Philip Pullman was recently interviewed by Spanish magazine Qué Leer, where he talked about The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, his atheism, and his opinions on other fantasy writers such as Rowling and Tolkien. He also breiefly mentions the long-awaited The Book of Dust, hints that it’ll be a couple of years before we can all read it and tells us that it will be set four years after the events of His Dark Materials.
The article is available in Spanish here. BridgeToTheStars.Net’s Bellerophon has kindly translated the article into English for us, which can be read by following the link below.
An Afternoon with “The Most Dangerous Author in Britain.”
After the controversial young adult drama His Dark Materials, the Englishman returns to the fray with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate), a bold reinterpretation of the Gospels to prove that one might have the same respect for them as for the stories of the Brothers Grimm.
By Rolf Marriot
Before Harry Potter, what did British children read? Many of them would cite the work of Philip Pullman, who achieved international fame with His Dark Materials, a trilogy that hid beneath the mantle of the adventure genre a disquieting reflection on the human condition; one replete with references to religious and philosophical concerns. It’s no wonder that many adult readers borrowed the books from their offspring. The series spawned a radio series, a play, and a film starring Nicole Kidman that was condemned by the Catholic Church, which considered it an underhanded attack on the ecclesiastic hierarchy. Conservative columnist Peter Hitchens dubbed Pullman “the most dangerous author in Britain.”
Censured by the evangelical community in the United States, Pullman resurfaced as a polemic figure in a bizarre episode a few years ago, when a letter purportedly written in his handwriting was discovered in an Oxford mosque during the Muhammad cartoon controversy. A forensic analysis showed that Pullman was not the author, although the police have yet to discover the real culprit. “It was an interesting chapter,” he says today with distinctly British phlegm. “I found it curious that someone could hate me enough to do such a thing.” The threats have not silenced him. He received us in his house, on an old farm outside Oxford, where he worked for decades as a professor of literature and where he established himself. An avowed liberal, champion for atheism in his country, and author of boundless imagination, Pullman held forth with his dog for support, one he affectionately described as “old and dumb, good for nothing except to smell the strangers.”
A Machiavellian Christ
Your writing had already aroused the wrath of the Church, which considered His Dark Materials a sacrilege of the highest order. That wasn’t enough?
It’s understandable to believe I wrote the book to be deliberately provocative, but really that’s not the case. I just wanted to express my ideas and my feelings about this mysterious and fascinating person who lived two thousand years ago and whose ghost the Church has so thoroughly exploited. I was also interested in reinterpreting the Gospels, which I thought I knew pretty well until I reread them. I realized they contradicted themselves concerning the genealogy of Jesus. The four have in common that they are great stories, except perhaps that of St. John, which reads more like a marketing campaign for the figure of Christ.
It interests you to explore these contradictions?
I wanted to free history from every theological pretension in order to tell about Jesus as a man, not as a prophet. Why, of the thousands of criminals, revolutionaries, and other disturbers of the peace who were executed by the Romans, has only Jesus gone down in history? First, it was because he was a great storyteller. He did well with images and metaphors. What always puzzled me a lot is that Jesus did not leave anything in writing. He would have been a great writer.
You turned Jesus and Christ into twins. The result could have drawn you into parody, but you took it completely seriously.
I wanted to play with history, but I didn’t want to write a satire. To me, Jesus has always seemed like a real man, while Christ has seemed more like a ghost. I thought it would be interesting to address this dichotomy by turning them into different people, united by a close and familial bond. In my reinterpretation of the facts, this shift allowed me to solve the mystery of this double identity, and also to cast the stories of the Bible in a new light. For example, the story of the prodigal son makes another kind of sense, which seems equally valid. I was interested in distorting myths to make clear that we should not take them as absolute truth.
That’s not all: You argue that the crucifixion saved Christianity.
Christianity would not exist without the crucifixion. Without that sacrifice in the public arena, Jesus would have lived to a later age and he would have become one of thousands of preachers who claimed that the Kingdom of God would come next Tuesday. When the promised raptures never happened, people just took such prophets for simple charlatans. In my book, I understood that Jesus Christ had to disappear from the map so the ideas he proposed could gain strength. Jesus is an idealist, but enlightened. Christ, however, is more of a realist.
He is also a character of enormous cynicism. Sometimes he seems like a public relations officer or spin–doctor orchestrating a Machiavellian campaign.
Yes, although his motivation is a bit nobler than that of the spin–doctors in politics. Christ thinks in terms of hundreds of years, not caring so much for next week’s news. The ones who acted like spin–doctors were in the Church itself, which reported the facts of history in its own way and obliged us to believe in a single interpretation for centuries.
Who is your spokesman in the book: Jesus, Christ, or the mysterious stranger who conspires against the prophet to take him to the cross?
The three characters reflect my thinking, but I do not identify one hundred percent with any of them. I’m just the narrator, who has always seemed the most interesting character in any novel. He is situated above the others and is able to enter their minds, review the past, and foretell the future. It’s the closest thing to being God [laughter].
The Most Fantastic Religion
Did you write this book thinking of a different audience than usual?
My previous books were intended for all types of readers, although the majority were children. This work, however, the children can read, although it is not specifically designed for them. It is written for an audience familiar with the Christian tradition, one who already knows the Bible stories. The reader who has not received a religious education will not detect these references, although one could always read it as a story of sibling rivalry. In fact, I’m aware that most readers do not have much knowledge of the Bible, at least in my country.
You don’t fear censorship, especially in the U.S. market?
Americans are a special case, because they do what their pastor asks, but in the Western world we are fortunate to live in a privileged time for freedom of expression. Four or five hundred years ago, to publish a book like this would be impossible. Luckily, today there is no longer a Spanish Inquisition to capture me and burn me alive. There are certainly other ways to exercise censorship, but they often have effects contrary to those desired. Banning a book is the most effective way to make the public want to read it. That’s how it’s been since the time of D. H. Lawrence. My books are prohibited in some U.S. libraries, but readers can get them from Amazon without any problems. Today we have the good fortune to bask in the afterglow of the Enlightenment. Thanks to the courage of our ancestors, we have the good fortune to be free.
Was it stimulating to leave behind fantasy literature? Or is this book also a part of it?
Good question. It could belong to the fantasy genre in many ways. However, it is written in a radically different style. That is what was more exciting: to write in a very simple way, without grand images, through simple sentences that are neutral and explicit. Although it seems simple, the hardest thing I’ve tried so far is to write in that declarative tone, dispensing with grand pretensions of style and its facile devices, in order to describe the landscape or the weather. I tried to write in the style of the Gospels, although this is not a new gospel. As indicated on the cover, it’s just a story.
What do religion and fantasy literature have in common?
There are certain similarities, but also a big difference. The great writer doesn’t ask his reader for adoration, reverence, or worship. Unless his name is L. Ron Hubbard, who before founding the Church of Scientology dedicated himself to writing science fiction novels with great success. But you can breathe easy, I have no intention of founding a cult [laughter].
Your books reverberate with echoes of religious and metaphysical discontent. Why did you choose fantasy literature to explore such thoughtful material?
It’s a genre I chose a little despite myself. I’d rather write in a more realistic register, which is what I prefer as a reader. To the extent I write fantasy literature it’s because I don’t know enough about the world in which we live. It’s always easier to invent something than to tell the truth with rigor and precision. I think if I started writing science fiction it was just because I’m a bit lazy [laughter].
His Dark Materials could have been an essay and not a children’s book.
It’s funny you should say that, because the idea came to me while reading a philosophical essay by Heinrich von Kleist, entitled On the Marionette Theatre. It’s a marvelous text about the loss of innocence that accompanies the transition to adulthood. It’s something that the Bible addresses as well. After eating the apple, the first thing that Adam and Eve discover is that they’re naked. That self-consciousness about our bodies is very typical of adolescence, when we realize that we have pimples on our faces, that our arms are too long, or that our breasts are too small. After then, we can never regain our innocence. As the scriptures say, there’s an angel that keeps us from returning to the Garden of Eden. The only way is forward, through life and experience.
You don’t idealize childhood, unlike many children’s writers.
I took that direction purposefully. That I’m against viewing childhood with nostalgia is what distinguishes me from the great British writers for young audiences, like J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, and Kenneth Grahame, who became famous with The Wind in the Willows. Barrie talks about a boy who never wants to grow up, which to me seems quite perverse and twisted. All children want to grow into men and women, to be independent and to embrace their power. I do not share this romantic view of the wonder of childhood and innocence. Accumulating experience seems much better. It might seem painful to leave the gilded cage, but in the end it’s positive, because you can see more and better. It makes you wise. Innocence cannot be wisdom, nor wisdom, innocent.
Where does your interest in opposing dogmas and dismantling myths that we blindly believe in come from?
You may discover the fact that my father, whom had always been portrayed to me as a war hero, was not at all. He was a British army pilot who died fighting the Mau Mau in Kenya when I was seven. All I knew about him is that the Queen awarded him a medal for having died fighting for his country. Later I understood that this story was absurd. I discovered what the British army had done in the African colonies, which was something completely embarrassing. But during my childhood and much of my adult life I was convinced it was true. I don’t think these types of myths make any sense; they’re just self-deception.
That’s interesting, because many children’s writers – including Barrie, Roald Dahl, and J. K. Rowling – experienced the death of a loved one at a very early age.
You’re right. In my case, it has greatly influenced my writing. In His Dark Materials, Will gets to meet the ghost of his father and gets to hear the words that every child would like to hear spoken by his father: “Well done. Son, I’m proud of you.” I wished my father told me something like that, but it never happened. I know he most likely wouldn’t have been interested in my books. He came from a family where art, literature, and philosophy were considered useless. I inherited my passion for letters via my maternal grandfather, another great influence in my life. He was the village priest, very religious and conservative, and at the same time he had an important social role. He was not only a moral authority, but he also attended to people and listened to their problems. He was almost like a psychologist. His social and religious function was very positive.
Listening to you, it seems like your image of the Church is not so negative.
Whoever maintains that my image of the Church is bad should say so because they haven’t read me attentively. I believe in what Jesus said: By their fruits ye shall know them. What matters is not what we believe nor what we profess, but what we can do for others, whether in the name of Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Buddha, or simply because it pleases us.
When did you discover you were an atheist?
Toward the end of my adolescence it became increasingly difficult to believe in the God my grandfather spoke about on Sunday. One day I realized how absurd this story seemed to me and I never could believe it again. I had to keep it a secret because I didn’t want to hurt my grandfather, whom I loved very much. And I didn’t think anyone else would understand. At that time, I didn’t pay much attention to such things.
Did you feel a certain satisfaction when atheism became established among the intelligentsia of your country?
Yes, but with some nuances. I like that Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens sell so many books, although inwardly I don’t share their views on faith. To Dawkins it seems stupid and dangerous that people believe in God and he wants to persuade them to believe in science. To me, however, it doesn’t matter at all what you believe, because it’s none of my business. I only ask that people keep religion apart from power, because that’s when religion becomes dangerous. I didn’t like at all the campaign to hang posters in London’s public transport with the slogan: “God probably does not exist. So stop worrying and enjoy life.” I think it should have said, “God does not exist. So concern yourself further. Wake up at once, boy. It is you who is in charge of everything. It depends on you that this world is to last.” To me it would have seemed more intelligent [laughter].
Rowling, Lewis, Tolkien . . .
What do you think of being named by The Times among the fifty best postwar writers in the United Kingdom?
It did not mean too much. It’s just a way to fill a piece of newspaper. All that matters is whether people read your books or not. And whether they’ll read them in a hundred years. I will not be able to see, but my ghost would surely get quite a thrill out of it.
Are you not offended that they placed J. K. Rowling just ahead of you?
I have nothing against it. The Harry Potter phenomenon has been extraordinary. She made hundreds of young people open a book for the first time. Anyone who does that has my blessing. Yes, I experienced something similar with His Dark Materials, although at a much lower level and for a shorter period. But I still receive letters from readers every day.
You’re less enthusiastic about C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia. What’s the problem with him?
He was an interesting guy and a great literary critic, but when he began writing fiction it went a little to his head. His books defend values that I detest profoundly, like misogyny, racism, and superstition.
And what do you have against J. R. R. Tolkien?
The setting of The Lord of the Rings is a universe I would not like to visit. To me it appears profoundly conservative and, again, misogynistic to say the least. Have you noticed that no woman has a role in the story? Gender relations do not exist, so you tell me how they descended if they avoid sex like the plague . . . speaking of rings, I prefer Wagner a thousand times. His world condenses all existence and human psychology.
Your fans are eagerly awaiting The Book of Dust, the continuation of His Dark Materials. Is it written?
First I want to finish an anthology of the tales of the Brothers Grimm in the same style as The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. When I finish with that, I’ll concentrate on this new volume. Four years will have passed after The Golden Compass and we’ll discover what Lyra has been doing during that time. It will be a couple years before you can read it.