Pullman, Philip

Pullman, Philip
▪ 2005

      The year 2004 saw Philip Pullman's best-selling fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, adapted to the stage in an ambitious, sold-out production in London's National Theatre. In addition, a major film version of the trilogy was promised from the makers of The Lord of the Rings, and playwright Tom Stoppard was hired to produce the script. Meanwhile, Pullman's new novel for children, The Scarecrow and the Servant (2004), was published to acclaim, and he continued work on a prequel to his blockbuster fantasy, tentatively entitled The Book of Dust. The New York Times reported that His Dark Materials had sold more than seven million copies in Britain and the United States and had been translated into 37 languages, making Pullman one of the best-known writers for children in the world.

      Philip Nicholas Pullman was born on Oct. 19, 1946, in Norwich, Eng. The son of a Royal Air Force officer, he moved many times as a child, settling for some years in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In his own words, he “started telling stories as soon as I knew what stories were.” On the long journeys dictated by his father's various postings, he regaled his younger brother with his fantasy tales. After his father died in a plane crash, young Philip was sent back to England to live with his grandparents. Following his mother's remarriage, Pullman moved to Australia briefly before the family settled in Harlech, Wales. After reading English at the University of Oxford, Pullman remained resident in Oxford, working as a teacher.

      One of his first publications was the 1978 adult novel Galatea; it was followed in the 1980s and '90s by many titles for children and young adults. Pullman's Sally Lockhart detective stories, set in Victorian London, were published between 1985 and 1994. His Dark Materials appeared between 1995 and 2000. Northern Lights (1996; U.S. title, The Golden Compass), the first volume of that trilogy, won the 1996 Carnegie Medal, and The Amber Spyglass, the third volume, won the Whitbread Prize. Pullman was dubbed a worthy successor to J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis, who wrote the Narnia chronicles. All three writers were inspired by living in Oxford and by legends and landscapes of “the north.” Unlike Lewis, Pullman eschewed religious parable, instead embracing in his work a humanistic morality. His vivid page-turning saga grappled with fundamental questions of life and death while the action flowed between several possible worlds. References were drawn from a vast repository, with elements of mythology, history, and string theory, while characters included witches, angels, armoured bears, and, perhaps most thought-provoking, demons (animals, representing the spirit, that faithfully accompany their owner from the cradle to the grave). When a fan recently asked Pullman what sort of demon he would like to have, he replied “a magpie or a jackdaw … one of those birds that steal bright things.”

Siobhan Dowd

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Universalium. 2010.

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