Sir Philip Pullman, CBE, FRSL (born 19 October 1946) is an English novelist. He is the author of several best-selling books, including the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials and the fictionalized biography of Jesus, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In 2008, The Times named Pullman one of the “50 greatest British writers since 1945”. In a 2004 poll for the BBC, Pullman was named the eleventh most influential person in British culture. He was knighted in the 2019 New Year Honors for “services to literature.”
The first book of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights, won the 1995 Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognizing the year’s outstanding English-language children’s book. For the 70th anniversary of the Medal it was named one of the top ten winning works by a panel, composing the ballot for a public election of the all-time favorite. It won the public vote from that shortlist and was thus named the all-time “Carnegie of Carnegies” in June 2007. It was adapted as a film under the book’s US title, The Golden Compass. In 2003, His Dark Materials trilogy was ranked third in the BBC’s The Big Read, a poll of the Top 200 novels voted by the British public.
- His Dark Materials Saga
- Book of Dust
- His Dark Materials
- His Dark Materials companion books
- Sally Lockhart
Life and career
Philip Pullman was born in Norwich, England, the son of Audrey Evelyn Pullman (née Merrifield) and Royal Air Force pilot Alfred Outram Pullman. The family traveled with his father’s job, including to Southern Rhodesia, though most of his formative years were spent in Llanbedr in Ardudwy, North Wales.
His father, an RAF pilot, was killed in a plane crash in 1954 in Kenya when Pullman was seven, being posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Pullman said at the beginning of a 2008 exchange that to him as a boy, his father “was a hero, steeped in glamour, killed in action defending his country” and had been “training pilots”. Pullman was then presented with a report from The London Gazette of 1954 “which carried the official RAF news of the day [and] said that the medal was given for ‘gallant and distinguished service’ during the Mau Mau uprising. ‘The main task of the Harvards [the aircraft flown by his father’s unit] has been bombing and machine-gunning Mau Mau and their hideouts in densely wooded and difficult country.’ This included ‘diving steeply into the gorges of [various] rivers, often in conditions of low cloud and driving rain.’ Testing conditions, yes, but not much opposition from the enemy, the journalist in the exchange continued. Very few of the Mau Mau had guns that could land a blow on an aircraft.” Pullman responded to this new information, writing “my father probably doesn’t come out of this with very much credit, judged by the standards of modern liberal progressive thought” and accepted the new information as “a serious challenge to his childhood memory.” His mother remarried, and with a move to Australia came Pullman’s discovery of comic books including Superman and Batman, a medium which he continues to espouse.
Pullman attended Taverham Hall and Eaton House in his early years, and from 1957 he was educated at Ysgol Ardudwy in Harlech, Gwynedd, and spent time in Norfolk with his grandfather, a clergyman. Around this time Pullman discovered John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which would become a major influence for His Dark Materials.
From 1965, Pullman attended Exeter College, Oxford, receiving a Third class BA in 1968. In an interview with the Oxford Student he stated that he “did not really enjoy the English course” and that “I thought I was doing quite well until I came out with my third class degree and then I realized that I wasn’t – it was the year they stopped giving fourth class degrees otherwise I’d have got one of those”. He discovered William Blake’s illustrations around 1970, which would also later influence him greatly.
Pullman married Judith Speller in 1970 and began teaching children aged 9 to 13 at Bishop Kirk Middle School in Summertown, North Oxford and writing school plays. His first published work was The Haunted Storm, which was joint-winner of the New English Library’s Young Writer’s Award in 1972. He nevertheless refuses to discuss it. Galatea, an adult fantasy-fiction novel, followed in 1978, but it was his school plays which inspired his first children’s book, Count Karlstein, in 1982. He stopped teaching shortly after the publication of The Ruby in the Smoke (1986), his second children’s book, which has a Victorian setting.
Pullman taught part-time at Westminster College, Oxford, between 1988 and 1996, continuing to write children’s stories. He began His Dark Materials in about 1993. The first book, Northern Lights, was published in 1995 (entitled The Golden Compass in the U.S., 1996). Pullman won both the annual Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, a similar award that authors may not win twice.
Pullman has been writing full-time since 1996. He continues to deliver talks and writes occasionally for The Guardian, including writing and lecturing about education, where he is often critical of unimaginative education policies. He was awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honors list in 2004. He also co-judged the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize (awarded by Oxford University) in 2005 with Gillian Clarke. In 2004, he was elected President of the Blake Society. In 2004 Pullman also guest-edited The Mays Anthology, a collection of new writing from students at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
In 2005 Pullman won the annual Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award from the Swedish Arts Council, recognizing his career contribution to “children’s and young adult literature in the broadest sense”. According to the presentation, “Pullman radically injects new life into fantasy by introducing a variety of alternative worlds and by allowing good and evil to become ambiguous.” In every genre, “he combines storytelling and psychological insight of the highest order.”
He was one of five finalists for the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 2006 and he was the British nominee again in 2012.
In 2008, he started working on The Book of Dust, a companion book to his His Dark Materials trilogy, and “The Adventures of John Blake”, a story for the British children’s comic The DFC, with artist John Aggs.
On 23 November 2007, Pullman was made an honorary professor at Bangor University. In June 2008, he became a Fellow supporting the MA in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University. In September 2008, he hosted “The Writer’s Table” for Waterstone’s bookshop chain, highlighting 40 books which have influenced his career. In October 2009, he became a patron of the Palestine Festival of Literature. He is also a patron of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, a charity that enables school children across the UK to perform Shakespeare in professional theaters.
On 24 June 2009, Pullman was awarded the degree of D. Litt. (Doctor of Letters), honoris causa, by the University of Oxford at the Encænia ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre.
In 2012, during a break from writing The Book of Dust, Pullman was asked by Penguin Classics to curate 50 of Grimms’ classic fairy tales, from their compendium of over 200 stories. “They are not all of the same quality”, said Pullman. “Some are easily much better than others. And some are obvious classics. You can’t do a selected Grimms’ without Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella and so on.”
Beginning in August 2013, Pullman was elected President of the Society of Authors – the “ultimate honor” awarded by the British writers body, and a position first held by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The first volume of Pullman’s trilogy The Book of Dust was published by Penguin Random House Children’s and David Fickling in the UK and by Random House Children’s in the US on 19 October 2017. The second title in The Book of Dust, The Secret Commonwealth will include a character named after Nur Huda el-Wahabi, a 16-year-old victim of London’s tragic Grenfell Tower fire. As part of the charity auction Authors for Grenfell Tower, Pullman offered the highest bidder a chance to name a character in the upcoming trilogy. Ultimately, he raised £32,400 to provide relief for survivors of the Grenfell disaster.
Pullman was named a Knight Bachelor in the 2019 New Year’s Honors list. In March 2019, the charity Action for Children’s Art presented Pullman with their annual J. M. Barrie Award to mark a “lifetime’s achievement in delighting children”.
His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials is a trilogy consisting of Northern Lights (titled The Golden Compass in North America), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Northern Lights won the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction in the UK in 1995. The Amber Spyglass was awarded both 2001 Whitbread Prize for best children’s book and the Whitbread Book of the Year prize in January 2002, the first children’s book to receive that award. The series won popular acclaim in late 2003, taking third place in the BBC’s Big Read poll. Pullman later wrote two companion pieces to the trilogy, entitled Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North. A third companion piece Pullman refers to as the “green book” will expand upon his character Will.
La Belle Sauvage was published in October 2017 and is the beginning of a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, which will include characters and events from His Dark Materials.
Pullman has narrated unabridged audio books of the three novels in the His Dark Materials trilogy; the other parts are read by actors, including Jo Wyatt, Steven Webb, Peter England, Stephen Thorne and Douglas Blackwell.
In a discussion on fantasy as escapism, Pullman admitted he never reads fantasy as “it’s not satisfying”. He then went on to argue that he sees His Dark Materials as “stark realism”, not fantasy.
Pullman has been a vocal campaigner on a number of book-related and political issues.
Age and gender labeling of books
In 2008, Pullman led a campaign against the introduction of age bands on the covers of children’s books, saying: “It’s based on a one-dimensional view of growth, which regards growing older as moving along a line like a monkey climbing a stick: now you’re seven, so you read these books; and now you’re nine so you read these”. More than 1,200 authors, booksellers, illustrators, librarians and teachers joined the campaign; Pullman’s own publisher, Scholastic, agreed to his request not to put the age bands on his book covers. Joel Rickett, deputy editor of The Bookseller, said: “The steps taken by Mr Pullman and other authors have taken the industry by surprise and I think these proposals are now in the balance”.
In 2014, Pullman supported the Let Books Be Books campaign to stop children’s books being labelled as “for girls” or “for boys”, saying: “I’m against anything, from age-ranging to pinking and blueing, whose effect is to shut the door in the face of children who might enjoy coming in. No publisher should announce on the cover of any book the sort of readers the book would prefer. Let the readers decide for themselves”.
Pullman has a strong commitment to traditional British civil liberties and is noted for his criticism of growing state authority and government encroachment into everyday life. In February 2009, he was the keynote speaker at the Convention on Modern Liberty in London and wrote an extended piece in The Times condemning the Labour government for its attacks on basic civil rights. Later, he and other authors threatened to stop visiting schools in protest at new laws requiring them to be vetted to work with youngsters—though officials claimed that the laws had been misinterpreted.
In July 2011, Pullman was one of the lead campaigners signing a declaration which called for a 1,000-strong “public jury”, selected at random, to draw up a “public interest first” test to ensure that power is taken away from “remote interest groups”. The declaration was also signed by 56 academics, writers, trade unionists and politicians from the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.
In October 2011, Pullman backed a campaign to stop 600 library closures in England calling it a “war against stupidity”. Of the London Borough of Brent’s claims that it was closing half of its libraries to fulfil its ‘exciting plans’ to improve its library service Pullman said: “All the time, you see, the council had been longing to improve the library service, and the only thing standing in the way was – the libraries”.
Speaking at a conference organised by The Library Campaign and Voices for the Library he added:
The book is second only to the wheel as the best piece of technology human beings have ever invented. A book symbolizes the whole intellectual history of mankind; it’s the greatest weapon ever devised in the war against stupidity. Beware of anyone who tries to make books harder to get at. And that is exactly what these closures are going to do – oh, not intentionally, except in a few cases; very few people are stupid intentionally; but that will be the effect. Books will be harder to get at. Stupidity will gain a little ground.
ebook library loans
In advance of becoming president of the Society of Authors in August 2013, Pullman led a call for authors to be fairly paid for ebook library loans. Under arrangements in force at the time, authors were paid 6p per library loan by the government for physical books, but nothing for ebook loans. In addition, the Society found that publishers had possibly been inadvertently underpaying authors for ebook loans. Altogether, this may have resulted in authors losing up to two-thirds of the income they would have received on the sale and loan of a physical book. Addressing this issue, Pullman said:
New media and new forms of buying and lending are all very interesting, for all kinds of reasons, but one principle remains unchanged: authors must be paid fairly for their work. Any arrangement that doesn’t acknowledge that principle is a bad one, and needs to be changed. That is our whole argument.
William Blake’s cottage and memorial stone
As a long-time enthusiast of William Blake, and president of the Blake Society, Pullman led a campaign in winter 2014 to buy the Sussex cottage where the poet lived between 1800 and 1803, saying:
Surely it isn’t beyond the resources of a nation that can spend enormous amounts of money on acts of folly and unnecessary warfare, a nation that likes to boast about its literary heritage, to find the money to pay for a proper memorial and a center for the study of this great poet and artist. Not least because this is the place where he wrote the words now often sung as an alternative (and better) national anthem, the poem known as Jerusalem: “And did those feet in ancient time”. Blake’s feet walked in Felpham. Let’s not let this opportunity pass by.
As president of the Blake Society, on 11 August 2018 Pullman inaugurated Blake’s new memorial gravestone on the site of his grave in Bunhill Fields, following a long campaign by the society.
Fees for guest authors at book festivals
In January 2016, Pullman resigned as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival after five years, saying that its continued refusal to pay authors fees for appearing as guest speakers at the event placed him in an “awkward position” because it conflicted with his presidency of the Society of Authors, which campaigns for authors to be paid for appearing at book festivals. He made the announcement on Twitter, saying that he had made lengthy attempts to persuade the Festival to pay authors, “but they won’t. Time to go”. Reporting Pullman’s decision, UK daily newspaper The Independent noted, “The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society found in 2014 that the average earnings of a professional full-time author is just £11,000”.
Perspective on religion
Although Pullman has stated he is “a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that’s the tradition I was brought up in”, he has also said he is technically an agnostic. He has singled out elements of Christianity for criticism: “if there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against.” However, he said that his argument can extend to all religions. Pullman has also referred to himself as knowingly “of the Devil’s party”, a reference to William Blake’s revisionist view of Milton in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Pullman is a supporter of Humanists UK and an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society. In 2011 he was given a services to Humanism award by the British Humanist Association for his contribution as a longstanding supporter.
On 15 September 2010, Pullman, along with 54 other public figures (including Stephen Fry, Professor Richard Dawkins, Terry Pratchett, Jonathan Miller and Ken Follett), signed an open letter published in The Guardian stating their opposition to Pope Benedict XVI being given “the honor of a state visit” to the UK; the letter argued that the Pope had led and condoned global abuses of human rights, leading a state which has “resisted signing many major human rights treaties and has formed its own treaties (“concordats”) with many states which negatively affect the human rights of citizens of those states”.
New Yorker journalist Laura Miller described Pullman as one of England’s most outspoken atheists. He has characterized atheist totalitarian regimes as religions.
Alan Jacobs (of Wheaton College) said that in His Dark Materials Pullman replaced the theist world-view of John Milton’s Paradise Lost with a Rousseauist one. The books in the series have been criticized for their attitude to religion, especially Catholicism, by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and Focus on the Family.
Writing in the Catholic Herald in 1999, Leonie Caldecott cited Pullman’s work as an example of fiction “far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry [Potter]” on the grounds that
“[by] co-opting Catholic terminology and playing with Judaeo-Christian theological concepts, Pullman is effectively removing, among a mass audience of a highly impressionable age, some of the building blocks for future evangelisation”.
Pullman was flattered and asked his publisher to include quotes from Caldecott’s article in his next book. In 2002, the Catholic Herald published an article by Sarah Johnson that compared Pullman to a “playground bully” whose work “attacks a religious minority”. The following year, after Benedict Allen’s reference to the criticism during the BBC TV series The Big Read, the Catholic Herald republished both articles and Caldecott claimed her “bonfire” comment was a joke and accused Pullman and his supporters of quoting her out of context. In a longer article for Touchstone magazine earlier in 2003, Caldecott had also described Pullman’s work as “axe-grinding” and “a kind of Luciferian enterprise”.
Peter Hitchens argued that Pullman pursues an anti-Christian agenda, citing an interview in which Pullman is quoted as saying: “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” In the same interview, Pullman acknowledges that a controversy would be likely to boost sales, but continues “I’m not in the business of offending people. I find the books upholding certain values that I think are important, such as life is immensely valuable and this world is an extraordinarily beautiful place. We should do what we can to increase the amount of wisdom in the world.” Hitchens also views the His Dark Materials series as a direct rebuttal of C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia; Pullman has criticized the Narnia books as religious propaganda. Hitchens’ brother Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, praised His Dark Materials as a fresh alternative to Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and J. K. Rowling, describing the author as one “whose books have begun to dissolve the frontier between adult and juvenile fiction”. However, he was more critical of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, accusing Pullman of being a “Protestant atheist” for supporting the teachings of Christ but being critical of organised religion.
Pullman has found support from some Christians, most notably Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who argued that Pullman’s attacks focus on the constraints and dangers of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself. Williams recommended His Dark Materials for discussion in Religious Education classes, and said that “to see large school-parties in the audience of the Pullman plays at the National Theater is vastly encouraging”. Pullman and Williams took part in a National Theater platform debate a few days later to discuss myth, religious experience and its representation in the arts.
Donna Freitas, professor of religion at Boston University, argued that challenges to traditional images of God should be welcomed as part of a “lively dialogue about faith”. The Christian writers Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware “also uncover spiritual themes within the books”. Pullman’s contribution to the Canongate Myth Series, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, was described by Mike Collett-White as “a far more direct exploration of the foundations of Christianity and the church as well as an examination of the fascination and power of storytelling”.
In a 2017 interview with The Times Magazine, Pullman said: “The place religion has in our lives is a permanent one.” He concluded that there was “no point in condemning [religion]”, and mused that it is part of the human mind to ask philosophical questions such as the purpose of life. He reiterated that it was useless to “become censorious about [religion], to say there is no God’. He also mentioned that his novel, The Book of Dust, is based on the “extreme danger of putting power into the hands of those who believe in some absolute creed, whether that is Christianity or Islam or Marxism”.