Writing Fantasy Realistically

Philip Pullman delivered this talk to the 2002 SoF UK national conference.

Thank you for inviting me here, and thank you for demonstrating my favourite virtue. The most important virtue is Charity, of course; but the one whose company I most enjoy is Hope. Clearly, in asking me to speak to a conference about religion, you're hoping that I shall have something relevant to say. Well, I hope so, too, of course, but in my case the hope is tempered by experience, whereas yours is still fresh, vigorous, undamaged. I shall try not to damage it too much.

The title of this conference refers to the third great Christian virtue, Faith. Well, here comes the first disappointment: I have to tell you that although I know something about fantasy, and a little about charity and hope, I know almost nothing about faith. I can tell you neither how to get it, nor what it feels like, once got.

So I've been looking for something to say which (a) doesn't repeat too much of what I've said before, and (b) has at least something to do with your subject, and (c) won't tread too heavily on what I've got in mind to write next. If I talk about the things I'm supposed to be writing about, they disappear. Talking about things I've already written about is much safer.

And while I was thinking about what I could say in this talk, it was very helpful to read what Don Cupitt has had to say about stories and the part they play in helping us to understand the otherwise formless flow of life. Even when he's chiding me for clinging to the apparatus of supernaturalism, what he has to say is worth attending to.

But it's not just any sort of story that features in the title of your conference: it's fantasy. And the thing that bothers me is that I don't much care for fantasy. I've got into trouble for saying this: apparently, since what I write is labelled fantasy, I should be a champion of it. But I didn't begin to write fantasy because I was a great reader of it, a lifelong fan of orcs and elves and made-up languages. In fact, if you're a devotee of the works of J.R.R.Tolkien, I should warn you that I have some stern things to say about The Lord of the Rings later on. In my own case, I began writing His Dark Materials hesitantly, doubtfully, and it was a surprise, not altogether a flattering one, to find that my imagination was liberated when it found itself in a world where people have personal dæmons, and polar bears make armour, and spies three inches tall ride on dragonflies.

But liberated was exactly what it was. In fact (and it embarrasses me to admit it) I even felt that in some odd way I had come home. This was where I was connected with all the things that gave me strength; where the air I breathed was full of the scents I recognised and relished, where my feet were on soil where the bones of my ancestors were laid, and where the language I heard around me was the language I thought and spoke and dreamed in, and where manners and customs were familiar - you know everything I mean when I say the word home; well, this world was home, in a way that no other world that I've written about has ever been - not even late nineteenth-century London, which I know pretty well. It was more than home, actually: I found my imagination leaping towards these things like a flame to a gas leak.

This caused me a great deal of surprise, as I say, and I felt taken aback. Embarrassed.

Now embarrassment is an interesting feeling, so I want to stay with it for a bit to see what I can read from my own embarrassment about writing fantasy. Embarrassment is often a sign that something important is happening: some revelation is taking place. The revelation is often signalled with red, the most alarming of colours: we blush. Darwin was fascinated by that: "Blushing," he said, "is the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions." He believed that it has a social function, that it signals to other people that the individual who blushes is not to be trusted, because he or she has violated the mores of the group, or has even committed some crime.

And of course embarrassment was the very first consequence of the Fall in the third chapter of Genesis: "she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons."

I think that that sort of embarrassment, that self-consciousness, that sudden awakening to what we're doing explains a great deal in our lives and in our culture. In his wonderful essay of 1810 on the marionette theatre, Heinrich von Kleist tells this story:

"About three years ago, I happened to be at the baths with a young man who was then remarkably graceful in every respect. He was about fifteen, and one could see in him faintly the first traces of vanity, a product of the favour shown by women. It so happened that just before that, we'd seen in Paris the figure of the boy pulling the thorn out of his foot. The cast of the statue is well known; you can find it in most German collections. He was reminded of this when he looked into a tall mirror just as he was putting his foot on a stool to dry it. He smiled and told me what he had discovered. In fact I'd noticed it too at the same moment, but ... I don't know if it was to test the quality of his apparent grace or to provide a salutary counter to his vanity ... I laughed and said he must be imagining things. He blushed and raised his foot a second time, to show me, but the attempt failed, as anybody could have foreseen. In some confusion he raised his foot a third time, a fourth time, he must have tried it ten times, but in vain; he was quite incapable of reproducing the same movement. What am I saying? The movements he did make were so comical that it was only with difficulty that I managed to keep from laughing.

"From that day, from that very moment, an extraordinary change came over this boy. He began to stand all day in front of the mirror. One by one, his attractions slipped away from him. An invisible and incomprehensible power seemed to settle like a steel net over the free play of his gestures, and after a year nothing remained of the lovely grace which had given pleasure to all who had seen him. I can tell you about a man, still alive, who was a witness to that strange and unfortunate event. He can confirm it word for word, just as I have described it."

I used to notice, when I taught creative writing some years ago, a certain characteristic that often appeared in the work of the cleverest students: it was a reluctance to say anything clearly and simply; a clumsy awkwardness that overcame them when they tried to tell a story. What happened was that when they found themselves, for example, using a simple formula like "he said" to indicate who speaks in a passage of dialogue, a little reflex flinch occurred. They suddenly noticed what they were doing, and were embarrassed to find how far it fell short of what they thought it would be; and how blushmakingly indistinguishable what they wrote at that point was from the work of (say) Jeffrey Archer.

And I recognised this feeling in them because I'd previously felt it in myself, years ago, when I began to write novels. And I also recognised that one of the most common ways of warding off this sort of embarrassment, of holding it at bay, is irony. Umberto Eco has a lovely description of the post-modernist intellectual who wants to tell his girlfriend that he loves her, but he knows that the words "I love you" have been used already by Barbara Cartland, and he doesn't want the girlfriend to think that he isn't aware of that; but he does love her, and he wants to tell her so; and then the solution occurs. He's a clever chap; he knows all about intertextuality and bricolage and so on; so he takes her in his arms and whispers "As Barbara Cartland would say, I love you."

A great deal of the tricksiness and games-playing of modern and post-modern literary fiction, the novels in the form of lists, the adoption of multiple voices, the uneasiness about privileging a particular point of view, the ironic distancing of emotion, the novels with indexes, the circular texts that come back and contradict themselves, the chapters printed in different coloured inks, the twitchy continual reminding the readers of the fictionality, the narrativity, of the text in front of them, and above all that curse of modern fiction, the novel written in the present tense: a great deal of that, I think, is a way of coping with embarrassment, with the shame of catching oneself telling a story, with the self-consciousness that arises when we lose our innocence about texts and about language - when, like Kleist's boy at the baths, we suddenly notice what we're doing. Ever since the Fall happened in literature, which I take it happened when the first text noticed that it was a text - and that might have been Don Quixote, or it might have been Tristram Shandy, or it might have been The Waste Land, or it might have happened in each of those and many others, because the Fall happens over and over again - ever since then, anyway, the eyes of us all have been opened. After that great event, part of the intellectual growing up of writers and readers has involved coming to terms with the consequences of that discovery, and realising (for example) that it's no longer possible to believe that language is a clear transparent window through which we see experience, unmediated. Interpretation itself becomes a subject of interpretation, and meaning is endlessly deferred - you know, all that stuff. I say "the eyes of us all" - I really mean the eyes of that section of the population interested in literature; I suppose that such as Barbara Cartland and Jeffrey Archer are still in a state of primal innocence where that's concerned. Which is why clever students are horrified at the prospect of being mistaken for someone like them, and of seeming to be innocent too - for they know more, they have seen more deeply, they have eaten the fruit of knowledge.

Anyway, that form of embarrassment was familiar to me both from the inside and from the outside. And I thought I knew how to cope with it. Kleist points out in his essay that the way back to Paradise is barred: an angel with a fiery sword stands in the way. We can't go back and regain the same innocence; we have to spend a lifetime going all the way round the world, as it were, before we can re-enter Paradise through the back door. The only way is forward; the only way is to go right through the middle of it, to engage with the world on the way, and try to deal as best we can with our own self-consciousness, in life as well as in literature. We discover, in the end, that the remedy for self-consciousness is self-possession; that the way to deal with embarrassment (in life as well as in literature) is to pretend not to be embarrassed. Where literature is concerned, if you can make yourself look at things as calmly as you can, you eventually realise that phrases such as "he said" are actually a very good way of indicating who said what, and that the past tense is the natural storytelling tense, and that the business of writing narrative consists of thinking of some interesting events, putting them in the most effective order, and relating them as clearly as you can; and that the best place for the narrator is outside the story, telling it, and not inside the story drawing attention to his own self-consciousness.

I haven't lost the track. I'm coming back to fantasy now. I was embarrassed, as I say, not with the business of telling stories straightforwardly - I'd got over that - but embarrassed to discover that I felt so much at home writing fantasy, because I'd previously thought that fantasy was a low kind of thing, a genre of limited interest and small potential. I had thought (and I do still think) that the most powerful, the most profound, the greatest novels I'd read were examples of realism, not of fantasy.

Take a supreme example of literary realism: George Eliot's Middlemarch, a great novel in which nothing in the slightest degree fantastical even flickers into existence. Everything that happens in Middlemarch could happen in real life, and what gives it a great deal of its power is the recognition of the similarities between the situations the author describes and the experiences we ourselves have lived though. I used to teach a course on Victorian fiction to student teachers, and the younger ones found Middlemarch pretty hard going; but the mature students, often women in their thirties and forties whose children were now at school, and who were able to come back into education themselves for the first time for twenty years or more, revelled in the book for what it showed them about the things that, by now, they'd had time to learn about: marriage, and incompatibility, and disappointment, and compromise, and just getting on with things, and thwarted ambition, and passionate hope, and tenderness, and so on. They enjoyed the book because of what they recognised: it was realistic, it was like reality. The writers we call the greatest of all - Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Proust, George Eliot herself, are those who have created the most lifelike simulacra of real human beings in real human situations. In fact the more profound and powerful the imagination, the closer to reality are the forms it dreams up. Not the most unlike real things, but the most like.

That's what I thought, and that's what I think.

However, there I was, led by my imagination towards something quite different. So I couldn't help thinking about what I was doing, and wondering why I felt that way about fantasy, and what the difference was between fantasy and realism in the first place.

After all, the characters in Middlemarch never really existed, any more than Frodo Baggins did. There never was a Dorothea or a Casaubon; Dr Lydgate and Mr Brooke had no corporeal existence; Mary Garth and Fred Vincy are no more than phantoms. Like God, they are nonreal.

But they seem real, because they have the sort of psychological complexity and depth and unpredictability that our friends do. So maybe that was the problem with fantasy: not that it was about elves, but that it was psychologically shallow. Because when I thought about - when I think about - the fantasy that I've read, the sort of stuff written by Tolkien and his thousand imitators, I have to say that it's pretty thin. There's not much nourishment there: "There's no goodness in it," as my granny used to say about tinned soup. Inventiveness a-plenty - no shortage of strange creatures and madeup languages and broad landscapes - "prodigious noble wild prospects", in Dr Johnson's words - and the recent film of The Lord of the Rings was inventive in just the same way; but that kind of thing is not hard to make up, actually. Entities of that sort multiply themselves without much effort from the writer, because a lot of the details are purely arbitrary. But there isn't a character in the whole of The Lord of the Rings who has a tenth of the complexity, the interest, the sheer fascination, of even a fairly minor character from Middlemarch, such as Mary Garth. Nothing in her is arbitrary; everything is necessary and organic, by which I mean that she really does seem to have grown into life, and not to have been assembled from a kit of parts. She's surprising.

It's not just character-drawing, either; it's moral truthfulness. I can't remember anything in The Lord of the Rings, in all that vast epic of heroic battles and ancient magic, that titanic struggle between good and evil, that even begins to approach the ethical power and the sheer moral shock of the scene in Jane Austen's Emma when Mr Knightley reproaches the heroine for her thoughtless treatment of poor Miss Bates. Emma's mortification is one of those eye-opening moments after which nothing is the same. Emma will grow up now, and if we pay attention to what's happening in the scene, so will we. That's what realistic fiction can do, and what fantasy of the Tolkien sort doesn't.

Well, that was what I was embarrassed about: that I might be writing stuff that would turn out to be mere invention, superficial, arbitrary, trivial, with nothing to distinguish it externally from a thousand other big fat books crowding the fantasy shelves, all with titles like The Doomsword Chronicles, Volume 17 or Runequest or Orcslayer. But I was anxious that there'd be nothing to distinguish my work from that sort of thing internally, either. I feared that I'd find myself assembling my characters in an arbitrary way from a kit of parts, and finding nothing important to say about them.

What it boiled down to was that I was doing something I didn't quite believe in, because that's one of the things that embarrassment signifies: a lack of conviction - the self-consciousness that arises from being caught doing something unconvincing - you hesitate; the belief goes; to paraphrase Eliot, between the thought and the action falls a shadow.

Now I knew this was going to be a long story. I guessed it would take over a thousand pages to tell it in full: not months of work, but years. And the thought of spending all those years - it was to take me seven years, in the end - doing something in which I didn't believe was horrible. We have to believe in our work; the only thing that lightens the burden of it, sometimes, is the sense that it matters, and that we've committed ourselves to something valuable, so that even if we don't succeed we'll have an honourable failure.

So there was my imagination, pulling me towards a world of talking bears and witches, and there was my embarrassment, or something, whispering "You don't believe in it. You don't think it's worthy of you. What's the point of working at something you're going to be ashamed of?"

However, if I know anything about writing stories, it's this: that you have to do what your imagination wants, not what your fastidious literary taste is inclined towards, not what your finely honed judgement feels comfortable with, not what your desire for the esteem of critics advises you to. Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that. So the imagination was going to win, here, if I had anything to do with it; and what I had to do to help it win was to neutralise my uneasiness about fantasy; and the way to do that was to find a way of making fantasy serve the purposes of realism.

Because when I thought about it, there was no reason why fantasy shouldn't be realistic, in a psychological sense - and it was the lack of that sort of realism that I objected to in the work of the big Tolkien and all the little Tolkiens. After all, when I looked at Paradise Lost, there was plenty of psychological realism going on there, and the fantastical elements - the angels and the devils, the landscapes of hell, Satan's encounter with Sin and Death, and so on - were all there to embody states of mind. They weren't unreal like Gandalf; they were nonreal like Mary Garth - convincing and truthful in every way except actual existence.

And there was the great example of that strange novel, A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay. That was first published in 1920, and has been in print, intermittently, ever since - often featuring in publishers' lists of classic fantasy. The story begins in our world, but soon, after a series of strange events, the protagonist, Maskull, arrives on Tormance, a planet of the star Arcturus. There he makes a journey through the harsh and beautiful landscapes of the planet, encountering beings who are beautiful, or wise, or gifted with extraordinary powers. Maskull seems to be seeking enlightenment, but it isn't just a story about the quest for wisdom: it would be far duller if it were. It's riven with passion and violence, and haunted by mystery. In the words of Robert A. Davis of the University of Glasgow, who's made a very interesting study of it, Maskull's "destabilising presence serves to release self-destructive energies locked in the planet's own internal contradictions. The suggestion that evil does not primarily originate in a generically or socially flawed humanity but is secreted in the very fabric of the cosmos is the first of Lindsay's distinctively and flagrantly Gnostic mediations of the quest romance tradition from which his writing derives."

This is big stuff, in other words. I can't begin to convey to you the power of Lindsay's vision; I found it overwhelming when I first read the book, thirty years ago, and I've seldom seen its equal outside Blake. I don't agree with it, but that isn't the point: the point in this context is that A Voyage to Arcturus shows that fantasy is capable of saying large and important things. The word 'Gnostic' in Davis's account gives a clue as to Lindsay's vision: it is a variety of the Gnostic myth, the idea that this material world is the creation of a false god, and that it's the duty of the Gnostics, the knowing ones, to escape from the false deluding beauty of the physical universe and find their way back to the inconceivably distant true god who is their home. In A Voyage to Arcturus, the two principles of pain and pleasure are opposed morally: they represent truth and illusion, or good and evil. It's fundamentally Gnostic in a way that other fantastical visions have been in recent years: I'm thinking in particular of science fiction films such as The Matrix and Blade Runner and The Truman Show, which rely on their protagonists gradually discovering that the social and physical world around them, the environment on which they thought they could rely, is utterly wrong, false, not to be trusted. I think the Gnostic vision is mistaken, in fact in some ways I think it verges on paranoia, but it's undeniably saying something serious, it's intensely and passionately questioning about the ultimate concerns of human life. Tolkien, by contrast, didn't question anything: it didn't occur to him to do so, because for him, as a Catholic, all the big questions were settled. The Church had all the answers, and that was that. Is there any doubt anywhere in The Lord of the Rings, even for a fraction of a second, about what is good and what is evil, what is to be praised and what is to be condemned? Not a flicker. No one wonders what the right thing is: they only doubt their own capacity to do it. The whole thing is an exercise in philological and social nostalgia, a work of immense triviality, candied like fruit in an Edwardian schoolboy's idea of fine writing. David Lindsay's vision is transmitted through a novel that is crude, badly written, ignorant and clumsy in every literary way, and yet is a work of genius. That's the difference.

So, to return to my own little embarrassment: I saw that it was possible to use fantasy to say something important, and clearly I'd have to do that, or try to, in order to get through the next seven years.

So that's what I did, or tried to do.

And as it happened, the theme of my story, as it became clear to me quite early on, was exactly the one I've been labouring to describe throughout this talk: the theme of the Fall, the fall away from grace and towards wisdom, the fall into embarrassment and self-consciousness: the theme of growing up. I saw how I could use all my various invented creatures - the dæmons, the armoured bears, the angels - to say something that I thought was true and important about us, about being human, about growing up and living and dying. My inventions were not real, but I hoped I could make them nonreal, and not unreal.

I'll give a couple of examples, but I won't spend long on them, because it's tedious to have someone explaining their own work. Early in the story Lyra acquires a device called the alethiometer, which is a sort of truthtelling instrument that uses the power of symbolism to answer questions put to it. Lyra learns to read it very quickly, by a sort of intuition, and I intended this power of hers to be a sort of equivalent of the grace of Kleist's young man at the baths: a function of her lack of self-consciousness, so to speak, a sign of primal innocence. When at the end of the story she begins to enter adolescence, and her sexual feelings are awakened, when new emotions make their presence felt, when her body begins to change, when all kinds of new possibilities open up, she discovers to her dismay that her power to read the alethiometer has quietly vanished. "An invisible and incomprehensible power seem[s] to settle like a steel net over the free play," so to speak, of her mind as it tries to range freely, as it used to do, all over the branching network of meaning and implication extending outwards from the alethiometer's symbols. She just can't read it any more.

And if I'd left it at that, this would have been a story of nostalgia, lamenting the loss of childhood and the inevitable decay of innocence. One of those Golden Years of Childhood books. But I wanted to suggest a way out - a way not back to the Paradise that's been lost, not back to innocence, but a way forward towards wisdom. So Lyra is reminded that there are books which contain all the meanings of the symbols, and show the intellectual connections between them, and that it's possible, through diligent application, to learn how to read the alethiometer consciously; and that this sort of conscious reading is better than the intuitive, in the long run, because she will understand not only that things are so, but why things are so. It's worth getting educated, that's the point, which is a realistic thing to say.

The other example of how I tried to make my fantasy realistic comes in the scenes in the world of the dead. Lyra is a storyteller, a fabulist - a liar, in short; she spins tales easily and delights in their effects. She has tried to tell one of these tales of hers to the harpies who guard the world of the dead, only to find that they fly at her in rage, despising these fantasies. A little later, she meets the ghosts of countless children, who beg her to tell them about the world, to remind them about the wind and the sunshine, because they long for these things whose sensations they've forgotten; so instead of telling them one of her Lyra-like fantasies, full of wild nonsense, she tells them about something that really happened, and tries with all her heart to evoke the smells and the sounds and the look, the sensuous texture and presence of the real world for them. She leaves fantasy behind, and becomes a realist. (As the whole story does, you might say).

Anyway, when that happens, when Lyra tells that true story, she sees to her astonishment that the harpies who guard and torment the ghosts in the world of the dead have stopped everything, and have been listening closely. This is what they have been hungering for all this time, without knowing it - the truth about the world, about life. So they make a bargain: if you go to the world of the dead with a story to tell, your story, the true story of your engagement with life, then the harpies will guide your ghost out into the world again, where it can finally dissolve into the general world of life and physicality, and be free of the anguish and misery of immortality. This is a heresy, of course, and there's probably some technical theological name for it: the suggestion is that eternal life is not a reward, but the most cruel punishment, imposed on us for the sin of seeking to grow up and become wise.

And the implication is that we have to engage with life, or else. We have to notice the world. If we spend our lives doing nothing but watching television and playing computer games, we will have nothing to tell the harpies in the world of the dead, and there we will stay.

I think that's a point worth making.

Anyway, I hope I've made it clear what I think the value of fantasy is: that it's a great vehicle when it serves the purposes of realism, and a lot of old cobblers when it doesn't. I must also say that while I'm perfectly happy to point out what I think are the good things in my own work, I'm not blind to its defects. There are things about my trilogy which I'd like to go back and change - shading down some of the starkness here, pointing up the contrasts a little more there. I can tell you what my biggest mistake was: I was wrong about the motivation of the President of the Consistorial Court of Discipline, Father MacPhail. In the book as it is now, he seems to be motivated mainly by the lust for power. I wish I'd seen, as I was writing it, that it would be much more effective if his motivation were love: that he does these terrible things out of sheer compassion. He's killing people in order to save their souls. If I'd written it like that, it would be easier to see that the struggle in the story is not one between good and evil - because that's easy; we all know whose side we're on; there's no doubt about it. We might as well be reading Tolkien. It's much more interesting, because much more realistic, when there's a struggle between different goods.

But there we are. No literary work much longer than a haiku is going to be entirely without faults. Even Middlemarch has its sunspots. But although we often end in disappointment, we can begin again in hope; as writers or readers, when we start a new book, we hope that this time it'll be good all the way through.

Thank you for inviting me here, and thank you for listening.

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