Life and career
Philip Pullman was born in Norwich, England, the son of Audrey Evelyn Pullman (née Merrifield) and Royal Air Force pilot Alfred Outram Pullman. The family travelled with his father's job, including to Southern Rhodesia, though most of his formative years were spent in Llanbedr in Ardudwy, North Wales.
His father, an RAF pilot, was killed in a plane crash in 1954 in Kenya when Pullman was seven, being posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). Pullman said at the beginning of a 2008 exchange that to him as a boy, his father "was a hero, steeped in glamour, killed in action defending his country" and had been "training pilots". Pullman was then presented with a report from The London Gazette of 1954 "which carried the official RAF news of the day [and] said that the medal was given for 'gallant and distinguished service' during the Mau Mau uprising. 'The main task of the Harvards [the aircraft flown by his father's unit] has been bombing and machine-gunning Mau Mau and their hideouts in densely wooded and difficult country.' This included 'diving steeply into the gorges of [various] rivers, often in conditions of low cloud and driving rain.' Testing conditions, yes, but not much opposition from the enemy, the journalist in the exchange continued. Very few of the Mau Mau had guns that could land a blow on an aircraft." Pullman responded to this new information, writing "my father probably doesn't come out of this with very much credit, judged by the standards of modern liberal progressive thought" and accepted the new information as "a serious challenge to his childhood memory." In the 2017 BBC Imagine series documentary, Pullman further revealed that he has since become aware that his father could well have crashed his plane deliberately. He said "there was something odd about the crash.... he just took his plane up and flew into the side of a hill" citing rumours of his father having debt troubles and a problematic love affair. His mother remarried next year, and with a move to North Wales came Pullman's discovery of comic books including Superman and Batman, a medium which he continues to espouse.
Pullman attended Taverham Hall and Eaton House in his early years, and from 1957 he was educated at Ysgol Ardudwy in Harlech, Gwynedd, and spent time in Norfolk with his grandfather, a clergyman. Around this time Pullman discovered John Milton's Paradise Lost, which would become a major influence for His Dark Materials.
From 1965, Pullman attended Exeter College, Oxford, receiving a Third class BA in 1968. In an interview with the Oxford Student he stated that he "did not really enjoy the English course" and that "I thought I was doing quite well until I came out with my third class degree and then I realised that I wasn't – it was the year they stopped giving fourth class degrees otherwise I'd have got one of those". He discovered William Blake's illustrations around 1970, which would also later influence him greatly.
Pullman married Judith Speller in 1970 and began teaching children aged 9 to 13 at Bishop Kirk Middle School in Summertown, North Oxford and writing school plays. His first published work was The Haunted Storm, which was joint-winner of the New English Library's Young Writer's Award in 1972. He nevertheless refuses to discuss it. Galatea, an adult fantasy-fiction novel, followed in 1978, but it was his school plays which inspired his first children's book, Count Karlstein, in 1982. He stopped teaching shortly after the publication of The Ruby in the Smoke (1986), his second children's book, which has a Victorian setting.
Pullman taught part-time at Westminster College, Oxford, between 1988 and 1996, continuing to write children's stories. He began His Dark Materials in about 1993. The first book, Northern Lights, was published in 1995 (entitled The Golden Compass in the U.S., 1996). Pullman won both the annual Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a similar award that authors may not win twice.[a]
Pullman has been writing full-time since 1996. He continues to deliver talks and writes occasionally for The Guardian, including writing and lecturing about education, where he is often critical of unimaginative education policies. He was awarded a CBE in the New Year's Honours list in 2004. He also co-judged the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize (awarded by Oxford University) in 2005 with Gillian Clarke. In 2004, he was elected President of the Blake Society. In 2004 Pullman also guest-edited The Mays Anthology, a collection of new writing from students at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
In 2005 Pullman won the annual Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award from the Swedish Arts Council, recognising his career contribution to "children's and young adult literature in the broadest sense". According to the presentation, "Pullman radically injects new life into fantasy by introducing a variety of alternative worlds and by allowing good and evil to become ambiguous." In every genre, "he combines storytelling and psychological insight of the highest order."
He was one of five finalists for the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 2006 and he was the British nominee again in 2012.
In 2008, he started working on The Book of Dust, a companion book to his His Dark Materials trilogy, and "The Adventures of John Blake", a story for the British children's comic The DFC, with artist John Aggs.
On 23 November 2007, Pullman was made an honorary professor at Bangor University. In June 2008, he became a Fellow supporting the MA in Creative Writing at Oxford Brookes University. In September 2008, he hosted "The Writer's Table" for Waterstone's bookshop chain, highlighting 40 books which have influenced his career. In October 2009, he became a patron of the Palestine Festival of Literature. He is also a patron of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, a charity that enables school children across the UK to perform Shakespeare in professional theatres
On 24 June 2009, Pullman was awarded the degree of D. Litt. (Doctor of Letters), honoris causa, by the University of Oxford at the Encænia ceremony in the Sheldonian Theatre.
In 2012, during a break from writing The Book of Dust, Pullman was asked by Penguin Classics to curate 50 of Grimms' classic fairytales, from their compendium of over 200 stories. "They are not all of the same quality", said Pullman. "Some are easily much better than others. And some are obvious classics. You can't do a selected Grimms' without Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella and so on."
Beginning in August 2013, Pullman was elected President of the Society of Authors – the "ultimate honour" awarded by the British writers body, and a position first held by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The first volume of Pullman's trilogy The Book of Dust was published by Penguin Random House Children's and David Fickling in the UK and by Random House Children's in the US on 19 October 2017. The second title in The Book of Dust, The Secret Commonwealth, published in October 2019, includes a character named after Nur Huda el-Wahabi, a 16-year-old victim of London's Grenfell Tower fire. As part of the charity auction Authors for Grenfell Tower, Pullman offered the highest bidder a chance to name a character in the upcoming trilogy. Ultimately, he raised £32,400.
Pullman was named a Knight Bachelor in the 2019 New Year's Honours list. In March 2019, the charity Action for Children's Art presented Pullman with their annual J. M. Barrie Award to mark a "lifetime's achievement in delighting children".