Philip Pullman – Interview

I recently interviewed Philip Pullman about his novel The Good Man Jesus & the Scoundrel Christ (Text Books, Melbourne, 2010). You can find my review of the book in the Book Reviews section of this page:  http://www.arts.monash.edu.au/ecps/colloquy/journal/issue019/

But of course i had to ask about his other great books, especially the His Dark Materials trilogy, the first volume of which was made into The Golden Compass film. And, naturally, i also had to ask him about his ideas on the symbols of light and dark…

GB: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ situates a history that is lived against a questionable ‘truth’ that is fabricated, and the result is mythologisation. Obviously you feel that the process of mythologisation is, in this case, a theft of an even higher truth or possibility: the potential liberation offered by faith in our own human abilities, as opposed to the faith that is cultivated in us by conventional religions such as Christianity. Can you comment on the powers that you do give your fictional Jesus, who comes across as truly challenging and inspiring but as absolutely human?

PP: The Jesus I tried to depict in TGMJ was the man as I imagined him, having read the gospels closely and having read what Geza Vermes says about him in his various books. I tried not to read too widely, having made that mistake before when writing The Amber Spyglass; I found myself taking great care to avoid contradicting X while remembering to acknowledge Y and making due reference to Z – X and Y and Z being Blake’s view of the Platonic strain in Gnosticism, or Milton’s take on the Ophite tendency, or … and so on. The book that did that to me was a critical examination of the Gnostic elements in Blake, Milton, and Marvell by A.D. Nuttall. I was temporarily paralysed. I felt I had to creep around like a mouse in a house full of other people’s furniture, taking great care not to disturb anything. Finally I remembered Blake’s great line “I must create my own system, or be enslav’d by another man’s,” and with one bound I was free.

So I didn’t want to get caught up in other people’s view of Jesus, and I strictly rationed my reading (though I did read the Pope’s book, and also A.N. Wilson’s). Instead I pondered over the gospels and followed my imagination.

GB: Can you comment on the story of the Grand Inquisitor, found in Dostoevsky’s great novel “The Brothers Karamazov”? I found elements of your tale, in which a mysterious force constructs the Church in order to serve the people, had resonances with this (although your mysterious stranger never reveals his identity, it was very interesting that he claimed to be one of a ‘legion’, a word i associate with demons, which would also fit with Dostoevsky’s dark vision of the Church).

PP: You’re the only person so far who’s spotted the word ‘legion’, which of course resonates with the demons that Jesus cast out in Luke 8.30 and Mark 5.9. Later, when Christ sees the Stranger in the garden of the tomb, he seems to remember that allusion, because he answers the Stranger’s words “I have been busy elsewhere” with the bitter words “Yes, going to and fro in the earth, and walking up and down in it”, which is what Satan says when God asks him where he’s been in the first chapter of Job. So there’s a clear identification in Christ’s mind, by this time, of the Stranger with the forces of evil – quite reasonable, really, considering that he’s engineered the death of Jesus.

As for the Grand Inquisitor chapter in Dostoevsky, it’s a marvellous myth on its own. By myth I mean a story which works just as well however you tell it – a narrative that can fly through the bars of the text in which it appears for the first time, and perch happily in any other telling. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a myth of that sort, and so is the story of Oedipus. But again, I didn’t want to find myself creeping mouse-like around Dostoevsky’s great vision, so I avoided reading it while I was writing this.

GB: Your trilogy His Dark Materials takes its title from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and after reading it i was left thinking about William Blake’s comment that Milton was, after all, a poet of Satan’s persuasion. The great epic poem is as much about the rise of the individual in western modernity as it is about the Biblical myth it sets out to recapitulate, and your trilogy seemed also to chart a tension between individual human abilities and the machinations by which they can be deadened. This seems to me also a theme in the new novel. Can you comment on this enduring theme in western literature and your take on it?

PP: Yes, I think you’re right. It’s a classic story-shape, to begin with; enthralling to read or listen to, just as thrilling to write or tell. And then it seems to resonate with the individualism that’s been part of Western culture generally, not only literature, for so long – my current favourite example of it being Beethoven’s Egmont overture. It’s present both in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon – “Thought must be the harder, heart be the keener, mind must be the greater, as our strength lessens” – and in the phenomenal popularity of the video game Space Invaders, when it first appeared: the player knows he’s going to lose, but keeps on blazing away till he goes down. You can see it in Lee Scoresby’s last stand in The Subtle Knife. Some stories just give you an intense pleasure to tell.

GB: The narrative voice in the new novel is a remarkable technical achievement in that it reproduces the simplicity of traditional Christian story telling in a way both touching and, of course, controversial; Jesus’ miracles, for instance, are told by you in a way that makes them seem both marvelous and explicable at once. The ending of your tale, which symbolises the mythologisation carried out by Church fathers and the way certain religious symbols and rites may come to represent something quite the opposite of what they are meant to, seemed to me then a breathtaking denouement to what had at times come across as a deceptively simple tale. Yet even as the whole process of the novel is clearly meant to reveal a ‘theft’ of human potential, you recognise that humanity seems destined to continue this quest for transcendence, as if mythologisation were an unavoidable part of us. Do you think it is? And if so, what is to be done with our perpetual drive to find a sacrificial king whose death will supposedly ensure the regeneration of the world?

PP: Yes, I think it is an unavoidable part of us. And my conclusion is the same as Christ’s: that the situation we’re in is a tragic one. Firstly we’re separated from nature by our human consciousness, which gives us the sense of being in exile: every bird, every beast, every living being except us is at home in the world, and lives intensely and without regret or shame. Such myths as the Gnostic one derive their power from their explanatory function (of course! That’s why we don’t feel at home in the world! It’s because we really don’t belong here …) Rilke talks about this in one of the Duino Elegies.

And secondly we long for transcendence, and find it temporarily in this experience or that one, but find ourselves dragged back by the quotidian, the daily shame of the mundane. Tristan and Isolde melting together in that most intensely sexual piece of music ever written: and then imagine them ten years later nagging each other over the breakfast table, she dissatisfied, he resentful, both unhappy … For some reason the only transcendent way out for them is to die at the peak of their ecstasy.

At least it seems tragic when you’re at one particular point in the cycle. Because it is a cycle, or an endlessly recurring pendulum-swing. It would be perfectly possible to take a view from a different point, and see the human situation as one of optimistic eternal regeneration, to live in spring instead of autumn. It all depends on where you look at it from.

GB: Finally, my own area of interest is specifically in the way light and darkness are used as symbols in religious, philosophical and political senses. I noticed you had the mysterious stranger pointing out that Christ’s special skill was that he could embellish the mere truth of Jesus’ life in a way that would make both of them shine in equal splendour. Christ is told he needs to see with the vision of the divine and that this will also reveal the darkness and the shadows. If you have anything you would like to add to the way you think such traditional conceptions can be revisioned in accord with what you see as a more prosaically honest human truth for our times, i would greatly appreciate it.

PP: Light and darkness are profound experiences – or must have been in the days before artificial lighting, in the caves when you guarded the fire with desperate care in case it went out for good, or in the days when a candle, or a little oil lamp with a smoky wick, were the only ways of keeping the darkness out. We’ve lost that sense of darkness now, especially in the cities. Such a phrase as the dark night of the soul can’t convey nearly as much as it did to the original readers of John of the Cross. What I find especially fascinating and powerful about Jesus’s parables and images and analogies is the way each of them is deeply rooted in physical, embodied experience. Light and dark are fundamental opposites that we understand in a physical way, like up and down, hot and cold, wet and dry, and Jesus built on this in the images he used to covey his ideas – hence their enduring strength through the centuries; but do they still have the same force today? When he says “By their fruits shall ye know them,” what does this convey to a generation that thinks fruits come from supermarkets? Today we are almost disembodied.

I don’t know if that’s any use to you, but your questions have been extremely interesting to think about.

GB: Thanks Philip.



  1. I’ll now have to read the book, but great interview. I was particularly caught by this last point about our experience of darkness. Because we don’t name our darkness we do not know that we avoid it…but it’s there.

    • That’s a great pickup Kirk; an unnamed presence may even be more pervasive in the uncharted territories of our psyche – hiding it doesn’t lessen its power. I feel like the darkness we avoid in today’s mainstream society is as classic as ever – death and disease, chaos and lack. I just don’t think advanced technology and consumerism provide a very total response…

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