His Dark Materials

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His Dark Materials Trilogy Front Cover

His Dark Materials is a trilogy of novels by the fantasy fiction author Philip Pullman, comprising Northern Lights (released as The Golden Compass in North America), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The trilogy has also been published as a single-volume omnibus in the United Kingdom, titled simply "His Dark Materials".

The trilogy follows the coming of age of two main characters, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, as they wander through a multiverse and a backdrop of epic events. The story begins in Northern Lights with fantasy elements such as gyptians, witches, and armoured bears. As the trilogy progresses, it acquires allegorical layers of meaning, introducing a broad range of ideas from fields such as metaphysics, quantum physics, philosophy (especially religious philosophy), and Biblical symbolism.

Although the series is marketed to children, the audience includes many young adults and adult readers. Pullman has specifically denied targeting the books at any particular age group.


Plot summary

His Dark Materials Trilogy Covers

The trilogy takes place across a multiverse, moving between many alternate worlds. In Northern Lights, the story takes place in a world much like our own, though with a number of subtle differences (e.g. it seems to resemble the 19th Century, but some things are also in advance of the 20th). In The Subtle Knife, the story passes into our world (what we might define as a break into reality), and in The Amber Spyglass it crosses through an array of diverse worlds.

One defining aspect of Pullman's story is his concept of dæmons. In several universes in the trilogy's world, including that where Lyra Belacqua, the story's protagonist, is born, the human soul is manifested throughout life as an animal-shaped "dæmon" that always stays near its human counterpart. Dæmons can talk to their humans and to each other. During childhood, the dæmon can change its shape at will, but upon adolescence it settles into one form. The final form reveals the person's true nature and personality, implying that these stabilize after adolescence.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights Cover

Main article: Northern Lights

In Northern Lights (released in the United States and Canada as The Golden Compass), the heroine, Lyra Belacqua, a young girl brought up in the cloistered world of Jordan College, and her dæmon Pantalaimon — an animal-shaped manifestation of her soul — learn of the existence of Dust, a strange elementary particle believed by the Church to be evidence for Original Sin. Dust is less attracted to the innocence of children, and this gives rise to experimentation being carried out by Church-controlled scientists on kidnapped children in the icy wastelands of the far North. Lyra and her dæmon journey to save their best friend Roger Parslow and other kidnapped children from this peril, with the aid of the Armoured Bear Iorek Byrnison, John Faa and Farder Coram, leaders of the gyptians, the aëronaut Lee Scoresby, and the witch Serafina Pekkala. After success, and dealings with Armoured Bears (also known as the Panserbjørne) and Witches, Roger is killed by Lyra's own father Lord Asriel (who had pretended to be her uncle until the Gyptians informed her otherwise) in his own successful experiment to create a bridge into another world. Lyra (with her dæmon) and Lord Asriel journey on through it separately, both in search of the source of Dust, one to save it and one to (supposedly)destroy it.

The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife Cover

Main article: The Subtle Knife

In The Subtle Knife, Lyra journeys to an otherworldly city called Cittàgazze that is bereft of adults due to soul-eating creatures called Specters that target post-adolescents. Here, Lyra meets Will Parry, a twelve-year-old boy from our own world who has stumbled into this one after recently killing a man to protect his ailing mother, also on a quest to find his lost father. Will becomes the bearer of the eponymous Subtle Knife — so called because it can cut through the barriers between the worlds — and, meeting with Witches from Lyra's World, they journey on. Will finds his father, who has been hiding in Lyra's world as Stanislaus Grumman, only to watch him be killed, and Lyra is kidnapped by her mother, Mrs. Coulter, who has learned that Lyra is prophesied to be the next Eve. Will is then instructed by a pair of angels (Balthamos and Baruch) that he must travel with them to give the Subtle Knife to Lyra's father, Lord Asriel.

The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass Cover

Main article: The Amber Spyglass

In The Amber Spyglass, Will ignores the angels and, with the help of a local girl named Ama and Lord Asriel's Gallivespian spies the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia, rescues Lyra from the cave she has been hidden in, and they journey to the Land of the Dead, there to release the dead souls from their captivity imposed by the oppressive God-figure, theAuthority. Mary Malone, a scientist of our world interested in Dust, travels to a land populated by strange sentient creatures called Mulefa, and there learns of the true nature of Dust, existing as panpsychic particle of self-awareness. Lord Asriel and a reformed Mrs Coulter team up to destroy The Authority's Regent, Metatron, but are killed in the process, taking Metatron down with them. The Authority himself dies of his own frailty amongst a massive battle between the rebels and his servants. Post-climactically, Will and Lyra fall in love, marking their loss of innocence (and the settling of their dæmons), but are irrevocably separated; together, they learn of the damage openings between worlds have done. For the greater good, the Subtle Knife is destroyed and the passageways between worlds are sealed forever.


Lyra Belacqua is a wild, tomboyish 12-year-old girl who was brought up in the fictional Jordan College. She prides herself on her capacity for mischief, especially her ability to lie with "bare-faced conviction". Because of this ability, she was given the surname Silvertongue by Iorek Byrnison. Her constant companion is her dæmon Pantalaimon, who settles upon the pine marten as his final form at the series' conclusion.

Will Parry is a sensible, morally conscious, highly assertive 12-year-old boy from "Our World" who serves as the bearer of the Subtle Knife. He is very independent and responsible for his age, having looked after his mentally unstable mother for many years. He is strong for his age, and knows how to remain inconspicuous. At the end of his adventures he discovers the name and form of his dæmon, Kirjava, a cat.

Lord Asriel is the father of Lyra, although she initially knew him as her 'uncle'. He opens a rift between the worlds in his pursuit of Dust. His dream of establishing a Republic of Heaven to rival The Authority's Kingdom of Heaven leads him to use his considerable power and force of will to raise a grand army from across the multiverse to rise up in rebellion. In the end, he sacrifices himself to destroy the Regent Metatron, together with his estranged lover, Mrs. Coulter. Stelmaria the snow leopard is his dæmon.

Mrs. Coulter is the coldly beautiful, highly manipulative mother of Lyra and former lover of Lord Asriel, who serves the Church in kidnapping children for research into the nature of Dust. She has black hair, a thin build, and looks younger than she is. She later captures Lyra and secludes her away, perhaps seeking to protect her. Later in the story Mrs. Coulter switches sides regularly between the Authority and Lord Asriel's Republic of Heaven. Her maternal instincts finally win out in the end, as she uses her duplicitous core to deceive the Regent Metatron, working together with her former lover to pull him down into the abyss. Her dæmon, never named, is a golden monkey with a cruel, abusive streak. Though he often communicates with Mrs. Coulter, he is rarely heard to speak.

Mary Malone is a physicist and former nun from the same world as Will whose studies of Dust (referred to as Shadows in her world) draw her into Lyra's adventures. She lives for a time amongst the mulefa, and constructs the Amber Spyglass in an effort to discern why Dust appears to be leaving the universe. Mary relates a story of a lost love to Will and Lyra, serving as the catalyst for their coming of age and the halting of Dust's exodus. With effort, she discovers that she too has a dæmon, which, though unnamed, takes the shape of an Alpine Chough: Lucifer's form upon entering Eden in the original Paradise Lost.

Iorek Byrnison is a massive Armoured Bear who regains his armour, his dignity, and his kingship over the Panserbjørne through Lyra's help. In gratitude, he dubs her "Lyra Silvertongue". A powerful warrior and armoursmith, Iorek repairs the Subtle Knife when it shatters and goes to war against The Authority when Lyra and Will are threatened.

John Faa and Farder Coram are leaders of the community of river gyptians. When the gyptians' children are kidnapped by the Church to serve as experiments in the frozen outpost of Bolvangar, they mount a rescue expedition, bringing Lyra along. (John Faa is also the name of several historical gypsies and a romantic hero in a ballad about gypsies.)

Lee Scoresby is a rangy Texan aëronaut who pilots a balloon for Lyra and the gyptians in their expedition North; he is also a friend of Iorek Byrnison, and comes to aid Lyra in a number of her battles. His loyal dæmon Hester takes the form of a hare. He dies while fending off enemy soldiers in an effort to save Stanislaus Grumman.

Stanislaus Grumman, also known as John Parry, or Jopari. He is Will Parry's father, an explorer, and a former officer in the Navy. He leaves our world on an expedition into the far North, in which he finds one of the many trans-dimensional windows, leading to the world from which Lyra Belacqua originates. When he gets there, he becomes a shaman, and receives a ceremonial hole in his skull. Lee Scoresby gives his life to save him, and, eventually, he meets up with his son, but he is shot down by a vengeful witch who wanted to be his lover. His dæmon was an osprey.

Serafina Pekkala is the beautiful queen of a clan of Northern witches. Like all witches, her snow goose dæmon Kaisa can travel much farther apart from her than the dæmons of normal humans. She comes to the aid of Lyra and her friends on a number of occasions.

Roger Parslow is a young boy, Lyra's best friend and loyal follower at Jordan College. His death at the hands of Lord Asriel tears open a bridge between the worlds, through which Lyra and Asriel travel in a search for the origins of Dust. Guilt-stricken over Roger's death, Lyra determines to travel through the World of Dead to apologize and release him; in doing so, she and Will succeed in liberating the lost souls of the dead, allowing their essence to merge with the particles of Dust that permeate the universe. His dæmon was Salcilia, who frequently took the form of a terrier.

Influences and criticism

The three major literary influences on His Dark Materials acknowledged by Pullman himself are the essay On the Marionette Theatre (Heinrich von Kleist), the works of William Blake, and, most importantly, John Milton's Paradise Lost, from which the trilogy derives its title as well as many of its basic ideas. Pullman's stated intention was to invert Milton's story of a war between heaven and hell. In his introduction, he adapts Blake's line to quip that he (Pullman) "is of the Devil's party and does know it." The novels also draw heavily on gnostic ideas, and His Dark Materials has been a subject of controversy, especially with certain Christian groups. The verse from Paradise Lost in which the phrase "his dark materials" is used follows:

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 thir 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...

Christianity and the Church are often criticized by the characters. For example, Ruta Skadi, a minor character calling for war against the Magisterium in Lyra's world, says that "For all of [the Church's] history...it's tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can't control them, it cuts them out." (see intercision). She extends her criticism to all organized religion: "That's what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." In another passage Mary Malone, one of Pullman's main characters, states that "the Christian religion…is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all.".

Pullman has, however, also found support from other Christians, most notably Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who argues that Pullman's attacks are focused on the constraints and dangers of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself. Pullman himself has said in interviews and appearances that his argument can be extended to all religions. ("Heat and Dust" interview - Thirdway.org)

Some have called His Dark Materials the antithesis of The Chronicles of Narnia, the seven-book fantasy series by C. S. Lewis, although Pullman denies any conscious connection. This image has been reinforced by Pullman making public statements accusing Lewis of being "blatantly racist" and "monumentally disparaging of women" in his novels. ("Narnia books attacked as racist and sexist" - Guardian)

In terms of popularity, the trilogy is sometimes compared with fantasy books like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane and the Narnia books themselves.

On the other hand, critics feel that within the books the Christian God is described as a false god, and the afterlife turns out to be a terrible place where people are tormented by "harpies" (only somewhat similar to the Greek harpies); the false god drifts apart after being released near the end of the story. Moreover, some claim there is no distinction between "bad" and "good" Christian practice: nearly all the Christian characters are portrayed as bad individuals, or are portrayed in a more positive light only after they give up their previous affiliation with the Church (although there are, in fact, many 'good' Christian characters - but most of them are unimportant in the story as a whole). Cynthia Grenier, in the Catholic Culture, interprets this way: "In the world of Pullman, God Himself (the Authority) is a merciless tyrant, His Church is an instrument of oppression, and true heroism consists of overthrowing both." ("Philip Pullman's Dark Materials" Catholic Culture)


The Amber Spyglass won the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year award, a prestigious British literature award. This is the first time that such an award has been bestowed on a book from their "children's literature" category.

The first volume, Northern Lights, won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995.

On May 19, 2005, Pullman was invited to the British Library in London to be formally congratulated for his work by culture secretary Tessa Jowell "on behalf of the government"; he is to receive the Swedish government's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children's and youth literature. The prize, second only to the Nobel Prize in Literature, is worth £385,000.

The trilogy came third in the 2003 BBC's Big Read, a national poll of viewers' favourite books, after Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. It was the only book in the top five not to have a screen adaptation at that time, and apart from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by far the highest ranking entry written in the last twenty-five years.


His Dark Materials has been made into a radio drama on BBC Radio 4 starring Terence Stamp as Lord Asriel and Lulu Popplewell as Lyra. The play was broadcast in 2003 and is now published by the BBC on CD and cassette. In the same year, a radio drama of Northern Lights was made by RTÉ (Irish public radio).

A theatrical version of the books was directed by Nicholas Hytner as a two-part, six-hour performance for London's Royal National Theatre in December 2003, running until March 2004. It starred Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra, Dominic Cooper as Will, Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel and Patricia Hodge as Mrs Coulter with dæmon puppets designed by Michael Curry. The play was enormously successful and was revived (with a different cast) for a second run between November 2004 and April 2005.

A film adaptation, titled His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, was released on December 7, 2007 by New Line Cinema, the company behind the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. The film was released under the title of Northern Lights in the UK. The film was directed by Chris Weitz who also acted as screenwriter. Weitz felt himself unable to deal with the "technical challenges" of the film, and so was replaced for a time by Anand Tucker, but Tucker ultimately left the project due to creative differences. Prior to his departure from the project Weitz suggested that its film treatment might minimize the explicitly religious character of The Authority so as to avoid offending some viewers, and sparked a fan backlash that some believe was the real reason for Weitz's leaving. Pullman has now stated that "All the important scenes are there and will have their full value."

Filming began on September 4, 2006.


Esoteric Renaming

To enhance the feeling of being in a parallel universe, Pullman renames various common objects of our world with historic terms or new words of his own, often reflecting the power of the Church in Lyra's world. The alternative names he chooses often follow alternate etymologies, while making it possible to guess what everyday object or person he is referring to. For a list of the significant renamings, see Esoteric Renaming.

From Wikipedia
His Dark Materials

"The Golden Compass"/"Northern Lights" | "The Subtle Knife" | "The Amber Spyglass"

"Lyra's Oxford" | "The Book of Dust" | "Once Upon A Time In The North"

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