Today I was extremely lucky in being able to hold an audience with Phillip Pullman, the author best known for the trilogy His Dark Materials and beloved across the world for his stories, as part of my Children’s Literature course here at Oxford. In a basement room in Keble, our children’s literature class (and strictly no extras!) were able to sit and hear him talk about what he’s been up to as well as probe him with a few burning questions of our own. Game on, I thought.
Surprisingly (or I suppose unsurprisingly…), he didn’t seem to want to discuss His Dark Materials at all to begin with. But then after all, I imagine no writer wants to be defined by just one of their works. Instead, he chose to tell us about his latest project which he finished recently, a selected edition of the Grimm Tales, a text which he aimed to make ‘as clear as water’. Not being a translator, Pullman wanted to make them more individual and so set about finding 50 Grimm’s tales that appealed to him the most. Inspired by Italo Calvino’s insistence that ‘the tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it’, Pullman has updated and altered some of the stories slightly, but folktales are meant to change and evolve and therefore I see no problem with this. Pullman in fact has a very Anthony Hopkins-esque storytelling voice and so to hear some of these stories was an absolute delight. I’m sure the book will be a huge success, not just with traditional fairytale fans but others also. As Pullman himself asserts, ‘you always need a few stories in your head ready for telling’.
As interesting as this was however, I think everyone was waiting to discuss His Dark Materials and it was only nano-seconds into our questions until Lyra reared her head! That controversial and infamous kiss/sex scene came up pretty quickly and Pullman insisted it was “just a kiss.” He explained that:
“Your first kiss is a powerful moment in your life. They’re young, that’s all they need. You can read what you like into it, but that’s your choice. It was just a kiss. It’s their moment, not mine”
Whether you believe it was ‘just a kiss’ is up to you, but I found it interesting how Pullman stepped back from claiming agency for this scene. It’s ‘their’ moment, as if Lyra and Will have fates and wills detached from the author. I think to be honest, Pullman is right however to take this step back, but also one could not help but feel he was avoiding some of the question here. Why does it seem so suggestive if that is really all that happened?
It was also intriguing to hear his views on the didactic nature of his work, especially The Amber Spyglass. In an fascinating twist, Pullman actually apologised for any didactic matter to be found in the books:
“I’m sorry, I should have taken more time on that but I was aware of a pressure in the last book. Readers and publishers really wanted for me to finish it. Now I would purge it of all the stuff that tells you what to feel … I feel it is flawed”
In an exciting turn of events, the television series of Game of Thrones also came up and Pullman admitted that he would like for His Dark Materials to be produced in a similar manner once he gets the rights back from Warner Brothers. I know they did the film, but a series would be incredible – simply because you wouldn’t have to cut so much out!
Maybe Pullman wasn’t an author as ‘clear’ as he may wish his texts to be and I think he did avoid many of the questions main points (too many to list here!) but I certainly don’t think he is being dishonest. He can sometimes be portrayed as overly self-assured writer in the media, one who hates other great authors who came before him, but to be honest I think he’s just a normal guy who is entitled to his opinions and openly expresses them. Okay, so I may have found it slightly odd that as a writer of fantasy he didn’t really seem that taken with it as a genre, but he certainly didn’t just dismiss books, he sat and tried to read them which seems fair enough. Conclusion? I may have to pre-order the Selected Grimm by Pullman… AND on a serious note, I don’t think authors hold the answers to their books. ‘Its their moment’, but its also your moment, after all – the tale is not beautiful if you do not add anything to it.
Lots of Love,