“A healthy, thoughtless child”

Aurora borealis seen from the island of Kvaløya in Norway 23.01.2011 (credit: Lars Tiede)

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.

Exeter College, Oxford [http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/oxford/exeter/index.htm

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.

Lyra’s Oxford, from the book of the same name

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.

23 thoughts on ““A healthy, thoughtless child”

  1. I loved his Dark Materials, and you give it a thorough and interesting review here, but I was really disappointed with La Belle Sauvage, just about managing to scrape through to the end. What did you think of it?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. La Belle Sauvage does what Pullman often does—confounding expectations—so that it isn’t, say, Northern Lights Mark II, as many of us thought and quite a few hoped. (My review is at https://wp.me/s2oNj1-sauvage, if you’re interested.)

      I perhaps wasn’t as disappointed as you were, but I wasn’t totally convinced by the fantastical episodes downriver. Still, if we can accept diaphonous maidens scudding about the polar skies, and talking bears, then mysterious riverside dinner parties shouldn’t really faze us too much, I suppose. And Pullman’s anger at issues like child abuse is no less fierce than in HDM, if anything more so.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Pullman’s strengths include being able to take resonances from mythic and literary themes and fashion them anew, I think, so that the magic appears as fresh as you say, Annabel. As I mention, things like Frankenstein (which I’ve again been thinking and reading about recently) feed almost unconsciously into this novel, I believe, much as Mary Shelley—whether deliberately or not—melded mythic and literary themes and personal experiences into her work. Glad you enjoyed the review!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: “A healthy, thoughtless child” — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  3. I suppose I ought to re-read these, or catch up with the later volumes. I loved the first two so much, and was hugely looking forward to Amber Spyglass, and then it was terrible, just a mess. I was so disappointed that I never read them again. It hurt to look at them and eventually I got rid of them. I don’t know that I want to reassess.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. One of my motivations for rereading the trilogy (apart from the publication of part one of The Book of Dust and the BBC series being now in post-production before broadcast, hopefully soon) was that I wanted to reassess The Amber Spyglass.

      Like you and many others I was disappointed by it—its diffuse rambling, the extended episode with Mary Malone, the feeling that I’d missed some crucial point because of the wandering plot.

      Don’t ever feel you need to reassess, Jean, but it may be that my reread of ‘Spyglass’ (if I can reach a positive conclusion in my review) might persuade you there could be merit in reconsidering your decision—or not, as the case may be!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t know, I’ll think about it…I really felt that third book was a mess and that Pullman warped the story to serve his agenda. I have rarely read such heavy-handed messaging outside a Louisa May Alcott novel. (It’s not like I wasn’t aware of his agenda; I’d read everything he’d written up to that point. I just thought he did a bad job with it.)

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  4. I initially felt the same as you and Jean about ‘Spyglass’, but a second reading left me with a better sense of what Pullman was trying to do. I definitely caught echoes of Dante. BUT I’ll need a third reading of the series before I can put my ideas into words, and before I do that, I have to reread Milton.

    And before *that* happens I have this other stack of books ….

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I too got the Dantesque feel, Lizzie, but I felt I was missing something — my fault more than Pullman’s — and knew that I’d need to reread it, which is why I hung on to my copies instead of following Jean’s course of action!

      And I too intend to tackle Milton, even got as far as getting a school text of the first two (?) books of Paradise Lost following our Watchmen collaboration, and seeing as how Frankenstein’s Creature managed to read it (in English? in translation?) why am I resisting it? Maybe it’s because, like you, I have stacks of other books to read…

      Liked by 2 people

  5. piotrek

    The first book of His Dark Materials definitely is the best! Steampunk Oxford, all the mystery and wonders only suggested here for the most part, dæmons… I loved it, and the next two were just not as good. I hope the BBC series will be good 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wonder if the series is slated for the summer or the autumn? Can’t wait! Yes, the first book is the most arresting, Piotrek, I agree; my impression is that Pullman doesn’t like to go over the same ground, each book having its own vibe, and that must disappoint (say) Rowling fans and their ilk.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Only you would know, Leslie! It may depend on whether you accept Pullman’s views on religion and politics as much as his storytelling abilities, I suppose.


  6. I really loved this book and immersing myself in its world. I don’t remember liking the second book as much, but then liking the third. I am so struck by Pullman’s imagination and creativity. All the the different characters (Iorek Byrnison, my favorite), the hot air balloon, the daemons, the Gyptians, the Magisterium…a reread one of these days!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m struck by the comments here, Laurie, how much HDM (and, now, The Book of Dust’s first volume) continues to divide opinion, with strong reactions either way. Personally I’m hoping that a reread will clarify in my mind whether this is a flawed masterpiece or a misconceived homily, an innovative fantasy or an uneven, even clumsy conception. I’m inclined to give Pullman the benefit of the doubt!


  7. I really loved the “His Dark Materials” series. So much so that my son is now reading “Northern Lights” and very much enjoying it. Once he finished his GCSEs he practically gave up on reading fiction which really shocked me, as his father and I read a lot for pleasure. So I am really glad he’s finding his way back. Thanks for the introduction to Joan Aiken by the way, Amazon delivered it earlier today and I’m already half way through. It’s excellent! I just love finding a new author to explore!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Speaking as someone who was one of those male adolescents (! and still am, in some ways!) I too went through a phase of not reading—or at least finding myself unable to settle to any style or genre that I found suited during that topsy-turvey growing phase—but look at me now! Anyway, it’s good your son has discovered HDM, and one hopes he continues with it.

      And I’m so glad you’re enjoying Aiken, it’s always a bit anxious-making when somebody takes up a recommendation because they really mightn’t love it, or at the very least think it’s ‘meh’!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s really encouraging what you say about not reading in your adolescence. I have been worried that he would miss so much if he didn’t read.

        Please never worry about book recommendations with me. While I love to hear what other people think of books as it often sparks my interest – I still only buy if I think I want to. With “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” I knew I would enjoy it as soon as Bonnie threw the hairbrush out the window and threw water on her new governess when she saw her beating her maid. I’ve always found standing up for myself quite difficult so Bonnie’s character is like a tonic to me! Thanks again!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m glad I was of help. The joy of reading when encouraged early is there for life, as is music. I learnt the piano at an early age and while there’ve been times when, apart from thumping the keys for classroom lessons, I didn’t play much for pleasure, I’ve always returned to it with as much delight as before. The same, I think, applies to reading!

          And I’m chuffed you’re enjoying TWOWC, Bonnie is a superb role model, whatever one’s age. 🙂


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