Arts history: The life and works of Phillip Pullman

Phillip Pullman

This month marks the 66th birthday of Phillip Pullman, author of the best-selling children’s series, His Dark Materials.

Born in 1946 in our very own Norwich, Pullman’s childhood was spent in England, Zimbabwe and Australia before finally settling in Wales and going on to attend Exeter College at Oxford University. Sounds like the typical upbringing you would expect from one of the country’s most successful novelists. Pullman graduated from Oxford in 1968 with a Third class degree in English Literature. The mind boggles, but it just goes to show a degree is clearly no proof of talent. Maybe Oxford in the 60’s had amazing nightlife; we will just never know.

After several years of teaching and writing, Phillip Pullman published his first book in the lesser-known, but still popular, Sally Lockhart quartet in 1986. However, it was not until 1995 that Pullman really gathered attention, with the publication of Northern Lights, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Released two years prior to the explosion of Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Pullman is arguably the daddy of children’s fantasy literature (apart from Tolkien, who is, of course, the granddaddy).

The trilogy also earned serious literary brownie-points for its references to Paradise Lost; “His Dark Materials” is a direct quote from book seven of Milton’s epic. So popular was the trilogy that no high school library was complete without an Amber Spyglass poster as the backdrop for a showdown between teaching assistants and children who refused to read. Luckily for parents and educator’s everywhere, the His Dark Materials trilogy sold 15 million copies; we can only assume the number of bibliophobic children has thus diminished.

In honour of the bicentennial anniversary of the publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Phillip Pullman has just completed a reworking of 50 of those classic stories. Just as the original German folk tales were not intended (and in some cases unsuitable) for children, Pullman dedicates his collection to “Young and Old”. For those who have never dabbled in Phillip Pullman’s magical worlds, perhaps now is the perfect time to take the plunge.


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August 2022
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