Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival

It was Palm Sunday today and off I went to the hallows of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford to see the first full talk by Philip Pullman on his new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which is published tomorrow.  It’s the latest volume in the Canongate Myths series, but tackles one of the most controversial stories there is in the life of Jesus.

The press have been ‘bigging up’ this appearance by Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival, so I arrived at the Sheldonian expecting protestors, even egg-throwers – but in the event there were none.  He did have a security guard though, who sat in the corner with his earpiece and didn’t exactly seem to be scanning the audience.  Unfortunately all these shenanigans also meant no signing afterwards, and no chance of a photo either without being ejected.   But pre-signed copies were on sale, and I snaffled two.  One for me and one for one of you – more on that story at the end of the post.

The Sunday Times’ Literary Editor Peter Kemp joined Pullman in the discussion.  First he asked how Pullman came to write the book.  Pullman explained that while growing up with his clergyman grandfather, all the bible stories became “greatly ingrained” in him, but that he’d grown up to treat them as myth not scripture.  In a previous platform discussion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams had asked him why there was no mention of Jesus in His Dark Materials?  Pullman replied that he’d do it in a later book, and when the opportunity came to join in the Myths series he decided the time was right.

He was then asked about his research.  Pullman told us that we’re used to hearing little bits and pieces from the Gospels, and that we rarely read them all the way through as books, and in doing this he was shown how different John is compared to Matthew, Luke and Mark.  He read some of the apocrypha, but most of them are not very good, compared with the Gospels and Paul’s letters.  He said he’d not read many theological texts in support, sticking to the main story itself.  Asked about the writing process, he said that finding a voice to tell the story was the critical thing – equivalent to a film director saying ‘Where do I put the camera?’ He didn’t want to produce a ‘fake gospel’.  He wanted spareness and clarity in the scenesetting and he quoted the first verses of the old ballad Sir Patrick Spens as near perfect …

The King sits in Dunfermline town,
Drinking the blood-red wine;
“O where shall I get a skeely skipper
To sail this ship or mine?”

Then up and spake an eldern knight,
Sat at the King’s right knee:
“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That ever sailed the sea.”

He also told us how he decided not to be overdescriptive in landscape and weather etc, wanting to be as neutral and uninflected as possible. However he wanted to make clear the political situation of a colonised space with a puppet King under Roman rule. He told us that he’d write sixteen first chapters of Northern Lights before he discovered that Lyra had a daemon and that gave him the way in. In the new book, the basic way in occurs in the very first sentence …

This is the story of Jesus and his brother Christ, of how they were born, of how they lived and of how one of them died.

Pullman had been very struck that in the Gospels, Jesus is Jesus, but in Paul’s letters he is mostly called Christ. This gave him the idea of having twins, “the visionary teacher healer Jesus” and the “thoughtful and self-conscious” Christ; Jesus being a real man, and Christ his mythical shadow self, always an observer. There is much tension between the brothers and Jesus starts out as a goody-goody and Christ is more of a devil’s advocate egging him on, however things do change. Pullman said that in writing their story “I came to like Christ a great deal and dislike Jesus more than I thought I did.” The novel’s title shows a more stark contrast between the characters than the book suggests, but you have to attract attention somehow he quipped. The conversation then turned towards the miracles and the resurrection. Pullman said it wasn’t too hard to find explanations that worked both ways for the miracles, however the resurrection was much harder. He appreciated the subtle way that the gospels left much open space in their narrative for speculation.

Then there was time for Q&A. Pullman was asked whether the writing of the book had changed his atheist views. He said he saw no evidence of any divine power and still called himself an atheist, although strictly that stance is agnostic. In response to another question, he replied that “it was an unspeakable pity that Jesus didn’t live longer to perhaps write something”, as we only have re-tellings of Jesus’ words in the parables and Beatitudes. The only note of real discord came with the final question when an elderly gentleman politely upbraded him for writing the book. Pullman replied with forceful eloquence that it was his right to write it and it is your right to choose not to read it!

The hour went all too quickly. I hung around outside for a bit in case I could get a shot of him leaving, but the press photographers all went back into the building – presumably for the full press release, so I toddled off home. Not having seen Pullman before I was very impressed and was also glad that he had a good sense of humour. After dinner, I shall be starting to read the book.

Now to my Giveaway… To be included in a draw for a signed first edition copy with the white DJ as above (it’s also available in black, but they only had the white), tell me which creature your daemon would be in a comment. The draw will be made at noon GMT on Good Friday. Good luck.


46 thoughts on “Philip Pullman at the Oxford Literary Festival

  1. Oh what an exciting draw! I’ve been avoiding the hype for this one and not sure really what it’s about other than the resulting controversy around it … I did love His Dark Materials though and would love to be entered. If I had a daemon then it would have to be a cat, as I couldn’t imagine having anything other than a beloved feline.

    I am so pleased that you enjoyed the event; author events are always so exciting!

    • You were quick off the block Claire. I’m usually anti-hype, but as this was local I was happy to join in for once.

      Whatever the controversy this book will generate, Pullman is a supreme storyteller and I hope that will come to the fore.

  2. Thank you for the report! The interviews I’ve read with him also conveyed the fact that he has a sense of humour – and he seems so much more humble and pleasant than his adversaries make him out to be. But then that’s often the case. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy of the book, so no need to enter me. The fact that it’s signed tempts me, but I shall not be greedy 😛

  3. I’m really looking forward to reading this one! I haven’t actually heard it mentioned anywhere recently and am surprised by the lack of hype. I am first on the list for when my library gets copies in, but I would love to win a copy. I think my daemon would be something quite odd – like an ant eater?!!

    • Ant-eater… that says something. Not quite sure what though!

      By the way I think mine would be an otter.

  4. I am so envious! It sounds like it was a great talk – I’d love to see him speak at some point.

    And what an ace contest! As for my daemon, well, I think it has to be a hedgehog. Not very glamourous, I know, but when they are relaxed you can tickle their soft underbelly and they’re very friendly, but when frightened they turn into an impenetrable ball of spines. That about sums me up really. I’m good at rolling into a ball and hiding from the world. That and the extraordinarily cute nose (only joking!) – only my daemon has that!

    • Hi Emma, I love hedgehogs, we have one in our garden and he’s very useful with slugs etc too!

  5. Wow, would love a copy 😉

    I believe my Daemon would be a water vole 🙂 Certainly with my fat pregnant bump, I feel as rotund as one!

  6. Hmmm… I’ll confess I’m rather cynical about this book. The Jesus/Christ distinction is one I read about a lot, and I find a lot of the conversation about it tiresome. And although Pullman can be an amazing storyteller, I found the last His Dark Materials book suffered for me from an overemphasis on his theological ideas, at the expense of the story.

    That said, I’m very interested in a couple of points you mention. First, that he didn’t find the apocryphal gospels interesting. A lot of people who are skeptical about traditional understandings of Jesus seem obsessed with those texts, raising them above the four canonical gospels in importance. Also, I’m surprised to see that he likes Christ more and Jesus less than he thought he did. A lot of the people who make this distinction make the distinction as a way of discrediting Paul.

    So now I’m intrigued, but I’m just not quite over my Pullman skepticism. I think I shall enter your giveaway and let whatever system you use to select a winner decide whether I shall read this book 🙂

    My daemon? My first inclination is to go with Claire and say a cat, because I do love all my feline friends, but I think I’ll go a shade more exotic and say a black panther.

    • He did say that some of the Apocryphal stories made it in, but that others were badly written compared with the 4 Gospels.

  7. What a great giveaway and thank you for sharing your experiences at the Philip Pullman talk. I have the impression that Mr Pullman is somewhat embarassed at all the hype, controversy surrounding the book and would rather it was judged on its own merits – that’s just my impression, I don’t actually know him!!

    Ah, the daemon question…being a rather indecisive Libran, I have consulted a most intelligent, foolproof internet quiz and they say the following :

    Your HARE DAEMON represents your passive, kindhearted, and honorable nature. Though you are occasionally shy with new people, friends admire your unshakable tranquility, even in the face of chaos.

    Rather boring really!

    • Hi Teresa, actually I don’t think he was embarrassed at all. When he quipped about the title attracting attention, his tongue was firmly in his cheek.

      Hares are lovely creatures, so I’m sure that one would suit you.

  8. Thank you so much for writing up the talk – I missed the chance to hear him when he came to New Zealand a few years back. I’m looking forward to reading this one, it sounds so interesting.
    And as far as a daemon, I’m going with the dog, a labrador retriever.

    • After posting that in full afterglow of watching the Dean Spanley movie, I of course, recollect that a dog daemon means a life of a servant for me. Oh well!!

      • I haven’t seen that film, your daemon could be more like Marley though and have a mind of its own (haven’t seen/read Marley & me either).

  9. Sounds like you had a marvelous time! I’m always worried when I go listen to authors speak that they might end up completely different from what I expected, or that they are actually not that nice in person. But from your post, Phillip Pullman seems like a really nice guy! =)

    As for having my own daemon, I’d love a fox. A fire red one, small, with a long bushy tail.

    Anyway, no need to enter me for the giveaway either. As fate would have it, I discovered in my mailbox today that the Australian publisher has sent me a copy of the book (with a different cover!)

    • Lucky you Michelle – I had to buy mine!

      From what I’ve heard, Pullman is always sparkling in situations like these and was an excellent speaker. I have heard he can be grumpy at other times though – but aren’t we all!

  10. What an interesting evening and so different from other author talks – with a security guard! My daemon would be a cat – no surprise there – a little ginger cat!

  11. I wish I’d been able to go to this. I did hear a clip of the talk on the news last night, though, and I think it must have been part of his answer to the chap who criticised him. He said that nobody had the right not to be offended, and for me, that is the perfect point.

    So yes, please enter me into the draw. My daemon would have to be a hedgehog. Cat fan though I am, I was inseparable from my hedgehog glove puppet as a child. Her name is Snuffie. 🙂

    • Yes, that was the very last question they showed. It almost seemed a plant, coming right at the end, and the audience right up until then had been so sympathetic. Maybe the Chairman knew the questioner and held back … who knows. Pullman gave a fitting reply.

      I was shocked to see myself on TV in the audience though – I was in the seats towards the front, but luckily not in focus!!!

      Snuffie sounds a delightful companion.

  12. Twins! Who would have thought it? Such a clever premise.

    I’ve been thinking hard about my daemon. I want it to be a wolf (because they are beautiful) but in reality it would probably be something that likes to observe and can escape quickly. Crow?

    • It’s not really a plot spoiler as it gives the game away in the first sentence, and they’re born by page 12. It’s also implicit in the title (once you know of course).

      Surely wolves can run… you could have a were-crow perhaps!

  13. This is a fascinating post – thanks so much for sharing and i do envy you making it to the Sheldonian for this. Pullman’s ideas sound like a breath of fresh air after years of Richard Dawkins dominating the non CHristian side of the discussion in this area. Looking forward to reading more….

    My Daemon would *have* to be a cat. I love cats and my husband said that I am a bit like a cat – so there is no choice really.

    Great post, lovely blog –

    thanks indeed!


    • Hello Hannah & welcome.

      Pullman is not anywhere near as rabid as Dawkins, so that’s nice. He actually came across as someone who cares about religion a lot I thought. I know that’s a radical idea, but you don’t have to believe to be fascinated by it – whatever your angle is.

  14. “but you don’t have to believe to be fascinated by it”

    I think this is very true, I’m always being asked questions on faith and various parts of the bible by non-believers just because thier interested (my fathers a minister so I get asked this stuff ALL the time)

    My daemon would be……….koala bear (but without the claws)

    • Jessica – what a cute daemon you’d have!

      Hope you don’t mind getting the questions – it at least shows that agnostics like me are interested.

      • I dont mind, Im an agnostic, its only because of my dads job that Ive managed to pick up a fair few things. To be honest the best book I’ve read on religion is the Life of Pi, that for me sums up everything.

        • I’ve never read Life of Pi – it’s been languishing in the TBR mountains. I might promote it…

  15. I’d love to read this as I think Pullman’s take on religion vs faith will be very interesting indeed. Am trying not to read too much about it tho, so have skimmed your post but will come back to it once I have.

    In answer to your question, I think it’s fairly inevitable that my daemon would be a cat! Not very original, I know, but anything else would be a lie…

    • I’ve just finished it and am ruminating …

      It seems that bookbloggers are cat lovers – well many of those who’ve commented here, so you’re in good company.

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  17. Thanks for the report on Pullman. I’m so excited to read this one that I preordered it last year. I hope the Book Depository mails it quickly.

    I would likely have a small green parrot as a daemon.

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