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His Dark Materials
His Dark Materials is an epic trilogy of fantasy novels by Philip Pullman consisting of Northern Lights (1995, published as The Golden Compass in North America), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000). It follows the coming of age of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, as they wander through a series of parallel universes. The novels have won a number of awards, including the Carnegie Medal in 1995 for Northern Lights and the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year for The Amber Spyglass.
His Dark Materials has been marketed to young adults, though Pullman wrote with no target audience in mind. The fantasy elements include witches and armoured polar bears; the trilogy also alludes to concepts from physics, philosophy and theology. It functions in part as a retelling and inversion of John Milton's epic Paradise Lost, with Pullman commending humanity for what Milton saw as its most tragic failing, original sin. The series has attracted controversy for its criticism of religion.
The London Royal National Theatre staged a two-part adaptation of the series in 2003–2004. New Line Cinema released a film adaptation of Northern Lights, The Golden Compass, in 2007. Pullman followed the trilogy with two shorter books set in the same universe, Lyra's Oxford (2003) and Once Upon a Time in the North (2008). La Belle Sauvage, the first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, was published on 19 October 2017.
The trilogy takes place across a multiverse, moving between many parallel worlds. In Northern Lights, the story takes place in a world with some similarities to our own; dress-style resembles that of the UK's Victorian era, and technology has not evolved to include automobiles or fixed-wing aircraft, while zeppelins feature as a notable mode of transport.
The dominant religion has parallels with Christianity, and is at certain points in the series (especially in the later books) explicitly named so; while Adam and Eve are referenced in the text (particularly in The Subtle Knife, in which Dust tells Mary Malone that Lyra Belacqua is a new Eve to whom she is to be the serpent), Jesus is not. The Church (called the "Magisterium", the same name as the Catholic body) exerts a strong control over society and has some of the appearance and organisation of the Catholic Church, but one in which the centre of power had moved from Rome to Geneva, moved there by Pullman's fictional "Pope John Calvin" (Geneva was the home of the historical John Calvin).
In The Subtle Knife, the story moves between the world of the first novel, our own world, and in another world, the city of Cittàgazze. In The Amber Spyglass the story crosses through an array of diverse worlds.
The title of the series comes from 17th-century poet John Milton's Paradise Lost, Book 2:
Pullman earlier proposed to name the series The Golden Compasses, also a reference to Paradise Lost, where they denote God's circle-drawing instrument used to establish and set the bounds of all creation:
Despite the confusion with the other common meaning of compass (the navigational instrument) The Golden Compass became the title of the American edition of Northern Lights (the book features an "alethiometer", a rare truth-telling device that one might describe as a "golden compass").
Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass)
In Jordan College, Oxford, 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua and her dæmon Pantalaimon witness the Master attempt to poison Lord Asriel, Lyra's rebellious and adventuring 'uncle'. She warns Asriel, then spies on his lecture about Dust, mysterious elementary particles. Lyra's friend Roger is kidnapped by child abductors known as the "Gobblers". Lyra is adopted by a charming socialite, Mrs Coulter. The Master secretly entrusts her with an alethiometer, a truth-telling device. Lyra discovers that Coulter is the leader of the Gobblers, a secret Church-funded project, which is abducting children. Lyra flees to the Gyptians, canal-faring nomads, whose children have also been abducted. They reveal to Lyra that Asriel and Coulter are her parents.
The Gyptians form an expedition to the Arctic with Lyra to rescue the children. Lyra recruits Iorek Byrnison, an armoured bear, and his human aeronaut friend, Lee Scoresby. She also learns that Lord Asriel has been exiled, guarded by the bears on Svalbard. Near Bolvangar, the Gobbler research station, Lyra discovers an abandoned child who has been cut from his dæmon; the Gobblers are experimenting on children by severing the bond between human and dæmon. Lyra is captured and taken to Bolvangar, where she is reunited with Roger. Coulter tells Lyra that the intercision prevents the onset of troubling adult emotions. Lyra and the children are rescued by Scoresby, Iorek, the Gyptians, and Serafina Pekkala's flying witch clan. Lyra falls out of Scoresby's balloon and is taken by the panserbjørne to the castle of their usurping king, Iofur Raknison. She tricks Iofur into fighting Iorek, who arrives with the others to rescue Lyra. Iorek kills Iofur and takes his place as the rightful king.
Lyra, Iorek, and Roger travel to Svalbard, where Asriel has continued his Dust research in exile. He tells Lyra that the Church believes Dust is the basis of sin, and plans to visit the other universes and destroy its source. He severs Roger from his dæmon, killing him and releasing enough energy to create an opening to a parallel universe. Lyra determines to stop Asriel and discover the source of Dust for herself.
The Subtle Knife
Lyra journeys through Asriel's opening between worlds to Cittàgazze, an otherworldly city whose denizens have discovered a clean path between worlds at a far earlier point in time than others in the storyline. Cittàgazze's reckless use of the technology has released soul-eating Spectres, to which children are immune, rendering much of the world incapable of transit by adults. Here Lyra meets Will Parry, a twelve-year-old boy from our world. Will, who recently killed a man to protect his ailing mother, has stumbled into Cittàgazze in an effort to locate his long-lost father. Venturing into Will's (our) world, Lyra meets Dr. Mary Malone, a physicist who is researching what she calls Shadow Particles, which are the same as Lyra's Dust. Lyra encourages Dr. Malone to attempt to communicate with the particles, and when she does they tell her to travel into the Cittàgazze world.
Will becomes the bearer of the eponymous Subtle Knife, a tool forged 300 years ago by Cittàgazze's scientists from the same materials used to make Bolvangar's silver guillotine. One edge of the knife can divide even subatomic particles and form subtle divisions in space, creating portals between worlds; the other edge easily cuts through any form of matter. After meeting with witches from Lyra's world, they journey on.
Meanwhile, back in Lyra's world, Lee Scoresby seeks out Stanislaus Grumman. When Scoresby finds him, Grumman insists on being taken through the opening into the Cittàgazze world in Scoresby's balloon. Scoresby dies defending Grumman from the forces of the Church. Grumman turns out to be Will's long-lost father and he succeeds in reuniting with his son before he is murdered by a witch who loved him but was turned down. After his father's death, Will discovers that Lyra has been kidnapped and he is approached by two angels requesting his aid.
The Amber Spyglass
The Amber Spyglass tells of Lyra's kidnapping by her mother, Mrs. Coulter, an agent of the Magisterium who has learned of the prophecy identifying Lyra as the next Eve. A pair of angels, Balthamos and Baruch, inform Will that he must travel with them to give the Subtle Knife to Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, as a weapon against The Authority. Will ignores the angels; with the help of a local girl named Ama, the Bear King Iorek Byrnison, and Lord Asriel's Gallivespian spies, the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia, he rescues Lyra from the cave where her mother has hidden her from the Magisterium, which has become determined to kill her before she yields to temptation and sin like the original Eve.
Will, Lyra, Tialys and Salmakia journey to the Land of the Dead, temporarily parting with their dæmons to release the ghosts from their captivity. Mary Malone, a scientist from Will's world interested in "shadows" (or Dust in Lyra's world), travels to a land populated by strange sentient creatures called Mulefa. There she comes to understand the true nature of Dust, which is both created by and nourishes life which has become self-aware. Lord Asriel and the reformed Mrs. Coulter work to destroy the Authority's Regent Metatron. They succeed, but themselves suffer annihilation in the process by pulling Metatron into the abyss. The Authority himself dies of his own frailty when Will and Lyra free him from the crystal prison wherein Metatron had trapped him, able to do so because an attack by cliff-ghasts kills or drives away the prison's protectors. When Will and Lyra emerge from the land of the dead, they find their dæmons. The book ends with Will and Lyra falling in love but realising they cannot live together in the same world, because all windows — except one from the underworld to the world of the Mulefa — must be closed to prevent the loss of Dust, and because each of them can only live full lives in their native worlds. This is the temptation that Mary was meant to give them; to help them fall in love and then choose whether they should stay together or not. During the return, Mary learns how to see her own dæmon, who takes the form of a black Alpine chough. Lyra loses her ability to intuitively read the alethiometer and determines to learn how to use her conscious mind to achieve the same effect.
All humans in Lyra's world, including witches, have a dæmon. It is the physical manifestation of a person's 'inner being', soul or spirit. It takes the form of a creature (moth, bird, dog, monkey, snake, etc.) and is usually the opposite sex to its human counterpart. The dæmons of children have the ability to change form - from one creature to another - but towards the end of a child's puberty, their dæmon "settles" into a permanent form, which reflects the person's personality. When a person dies, the dæmon dies too. Armoured bears, cliff ghasts and other creatures do not have dæmons. An armoured bear's armour is his soul.
One distinctive aspect of Pullman's story is the presence of "dæmons" (pronounced "demon"). In the birth-universe of the story's protagonist Lyra Belacqua, a human individual's inner-self manifests itself throughout life as an animal-shaped "dæmon", that almost always stays near its human counterpart.
Dæmons usually only talk to their own associated humans, but they can communicate with other humans and with other dæmons autonomously. During the childhood of its associated human, a dæmon can change its shape at will, but with the onset of adolescence it settles into a fixed, final form that reveals the person's true nature and personality. In Lyra's world, it is considered to be "the grossest breach of etiquette imaginable" for one person to touch another's dæmon — this violates the strictest of taboos. "A human being with no dæmon is like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense".
Dæmons and their humans can become separated through intercision, a process involving cutting the link between the dæmon and the human. This process can take place in a medical setting, as with the guillotine used at Bolvangar, or as a form of torture used by the Skraelings. This separation entails a high mortality rate and changes both human and dæmon into a zombie-like state. Severing the link using the silver guillotine method releases tremendous amounts of unnamed energy, convertible to anbaric (electric) power.
Pullman has identified three major literary influences on His Dark Materials: the essay On the Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist, the works of William Blake, and, most important, John Milton's Paradise Lost, from which the trilogy derives its title. In his introduction, he adapts a famous description of Milton by Blake to quip that he (Pullman) "is of the Devil's party and does know it".
Critics have compared the trilogy with The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis. Pullman however has characterised the Narnia series as "blatantly racist", "monumentally disparaging of women", "immoral", and "evil". The trilogy has also been compared with such fantasy books as Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.
Awards and recognition
The Amber Spyglass won the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year award, a prestigious British literary award. This is the first time that such an award has been bestowed on a book from their "children's literature" category.
The first volume, Northern Lights, won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995. In 2007, the judges of the CILIP Carnegie Medal for children's literature selected it as one of the ten most important children's novels of the previous 70 years. In June 2007 it was voted, in an online poll, as the best Carnegie Medal winner in the seventy-year history of the award, the Carnegie of Carnegies.
The Observer cites Northern Lights as one of the 100 best novels.
On 19 May 2005, Pullman attended the British Library in London to receive formal congratulations for his work from culture secretary Tessa Jowell "on behalf of the government".
On 25 May 2005, Pullman received the Swedish government's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children's and youth literature (sharing it with Japanese illustrator Ryōji Arai). Swedes regard this prize as second only to the Nobel Prize in Literature; it has a value of 5 million Swedish Kronor or approximately £385,000.
The trilogy came third in the 2003 BBC's Big Read, a national poll of viewers' favourite books, after The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. At the time, only His Dark Materials and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire amongst the top five works lacked a screen-adaptation (the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which came fifth, was released in 2005).
His Dark Materials has occasioned controversy, primarily amongst some Christian groups. While sales in the United States equalled those of the Harry Potter series, Pullman's series received conservative media backlash for its perceived anti-religious content from the USA's Catholic League.
Pullman has expressed surprise over what he perceives as a low level of criticism for His Dark Materials on religious grounds, saying "I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak... Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God". Others support this interpretation, arguing that the series, while clearly anticlerical, is also anti-theological because the death of god is represented as a fundamentally unimportant question.
Some of the characters criticise institutional religion. Ruta Skadi, a witch and friend of Lyra's calling for war against the Magisterium in Lyra's world, says that "For all of [the Church's] history... it's tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can't control them, it cuts them out". Skadi later extends her criticism to all organised religion: "That's what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling". By this part of the book, the witches have made reference to how they are treated criminally by the church in their worlds. Mary Malone, one of Pullman's main characters, states that "the Christian religion... is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all". Formerly a Catholic nun, she gave up her vows when the experience of falling in love caused her to doubt her faith. Pullman has warned, however, against equating these views with his own, saying of Malone: "Mary is a character in a book. Mary's not me. It's a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work of philosophy". In another inversion, the tenet that the Church can absolve a penitent of sin is subverted when the priest selected to assassinate Lyra has built up sufficient penitential credit before attempting to carry out this sin for the Church.
Pullman portrays life after death very differently from the Christian concept of heaven: In the third book, the afterlife plays out in a bleak underworld, similar to the Greek vision of the afterlife, wherein harpies torment people until Lyra and Will descend into the land of the dead. At their intercession, the harpies agree to stop tormenting the dead souls, and instead receive the true stories of the dead in exchange for leading them again to the upper world. When the dead souls emerge, they dissolve into atoms and merge with the environment.
One medical historian has compared Pullman's concept of "intercision" with circumcision and female genital mutilation. In The Subtle Knife, Ruta Skadi says, "Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvangar. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only practice. Sisters, you know only the north: I have travelled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did – not in the same way, but just as horribly – they cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls – they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel".
Pullman's "Authority", though worshipped on Lyra's earth as God, emerges as the first conscious creature to evolve. Pullman makes it explicit that the Authority did not create worlds, and his trilogy does not speculate on who or what (if anything) might have done so. Members of the Church are typically displayed as zealots.
Cynthia Grenier, in the Catholic Culture, said: "In the world of Pullman, God Himself (the Authority) is a merciless tyrant. His Church is an instrument of oppression, and true heroism consists of overthrowing both". William A. Donohue of the Catholic League has described Pullman's trilogy as "atheism for kids". Pullman has said of Donohue's call for a boycott, "Why don't we trust readers? [...] Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world".
Pullman has, however, found support from some other Christians, most notably from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (spiritual head of the Anglican church), who argues that Pullman's attacks focus on the constraints and dangers of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself. Williams has also recommended the His Dark Materials series of books for inclusion and discussion in Religious Education classes, and stated that "To see large school-parties in the audience of the Pullman plays at the National Theatre is vastly encouraging". Pullman and Williams took part in a National Theatre platform debate a few days later to discuss myth, religious experience and its representation in the arts.
Pullman has singled out certain elements of Christianity for criticism, as in the following: "I suppose technically, you'd have to put me down as an agnostic. But if there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against". However, Pullman has also said in interviews and appearances that his argument can extend to all religions.
In a November 2002 interview Pullman was asked to respond to the fact that the Catholic Herald had called his books "the stuff of nightmares" and "worthy of the bonfire". He replied: "My response to that was to ask the publishers to print it in the next book, which they did! I think it's comical, it's just laughable". The original remark in Catholic Herald (which was "there are numerous candidates that seem to me to be far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry Potter") was written in the context of parents in South Carolina pressing their Board of Education to ban the Harry Potter books.
Pullman renames various common objects or ideas of our world with archaic terms or new words of his own. Below are some of these renamings and new words.
Pullman also uses archaic or adapted names for otherwise familiar peoples, regions and places.
The pronunciations given here are those used in the radio plays and the audio book readings of the trilogy (narrated by Pullman himself).
The first of two short novels, Lyra's Oxford takes place two years after the timeline of The Amber Spyglass. A witch who seeks revenge for her son's death in the war against the Authority draws Lyra, now 15, into a trap. Birds mysteriously rescue her and Pan, and she makes the acquaintance of an alchemist, formerly the witch's lover.
Once Upon a Time in the North
This short novel serves as a prequel to His Dark Materials and focuses on the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby as a young man. After winning his hot-air balloon, Scoresby heads to the North, landing on the Arctic island Novy Odense, where he is pulled into a conflict between the oil tycoon Larsen Manganese, the corrupt mayoral candidate Ivan Poliakov, and his longtime enemy from the Dakota Country, Pierre McConville. The story tells of Lee and Iorek's first meeting and of how they overcame these enemies.
A short story originally released exclusively as an audiobook by Audible in December 2014, narrated by actor Bill Nighy. The story alludes to the early life of Mrs Coulter and is set in the senior common room of an Oxford college.
The Book of Dust
The Book of Dust is a second trilogy of novels set before, during and after His Dark Materials. The first book, La Belle Sauvage, was published on 19 October 2017.
In August 2007, Pullman said: "Lyra's Oxford was a dark red book. Once Upon a Time in the North will be a dark blue book. There still remains a green book. And that will be Will's book. Eventually."
BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio play adaptation of His Dark Materials in 3 episodes, each lasting 2.5 hours. It was first broadcast in 2003, and re-broadcast in both 2008-9 and in 2017, and was and released by the BBC on CD and cassette. Cast included Terence Stamp as Lord Asriel and Lulu Popplewell as Lyra.
Also in 2003, a radio drama of Northern Lights was made by RTÉ, (Irish public radio).
Nicholas Hytner directed a theatrical version of the books as a two-part, six-hour performance for London's Royal National Theatre in December 2003, running until March 2004. It starred Anna Maxwell-Martin as Lyra, Dominic Cooper as Will, Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel and Patricia Hodge as Mrs Coulter with dæmon puppets designed by Michael Curry. The play was enormously successful and was revived (with a different cast and a revised script) for a second run between November 2004 and April 2005. It has since been staged by several other theatres in the UK and elsewhere.
A new production was staged at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in March and April 2009, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile and starring Amy McAllister as Lyra. This version toured the UK and included a performance in Pullman's hometown of Oxford. Pullman made a cameo appearance much to the delight of the audience and Oxford media. The production finished up at West Yorkshire Playhouse in June 2009.
New Line Cinema released a film adaptation, titled The Golden Compass, on 7 December 2007. Directed by Chris Weitz, the production had a mixed reception, and though worldwide sales were strong, its U.S. earnings were not as high as the studio had hoped.
The filmmakers obscured the explicitly Biblical character of the Authority to avoid offending viewers. Weitz declared that he would not do the same for the planned sequels. "Whereas The Golden Compass had to be introduced to the public carefully", he said, "the religious themes in the second and third books can't be minimised without destroying the spirit of these books. ...I will not be involved with any 'watering down' of books two and three, since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be able to deliver on the second and third". In May 2006, Pullman said of a version of the script that "all the important scenes are there and will have their full value"; in March 2008, he said of the finished film that "a lot of things about it were good.... Nothing can bring out all that's in the book. There are always compromises".
The Golden Compass film stars Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, and Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel. Eva Green plays Serafina Pekkala, Ian McKellen voices Iorek Byrnison, and Freddie Highmore voices Pantalaimon.
No sequels are planned. Compass actor Sam Elliott blamed the Catholic Church's opposition for forcing their cancellation, but UK Guardian film critic Stuart Heritage thought that critical "disappointment" with the first film may have been the real reason.
In November 2015, the BBC announced that it had commissioned a television adaptation of His Dark Materials, to be produced by Bad Wolf and New Line Cinema. The eight-part adaptation had a planned premiere date in 2017, however in April 2017, writer Jack Thorne said to the RadioTimes that the series was still in pre-production. He said, “It’s at an exciting point where we’re just throwing things at the page and trying to work out what works and what doesn’t,” and that he wanted to ensure that they were being loyal to the books.
There are unabridged audiobooks of each His Dark Materials novel, read by Pullman, with parts read by actors including Jo Wyatt, Steven Webb, Peter England, Stephen Thorne and Douglas Blackwell.