Guide to Lyra’s worlds

Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting "Aurora Borealis": Wikipedia Commons
Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

Laurie Frost
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide
Scholastic 2007 (2006)

Pullman’s wonderful trio of novels inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost appeared around the same time as the Harry Potter books, but Pottermanes looking for more of the same were in the main disappointed. The feisty heroine Lyra, her universe of externalised souls called daemons, armoured polar bears and a mysterious phenomenon called Dust, not to mention criticism of an organised religious institution, confused and even angered many. Sadly, the controversies often disguised Pullman’s accomplishments in world-building, complex plotting and character creation, all of which have contributed towards a work already acclaimed as a classic and which, true to its universal appeal, appeared in both adult and young adult editions. All that was needed was an Ariadne to take the reader through the labyrinthine ways of the multi-layered fantasy, as Martin Gardner did in The Annotated Alice.

Containing all you ever wanted to know about His Dark Materials, catalogued in encyclopaedic detail by superfan Laurie Frost, this hefty guide is teeming with maps, photos and drawings which enliven the text. As well as commentary on the books there are quotes from Pullman, discussion on dramatisations on stage, radio and the big screen and much more besides. Dr Frost (disingenuously, she sees her personal daemon as a sloth) adds references and suggestions for further reading, and includes a comprehensive index.

Particularly valuable are the equivalents in our world of the places, history, peoples and things of Lyra’s worlds, as detailed in Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. At well over five hundred pages in a large format paperback this reference book must surely satisfy the legions of readers who found much puzzling or obscure in the trilogy or who need reminding what drew them to His Dark Materials in the first place. Missing are discussions of Lyra’s World and Once Upon a Time in the North, both published after The Elements of His Dark Materials first appeared in 2006, with a special edition produced as The Definitive Guide by Waterstone’s bookshops in the UK a year later; and of course the long-awaited but yet to be completed The Book of Dust gets only passing mentions.

Pullman himself finds this a reference boon, so there can be no better imprimatur:

This is a phenomenal piece of work, in which every character, place, theme, and reference in the trilogy is listed and explained in full detail with marvellous accuracy and clarity. The author’s skill and knowledge is extraordinary … I can’t recommend it too highly. If I had had this book when I was writing the trilogy, it would have been so much easier.


7 thoughts on “Guide to Lyra’s worlds

  1. Ah – so The Book of Dust *is* coming, is it? Pullman told my husband of this several years ago and we’d assumed he’d given up on it. He’s certainly taken a few segues in his time off from Lyra, hasn’t he? (The Good Man Jesus and Grimm Tales.)

    1. According to Wikipedia, in December 2012 he was quoted as saying that he had cleared “the whole of next year and most of the year after” to write the book. But looking at the history of his claims over the last decade, we mustn’t hold our breath.

      1. On his website Pullman writes “My work on this has been interrupted over the past couple of years, but the book is growing slowly and before long I shall take it up again full-time. What can I tell you about [The Book of Dust]? Nothing, except that it’s by far the most important thing I’m doing, and I intend to do it as well as I possibly can. When it’s finished, you’ll hear about it, I guarantee.”

  2. This is just what I need to send me back to the trilogy. I started rereading it about 3 years ago and got bogged down in The Subtle Knife. BTW, have you noticed the similar plots in Northern Lights (1995) & Is Underground (1992)?

    1. If you mean the kidnapping of children and the involvement of a strong female lead, no I hadn’t but it is intriguing. I’ve been promising myself another read of the trilogy too, but first I have all the Dido Twite books to re-acquaint myself with!

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