'The Golden Compass' Turns 20 (Its Daemon Has Probably Settled)

'The Golden Compass' Turns 20 (Its Daemon Has Probably Settled)

7:33pm Oct 15, 2015
The Golden Compass
  • The Golden Compass

  • Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books have won numerous prizes, including the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children's Book Award, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award.

    Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books have won numerous prizes, including the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children's Book Award, and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award.

    Courtesy of Random House Children's Books

There is a special place in the canon for the truly sophisticated children's fantasy series — Tolkein, LeGuin, Lewis, L'Engle ... and Pullman. This year, the first book in Philip Pullman's famed His Dark Materials trilogy turns 20 years old.

The novels in that series — The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass — tell a kind of anti-creation story, the story of 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua, her daemon Pantalaimon, and their epic struggle against a church called the Magisterium.

The books still inspire passion (and occasional Ph.D. theses), and — maybe the mark of real excellence — they're still banned now and then. Pullman tells NPR's Scott Simon that stories are the way to teach morality. "I'm not the first person to observe this fact, that people remember stories better than they remember commands," he says. "One of the greatest storytellers of all time, Jesus of Nazareth, told stories in order to make his moral teaching more memorable."


Interview Highlights

On why stories make memorable lessons

We like hearing about people in circumstances or situations or problems which we can relate to in some way. And it's intriguing to see how people resolve the difficulties they're in, or inspiring to see them overcoming hostility and difficulty, and even outright hatred.

On whether being a middle-school teacher prepared him to write for middle-schoolers

Yes and no. Yes, in that I'm quite familiar with how children of 11, 12, 13 behave, think, talk and play. But also no, in that I don't write for a particular age range, or for any audience in particular. I write the story in the way the story seems to want to be told. My first audience — my most important audience — is myself. And after that, it's on its own, it's got to find its own audience.

On the distinct traits of children at that age

They're just on the cusp of a new complete self. They're discovering in what way they're different from their family. I often think that our life begins when we're born, of course — but our story, our particular story begins in that moment, usually in our adolescence, when discover that we've been born into the wrong family by mistake, and we need to leave home and find our own way of doing things. And that means learning all sorts of new ways of seeing the world, learning about science, about philosophy, about art and music and so on, and literature. It's a very exciting age because of this sense of huge discovery.

On creating Lyra in an era when strong female characters weren't as common

When I wrote Lyra, I wasn't so much inventing as discovering, and I didn't so much set to write a strong female character in order to make a kind of political point. It was more that Lyra entered my mind, and intrigued me, and wouldn't leave me alone, and I just wrote the story about her. I'm very glad if it's provided girls — and boys indeed — with someone to like and admire, and indeed, provided quite a number of parents now with a name for their new baby daughter.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a special place in the canon for the truly sophisticated children's fantasy series - Tolkein, LeGuin, Lewis, L'Engle and Pullman. This year, the first book in Philip Pullman's famed trilogy, "His Dark Materials," turn 20 years old. The novels in that series - "The Golden Compass," "The Subtle Knife," "The Amber Spyglass" - tell a kind of anti-creation story, the tale of a 12-year-old, Lyra Belacqua, her daemon Pantalaimon, and their epic struggle against a church called the Magisterieum. The books still inspire passion and occasional Ph.D. theses and maybe the mark of real excellence. They are still banned every now and then. To observe the 20th anniversary, Philip Pullman joins us in the studios of the BBC in Oxford. Thanks so much for being with us.

PHILIP PULLMAN: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: You've suggested that stories are the way to teach morality.

PULLMAN: Well, I'm not the first person to observe this fact that people remember stories better than they remember commands. One of the greatest storytellers of all time, Jesus of Nazareth, told stories in order to make his moral teaching more memorable, more explicit, more clear to everyone.

SIMON: And why do you think that is?

PULLMAN: Because we like hearing about people in circumstances or situations or problems which we can relate to in some way. And it's intriguing to see how people resolve the difficulties they're in or inspiring to see them overcoming hostility and difficulty and even outright hatred.

SIMON: You were a middle school teacher early on?

PULLMAN: I was, yeah, for about 12 years.

SIMON: And did that teach you something about the mindset that you were going to try and write for?

PULLMAN: Yes and no. Yes in that I'm quite familiar with how children of 11, 12, 13 behave and think and talk and play, but also no in that I don't write for a particular age range or for any audience in particular. I write the story in the way the story seems to want to be told. And my first audience and my most important audience is myself, and after that, it's on its own. It's got to find its own audience.

SIMON: What is there about the mind of a 11, 12, 13-year-old that - what do you think of as the distinctive trait or features?

PULLMAN: They're just on the cusp of a new complete self. They're discovering in what ways they're different from their family. I often think that our life begins when we're born of course but our story - our particular story - begins in that moment usually in our adolescence when we discover that we've been born into the wrong family by mistake and we need to leave home and find our own way of doing things. And that means learning all sorts of new ways of seeing the world, learning about science, about philosophy, about art and music and so on - and literature. It's a very exciting age because of this sense of huge discovery.

SIMON: What about your creation of a strong female character 'cause I think it would be safe to say a generation ago, strong female characters were not appearing the way they do now in literature - young adult literature?

PULLMAN: When I wrote Lyra, I wasn't so much inventing as discovering. And I didn't so much set out to write a strong female character in order to make a kind of political point. It was more that Lyra entered my mind and intrigued me and wouldn't leave me alone, and I just wrote the story about her. I'm very glad if it's provided girls with - and boys indeed - with someone to like and admire and, indeed, provided quite a number of parents now with a name for their new baby daughter.

SIMON: Do you hear from people around the world who name their daughters Lyra?

PULLMAN: Oh, yes. They send photographs, they send - yes, exactly. So I always send them back a book and inside I write, this is for the real Lyra.

SIMON: Oh, that's wonderful.

PULLMAN: (Laughter).

SIMON: Philip Pullman, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

PULLMAN: That's a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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