Philip Pullman

“There are some who live by every rule and cling tightly to their rectitude because they fear being swept away by a tempest of passion, and there are others who cling to the rules because they fear that there is no passion there at all, and that if they let go they would simply remain where they are, foolish and unmoved; and they could bear that least of all. Living a life of iron control lets them pretend to themselves that only by the mightiest effort of will can they hold great passions at bay.”

Dear Mr. Pullman,

I’ve started this “thank you” letter several times because I didn’t really know what to talk about. Your His Dark Materials trilogy stands as a seminal work of my childhood and budding young adulthood. I remember my mum giving me the first two books in a set and, despite being fairly certain I mispronounced at least 50% of the names and terms incorrectly in my head while reading, I was so profoundly swept away by Lyra and Will’s story that I was actually angry when I realised a third book wasn’t already out, especially after that rather mean cliffhanger you left us on in The Subtle Knife. Truly devious.

I didn’t manage to grab hold of The Amber Spyglass until around five or so years later, when I was thirteen. I devoured it amazed that, even after five years, I still remembered all the characters and the story in which they had been a part. Suffice to say that Spyglass rocked me to my core, but in a way that the first two had not, at least, not when I was still a child. I was almost a young adult when I finally read Spyglass and the content of that novel, from Lyra’s awakening to the topic of death and what comes after, of religion and faith (or lack thereof), and of the beauty of life…it still leaves me wholly speechless. It was magical, but in a seemingly tactile way: this was “magic” that I could understand because it wasn’t really magic at all. This was a discussion I’d been trying to have with myself for some time, but didn’t know how to form the words, didn’t know what exactly it was I was trying to figure out.

I admit, I wonder now if my mum would have handed me your books if she’d known all the details of their content. She’s Roman Catholic, you see, and tried to raise my younger brothers and I Catholic as well. While she was never particularly strict about it, there are certainly things related to religion and faith I find safer not to discuss with her. By the time I was being forced through Confirmation, I knew I didn’t belong in her “house of God.” I knew that I didn’t believe, and being forced into such a process where I had to lie and say “I will pledge myself to the Catholic Church body and soul” because “I believe in the Lord, our God, and his son, Jesus Christ” without being allowed any say or chance to escape was enough to make me spend many a night crying myself to sleep. I was told I was just being selfish, that I didn’t know what I was talking about because I was fifteen and how could I possibly know what it was talking about when I was so young…

But I did.

I did know, because two years prior I had read The Amber Spyglass and understood the confusion I’d been wrestling with; and just a year prior I had read your magnificent novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and it felt like someone had taken so many of my abstract, incoherent thoughts and managed to start expressing a large part of them, there, printed in black ink on white page. Jesus in the Garden was a passage I read over and over and over again because it was some of the most beautiful language and profound insight I’d seen put to paper. I pull it out and read it in times of stress. I also flip to your own author’s notes at the novel’s end because your own words, divorced from a fictional narrative, are still incredible. They helped me a great deal when I thought I was crazy for thinking, “But I don’t believe in what I’m being told.”

Because of your books and your words, I was able to begin the process of articulating my own thoughts and feelings about the universe and what it was I believed, no matter what conclusion I eventually came to.

So thank you — thank you so, so much for writing these books and helping to inspire at least this one person to try and articulate the sum of her own thoughts on what she did (or did not) believe.

Sincerely,
Madeleine

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