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Pullman, Philip

Entry updated 3 April 2023. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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(1946-    ) UK author, mostly of books for children and the Young Adult market, and mostly fantasy; his first novel, however, The Haunted Storm (1972) as Philip N Pullman, is a nonfantastic Bildungsroman for adults, though its climax in a devastated Mithraic temple hints at the shape of future work. In his second, Galatea (1978), also for adults, the protagonist's quest for his missing wife changes by stages into a Fantastic Voyage through Lost Worlds and obscured Utopias, with Monsters and sages and Zombies and other creatures along the way, reaching the Perfect City at last where, ambivalently, "everything is what it seems". Here the pilgrim protagonist, who has created a Galatea who "seems" to love him, reaches some kind of understanding that all forms of reality "come about because of the amorous inclinations of matter", a formulation curiously reminiscent of the underlying burden of Edgar Allan Poe's Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848): an elevated but secular conclusion Pullman has consistently re-affirmed [see The Book of Dust below].

More typical of his later career is his third novel, Count Karlstein (1982), a Gothic fantasy for older children whose young protagonists must escape being traded to the Devil, who needs them for his Wild Hunt [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; Count Karlstein; Or, the Ride of the Demon Huntsman (1991) retells the story for younger children, in entirely different words. Pullman's intensely storyable strategies throughout his work are first evident on a larger scale in the Sally Lockhart sequence, comprising The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), The Shadow in the Plate (1986; vt The Shadow in the North 1987), The Tiger in the Well (1990) and The Tin Princess (1994), where homages explicit and implicit to Charles Dickens and his London can everywhere be felt. The melodrama of Sally's life – she is an orphan who grows up in Victorian London to become something of a financial wizard and tycoon (see Feminism; Women in SF) – begins within the frame of the nonfantastic, but Inventions and exorbitant coincidences stretch that reading; the fourth volume leaves Sally Lockhart (for the most part) and London for Ruritania.

Pullman's next major series, the central work of his career to date, is the His Dark Materials sequence comprising an initial, massively extended three-volume narrative – Northern Lights (1995; vt The Golden Compass 1996), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), all three assembled as His Dark Materials (omni 2001) – plus five short additional titles, Lyra's Oxford (2003 chap), Once Upon a Time in the North (2008) Serpentine (2020 chap), The Imagination Chamber: Cosmic Rays from Lyra's Universe (coll 2022 chap) and The Collectors (final version 2022). The first volume – which won the Carnegie Medal – was filmed, with a sense of unjoyful truncation throughout, as The Golden Compass (2007) directed by Chris Weitz; the trilogy's secular premise was carefully detoothed, presumably by Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, though this did not entirely prevent protests from the Christian Right; the later Television mini-series, His Dark Materials (23 episodes 2019-current), is faithful to the original.

One of the most challenging creations of the past decades – certainly for its ostensible Young Adult readership – Dark Materials inhabits an Alternate Cosmos in which the material cohesion of the cosmos can be seen as "Dust", a physical manifestation of the angel-like dance of all matter (see Cosmology) which, aggregated, may be conscious. But this universe is beginning to show signs of severe Entropy, expressed through a literal Thinning [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] of the Dust. The ageing of reality – this dying of the light – is partly laid down to the life-denying actions of the Magisterium (Christianity, though not mentioned as such, is clearly being described here), and to the lesions caused by the use of the subtle knife, an instrument capable of cutting windows into Alternate Worlds. Even though the elimination of God in the third volume (see Religion) relieves the cast and the cosmos of an unwanted burden, the central problem remains: how to redeem the world. In the end, this task laid down to the two young protagonists, Lyra and Will, who must reverse the life-denying Miltonic claim that knowledge is evil, and that Adam and Eve sinned through "knowing" themselves as sexual beings. Lyra and Will, an Adam and Eve liberated from this extraordinary doctrine, must purify themselves by having sex together, so that the Dust may live, and a secular Kingdom, a "republic of heaven", may come into being.

The second significant array of works set in this universe – the Book of Dust trilogy beginning with La Belle Sauvage (2017) – narratively surrounds the first trilogy; in the first volume, Pullman conveys young Malcolm's task of saving the infant Lyra from the Magisterium through an intensely storyable use of familiar (and unfamiliar) plot devices, including a great flood that drowns Oxford, and an insinuating villain who seems clearly intended to evoke the "preacher" Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in The Night of the Hunter (1955) directed by Charles Laughton. The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth (2019), advances twenty years – well after His Dark Materials closes – and follows the adult Lyra in her search for her daimon Pantalaimon, who has abandoned her, and Malcolm, in his attempt to keep her safe; the tale – enabled by Pullman's creation of a world effectively without electricity, and therefore lacking the telephone, or radio, or computers – ends in central Asia in a complex Slingshot Ending. Here, which is to say in the next volume, the secret commonwealth, an understanding of the truly experienced nature of reality, a kind of imaginative grasping that eschews both Religion and reductive reason, may be found as something tangle, and the "dust" that knits the universe together may remain salvageable.

Interspersed among the major series are shorter works of interest, including the spoofish sf Satire How to Be Cool (1987), whose teenage cast fights off the National Cool Board's attempts to control the Media Landscape with the aid of a Coolometer that clownishly disrupts the electromagnetic spectrum, and the equally spoofish Spring-Heeled Jack (1989), whose quasi-Superhero eponym, suspected of being the Devil, helps save three children from a corrupt orphanage in a romantic nineteenth-century London; both titles represent an unaccustomed (and not repeated) attempt on Pullman's part to import Humour into his world. Later works, mostly lacking this slightly forced lightness of touch, include the slightly fantasticated New Cut Gang sequence beginning with Thunderbolt's Waxwork (1994), also set in London; The Firework-Maker's Daughter (1995), which argues that you must love what you make or it will not live; and Clockwork; Or, All Wound Up (1996 chap), which also features a figure who may be the Devil, and who argues for a universe in which "you wind up the future like clockwork". The story itself, as intricate as a clock but wiser, ends in a redeeming rapport between a young girl and a clockwork prince, for she – in yet another example of Pullman's central argument that "amorous inclinations of matter" make the world – has given her heart to him. Thematically linked to these, the more ambitious I Was a Rat! ... Or, the Scarlet Slippers (1999) combines a fairy tale narrative involving metamorphoses and Satire directed at the press; The Scarecrow and his Servant (2004) features an animate scarecrow who manages to survive daunting challenges butthead-Trickster-like [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; the last four titles cited above were eventually assembled as Four Tales (omni 2010). The meditative The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010) further articulates Pullman's deeply secular understanding of the amorous world. Grimm Tales For Young and Old: In a New Version by Philip Pullman (coll 2012; vt Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version 2012) presents lucid versions of fifty fairytales, with any revisionist intuitions being restricted to the adaptor's notes.

Pullman was knighted in 2019. [JC]

see also: Eastercon.

Philip Nicholas Pullman

born Norwich, Norfolk: 19 October 1946



Sally Lockhart

New Cut Gang

His Dark Materials

  • Northern Lights (London: Scholastic, 1995) [His Dark Materials: hb/David Scutt]
    • The Golden Compass (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1996) [vt of the above: His Dark Materials: hb/Eric Rohmann]
  • The Subtle Knife (London: Scholastic, 1997) [His Dark Materials: hb/David Scutt]
  • The Amber Spyglass (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2000) [His Dark Materials: hb/Eric Rohmann]
    • His Dark Materials (London: Scholastic, 2001) [omni of the above three: His Dark Materials: hb/David Scutt]
  • Lyra's Oxford (Oxford, Oxfordshire: David Fickling Books, 2003) [chap: His Dark Materials: illus/hb/John Lawrence]
  • Once Upon a Time in the North (Oxford, Oxfordshire: David Fickling Books, 2008) [His Dark Materials: illus/hb/John Lawrence]
  • Serpentine (London: Random House Children's, 2020) [chap: His Dark Materials: illus/hb/Tom Duxbury]
  • The Imagination Chamber: Cosmic Rays from Lyra's Universe (Oxford, Oxfordshire: David Fickling Books/London: Scholastic, 2022) [coll: chap: His Dark Materials: hb/Together Design]
  • The Collectors (London: Random House/RHCP Digital, 2015) [story: ebook: audio download first appeared 2014: His Dark Materials: na/]
    • The Collectors (London: Penguin Books, 2022) [story: chap: changes in text unconfirmed: illustrations are 2022: His Dark Materials: illus/Tom Duxbury: hb/from Balthus, "Portrait de la jeune fille en costume d'amazone"]

The Book of Dust

individual titles (selected: excluding picture books)

plays (selected)

  • Frankenstein (Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1990) [play: chap: first performed 1987: Frankenstein Monster: Mary Shelley: in the publisher's Oxford Playscripts series: illus/Jonathon Heap: pb/Peter Stone]
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Limehouse Horror (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1992) [play: chap: first performed 1984 as "Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Sumatran Devil": Sherlock Holmes: in the publisher's Dramascripts Extra series: pb/uncredited]

works as translator


about the author


previous versions of this entry

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