GIVEAWAY Philip Pullman's Daemon Voices


To celebrate the paperback release of, Philip Pullman’s masterly Dæmon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, David Fickling Books have given us four copies to give away to you, our wonderful SCBWI-BI members!


To give you a taste of the wonderful, wise words you'll find in the pages of Dæmon Voices, we're thrilled to bring you an extract from the book, written for a Balloon Debate Philip took part in in 2002.

Balloon Debate

Why fiction is valuable

An argument for fiction to be kept in the balloon, with special reference to its beguiling aspects


I’m here to talk about fiction, and to try and show how valuable it is, and why it ought to stay in the balloon. And the first thing to say is that I’m rather handicapped here by my own profession, because as a storyteller I don’t set out to persuade; I’m not used to putting forward a case. Novels and stories are not arguments; they set out not to convince, but to beguile. When you write a story you’re not trying to prove anything or demonstrate the merits of this case or the flaws in that. At its simplest, what you’re doing is making up some interesting events, putting them in the best order to show the connections between them, and recounting them as clearly as you can; and your intention is to make the audience sufficiently delighted or moved to buy your next book when that comes out in due course.

But fiction doesn’t merely entertain – as if entertaining were ever mere. Stories also teach. They teach in many ways: in one obvious way, they teach by showing how human character and action are intimately bound up together, and that actions both spring from character and help to shape it. Conrad’s Lord Jim is a good example.

They also teach an attitude – a temperament. One writer’s temperament might embody (for example) a passionate interest in the physical world, so that the narrator of the story notices the colours and smells and sounds of things, and makes them vividly present to the reader; while another writer’s attitude will demonstrate a sort of sharp sardonic worldliness in the way the story describes behaviour, so that we learn what it’s like to see people like that – and so on. I think this is inherent in the very nature of saying ‘Once upon a time’ and then choosing what to write next. It’s the way narrative works.

And stories teach not only attitudes, but beliefs – not that such-and-such a belief is true, but what it feels like to hold it. For example, when we read a novel by G. K. Chesterton we can feel what it’s like to see things from the point of view of someone who believes in God. When we read George Eliot, we can feel ourselves in a universe governed by moral relations but bereft of the certainties of belief.

And, most importantly, fiction can engage with questions of meaning – questions such as: ‘Is there a purpose to life? Where do we come from? Why do we not feel at ease in the world?’ The way it does this is to tell new stories, or re-tell old stories from a new angle, which explore these questions.

These are the sort of questions, of course, which religion claims to have special answers to. When it comes to that last question, ‘Why don’t we feel at ease in the world?’, which is one that interests me greatly, as it interested that great psychologist William James – when it comes to that question, the answer from Christianity has to do with original sin. Apparently there is a flaw in the relationship between us and the universe, and it’s our fault. We were created to be at one with nature without asking questions, but we were tempted to want more knowledge, and the result of giving in to that temptation is unhappiness, sin, death and so on. It’s the myth of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

Now I think that’s a very interesting story, but unlike the Church, I strongly approve of original sin. I think that we should be celebrating Eve, not deploring her. What I was trying to do in my trilogy His Dark Materials was roughly that: to tell that story from a different moral angle, as it were – to tell a story in which Eve was the heroine, and to show a way in which it was possible to see that the knowledge that we gained as a result of Eve’s curiosity – and of the generous, wise and self-less behaviour of the serpent, which risked the anger of God by passing on what it knew – was the beginning of all human wisdom.

And it did set us apart from nature: we are self-conscious. The first thing that happened to Adam and Eve was that they felt embarrassed: they noticed that they were naked. In self-consciousness lies the root of our ability to reflect on ourselves, on the shortness of our lives, on the profound mystery and the absolute beauty of the physical universe. And the Fall didn’t take place just once, six thousand years ago, or thirty or forty or fifty thousand years ago when the first human beings thought about death and life and who they were, and made patterns and marks and images to register this thinking – the Fall happens in every human life, at adolescence. We leave the unselfconscious grace of childhood behind and take our first faltering steps through the complexity and mire of life towards whatever we can reach of wisdom, which it is our job to increase and pass on. If there was no purpose in evolution, there is a purpose in our individual lives, and that is it.

Stories...bewitch, they enchant, they cast a spell, they enthral; they hold children from their play, and old men from the chimney corner.

But I wouldn’t keep fiction in the balloon myself if all it could do was teach. It’s the way it teaches that reaches our hearts as well as our minds. And the way it works is through projection – we project the story we’re told, the story we read, on to our own experience, our own situation, and understand it in all kinds of different ways. The way a young listener experiences Little Red Riding Hood, for example – the excitement, the shock, the dread, the triumph – is not the way that a parent, responds to it. A child thinks, ‘That could happen to me!’ A parent thinks, ‘That could happen to my child! How can I keep her safe?’ And the child thinks, ‘There probably aren’t any real wolves left, I hope, at least not round here,’ and the parent thinks, ‘That’s not how wolves behave, but it’s certainly how some men behave,’ and so on. And the parent thinks, ‘Perhaps it’s too scary – I better not tell her that story again for a while,’ and the child thinks, ‘I hope they tell me that story again tonight!’

Because, most of all, stories give delight. That’s the point I began with, and I’ll come back to it to finish up: they beguile. They bewitch, they enchant, they cast a spell, they enthral; they hold children from their play, and old men from the chimney corner. The desire to know what happened next, or whodunit, or how Odysseus and his men escaped from the Cyclops’ cave, or what is the meaning of the enigmatic words The Speckled Band or The Black Spot, or whether the single man in possession of a good fortune will, as we all hope, succeed in marrying Elizabeth Bennet, or what Mr Bumble will say when Oliver Twist asks for more, or what Achilles will do now that Hector has killed Patroclus.

The desire to know these things is passionate and universal. It transcends age and youth; it ignores education and the lack of it; it beguiles the simple and enchants the wise. It was as entrancing in the fire-lit cave as it is in the seminar room.

In one way fiction has no more strength than gossamer – it’s only made of words, or the movement of air, of black marks on white paper– and yet it’s immortal. You couldn’t throw it out of the balloon even if you wanted to, because if you did, you’d only turn round to find it still there; you would be telling yourself the story of how it fell to earth, or grew wings and flew away, or got eaten by a bird that laid an egg that hatched and out came... another story. You couldn’t help it. It’s how you’re made.

And finally, if an atheist may call a distinguished witness, I’d like to refer you to the example of Jesus himself, one of the greatest storytellers of all, who knew that if you want your listeners to remember what you say, tell them a story. Thou shalt and Thou shalt not are easily ignored and soon forgotten; but Once upon a time lasts for ever.

I commend the cause of fiction.

Extract from Dæmon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling by Philip Pullman with permission of David Fickling Books.

To be in with a chance to win a copy of Dæmon Voices, just tell us: what’s the single piece of storytelling advice that resonates with you most? Comment below with your nugget of storytelling wisdom by 18/10/20. Look out for our posts on the SCBWI-BI Facebook page, Twitter feed and the SCBWI Illustrators Instagram and comment there too for four chances to win!


  1. I am doing a writing course at the moment and the best piece of advice among many Nuggets of wisdom was that you should work within your limitations and add elements like an unreliable narrator only when you are confident enough. If you add these elements too quickly you can end up getting discouraged.

  2. My nugget of wisdom "Don't expect to get it right first time" as told to me by a very successful writer friend, and something I tell my art students frequently. Allow yourself to make mistakes, learn from them and move on...Bonnie Helen Hawkins

  3. For children's stories, 'if it's not ended happily, it's not ended yet'. Thank you GEA. Anne Jones

  4. The best advice I've ever received is to be true to yourself and write what you believe in. That way your voice will always be authentic, and you enjoy the process more too.

  5. My best piece of writing wisdom is to write what you enjoy, both because your passion will shine through and because you will spend so long working on a manuscript!

  6. I love this “Because, most of all, stories give delight. That’s the point I began with, and I’ll come back to it to finish up: they beguile. They bewitch, they enchant, they cast a spell, they enthral; they hold children from their play, and old men from the chimney corner.” I love how Pullman starts with the delighting nature of stories and finishes it with how they beguile readers and listeners, ending full circle, like how a rondele story works. If there’s anything that holds true for me as a writer, it is that stories work on so many levels, as Pullman had enumerated. I’d love a copy of this book. Thank you for the privilege of being able to take part in this giveaway. Good luck to everyone who enters.

  7. Get it written before you start censoring it by editing it. It loses too much of it's life if you don't finish it first. Editing is a different job.

    1. Eleanor, you're the winner of the W&P Daemon Voices giveaway! Please send your contact details to and I'll get your lovely new copy of Daemon Voices on its way to you!

    2. Claire - I have now emailed. Sorry I didn't see this earlier. Was embroiled in deadline proofreading of boring technical stuff. This will be a much better read. Thanks!


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