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His Dark Materials | Study Guide

Philip Pullman

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Philip Pullman | Biography


An Unusual Childhood

Philip Pullman was born on October 19, 1946, in Norwich, England. The grandson of a clergy member, Pullman spent much of his childhood traveling around the world with his father, Alfred Pullman, who was a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. They spent many years in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). In 1954 his father died in a plane crash in Kenya and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After his father's death Pullman was temporarily sent back to England to live with his grandparents. A year later, though, his mother remarried and Philip joined her and his stepfather in Australia, where he discovered Superman and Batman comics and developed a lifelong love of comic books. Eventually the family settled in North Wales. There, as a teenager, Pullman discovered the works of English poets William Blake and John Milton, falling in love with the power and beauty of each author's language. Blake's writing, Pullman said, was the kind that "functions like a key that unlocks a part of ourselves we never knew was there." And Milton's Paradise Lost had such a profound effect on him that it would become the inspiration for the three volumes of His Dark Materials.

A Teacher Turned Author

Pullman went on to study English at Oxford University, a setting that appears in the parallel worlds of Lyra and Will, the two protagonists of His Dark Materials. He graduated in 1968 and in 1970 married Judith Speller, with whom he had two sons. He later "found his way" into the teaching profession at age 25, working at several middle schools before moving to Westminster College, where he spent eight years teaching students working toward their bachelor's degrees in education. While he taught he began writing. He eventually produced more than 20 books, most intended for children. His first published work was The Haunted Storm, written in 1972, and his first children's book, Count Karlstein, was published in 1982. Pullman didn't achieve real fame, however, until the publication of Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) in 1995, which won him the Carnegie medal and the Guardian Award for children's fiction. After the success of Northern Lights he began to write full time.

Fame and Controversy

The His Dark Materials series also made Pullman a controversial figure, since many see the books as anti-God and antireligion. Although Pullman refers to himself as somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist, he retains affection for the words and traditions of the Church of England in which he was raised. He also said that he is "profoundly interested in religion" and thinks it is critical not only to understand it but also to question it. For that reason he is adamantly opposed to religious dogma and says, "I shall never like God." As he explains it, if God exists, and he is as the Christians and many other religions describe him, "then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against."

Ultimately, though, Pullman prefers to leave the analyses of his books to others. On his website he says, "as a passionate believer in the democracy of reading," he doesn't believe it is an author's job to tell readers what any books mean. It is up to the readers themselves to make the connections between the words and images on the page and their own beliefs, experiences, and ideals.

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