It is difficult to talk about this first novel of Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS series without the context of the future entries in the series. This is largely by design, as the series is designed to flower into something stranger and loftier than the initial scope and style suggested by the first novel. NORTHERN LIGHTS is nearly entirely concentrated on the perspective of the twelve-year old girl Lyra, following her adventures in a fantasy world not too dissimilar from our own, but populated with witches, intelligent warrior bears, animal familiars for every human, and so on.
This sort of scope can be appreciated more when considered in the larger context of the series, where it’s more clearly a considered reflection of childhood moving through puberty, whereas on its own it seems more simply just a pleasant, well-written children’s fantasy novel. Even then, what perhaps works best in the novel is something the cinematic and television adaptations have utterly failed at preserving, and that is the pace of information being shared. To keep the audience singularly in Lyra’s mindset, there are no unwieldy dumps of information at the start of the novel. Lyra – and thus the reader – proceed with incomplete, obfuscated understandings of the worldbuilding at play. Much of the joy and propulsion of the experience is found in forging ahead, hoping for clarifications or further reveals. And the wider themes of the series are still set up in the novel. This is perhaps first seen in a section where Lyra and her friend Roger get drunk off of stolen wine.
…with a question growing more urgent in Lyra’s mind every moment: what did the wine taste like?
There was an easy way of answering that. Lyra—over Roger’s fervent protests—picked out the oldest, twistiest, greenest bottle she could find, and, not having anything to extract the cork with, broke it off at the neck. Huddled in the furthest corner, they sipped at the heady crimson liquor, wondering when they’d become drunk, and how they’d tell when they were. Lyra didn’t like the taste much, but she had to admit how grand and complicated it was. The funniest thing was watching their two dæmons, who seemed to be getting more and more muddled: falling over, giggling senselessly, and changing shape to look like gargoyles, each trying to be uglier than the other.
Finally, and almost simultaneously, the children discovered what it was like to be drunk.
“Do they like doing this?” gasped Roger, after vomiting copiously.
“Yes,” said Lyra, in the same condition. “And so do I,” she added stubbornly.
The lines between childhood and adulthood are never stressed with too much emphasis, let alone in a didactic way, but they are presented in such a way that the later books boring down further on this concept feels natural.
Then a bath, with thick scented foam. Mrs. Coulter came into the bathroom to wash Lyra’s hair, and she didn’t rub and scrape like Mrs. Lonsdale either. She was gentle. Pantalaimon watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs. Coulter looked at him, and he knew what she meant and turned away, averting his eyes modestly from these feminine mysteries as the golden monkey was doing. He had never had to look away from Lyra before.
Puberty and individual development aside, the distinctions between childhood and adulthood tend to come out more in the ways adults patronise Lyra, try to gaslight and manipulate her, and the ways she tries to outwit adults with her limited perspective. Much of this can be read as paralleling the relationship between the citizenry and organised religion, but that’s not pressed in this first novel.
“Good, good. Well, Lizzie, you’re a lucky little girl. Those huntsmen who found you brought you to the best place you could be.”
“They never found me,” she said doubtfully. “There was a fight. There was lots of ’em and they had arrows.…”
“Oh, I don’t think so. I think you must have wandered away from your father’s party and got lost. Those huntsmen found you on your own and brought you straight here. That’s what happened, Lizzie.”
“I saw a fight,” she said. “They was shooting arrows and that.… I want my dad,” she said more loudly, and felt herself beginning to cry.
“Well, you’re quite safe here until he comes,” said the doctor.
“But I saw them shooting arrows!”
“Ah, you thought you did. That often happens in the intense cold, Lizzie. You fall asleep and have bad dreams and you can’t remember what’s true and what isn’t. That wasn’t a fight, don’t worry…”
The inability of (some, at least) adults to understand children is often emphasised.
They waited to be counted off. If anyone in the Oblation Board had had anything to do with a school, they would have arranged this better; because they had no regular group to go to, each child had to be ticked off against the complete list, and of course they weren’t in alphabetical order; and none of the adults was used to keeping control. So there was a good deal of confusion, despite the fact that no one was running around anymore.
And adults underestimating the perceptiveness or even baseline intelligence of children often proves cause for conflict.
“Lyra … Lyra, Lyra. Darling, these are big difficult ideas, Dust and so on. It’s not something for children to worry about. But the doctors do it for the children’s own good, my love. Dust is something bad, something wrong, something evil and wicked. Grownups and their dæmons are infected with Dust so deeply that it’s too late for them. They can’t be helped.… But a quick operation on children means they’re safe from it. Dust just won’t stick to them ever again. They’re safe and happy and—”
Lyra thought of little Tony Makarios. She leaned forward suddenly and retched. Mrs. Coulter moved back and let go.
Lyra’s recognition of these misperceptions and lapses in judgment is perhaps her most heroic quality, enabling her to manipulate adults back in turn.
“That’s why I love you best,” she said to Iofur Raknison, “because you’re passionate and strong as well as clever. And I just had to leave him and come and tell you, because I don’t want him ruling the bears. It ought to be you. And there is a way of taking me away from him and making me your dæmon, but you wouldn’t know what it was unless I told you, and you might do the usual thing about fighting bears like him that’ve been outcast; I mean, not fight him properly, but kill him with fire hurlers or something. And if you did that, I’d just go out like a light and die with him.”
The tangible focal points of much of these concerns is ‘Dust’, a substance of dubious nature and intent, onto which much is projected, and ‘dæmons’, animal familiars bonded with each human, that morph shape and animal when the human is prepubescent, but settle into a fixed form during puberty. Pullman uses both these fantasy ideas, and the in-universe lack of understanding of either of them, to explore the frictions between childhood and adulthood, and how institutions manipulate (putting it charitably) and exploit that.
“God had told them not to eat the fruit, because they would die. Remember, they were naked in the garden, they were like children, their dæmons took on any form they desired. But this is what happened.”
“Darling, no one would ever dream of performing an operation on a child without testing it first. And no one in a thousand years would take a child’s dæmon away altogether! All that happens is a little cut, and then everything’s peaceful. Forever! You see, your dæmon’s a wonderful friend and companion when you’re young, but at the age we call puberty, the age you’re coming to very soon, darling, dæmons bring all sort of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in. A quick little operation before that, and you’re never troubled again. And your dæmon stays with you, only … just not connected. Like a … like a wonderful pet, if you like. The best pet in the world! Wouldn’t you like that?”
“There was a precedent. Something like it had happened before. Do you know what the word castration means? It means removing the sexual organs of a boy so that he never develops the characteristics of a man. A castrato keeps his high treble voice all his life, which is why the Church allowed it: so useful in Church music. Some castrati became great singers, wonderful artists. Many just became fat spoiled half-men. Some died from the effects of the operation. But the Church wouldn’t flinch at the idea of a little cut, you see. There was a precedent. And this would be so much more hygienic than the old methods, when they didn’t have anesthetics or sterile bandages or proper nursing care. It would be gentle by comparison.”
While the more classical trope-ridden fantasy nature of the book works well with the essential idea of doing a more childish story before evolving the series as Lyra grows up, this rankles most when it comes to prophecies and destiny and other things that don’t meld well with the focus on determination and free will. The idea seems to be that fulfilling one’s destiny without knowledge that it’s destiny (therefore still operating under free will but satisfying both sides of the coin) is some kind of clever concept worth stressing at length, but the unambiguity of its closed loophole nature do little else but suck agency out of the chief Lyra story, and what little dramatic irony it adds was implied by the scope of the trilogy in the first place.
“The witches have talked about this child for centuries past,” said the consul. “Because they live so close to the place where the veil between the worlds is thin, they hear immortal whispers from time to time, in the voices of those beings who pass between the worlds. And they have spoken of a child such as this, who has a great destiny that can only be fulfilled elsewhere—not in this world, but far beyond. Without this child, we shall all die. So the witches say. But she must fulfill this destiny in ignorance of what she is doing, because only in her ignorance can we be saved. Do you understand that, Farder Coram?”
“No,” said Farder Coram, “I’m unable to say that I do.”
“What it means is that she must be free to make mistakes. We must hope that she does not, but we can’t guide her. I am glad to have seen this child before I die.”
“You speak of destiny,” he said, “as if it was fixed. And I ain’t sure I like that any more than a war I’m enlisted in without knowing about it. Where’s my free will, if you please? And this child seems to me to have more free will than anyone I ever met. Are you telling me that she’s just some kind of clockwork toy wound up and set going on a course she can’t change?”
“We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not,” said the witch, “or die of despair. There is a curious prophecy about this child: she is destined to bring about the end of destiny. But she must do so without knowing what she is doing, as if it were her nature and not her destiny to do it. If she’s told what she must do, it will all fail; death will sweep through all the worlds; it will be the triumph of despair, forever. The universes will all become nothing more than interlocking machines, blind and empty of thought, feeling, life …”
In a rare stylistic lapse, the novel even speaks oddly omnisciently, injecting some dramatic irony of dubious worth.
She would have listened eagerly now to anyone who could tell her about Dust. She was to hear a great deal more about it in the months to come, and eventually she would know more about Dust than anyone in the world; but in the meantime, there was all the rich life of Jordan still being lived around her.
More interesting than the ‘satisfying destiny by not knowing one’s fulfilling it’ concept is the idea of mindfulness Lyra’s friend Roger follows.
“D’you want me to ask the symbol reader about it?” Lyra said.
“Well, I dunno. There’s things I’d rather not know. Seems to me everything I heard of since the Gobblers come to Oxford, everything’s been bad. There en’t been nothing good more than about five minutes ahead. Like I can see now, this bath’s nice, and there’s a nice warm towel there, about five minutes away. And once I’m dry, maybe I’ll think of summing nice to eat, but no further ahead than that. And when I’ve eaten, maybe I’ll look forward to a kip in a comfortable bed. But after that, I dunno, Lyra. There’s been terrible things we seen, en’t there? And more a coming, more’n likely. So I think I’d rather not know what’s in the future. I’ll stick to the present.”
When the book begins to clarify the religious focus of the series towards the end, it’s interesting to observe Lyra’s ‘uncle’ (father in actuality, a fact revealed unceremoniously in an oddly dramatically inert sequence early on) perceives exisetntial and religious conundrums in a way that could very much be described as childish.
“Somewhere out there is the origin of all the Dust, all the death, the sin, the misery, the destructiveness in the world. Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it, Lyra. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it. Death is going to die.”
Lyra’s father, Asriel, provides a welcome rejection to some of the sentimentality of the novel, exemplifying the kind of grim truths and attitudes Lyra finds herself up against as she interacts more with adults.
“Fathers are supposed to love their daughters, en’t they? You don’t love me, and I don’t love you, and that’s a fact. I love Farder Coram, and I love Iorek Byrnison; I love an armored bear more’n I love my father. And I bet Iorek Byrnison loves me more’n you do.”
“You told me yourself he’s only following John Faa’s orders. If you’re going to be sentimental, I shan’t waste time talking to you.”
The novel is more impressive when considered as something of an exercise in scale, even a feint, in the larger series it’s a part of. But even considered by itself, it’s still an engaging, zippy children’s fantasy novel. Three and a half photograms, and a panserbjørne.