Happy birthday, Philip Pullman!

By | October 19, 2020

Guest post by Vanessa Joosen

Today is Philip Pullman’s 74th birthday and that seems like a good moment to reflect on the role that age has so far played in his career. Pullman made his debut in the early 1970s and has been a prolific and outspoken writer ever since. He is best known for his trilogy His Dark Materials.

Age has been a central concern throughout Pullman’s work and in his career as a public figure. On various occasions, he has opposed the limits that age norms impose, arguing instead for openness and respect for individuals’ personal development and preferences. In 2008, he joined a campaign to omit age ranges from book covers, arguing that “the readers of my most ‘difficult’ books include people of seven as well as people of 90” (Oxford Mail, 10 June 2008). Putting an age (or gender) on books might limit its potential readership. In the Q&A on his website, Pullman also claims that he does not write specifically for young readers, but rather for himself: “I write books that children read. Some clever adults read them too.” 

Both quotes illustrate that Pullman approaches not just childhood, but also adulthood with openness and flexibility. Pullman has also opposed the relatively low status of children’s books and its exclusion from some literary prizes. He won a major victory in this debate when his Young Adult novel The Amber Spyglass was awarded the Whitbread Book of the Year Award 2001.

In the ERC-funded project “Constructing Age for Young Readers” that I currently lead at the University of Antwerp, our team has used digital tools to study age in Philip Pullman’s work. Together with Lindsey Geybels and Wouter Haverals, I considered the ages assigned to 25 of his books in library catalogues and bookstores, and used a stylometric analysis to see whether these age ranges corresponded to stylistic features in Pullman’s work. In this kind of computational analysis, style is measured through frequencies and combinations of function words (articles, pronouns, conjunctions, adverbs) rather than content words. If enough material is available, such digital analyses can identify an author’s unique stylistic signature – this is the technique provided scholar Patrick Juola with crucial evidence to support the claim that J.K. Rowling was the author behind the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. Our team uses it, amongst others, to find out whether there is a link between an author’s style and the age range for which books are marketed.

Before Pullman published his first children’s book Count Karlstein in 1982, he had already published two novels for adults, The Haunted Storm (1972) and Galatea (1978). Our stylometric analysis shows an evolution in Pullman’s writing style, which may not be conscious or deliberate. The style of Count Karlstein still approaches Pullman’s writing for adults. As his career developed, Pullman’s works show a greater variety of stylistic features, and a larger stylistic distance appears between his texts for young adults and adults on the one hand and young children on the other. While Pullman might not actively write for a specific age, a distinct style for younger readers has crystallised in the course of his career, and bookstores and libraries have picked up on those features to market his books for specific age ranges. 

In the content of his fiction, Pullman regularly addresses age as a theme. The restrictions on her freedom that his Victorian heroine Sally Lockheart faces result not just from her gender, but also from her young age. In my book Adulthood in Children’s Literature (Bloomsbury, 2018), I discuss how Pullman addresses age norms related to childhood and adulthood in His Dark Materials. In the parallel universe that Pullman has created as the main setting for this trilogy and its sequels, all human beings are accompanied by a daemon, a soulmate in the form of an animal. In childhood, the daemon can take various forms, reflecting the child’s identity in flux. With adults, the daemon is fixed into one shape, which mirrors the person’s dominant character traits.

This process can be criticized for reinforcing a limiting age norm: the idea that flexibility of character is limited to childhood, and that identity in adulthood is stable and fixed. This would deny the potential in adults to experience fundamental changes to their character. The very plot of His Dark Materials, however, goes against this idea. Several of the main adult characters, including the heroine Lyra’s parents, undergo significant shifts in the course of the story. This endorses the plea Philip Pullman has expressed in various lectures and interviews: to look beyond numerical age in discovering stories and all the opportunities of life itself.

Vanessa Joosen is Associate Professor of English Literature at theUniversity of Antwerp, Belgium, where she specializes in children’s literaturestudies, fairy-tale studies and age studies. She is the author of Adulthood in Children’s Literature, part of the Perspectives on Children’s Literature series.

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