EVENT REVIEW: Philip Pullman at Durham Book Festival

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Saturday 17 October
Gala Theatre, Durham

Review by Adam Dawson

For kids of a certain age Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series means more than Harry Potter. I came late to them, being three when Northern Lights was first published and eight when The Amber Spyglass finished off the trilogy. Still, a trilogy – an author – like that is very rare. They’re the kind of author whose books become part of your growing up. You plot your youth by their books.

There’s the widest mixture of ages in the crowd – here’s a kid with a picture book open on his lap, there’s a group of old women, beside me are a gang of academics in hideous ties. Before Pullman is on stage, the theatre is excited. People talk loudly, thumbing original hardback copies of Northern Lights, waiting for its author to appear.

And then he does. The first question, as is usually the case with writers, is about how they write. Pullman differs from other writers in his response – it’s all in metaphor. But that’s why his books are so popular, isn’t it? They can be read just as an adventure story about the girl Lyra on a fantastic quest, or they can be thought over in a professor’s office until its bones have been picked clean.

Pullman is against telling readers how to read. He calls himself a tyrant during the writing of books. He has complete control over every aspect of it, from how long a sentence is to how long a character does. When it’s in the world though, the book becomes a democracy. Everyone can have an opinion on it, as long as there’s textual evidence for it (university essay writers rejoice).

It’s the ability of His Dark Materials to cross generations that make it an enduring classic. Pullman points out that he doesn’t specifically write for children, he just writes books he hopes children will read. They might not pick up on the same things an adult might, like the grim horror of ‘severed’ children or the implications of a god dying.

Religion plays a huge role both in Pullman’s life and fiction; he was raised by his clergyman grandfather. Hymns and Bible verses are a deep part of him, as is the religious poetry he can quote at length from. Pullman says his books follow a similar pattern to Milton’s Paradise Lost (a line of which gave him the title His Dark Materials). They’re both about the pricking of intellectual curiosity, that moment when ‘why’ starts every question. Why am I here? Why do I exist? Why anything?

Demons unlocked the story too. Despite starting Northern Lights fourteen or fifteen times, the story was always flat. Then came the sentence ‘Lyra and her deamon’ which gave the author more breathing space. He still doesn’t know much about them or where they come from. Maybe we’ll find out in his next book. It’s titled The Dust Book. Lyra is in it! Gasp!

Beyond what he’s most well-known for, Pullman has interests outside of armour-clad bears. He’s got more than a passing interest in fairy tales, retelling 50 of the Grimm tales in his own book. They belong to an oral tradition, not a novelistic one – they aren’t distracted by literary technique, they’re immediate, filled with action. You might want to argue they’re stories in their purest form, but academics can do that instead.

This interest in stories, specifically what stories can do, led him to examine the Bible itself. He made Jesus into twins, imaginatively called Jesus and Christ. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ wants to separate the man from the myth. Jesus is the man, Christ the myth. Pullman stresses that Jesus the man was an incredible storyteller who knew how to command an image. You don’t need to hear the Good Samaritan twice, you remember it right away.

The event ends with a brief reading from The Subtle Knife. It’s short, it works. It reminds the entire audience why this story is still around 20 years later, and will be for a lot longer than that too.

Adam Dawson is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.