Philip Nicholas Outram Pullman was born on 19 October 1946, in Norwich, England, the elder of two sons born to Alfred Outram Pullman, a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force, and Audrey Evelyn Pullman (née Merrifield). Pullman, his mother and younger brother Francis followed Alfred to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) but moved back to England to live with Pullman’s grandparents and aunt in Norfolk. His grandfather was the rector of the local church at Drayton, and Pullman has credited his grandfather’s influence as a master storyteller, writing, “When I was young he was the sun at the centre of my life” (Pullman, “I Have a Feeling” 13). In 1953, Alfred Pullman was killed in a plane crash in Africa.
After his mother's remarriage to another airman, the family moved again, this time to Australia. The relocation was to prove significant, for it was in Australia where Pullman’s stepfather bought him his first Superman comic book. He recalls that “it changed my life. I'd been a reader for a long time, but a reader of books; I'd never known comics. When I got this one, I devoured it and demanded more” (Pullman, “I Have a Feeling” 17). It was his desire to retell and continue the stories of favorite characters that first led to him casting himself as the storyteller. By the age of 11, the family’s peripatetic travels were over when they returned to Britain and settled in North Wales.
After completing his secondary education, Pullman enrolled in Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied English. Graduating with a B.A. in 1968, Pullman worked briefly for Moss Brothers, an English formalwear shop, and as a librarian before earning his teaching degree at Weymouth College of Education. Pullman taught at Ivanhoe, Bishop Kirk, and Marston middle schools in Oxford (1970-86), and as a senior lecturer at Westminster College, a teacher training college at the University of Oxford, where he specialized in Victorian texts and the folk tale (1988-95). Pullman has been writing professionally since 1972.
Pullman married his wife, Judith Speller, in 1970. They have two sons and several grandchildren.
Major Works, Sources and Influences
Pullman’s first attempts at writing include a couple of novels for an adult audience, including Galatea (1978), a science fiction novel. Yet, Pullman is best-known for his works for younger readers. These include Count Karlstein (1982), Spring-Heeled Jack (1989), The Firework Maker's Daughter (1995), Clockwork, or All Wound Up (1996), I was a Rat! ... or The Scarlet Slippers (1999), Puss in Boots: The Adventures of That Most Enterprising Feline (2000), The Scarecrow and his Servant (2004), and Grimm Tales: For Young and Old (Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version [U.S.], 2012), among other works.
Pullman’s writing for children is often based on the subversion of traditional fairytales and folklore. I was a Rat! is an entertaining reworking of the Cinderella story in which one of the magically transformed rats from Cinderella's kitchen finds himself unable to change back from a human to a rat. Spring-Heeled Jack upends the urban legend of a Victorian serial killer and recasts him as “the original superhero” out to save three penniless orphans from the villainous Mack the Knife. In Mossycoat (1998), a type of Cinderella story, “Pullman’s re-vision follows the essential plot structure of the likely source text, [however,] he explores a few characters in depth, fleshing them out to a greater degree than is typical with flat fairy tale dramatis personae” (Bobby 12). He also fleshes out the character of the Ogre in the traditional Puss in Boots. Pullman found the Ogre "a very unsatisfactory villain, as he comes in with no preparation or warning just before the end, so I improved the structure” (quoted, Bobby 17). In Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp (2005), “Pullman’s re-vision follows the basics of [Andrew] Lang’s plotline, but he creates more coherence, develops creative analogies, injects humorous incidents, and provides a more satisfying growth arc for the protagonist” (Bobby 24). Pullman explains, “it’s important to add something new as well. If you can’t bring something of your own to a traditional tale, leave it in the hands of those who can!” (quoted, Bobby 10).
Pullman has also created original fairy tales in The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and The Scarecrow and His Servant. Pullman traces the origins of The Firework-Maker’s Daughter to a play he wrote for his students as a middle school teacher: “I wanted to involve fireworks . . . [and] I was desperate to have an elephant” (Daemon Voices 299). Ultimately, the story grew into a traditional Campbellian hero’s quest tale, but where the hero is a heroine (Bobby 30). The Scarecrow and His Servant is a quixotic quest-tale indebted to the Italian Commedia dell’arte and such classic master/servant duos as Candide and Cacambo, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves (Bobby 39).
The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, I was a Rat!, Clockwork, and The Scarecrow and His Servant have been collected in an omnibus edition entitled Four Tales (2010, paperback 2019). Clockwork and The Firework-Maker's Daughter have been adapted for the stage in 2004 and 2011, respectively, while I was a Rat! was adapted as a television mini-series (2001).
The Sally Lockhart mysteries are a quartet of thrillers with a Victorian setting featuring an enterprising teenage heroine. The first book in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), has conscious echoes of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868) and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of the Four (1890). Three years after its publication, the book won the International Reading Association Children's Book Award. Sally's adventures continue in The Shadow in the North (1987), The Tiger in the Well (1990) and The Tin Princess (1994). The first two books in the series were later adapted into made-for-television movies which aired on the BBC in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and starred Billie Piper as Sally.
The His Dark Materials series comprises a trio of novels: Northern Lights (1995; The Golden Compass [U.S.], 1996) which won the 1996 Carnegie Medal, The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000) which became the first children's book to win the prestigious Whitbread Prize. In the secondary world-building tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S Lewis, Pullman creates an intriguing parallel world where humans are accompanied by animal daemons which serve as their souls and guides. Pullman’s universe is populated by a variety of fantastic beings: miniature spies, vampiric spectres, witches, angels, armoured bears (panserbjørne), and elephantine mulefa who ride around on wheel-shaped seedpods.
His Dark Materials is a modern reworking of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) from a skeptical, agnostic viewpoint. The phrase “His dark materials” comes from Book II, line 96 of Milton's epic poem which retells the biblical story of Adam and Eve and their fall into sin (Pullman, “Philip Pullman's Introduction to Paradise Lost”). Christopher Hitchens wrote, “Pullman’s daring heresy is to rewrite the Fall as if it were an emancipation, and as if Eve had done us all a huge favor by snatching at the forbidden fruit” (C. Hitchens). In the trilogy, teenagers Lyra and Will flee through several parallel worlds from the hostile forces of government and a corrupt religious institution which is obsessed with suppressing sin and the sexual awakening of adolescents. Attentive to the conservative gender and social class stereotyping in much traditional children's fantasy, Pullman's work shows girls (such as Lyra) to be as adventurous and independent as boys, and features lead and supporting characters from across the British class system (for example, Will). The series grapples with such themes as the relationship of innocence to experience, and the opposition between free will and determinism, that have been common in children's and adult literature since the Romantic period. In addition to Paradise Lost, His Dark Materials is significantly influenced by William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789/1794) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (composed 1790), as well as scientific debates about the unifying principles of the physical universe principally through the discussion of “Dark Matter,” and Heinrich von Kleist's essay “On the Marionette Theatre” (1810), where Kleist explored the natural grace of children before the self-consciousness, artifice, and affectation of puberty set in.
The universal appeal of the His Dark Materials series was recognized in the Big Read, the 2014 BBC listeners’ poll, where Pullman’s trilogy came in third place behind only Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (“BBC - The Big Read”). The series has also been adapted several times for stage, radio, film and television. The first volume was adapted as the big-budget film, The Golden Compass, in 2007, starring Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter, and Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. A three-season limited series entitled His Dark Materials premiered in 2019 on the BBC (U.K.) and HBO (U.S.) and stars Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter, James McAvoy as Lord Asriel, and Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby.
The crossover appeal of the series, along with that of other bestsellers such as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, has led to public debate over what constitutes an adult book versus a children’s book? Pullman’s stance is that readers should read what they like and forget the labels. In a talk to the Royal Society of Literature in 2001, he equated critics who attempt to dictate reading habits with officious border guards:
They strut up and down with a fine contempt, curling their lips and consulting their clipboards and snapping out orders […deploring] the fact that so many other adults are reading [children’s books …] But when we step away from the border post, when we go round the back of the guards and look about us, we see something rather odd […] people are walking happily across this border in both directions. You’d think there wasn’t a border there at all. Adults are happily reading children’s books and what’s more, children are reading adults’ books. (Pullman, Daemon Voices 126-127).
Concerning his own writing for children, Pullman states, “What I don't want to do is write the sort of book that has silly slapstick for the children and clever stuff for the grown-ups. I want them all to enjoy the same bits for the same reason – but maybe see different things in it” (quoted in Patterson).
The Collectors (2014) is a stand-alone short story also set in the His Dark Materials universe, which was originally released on audiobook, and then on e-book a year later. Three other short works—Lyra's Oxford (2003), Once Upon a Time in the North (2008) and Serpentine (2020)— provide a bridge between His Dark Materials and a second trilogy of novels, The Book of Dust series which traces both the history of how Lyra came to Jordan College as an infant, and her life as a young woman a decade following the events of The Amber Spyglass. This second trilogy (so far) comprises La Belle Sauvage (2017) and The Secret Commonwealth (2019). Pullman revealed in 2018 that the third volume might be entitled The Garden of Roses or Roses from the South (Marco, et. al. 20).
The Book of Dust series revolves around journeys, both physical and spiritual. The first volume, La Belle Sauvage, concerns young Malcolm Polstead’s efforts to save the baby Lyra from religious extremists and an epic flood raging through Oxford. In structure and content, the story compares well to the Irish immrama, or Otherworld sea-voyage tales, with “the voyage as a metaphor for spiritual growth and redemption” (Swank 92). The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth concerns Lyra’s international travels in search of a mysterious rose oil related to the source of “Dust,” Pullman’s allegory for consciousness. While the title evokes The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, a seventeenth-century collection of Gaelic folklore compiled by folklorist and Episcopalian minister Robert Kirk, references in Pullman’s book to Lyra’s separation from her daemon, a man made of fire, secret rose gardens, a red building, and a Blue Hotel all suggest that Pullman is writing with medieval alchemical texts in mind (see Abraham 180, 76, 83, 80, 15). Mostly likely, the third volume will see the conclusion of Lyra’s alchemical quest and her reunion with her daemon, the pine marten Pantalaimon.
Although the orphaned child is a common trope in children’s literature, Susan Redington Bobby points out, “Over half of [Pullman’s] published novels feature characters who have lost one or more parents to death, illness, neglect, disinterest, work or family obligations, or separation,” and she associates this tendency with the loss of Pullman’s own father (73). Lyra and Will both have missing and otherwise unavailable parents. Pullman’s Spring-Heeled Jack, a graphic novel, and the adventures of the New Cut Gang as presented in the novels Thunderbolt’s Waxwork (1994) and The Gas-Fitters’ Ball (1995) also follow in the orphaned child tradition. Additionally, all three works pay homage to the “penny dreadful” adventure stories for boys of Victorian England.
Pullman has also published the adult fictional work The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010), an allegorical thought-experiment wherein Jesus and Christ are imagined as twin brothers who represent the two different aspects of the individual presented in the various books of the New Testament. Pullman says, “Thinking of these problems and contradictions in the gospels, I wondered if they could . . . be two characters” (Daemon Voices 364). A nonfiction collection, Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling (2017), assembles a significant number of Pullman’s written essays and public speeches on the subject of stories.
A noted agnostic or atheist (“The difference is one of perspective,” Pullman says in Daemon Voices 438), his critiques of Christian doctrine and institutions have had a polarizing effect. Exemplifying the divergent reactions to his work are reviews written by brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens. Christopher, himself a well-known atheist, heaped praise on His Dark Materials as “a fabulously subversive trilogy” where “readers find heaven in his pages” (C. Hitchens). On the other hand, Peter denounced Pullman as “the most dangerous author in England” for his denial of God and Christianity, criticizing him as, “the anti-Lewis, the one the atheists would have been praying for, if atheists prayed” (P. Hitchens). Though disagreeing with Pullman's portrayal of religion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams has nevertheless recommended His Dark Materials as worthy reading and teaching material for schools (Bates). Additionally, Pullman and Williams had a memorable and wide-ranging debate over religious topics in 2004 (Osborne). Despite his notoriety as an anti-Christian, Pullman explains that he appreciates the good work that churches have done—such as founding hospitals, orphanages, and schools—but he decries their evils: “the Crusades, the witch-hunts, the heretic-burnings, the narrow fanatical zeal that comes so swiftly and naturally to some individuals in positions of power when faith gives them an excuse” (Daemon Voices 360).
The original His Dark Materials trilogy has been honoured by several prizes, including the Carnegie Medal (1996, for Northern Lights), the Guardian Children's Book Award (2001, for The Amber Spyglass), the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (2001, for The Amber Spyglass), and the Eleanor Farjeon Award for children's literature (2002). In 2006, Northern Lights was also awarded the “Carnegie of Carnegies,” chosen by readers from all the books that have won this medal in the 70 years since it was first awarded. In 2005, Pullman shared the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Award with Japanese illustrator Ryoji Arai for their efforts in bringing books to children. Pullman was named commander, Order of the British Empire in 2003, and he was knighted in the New Year's Honours List, 2018, and is now entitled to be called “Sir Philip Pullman.” He was also named Author of the Year at the British Book Awards (2018) and is the recipient of the 2019 J.M. Barrie Award for lifetime achievement in delighting children with art.
Abraham, Lyndy. A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery.
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Bates, Stephen. “Archbishop Praises Author Accused of Blasphemy.” The Guardian, 10 Mar. 2004, www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/mar/10/arts.books.
“BBC - The Big Read.” BBC, 2 Sept. 2014, www.bbc.co.uk/arts/bigread/vote.
Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Edited by Harold Bloom, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2008.
Bobby, Susan Redington. Beyond His Dark Materials: Innocence and Experience in the Fiction of Philip Pullman. Jefferson, NC, McFarland, 2012.
Hitchens, Christopher. “Oxford’s Rebel Angel.” Vanity Fair, Oct. 2002, www.vanityfair.com/news/2002/10/hitchens200210.
Hitchens, Peter. “Is This the Most Dangerous Author in Britain? Philip Pullman Revisited - Peter Hitchens Blog.” Mail Online, 10 May 2014, hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2014/05/is-this-the-most-dangerous-author-in-britain-philip-pullman-revisited.html.
Kirk, Robert. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies: A Study in Folk-Lore & Psychical Research. London, D. Nutt, 1893. Hathi Trust Digital Library, catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001276222.
Kleist, Heinrich von, and Thomas G. Neumiller. “On the Marionette Theatre.” The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 16, no. 3, 1972, pp. 22–26. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1144768.
Marco, Nerea, et al. “Entrevista a Philip Pullman.” El Templo de Las Mil Puertas, no. 63, Apr. 2018, pp. 17-24, www.eltemplodelasmilpuertas.com/revista/63/20.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Introduction by Philip Pullman, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Osborne, Peter. “The Dark Materials Debate: Life, God, the Universe...” The Telegraph, 17 Mar. 2004, www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3613962/The-Dark-Materials-debate-life-God-the-universe....html.
Patterson, Christina. “Philip Pullman: Material Worlds.” The Independent, 12 Nov. 2004, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/philip-pullman-material-worlds-19814.html.
Pullman, Philip. Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling. Edited by Simon Mason, Oxford, David Fickling Books, 2017.
---. “I Have a Feeling This All Belongs to Me.” Discovering the Golden Compass: A Guide to Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials, edited by George Beahm, Charlottesville, VA, Hampton Roads, 2007, pp. 9–34.
---. “Philip Pullman's Introduction to Paradise Lost.” John Milton's Paradise Lost with an Introduction by Philip Pullman, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005. Rpt. British Library, Discovering Literature: Restoration & 18th Century, https://www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/philip-pullmans-introduction-to-paradise-lost.
Swank, Kris. “The Child’s Voyage and the Immram Tradition in Lewis, Tolkien, and Pullman.” Mythlore, vol. 38, no. 1, Fall/Winter 2019, pp. 75–98, dc.swosu.edu/mythlore/vol38/iss1/5.
Citation: Barfield, Steve, Katharine Cox, Chris Willis, Kris Swank. "Philip Pullman". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 21 March 2002; last revised 14 July 2021. [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5064, accessed 27 October 2021.]