Philip Pullman: Northern Lights
Illustrations by Philip Pullman, cover alethiometer illustration by David Scutt
His Dark Materials: Book One
Alethiometer edition, with additional text by the author
Scholastic Press 2007 (1995)
It wasn’t Lyra’s way to brood; she was a sanguine and practical child, and besides, she wasn’t imaginative. No one with much imagination would have thought seriously that it was possible to come all this way and rescue her friend Roger; or, having thought it, an imaginative child would immediately have come up with several ways in which it was impossible. Being a practised liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.
Northern Lights is the first, and in some ways the best, of Pullman’s imaginative and innovative His Dark Materials trilogy. Crammed full of ideas and yet never tripped up by them, this starts in lively fashion with a mystery and a murder attempt, then turns into a rollercoaster ride that gets more and more intense, eventually ending with the enigmatic words “and walked into the sky”. Pullman’s skill is that even a sceptical reader can accept cliff-ghasts, speaking polar bears and a sky full of witches at the same time as scientific terms such as elementary particles and technology such as gas balloons.
In fact, the world that’s described sounds so often like something out of a Victorian steampunk vision that it’s often hard to recall that this is also a world with modern concrete structures and even atomic power stations. It is, in fact, a little like the world the author was himself brought up in: born in 1946, Pullman grew up in a postwar England struggling with rationing (which only ended in 1954), a drear world which saw smog frequently devastate London (until the 1956 Clean Air Act began to tackle it, in the same year as the first civil nuclear power station become operational) and during which a paternalistic Conservative government were to be in power for some thirteen of the nineteen years after peace had been declared.
It is into a world like this, then, that we become aware of Lyra Belacqua, a “healthy, thoughtless child” (according to some Oxford scholars), a girl who unbeknown to herself is destined to initiate great and permanent change. The first indication that this is not our world is the mention of her daemon, Pantalaimon, an alter ego who appears in animal form and speaks.
Lyra has the run of Oxford’s Jordan College — the equivalent of our Exeter College — when she witnesses her fierce uncle Lord Asriel’s drink being poisoned. In safeguarding him she also secretly learns of the existence of Dust, an elementary particle which doesn’t react in any way like the other subatomic particles do. As we later listen in to a private conversation between the Master of Jordan and the Librarian about Asriel’s revelations about the Aurora and Dust we discover more about Lyra:
Lyra has a part to play in all this, and a major one. The irony is that she must do it all without realizing what she’s doing.
That part will involve Lyra travelling, from Oxford to London, thence to the Norfolk Broads (near where Pullman first grew up), then north up to the tip of Norway and on to the archipelago of Svalbard. She will meet agents of the General Oblation Board, gyptians, panserbjørne, Finnish witches and the alluring yet duplicitous Mrs Coulter. And all will be done without Lyra’s awareness of a prophecy concerning herself because, as we all know, knowing one’s destiny is a dangerous thing, and irreversibly affects the predicted outcome in ways unintended.
There are echoes — unacknowledged as far as I know — of Frankenstein in these pages. The journey towards the North Pole in the frame story of one and towards the Aurora Borealis in the other are partnered by the mysteries of life in both, whether creating new life from base matter in Mary Shelley’s work or attempting to subvert life by the General Oblation Board in Pullman’s. The parallels are not exact but the resonances are there nevertheless.
Northern Lights is one of those novels which it is impossible to give more than an incomplete indication of in a short review. Lyra herself is the most engaging of eleven-year-olds, a wild child and an accomplished liar in this alternative world. That gift of the gab (as her name Lyra might suggest) stands her in good stead throughout the novel, earning her the epithet ‘Silvertongue’—and of course it is the gift that all good novelists wish for, for themselves. Is she “thoughtless” as is suggested? If that means careless of others that proves untrue. Is she a tabula rasa on which others write a new script? Hardly. More like someone without prejudices, open to ideas, above all alive to possibilities.
Among the many other threads that weave through Northern Lights (famously Blakean imagery and Miltonian epic) I want to pick out two. One is the nature of authority: earning respect as an authority is not the same as gaining it as a result of inducing fear (a theme which Pullman is to follow into La Belle Sauvage) and it’s the latter course that the Church, in the form of the Consistorial Court, pursues. (Those who assume the easy argument that Pullman is merely being anti-ecclesiastical miss the point, for he is against all abuse of power.) And it’s not just organisations, for it emerges that abuse of power is exercised by those individuals to whom Lyra is indebted for her very existence.
The second thread is related to the first: the nature of childhood. One of the reasons why Northern Lights is such a thoughtful and powerful novel is that it shines a light on what it is to be a child and be exploited by the very adults that should be nurturing and safeguarding you. There are those who see their responsibility to youngsters as moulding and shaping them to be docile and obedient, all too often according to irrational dogmas. No good children’s novel is value-free of course (as even a little reflection will establish) and Pullman’s fiction is rightly and fiercely polemical: the General Oblation Board, Mrs Coulter, Lord Asriel and others want to use children for dubious purposes, and that essentially is to deny them their inner life.
But a novel with a moral and nothing else is a poor thing, and Northern Lights is anything but poor. As a narrative it propels the reader forward; as an alternative world it mixes the unfamiliar with the familiar; as a drama it fairly bristles with distinctive characters. If you haven’t yet read it you don’t know what you’re missing.
This ‘Alethiometer edition’ comes with a dust cover that opens up as a poster to reveal a design for the ‘marvellous artefact’ that, unlike a compass needle that points only to north, instead points to truth. As Pullman’s text for this edition informs us, the alethiometer (a device akin to a mechanical I Ching) is decorated with symbols around a dial, and in the hands of certain skilled or gifted individuals allows access to knowledge of what is or what is to come: it “supplies the semantic content of a message, and the mind of the inquirer supplies the grammatical connections between the individual elements.” This artefact is just one of the intriguing concepts that the author strews liberally around the story and which helps to make it so vivid.
I’ve been gradually working my way round to a reread and reviews of His Dark Materials: I began with the prequel Once Upon a Time in the North which introduced us to Lee Scorsby and Iorek Byrnison. Perhaps pride of place as a prequel (though Pullman refers to it as an ‘equel’) goes to La Belle Sauvage: Volume One of The Book of Dust which describes how Lyra came to Oxford as a baby.
I’ve also looked at two guides to these interrelated worlds and to Pullman’s work in general, Laurie Frost’s Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: the Definitive Guide (which is exactly what it says it is) and Nicholas Tucker’s Darkness Visible: Inside the World of Philip Pullman. When I’ve finished reviewing the first trilogy there’ll be the short sequel Lyra’s Oxford to explore too.