Philip Pullman was born in Norwich in 1946, and travelled all over the world during his childhood, settling in North Wales at the age of 11.
He studied at Oxford University, graduating in 1968 and becoming a teacher. He then taught in middle schools, writing plays during this period on which some of his later novels were based, later becoming a part-time senior lecturer in English at Westminster College, Oxford, with a specialism in oral storytelling.
The first novel he wrote was for adults, but much of his work is for children. His books include four novels in the "Sally Lockhart' series, three play adaptations, including Frankenstein (1990) and Sherlock Holmes and the Limehouse Horror (1992), and a book, How to be Cool (1987), adapted and broadcast by Granada Television in 1988. Clockwork (1996) was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book Award and for a Carnegie medal in 1997. More recently, Philip Pullman has become well-known for the 'His Dark Materials' Series, fantasy novels telling the story of Lyra Belacque, a young girl whose destiny is to 'change destiny': Northern Lights (1995), winner of a Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and a British Book Award, and shortlisted in 2007 for the Carnegie of Carnegies; The Subtle Knife (1997); The Amber Spyglass (2000), which was the first children's book to win the Whitbread Book of the Year; and Lyra's Oxford (2003).
The books in the 'Dark Materials' Series have been adapted for the stage by Nicholas Wright and an opera based on Clockwork toured theatres in 2004 with musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. A stage adaptation of The Firework Maker's Daughter (1995) opened in 2004. A film adaptation of Northern Lights - The Golden Compass - was launched at Cannes Film Festival 2007, and opened in the UK in December 2007.
Philip Pullman lives in Oxford. In 2005, he was joint winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (Sweden). He believes that 'stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn't be human beings at all.'
In 2007, his book, Northern Lights, won the Carnegie of Carnegies Award. His book, Once Upon a Time in the North - a prequel to the 'His Dark Materials' series, was published in 2008. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010) is a retelling of the story of Jesus, one of the Canongate Myth Series.
He was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2011.
In 2017, he announced a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, based in the same universe as His Dark Materials. The first volume, La Bella Sauvage (2017), was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize and saw Pullman named Author of the Year at the British Book Awards. A second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, is published in 2019.
Pullman has written and published an array of different types of novel - fantasy, social realism, thrillers, fairytales - as well as the phenomenal His Dark Materials series.
One of his well-known earlier works is The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), the first in the Sally Lockhart series (recently made into a BBC1 film, screened December 2006). The books in this series are historical thrillers, set in Victorian London. Pullman’s intention was for the centre of each story to contain a clichéd melodrama: The Ruby in the Smoke centres around a precious jewel which is cursed; The Shadow in the North (first published as The Shadow in the Plate, 1986) depicts a madman who threatens to destroy the world; The Tiger in the Well (1991) shows its characters close to drowning in a cellar, while, in The Tin Princess (1994), a little servant girl becomes a princess. Yet Pullman succeeds in presenting each drama in a believable and convincing manner.
Pullman is often praised for his strong female characters. Sally Lockhart herself, like Lyra Belacqua in the His Dark Materials series (discussed below), is spirited and feisty. Both girls are not stereotypical females: they are physically and mentally tough, outspoken, sharp and perceptive. They are also independent and resourceful. The Sally Lockhart series has also been compared with Dickens, and Pullman’s interest in the Victorian era continues in The New Cut Gang series: Thunderbolt’s Waxwork (1994) and The Gas-Fitters’ Ball (1995). The New Cut Gang are a group of urchins in Lambeth in 1892, and the stories call to mind Fagin’s gang of boys in Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
However, despite the popularity of Pullman’s other works, it was the His Dark Materials series (1995-2000) which led to outstanding success, both critically and commercially. The series centres on the mysterious ‘Dust’ and the attempts of many scholars, theologians and explorers to discover what it is and how it works. As such, the novels combine mysticism, science and theology. At the heart of this is 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua, an orphan growing up in Jordan College, Oxford, who has no idea of her prophesied role in the destiny of the universe.
In Northern Lights (1995), we meet Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon. In Lyra’s world, daemons are an embodiment of one’s inner self, and take the form of an animal. The intense, heart-felt relationship between Lyra and Pantalaimon is an integral part of the first book in particular. Thus, when Lyra discovers that the disappearing children (including her best friend Roger) are taken to Bolvangar for ‘Dust’ experiments, which involve being permanently severed from their daemons, the reader understands that this is equivalent to having one’s heart and soul ripped out. In The Subtle Knife (1997), we meet Will who, like Lyra, must gradually discover his auspicious destiny. Will and Lyra form an intense friendship, but at the end of the second novel they are separated, and The Amber Spyglass (2000) begins with Will’s desperate search for his best friend.
The His Dark Materials books have attracted extensive controversy, with critics arguing that Pullman is deliberately taking an anti-Christian stance. The series portrays ‘the Church’ negatively, and in the third novel it is revealed that ‘the Authority’ is a god-like figure, guilty of corrupt control, as Balthamos explains: ‘ “ The Authority, God, the Creator … those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator …. One of those who came later was wiser than he was, and she found out the truth, so he banished her” ’. Pullman has also written provocative articles denouncing C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia as religious propaganda. However, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, among others, argues that Pullman is critical of oppressive religious dogma, rather than Christianity itself. In this, Pullman’s openly-acknowledged literary influences are clear, particularly Milton’s Paradise Lost and the work of William Blake. These writers, like Pullman, explore the way in which religion can be used to oppress and control in a manner which obscures and distorts true divinity.
The influence of Milton and Blake can also be seen in the way in which Pullman problematises and subverts the traditional divide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Perhaps the most obvious example is the use of the word ‘daemon’ for the embodiment of one’s inner essence. Most of the characters are also complicated figures who cannot easily be classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Will and Lyra are always portrayed positively and sympathetically but they are not angelic or well-behaved in the traditional sense. Lyra’s early childhood gave her a lot of freedom to roam about, and this was combined with the companionship of Oxford scholars. As discussed above, this has resulted in a tough tomboy-ish girl with a precocious mind and an outspoken tongue. When she first meets Will, she feels safe with him when she discovers that he has killed someone (albeit accidentally): ‘The alethiometer answered: He is a murderer. When she saw the answer, she relaxed at once …. A murderer was a worthy companion. She felt as safe with him as she’d done with Iorek Byrnison the armoured bear’.
The His Dark Materials series is very much ‘borderline’ in terms of its audience: it was originally marketed as a children’s book, but is read equally by adults and is not easily categorised. However, Pullman has also written books for younger children, both re-workings of traditional fairytales (The Wonderful Story of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp (1993), Puss in Boots (2000)) and some new fairytales of his own. Clockwork (1996) is a spooky tale set in snowy Germany several hundred years ago, calling to mind the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales, while 'I was a Rat! ... or The Scarlet Slippers' (1999), which has been televised, tells the story of one of the rats who was turned into a coach-boy for Cinderella’s carriage. The Scarecrow and his Servant (2004) has an Italian, Pinocchio-type setting, and also echoes The Wizard of Oz. As the scarecrow comes to life, Pullman’s delightful explanation of events might be termed ‘magical logic’:
'… then there came one of those million-to-one chances that are like winning the lottery. All his molecules and atoms and elementary particles and whatnot were lined up in exactly the right way to switch on when the lightning struck him, which it did at two in the morning, fizzing its way through his turnip head and down his broomstick and into the mud.'
Perhaps the best summary of Pullman’s work as a whole comes from the citation for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, which Pullman received (jointly, with Japanese illustrator Ryôji Arai) in 2005:
'Philip Pullman is a master storyteller …. Through his strong characters he stands firmly on the side of young people, ruthlessly questioning authority and proclaiming humanism and the power of love whilst maintaining an optimistic belief in the child even in the darkest of situations.'
Elizabeth O’Reilly, 2007