Reading guide for Northern Lights

by Philip Pullman

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate 2005

Written by Agneta Edwards

About the author

Philip Pullman (born 1946) worked as a teacher in Oxford, and it was through telling fairytales in the classroom and putting on plays with his pupils that he found his true calling: making up stories. Since 1982, when his first book for children and young adults Count Karlstein was published, Pullman has written in most genres: detective thrillers, Gothic horror, contemporary youth fiction and fantasy-based tales for younger readers such as I was a rat (1999).

Pullman’s works have an oral feel which, coupled with humour, verbal dexterity and skilful scene setting, makes them perfect for reading out loud and dramatising. The lead role is often taken by strong girls, such as Sally Lockhart in The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), Lila in The Firework-Maker’s Daughter (1995) and of course Lyra, the heroine of the book that made Philip Pullman famous around the world, His Dark Materials.

A significant feature of Pullman’s writing is his literary playfulness; he alludes to, parodies and paraphrases world literature, including Charles Dickens, Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes, The Wizard of Oz and British folklore.

Another prominent trait is his political activism – whether standing up in defence of public libraries or conveying his “anti-clerical” stance. Philip Pullman constantly returns, in debates and in his works, to questions of God, religion and the Church, as well as the powers that be and their oppression of the individual – he is a deeply humanist author.

About the work

His Dark Materials is a trilogy comprising Northern lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000).

Philip Pullman has been hailed as a rejuvenator of the fantasy genre for his original take on its classic components, such as alien worlds, magical objects and a (usually orphaned) hero whose initially concealed quest takes her from the egocentricity and innocence of childhood to a realisation of her place in a broader context – her destiny if you will.

Pullman himself prefers to describe His Dark Materials as science fantasies and stresses the realistic nature of the stories. In creating his worlds, the author draws on scientific facts concerning dark materials, black holes and parallel universes. Layered onto this are philosophical, moral and spiritual musings. On one level, His Dark Materials is part of Pullman’s questioning of authority, not least the autocratic nature of the Church. It is also a re-imagining of the story of Eve and original sin, with Pullman alluding in particular to John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

This complexity and intellectual rigour make the trilogy, which becomes deeper and darker in its later volumes, something of a challenge. However, in the narrative surface layer Philip Pullman offers an unceasingly exciting story with engaging characters who move between three different worlds.

The first book, Northern Lights, plays out in the world of our heroine Lyra, starting at Jordan College in Oxford in an indeterminate, possibly historical, time. The world is very like our own, but with a few little twists, making it only slightly “otherworldly”, in contrast to classic fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter’s magical world.

Lyra grew up at Jordan, placed there by her uncle Lord Asriel when her parents died. She lives a free life and is described as being more wild than tame. Lyra’s friendship with Roger, son to one of the servants, and her fierce loyalty are one of the key drivers of the plot; all over the country children are disappearing without trace and there are rumours that they are being kidnapped for some secret purpose. When Roger also disappears, Lyra decides to solve the mystery and find her friend.

The first line of Northern Lights throws us straight into the action: “Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” As well as immediately gaining an image of a brave and inquisitive girl, we also encounter an unknown entity, Lyra’s dæmon Pantalaimon.

A dæmon [pronounced the same as the word “demon”] is a personification in animal form of its human’s inner self. Before the child reaches puberty, Pullman’s dæmons can change form at will, while adults’ dæmons have a permanent form that reflects a key aspect of their human’s personality.
As an idea, the dæmons are related to the totemic animals of Indian mythology, for example, but Pullman’s versions have a more spiritual aspect.

They switch between intuitive reactions, since the dæmon displays emotions that the human hides or suppresses, and acting as a rational superego. Human and dæmon are united by strong mental bonds, they feel each other’s pain and, as far as people know, they cannot live apart. But what makes this bond?

Researchers in Lyra’s world are looking for the answer to that question by experimenting on children and their dæmons. The Church has its reasons to be interested in the results of the research, and others, like the powerful Lord Asriel and the beautiful and mysterious Mrs Coulter, have their own reasons for being involved; dreams of power, dreams of revolutionary discoveries – all of which creates a dense web of intrigue where individual decisions and personal motives play a key role.

In her search for Roger, Lyra is drawn into a dangerous game and becomes both a player and a catalyst. She and the reader are taken on a journey to Svalbard, where Lyra finds an ally in the magnificent armoured bear Iorek Byrnison and the witch Serafina Pekkala, and where the truth about her origins is revealed. The action of Northern Lights reaches a resolution at this point, but in the final line of the book Lyra takes a step into another world – an effective cliff-hanger leading into the next book in the trilogy – to find an answer to the nature of Dust, the mystical material that appears to be at the heart of everything that happens.

The following books are set in several parallel universes. In The Subtle Knife, Lyra meets the boy Will, whose world appears to be ours, in the here and now, and together they continue towards the painfully melancholic, but inevitable, conclusion in The Amber Spyglass. His Dark Materials is also a coming of age story, with Lyra achieving clarity about herself and about the world around her.

His Dark Materials has been adapted for radio in the UK and has been performed on stage several times, while the book Northern Lights was filmed as The Golden Compass, starring James Bond actor Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel and Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter.

Things to think about

When asked about what his own dæmon would look like, if he had one, Philip Pullman usually says it would be a magpie, because he loves to steal (!) – for his stories of course.

What form do you think Pantalaimon will take when Lyra becomes an adult? What are her strengths and which animal could represent them? The answer comes in one of the later books!

If you had your own dæmon, what form would it take?

Iorek Byrnison gives Lyra the name Silvertongue – why?

Lyra is a heroine who can be compared to other young heroes from fairytales and fantasy, such as Astrid Lindgren’s Mio and JRR Tolkien’s Bilbo. To help students find similarities, you can start by discussing Pippi Longstocking – do she and Lyra have anything in common?

Lyra walks into a new world at the end of Northern Lights. What do you think that world looks like? What’s going to happen to her there? Use the titles of the next books to help you – The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. What might they be about?

Are there any instruments in our time and world that are like the alethiometer?

Considering (the ideas behind) what happens to the children in Northern Lights, can you see any parallels with our modern world?

Give an example of how Pullman’s political/religious convictions come across in Northern Lights.

Find out more about Philip Pullman

Författare & illustratörer för barn och ungdom, Del 7, Maria Gripfelt Philip Pullman, BTJ Förlag, 2001 (in Swedish)

His Dark Materials Illuminated, Critical Essays on Philip Pullman’s Trilogy. Edited by Millicent Lenz with Carole Scott, Landscapes of Childhood, Wayne State University Press, 2005

This Reading Guide was written by Agneta Edwards, former member of the jury for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It was first published in Swedish in August 2011.

Further reading about Philip Pullman