DD20 – Northern Lights
We’re at the beginning of Part One, headed ‘Oxford’. The first chapter is ‘The Decanter of Tokay’. “Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the Kitchen.” What? We must be in an Oxford college (capitalised Hall and Kitchen). But what’s a dæmon? Still in the first paragraph, we’ve gone past the three long great tables and are up on the dais, where the places are laid with gold (not silver!), and the “fourteen seats were not oak benches but mahogany chairs with velvet cushions”. Lyra flicks one of the biggest glasses, gently, and the sound rings through the Hall. “‘You’re not taking this seriously,’ whispered her dæmon. ‘Behave yourself.’ Her dæmon’s name was Pantalaimon, and he was currently in the form of a moth, a dark brown one so as not to show up in the darkness of Hall.” Whoa!
I hope you have read Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass (you might know Northern Lights by another title, The Golden Compass, which was also the title of the film based on that book). If so, can you remember the first time you read it? The thrill of being tossed into a story without any explanations or guidelines. I came to Philip Pullman as an adult, but it might have been even more thrilling to have first confronted Northern Lights as a teenager. That Philip Pullman was sneaky. This wasn’t going to be one of those books you could race through: every word counted, every sentence mattered. You were being entranced by Lyra, Lyra’s world, and events happening so fast it was almost impossible to keep up. No concessions, you had to make sense of what you were reading as the story developed, only to discover that some mysteries remained many chapters later, some even volumes later. All you needed was time, time to read while immersed in that extraordinary world, free from interruptions, free from the others around you.
Perhaps I should take a step back, especially if (gasp!), you haven’t read the series. I suppose I had better put my cards on the table. Of all the books I love, His Dark Materials has to be in the top five (don’t ask me what the others are, because right now, I can’t think of them!). Centred around Lyra Belaqua, the action starts in a fictional version of Oxford, and eventually takes us to other worlds. In an earlier blog on The Owl Service, I quoted Philip Pullman observation “the Owl Service is set in our world, the “real” world as we call it. The fantastical elements irrupt into everyday life: the realistic settings and characters experience and are altered by their encounters with the mythical and the other-worldly. This way of writing a story is sometimes known as “low fantasy”, in contrast to the “high fantasy” of the Tolkien sort, where everything is made up. I think it is a useful distinction, and vastly prefer the low to the high”. His Dark Materials in low fantasy at its very best, and, like The Owl Service, this series of books is for all ages, except the very young.
This version of Oxford has all the trappings of a university, at a time which seems rather like the early 20th Century. Indeed, the timing of the story is clarified in the first chapter, which centres around a glass of Tokay, the 1898, to which Lord Asriel is rather partial. Asriel is Lyra’s uncle and hiding in the Retiring Room she witnesses the Master of Jordan College pouring poison into the decanter of Tokay that Asriel had asked to be set aside for his arrival. From inside a wardrobe, Lyra watches and when Asriel is alone, she sees him pour out a glass of Tokay. Lyra leaps from her hiding place, knocks over the glass, and tells her uncle what she’s seen. Others are approaching the room, so she has to go back to her hiding place and listens to the post-dinner conversation between a number of senior members of the college.
After some general discussion, Asriel shows some ‘photograms’, and one, using a special silver nitrate emulsion, has an image of glowing waterfall of particles: ‘Dust’. Like Lyra, we’re peering through a crack in the wardrobe door. Like Lyra, we’re totally hooked! If a reader were hard-hearted enough not to be intrigued at this point, with a few more pages we are aware trepanning has been taking place up in the Arctic, that someone up there wants a dæmon to study, and that Asriel is about to leave for another trip there. Lyra tries to be included, but even an uncle wouldn’t take a cheeky urchin on a scientific expedition. However, the Master of Jordan knows that she will be playing a key role in what is going to happen in the north, events which will involve various other worlds, and events in which Lyra will be a ‘betrayer’. This knowledge involves something called an alethiometer.
If this is low fantasy, it is compelling low fantasy. Here are the features of a world which appears familiar in many ways, but where there are a whole raft of strange phenomena and objects: people with dæmons, something called dust which is only observed with special photographic film, and this device called an alethiometer which can answer questions. Even these few examples make something else clear: His Dark Materials presented a challenge to make into cinema, a challenge that was bound to attract some directors!
In fact, there have been two versions. The first, The Golden Compass, came out in 2007, a New Line Production, directed by Chris Weitz with a star-studded cast, including Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, and several others. The cast was excellent, as were the film settings, but somehow it didn’t work as well we might have hoped. Projected to be the first of three films (a second and third to cover the remaining volumes of His Dark Materials), the others never appeared, rumoured to be a function of the cost involved (The Golden Compass had a production budget of $US180m), or a fall out with one of the sponsors. Between 20129 and 2023 an HBO/BBC serialisation was broadcast, also involving New Line. I haven’t seen that version (its only on HBO in Australia), but it appears to have received good reviews. The production lists more than 30 main characters in the cast, a fair indication of the complexity and scope of the books!
The title of the three-book series comes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost:
Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 910–920
Philip Pullman explained that he chose this particular phrase from Milton because it echoed the ‘dark matter’ of astrophysics. He’d originally planned to name the series The Golden Compasses, also a reference to Paradise Lost, and perhaps a reference to the alethiometer as this was a truth-telling device (another kind of compass?):
Then staid the fervid wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God’s eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centred, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure…
Paradise Lost, Book 7, lines 224–229
I don’t know how to write about His Dark Materials. Northern Lights is open next to me. I start looking at a section, and then any attempt to identify a theme for a blog starts to waver: wouldn’t it be a better use of my time to read. Those three volumes are tempting me. Read them again? Of course. But I’ve read them before, several times. Yes, so what? I’m looking at page 38, and we’ve just finished the time when Lyra was hiding listening to the discussion in the Retiring Room, and her subsequent brief conversation with Lord Asriel, who explains that, despite her wishes, Lyra can’t accompany him on his expedition north.
There’s a clever bridge at this point. Lyra leaves the Retiring Room. “So Lyra’s life had been, before the day when she decided to hide in the Retiring Room, and first heard about Dust.” First heard about Dust, hmm. After Lyra and Asriel left, there was a conversation between the Librarian and the Master of Asriel, the co-conspirators who had failed with their poisoning attempt. The quote above continues, “And of course the Librarian was wrong in saying she wouldn’t have been interested. 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.” Talk about whetting the reader’s appetite.
On to page 39, the scene changes, and we are drawn into a local drama. Children are disappearing. We are in Limehouse, a London suburb, where Tony Makarios, a mischievous nine-year old, is being watched from the steps of a church. His watcher is a lady “in a long yellow-re fox-fur coat, a beautiful young lady” holding a jewelled breviary, her dæmon an unusual monkey, with golden, long and silky hair. Enticed by the offer of ‘chocolatl’, Tony follows the lady down to warehouse. In he goes, the door closes and “Tony will never come out – at least by that entrance; and he’ll never see his mother again. She, poor drunken thing, will think he’s run away, and when she remembers him, she’ll think it was her fault, and sob her sorry heart out”. The style is compelling. Philip Pullman doesn’t pull any punches, but rather tells events with stark brevity, and leaves a variety of possible consequences unsaid but suggested.
Confession time: I started reading again, and it was several pages later I remembered I was writing a blog, not reading Northern Lights. I’d arrived at the point where Lyra hears about children disappearing, and the belief they were being taken by ‘gobblers’. Ma Costa, a ‘queen among the gyptians’, boat traders whose life was led along the canals of the country, leads the search. Back in Oxford, Lyra discovers that her friend, Roger, has disappeared. He must have been taken by the gobblers, to what end she had no idea (but imagined they were cut up, cooked and eaten). Reading ahead, I’ve reached the point where Lyra meets Mrs Coulter (we know she’s the one with the golden silky monkey dæmon, but Lyra doesn’t).
Events are moving fast, and Lyra discovers she is to leave Jordan to become an assistant to Mrs Coulter. It is at this point that, in secret, the Master gives Lyra an alethiometer, one of only six in existence. She is to tell no-one she has this, which she guesses has come from Lord Asriel. The Master tells her she will have to work out how to use it by herself. Even if you’ve read Northern Lights before, at this point it is hard not to get excited. What next?
There is something compelling about ‘low fantasy’. What was it Philip Pullman said writing about The Owl Service, that it was “set in our world, the “real” world as we call it. The fantastical elements irrupt into everyday life: the realistic settings and characters experience and are altered by their encounters with the mythical and the other-worldly. This way of writing a story is sometimes known as low fantasy”. Pullman is a master of low fantasy. Every element of His Dark Materials is set in a world that is almost our world, but the little differences are tantalising, sometimes rather frightening, and sometimes incomprehensible. Do gobblers exist? What is this strange thing called an alethiometer, and what can it do? As for daemons, well, that’s easy: I want one, too!
One of my usual, and completely redundant, comments when I am talking about a book is that “you should read it’. Well, clearly you should, as obviously that had to be one of major reasons that had led me to decide to write about it. In those terms, you should read His Dark Materials (or reread it) because it is an outstanding adventure novel. It might require a bit more careful reading than some books, it might use some challenging words and expressions, but it has pace, drama, and – as is always the case with the best stories – you just have to know how things will work out.
It’s more than that, however. I don’t know what it is like for you, but some books envelop me when I read them. What is described on the pages absorbs me. I don’t mean that I am part of the action, but rather, the story blots out anything else around me. I can see and feel Jordan College, the Retiring Room, the gyptians. Philip Pullman has taken me into another world and for the next few hours I will live there, entertained, scared, questioning, surprised and entranced. Northern Lights is packed with extraordinary moments, scenes of drama and scenes of love. If you’ve read it before, you’ll recognise this one, brief, final example.
Lyra has found a boy who has been separated from his daemon, and with the help of a massive bear, Iorek, brings him to join the group that is travelling north through a freezing land. It’s Tony Makarios, that mischievous urchin Mrs Coulter had stolen earlier in the novel. Lyra doesn’t realise that Tony won’t survive without his daemon and falls asleep exhausted from her rescue trip with Iorek. The next morning, Tony has died. In a scene where Lyra slips from passionate anger into a desire to show proper respect, she has an idea. She takes a gold coin from her purse and borrows a knife to scratch the name of Tony’s daemon on the coin.
“‘I hope that’ll do, if I provide for you like a Jordan scholar,’ she whispered to the dead boy, and forced his teeth apart to slip the coin into his mouth. It was hard, but she managed it, and managed to close his jaw again.”
Just three lines in a 360-page book and yet, like so much of this work, utterly memorable. I’m still emotional, reading it yet again.
Pullman is an outstanding novelist. Some of us are waiting, anxiously, for the third book in a new trilogy about Lyra and the world of His Dark Materials. The first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, was published in 2017, and is titled La Belle Sauvage. The second, The Secret Commonwealth, appeared in 2019. I hope this won’t be like the Patrick Rothfuss trilogy, The Kingkiller Chronicles. The second book in that series was published in 2011, The Wise Man’s Fear, and we are still waiting for the third, The Doors of Stone (with a short in-between, The Narrow Road of Desires supposedly coming out later this yar). Please, Philip Pullman, one Patrick Rothfuss is enough! While I’m waiting, I guess I’d better reread His Dark Materials once more: writing about it has made me hungry for the real thing!