There was a rather interesting interview of Phillip Pullman by Melvyn Bragg last night for The South Bank Show. I’m guessing it was a repeat, although there’s neither hide nor hair of it on the website.
Bragg clearly felt that Pullman should be answerable for the fairly broad comments against established religion he’s liable to come out with. So we got the unusual sight of the hugely soft & woolly Lord Bragg using that charmless traditionalist Peter Hitchens as a stick with which to hit Pullman for producing propaganda as an “anti-[C.S.] Lewis”. What did Pullman think? He thought that Lewis’ Narnia books were despicably world-hating, but at least were readable compared to Tolkein.
What emerged was that Pullman, for all of his image as a kind of literary Richard Dawkins, was far more exercised by the technicalities of writing narrative than by the possibilities of the novel for projecting (or destroying) beliefs. When Bragg beadily seized on the loss of the author’s father as a child as an explanation for the orphaning of the child protagonists in His Dark Materials, Pullman offered a bat straight enough to satisfy even Geoffrey Boycott. In a story about children going on adventures, he mused, the big problem is what to do with the parents. Killing them off, he was suggesting, served his narrative before it served his psyche.
The writer’s workshop continued with a little exposition from Pullman on the peculiarity of the narrator; that genderless, ageless, timeless, ubiquitous, omniscient, protean voice that drifts through all literature. I had one of those moments where I wasn’t quite sure if the speaker was suggesting an argument he didn’t want to pursue, or if my own mind was racing away unbidden. Was he offering a craftsman’s take on that old narrator-as-God warhorse? Pullman certainly seemed to offer a craftsman’s view of the narrator: it occupies a supernatural and creepily omnifacient position in narrative simply because it’s needed. I wondered whether Pullman had in mind a similar craftsman’s view of the development of the idea of God, because it fills a space, but didn’t want to offer any more hostages to Hitchens.