children--the heroes of the story--through these extraordinary and amazing adventures in which they experience all kinds of things and presumably learn all kinds of things, and presumably become wise as a result of experiencing all these things; it seems to me that the response that, for example to name but one character - the result that Jesus probably would have approved of would have been to let them live and grow up and do good in this world. Instead of which he kills them all in a railway accident, and whisks them off to heaven -- to somewhere else. It's as if he hates this world.

And the other thing that I can't stomach is the exclusion of the girl Susan from whatever it is that the stable represents--salvation, I presume--at the end of the story, because she's growing up. Because she's become too interested in what's the phrase? invitations and nylons or something...lipstick and invitations and nylons-- in other words, she, like any teenager of either sex is discovering that her body is changing, discovering the effect that her body has on others, becoming sexually aware.

And this is so terrifying, so horrifying for C.S. Lewis, that he denies her -- he shuts her out. "My sister is no longer a friend to Narnia," says one of the children. It would be tragic if it weren't so absurd. So those are the things I dislike about the Narnia books. I was trying in my story to show what a wonderful place the world is and how great it is that we have senses and nerves and emotions and so on.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
So how does Lyra, your heroine, differ from Susan?

Philip Pullman :
Well, Lyra grows up and she realizes that growing up is a difficult thing and it is full of trouble and conflict and some pain, but it is an important thing and a very great thing in the end. It's only through growing up that we can become wise. Innocence is not wise and wisdom cannot be innocence. So we have to leave innocence behind. And that's where I differ from the Christians who put such a high value on this thing they call "innocence."

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
Speaking of Lyra, I have twin daughters, Sophia and Lyra, and, of course, Lyra is named after your heroine. So my question for you, Philip Pullman, is where did you get the name Lyra from?

Philip Pullman:
Well, how nice to hear about your daughters. And Sophia, of course, means "wisdom," which is what we are all striving for. Where I got the name from -- it was a long buried memory of my childhood, when as a pious little boy I used to go to church every Sunday, my grandfather's church. He was a clergyman. And one of the hymns we used to sing and I liked the tune of it was the Easter hymn which goes "Jesus Christ is risen today, hallelujah."

Now all the hymns in the hymn book had the name of the writer at the top of the hymn. It was Charles Wesley or it was J.M. Neale or somebody else. And the name at the top of this hymn was "Lyra Davidica", and Lyra Davidica, I thought it was a name of a woman, obviously a woman who had written the hymn. Later on, of course, I discovered it meant "The Harp of David" and it was a collection of hymns.

Now, a long buried memory of that name Lyra, liking it when I was a boy, sort of surfaced when my character appeared to me as she sort of did when I started writing this story. And I just picked the name up, Lyra. It's also the name of a constellation, of course, in the sky. It's also a name which enables me later on to rhyme it almost with Liar because Lyra is a Liar in the story, and that's the technique, the strategy she used to survive so far. But at one very crucial point in the book she finds she has to tell the truth.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
Thank you. It's great to get that explanation. Now I have left one of my more difficult questions to last. Earlier this year, we interviewed another great humanist novelist, Salman Rushdie. And he said that non-religious language sometimes feels impoverished compared to religious language, the kind of religious language that Milton used so well, and I know Milton was a major inspiration for you.

Philip Pullman:
Indeed.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
And Rushdie posed a question for our humanist advice columnist or "agony aunt" as we would say in Britain: How can humanists create a language that is as rich as religious language? So how would you, Philip Pullman, answer Rushdie's concern?

Philip Pullman:
That's a very good question. Very interesting question and, of course, it deserves much more consideration than I can give to it now in a rather hasty end to our interview now. I suppose that I, like he, have been trying to do that in my work to find a way of describing the feelings that some people call "religious" but I think are common to everyone, whether they are religious or not. Feelings of awe and wonder at the mystery and the profundity of the universe itself -- its beauty, its extent, its size and so on.

I try to describe that a little in my story. Whether I've succeeded in doing so as well as other writers, I don't know. That is for others to judge. But it is a difficult consideration that we need to take on board and it is very interesting that it should be put to you by Salman Rushdie.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
Well, personally I think both of you have done a great job of taking religious language rather than avoiding it -- taking it and turning it to humanist themes. And I'd like to thank you for all of your work and for taking the time to talk with Humanist Network News.

Philip Pullman:
Well, thank you very much for your questions. I appreciate what you are doing and my very best wishes to your organization and especially to your two -- Lyra and Sophia.

Matt Cherry (Humanist Network News):
Thank you so much.

Interview found here.

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