Philip Pullman: How Wales inspired his life and work

The His Dark Materials trilogy pictured with a backdrop of Harlech Castle To what extent were Pullman's most acclaimed works inspired by his formative years in Wales?

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Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is rooted in the dreaming spires of Oxford, around which his young heroine Lyra Belacqua roams at night.

Pullman's links to Oxford are strong, but it was another very different world, a landscape rather than a cityscape, which helped to shape the writer's life and work.

For almost 10 years during his childhood Philip Pullman lived in Llanbedr in Ardudwy, north Wales, and went to school in Harlech.

Start Quote

I got those ambitions, that sensibility, from the time I spent in Wales”

End Quote Philip Pullman

It was a brief chapter in the life of the 67-year-old Norwich-born writer, who had previously lived with his English military family in Australia, Africa and Europe, and who now lives in Oxfordshire.

Yet according to Pullman it was a formative experience which prepared him for the rest of his life.

"I knew I wanted to write books," the author tells the BBC Wales documentary series Great Welsh Writers. "I knew that's what I wanted to do, and I got those ambitions, that sensibility, from the time I spent in Wales."

Pullman was seven in 1953 when his father Alfred, an RAF pilot, died in a plane crash and his mother remarried.

In 1957, after his stepfather, an expert in ground-controlled flight, moved to RAF Llanbedr, Pullman swapped his London prep school for Ysgol Ardudwy secondary school.

Philip Pullman at school On his first day at Ysgol Ardudwy Pullman's English accent led to a fight

He recalls a fight on his first day there as his English accent was challenged. "That was my first Welsh lesson," he says.

Ardudwy, between Tremadog Bay and the Rhinogydd mountains, features strongly in Welsh mythology. Its characters, its landmarks and its atmosphere also pervade Pullman's work.

Good God Corner

Describing its natural beauty, he refers to a spot on the Llanbedr to Harlech road known as Good God Corner, so called because of the common response to the view seen from it.

The mountains of Snowdonia across the sea from Ardudwy 'Sand dunes and ocean waves and big skies, all of that is to be found in his writing'

"You see the most stupendous view of Harlech beach," says Pullman, "a wide, long, clear expanse of sand and the mountains of Snowdonia in the far distance.

"It had the most extraordinarily beautiful appearance to me. Just to look at it - and just to look at it and dream - at the end of a summer day. I'll never forget that."

"We are in an extraordinary beautiful and dramatic landscape here," says Pullman's school friend, historian Professor Merfyn Jones. "Sand dunes and ocean waves and big skies - and all of that is to be found in his writing."

Bridge near Pullman's home in Llanbedr The original, unbroken bridge near Pullman's first home in the area
'Love letter to a landscape'

Terry Jones, the writer and Monty Python star who grew up in Colwyn Bay, agrees. "North Wales does form your outlook on the world," he says. "It's a beautiful place and I think that's why (Pullman) says it's a beautiful world."

Pullman refers to his 1990 book The Broken Bridge as "a love letter to a landscape".

The story of a girl, Ginny, who has to fight through a web of secrets and lies to find out the truth about her past, is set at another local landmark.

"The house we first lived in, Beser, was situated at the confluence of two rivers," says Pullman, "the Artro and the Nantcol. There's a little bridge, which never was broken. I just made that up. It's a lovely place to walk up and swim along and just have fun by."

If he has drawn from the local scenery for his work, then he has also drawn from its people.

Philip Pullman at school At 14, Pullman was inspired by his English teacher Enid Jones

Another school friend, Derek Dobney, with whom Pullman recalls getting up to no good after school, was immortalised in his New Cut Gang books (1994, 1995) as Thunderbolt Dobney, chief mischief maker in a gang of London street kids.

According to Prof Jones, there are similarities between Pullman's life in Wales and the themes to be found in his most acclaimed work to date, the trilogy made up of The Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000).

'One world to another'

In the stories Lyra and Will, who like Pullman and Ginny in The Broken Bridge have both lost a parent, move between parallel worlds with the aid of a mystical knife.

"One of the amazing features of His Dark Materials is the way in which his characters are able to move from one dimension to another and one world to another," explains Prof Jones.

Philip Pullman In the programme Pullman recalls listening to jazz and pretending the distant twinkling lights of Pwllheli and Criccieth across the bay were San Francisco

"There is an element of that in his experience here, that he did move from the school, from lots of Welsh friends, to actually then live within this other very different world of the RAF, an entirely English world."

At the heart of the three books is a corrupt, cruel and tyrannical church, a theme which a third school friend, Eryl Williams, pins down to views formed by Pullman during his formative years in Wales.

"An antipathy to organised religion or institutionalised power, I think he had those attitudes and themes from an early age," he says.

Start Quote

He continues many of the debates we had in school about is there a God, the nature of authority, how you should live with some level of integrity”

End Quote Prof Merfyn Jones School friend
'Debates in school'

Prof Jones agrees: "He continues many of the debates we had in school about is there a God, the nature of authority, how you should live with some level of integrity, not only towards others but also towards the moment you are alive."

Pullman himself describes his religious background as "quite conventional".

"I used to go to church every week, I was a member of the choir in Llanbedr church... but when you read things in your teenage years about people who believed there was no God, you start thinking about these things and talking about them incessantly.

"And I'm as convinced as I can be that in the world that I can see and hear and read about around me there is no God. So to that extent I am an atheist. I don't believe there is a God in this world or ever has been."

Perhaps the greatest springboard towards the writing of His Dark Materials was John Milton's Paradise Lost, which Pullman was encouraged to read out loud in class by his English teacher Enid Jones.

Like His Dark Materials, Milton's poem explores the world of Adam and Eve and the fall of man.

Philip Pullman as a teenager Pullman says his mind was 'formed in Wales'

"She was a wonderfully lively, kindly, interesting, knowledgeable lady - and I owe her an enormous amount," says Pullman.

But the trilogy described by Terry Jones as "one of the most impressive, imaginative feats in the English language" was still some way off in Pullman's life.

In September 1965 he boarded a train bound for Exeter College, Oxford, and a new chapter in his life.

"I... immediately fell in love with the place," says Pullman.

"But my mind was already partially formed, it would have been formed in my teenage years when I was at school. It would have been formed in Wales."

Philip Pullman - Great Welsh Writers was shown on Monday, 18 March at 10.35pm on BBC One Wales. Clips from the programme can be seen here.

Philip Pullman joined @BBCWales for a Twitter Q&A from his Oxfordshire home on Tuesday, 19 March.

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