Philip Pullman was born in Norwich, England, in 1946. He spent most of his childhood at sea. His father, who died early in Pullman's life, and his stepfather both served in the Royal Air Force, and the family travelled around the world with them by ship. The theme of dead and absent fathers is clearly discernible in his work.
Pullman studied English at Oxford University. He began his career as a teacher, and subsequently spent eight years lecturing trainee teachers at Westminster College before becoming a full-time writer. Many ideas for his books derive from the school plays he wrote for his pupils.
He is best known for the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. His works, however, display an amazing diversity: he has written historical novels, contemporary realistic youth novels, fantasy for younger children, retellings and parodies of fairy tales, texts for picturebooks, graphic novels, short stories and plays.
Philip Pullman's career as an author took off in 1984 when he won a publisher's competition for the horror story, Count Karlstein, 1982. His next book, Ruby in the Smoke, 1985, became the first part of his Sally Lockhart quartet, inspired by Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. The quartet also includes The Shadow in the North, 1987, The Tiger in the Well, 1990 and The Tin Princess, 1994.
Set in Victorian England, these historical thrillers, as Pullman himself calls them, present a young woman of unusual strength and independence – qualities also characteristic of the heroines in his other works, not least Lyra in His Dark Materials. Two more of his books are set against a historical backdrop, which serves as an alternative world of danger and excitement: Thunderbolt’s Waxwork, 1994 and its sequel The Gas-Fitters’ Ball, 1995.
Although Pullman has said that he admires his fellow writers in the contemporary realism genre, he does not often venture into it himself. Yet occasionally, he says, he has ideas that would only work in a realistic story. He has written two such novels: The Broken Bridge, 1990 and The Butterfly Tattoo, 1992, originally entitled The White Mercedes. Both are dark, harsh depictions of young people's everyday reality, although they are neither problem-oriented nor didactic in tone.
In The Broken Bridge, the main character Ginny's ethnic background is just one of the various elements in her search for identity. The Butterfly Tattoo is a love story in a thriller form with a deeply tragic ending. In both novels, Pullman reveals himself as a master of characterisation as well as a skilfully worked plot.
For younger readers there is a special group of books that Pullman himself calls fairy tales. These are fantasies ranging from the adventurous The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, 1995 and the ghost thriller Clockwork, 1996, to the comic I Was a Rat! 1999, in which the main character is one of the rats that Cinderella's fairy godmother turned into page boys and obviously forgot to transform back.
Pullman also says that he loves illustrations – he drew his own vignettes for the first two volumes of his fantasy trilogy – and he has worked together with various artists in the production of picturebooks, often based on well-known fairy tales. These include Puss in Boots, 2000, Mossycoat, 1998, a variant of Cinderella, and Aladdin, 1995. In Pullman's hands these retold stories acquire new comic dimensions, subtly enhanced by the illustrations.
His Dark Materials is the collective name for the trilogy comprising Northern Lights, 1995 (published in the USA as The Golden Compass, 1996), The Subtle Knife, 1997 and The Amber Spyglass, 2000. Inspired in part by Milton's Paradise Lost, Pullman has created a milestone on an equal footing in the fantasy genre with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and C S Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. In this work, Pullman has given life to one of the most colourful and contradictory female characters in world literature for children: Lyra Belacqua (known as "Silvertongue"). A brave heroine and a confused child entering puberty, Lyra is a champion of freedom with murder on her conscience, one of children's literature's eternal orphans who long for the love of a mother and father.
Pullman injects new life into the genre by introducing a variety of alternative worlds, not far removed from modern scientific view of the universe, each of which reflect our own reality in their different ways. In Pullman's writing, good, evil and the struggle between them – the staple fare of fantasy – become ambiguous, forcing the reader to ponder and to take sides. The books maintain a delicate balance between the writer's generally dark view of the world and the conventions of children's literature, which require optimism and the restoration of harmony.
Pullman refrains from the temptation of allowing the two protagonists from two parallel worlds to unite and live happily ever after, in contravention of natural law. Above all, his brilliant idea of allowing the human soul to manifest itself in concrete form, as a dæmon, introduces a radically new element to the fantasy genre. The same is true of the serious ethical issues he raises, the ambiguous characterisation from which one is never sure which person is on which side, and, not least, his ability to depict a reality only slightly different from our own.
In 2003 a follow-up yet independent short story, Lyra's Oxford, was published, set two years after the conclusion of the trilogy, and Pullman has hinted to his readers that they may well be hearing more of Lyra in the future.
Pullman bridges the gap between young and adult readers. His books are equally appreciated by both audiences, especially His Dark Materials, which has also been adapted into two plays performed at the National Theatre in London. His books convincingly prove that genuinely good children's literature appeals to all ages. His innovative use of language has a similar appeal. Through his strong characters, especially the female ones, he stands firmly on the side of young people. He ruthlessly questions authority and proclaims love and humanism whilst maintaining an optimistic belief in the child even in the darkest of situations.
Philip Pullman has been the recipient of a number of prestigious awards: these include the Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children's Book Award, the Smarties Award, the Elinor Farjeon Award, and also the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year Award for The Amber Spyglass, the first time ever that this honour has gone to a writer of literature for children and young people. His books have been translated into numerous other languages.