Guide to Lyra’s worlds

Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting
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 of 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 this 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.


* Review first published 2nd September 2013, reposted to coincide with the publication of The Secret Commonwealth, the second of Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy which follows on from His Dark Materials. The first volume — La Belle Savage — was reviewed here.

15 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.)

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    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.

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      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.”

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  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)?

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    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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    1. Pullman is one of those authors — like Alan Garner and others — who say they don’t really write for a particular age group, stating (correctly, I believe) that readers will take what they may from a novel, according to their maturity. This, I think, is why books we reread later in life often appear quite different to that which we remember.

      Just because a novel has a young protagonist or two doesn’t mean it’s exclusively intended for readers of a similar age, and I think that’s why some adults get confused, even scandalised. Pullman included a four-letter word in La Belle Sauvage but to be honest children hear similar and worse in playgrounds every day.

      A plague on rigid reading categories, Mallika, that’s what I say! All these online reviews that insist that such-and-such a title is suitable — nay, intended only — for middle-grade readers do us all a disservice. There’s a balance to be struck between over-protection and desirable risk-taking.

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      1. True- usually it’s the sales/marketing sections I think that insist on labeling books/categorising them… But you’re right these are among the books with which one would have different reading experiences at different ages. Though one can’t compare them, the Wind in the Willows is one such which I found I appreciated so much better (and differently) as an adult, especially the beautiful writing/descriptions in some chapters.

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        1. Absolutely agree with your comment on marketing, and also on The Wind in the Willows — experience, along with a historical perspective, so often allows us to appreciate those bits we either just skated over or didn’t understand.

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    1. Pullman is really Marmite to readers: impossible to sit on the fence over this extended fantasy. Not having read The Secret Commonwealth yet — obviously, as it’s only been published today! — I can’t confirm whether it would be a good place to start or not. You may just have to take the plunge and start/restart at the beginning.

      Alternatively, maybe SA will be broadcasting the BBC TV serial sometime soon (the film version was okay but rather tepid, I thought) and that could possibly whet your appetite, Leslie — assuming it’s any good.

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  3. Alyson Woodhouse

    I actually think His Dark Materials has risen in popularity over the years, and has quite a wide audience among adult readers. I discovered it myself around 20 years ago at the same time I began to read Harry Potter. It is interesting these two fantacy series are kind of lumped together or compared, because they are both completely different. I must admit, I find Pullman’s agenda gets in the way a bit in the Amber Spyglass, and I think Lyra hovers around the edges of the Strong Female Character type, (one of my pet hate tropes.) She does however have enough confusion, vulnerability and faces difficulties which prevent her from completely falling into that catigory, and is a more complex character over all than Hermione Granger of Harry Potter, whom I find rather overrated.

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    1. Maybe it’s the case that, as with Harry Potter, the initial readership grows in age with the publishing timeline — pre-teens getting older as Harry’s story gradually unfolded, Lyra’s youthful fans now similar in age with the Lyra of The Secret Commonwealth.

      That said, the two book series don’t really much compare, it’s true. But then I think it’s horses for courses. HP is about finding love by giving love (his parents, Sirius, Dumbledore, his friends, and so on) while Lyra is about — what? Becoming mature while at the same time losing one’s innocence? Discovering that power and control over others corrupts absolutely? As you say, Pullman’s agenda can be a stumbling block, even if one can accept much of it as having validity.

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