Books, Art, & Visual Culture


Writing and design by Melissa Hill, graphic designer.

Late to the Party: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman - Northern Lights.jpg

I thought it might be fun to have a category of posts where I talk about books that it's taken me far too long to discover. Sometimes they're the books that you've had on your TBR list for ages, or they haven't even made it to your official list... you just keep thinking, "Oh, I must read X some day." Sometimes though, these books aren't even under consideration and you just pick them up on a whim. First up for me is "Northern Lights", the first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. As you can see from the badge of the cover of this edition, I am 20 years late to this particular party!

“The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and she dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else.”

I think we can all agree that there are a *lot* of books out there in the world. With the vast array of tomes across subjects and genres, the avid reader is spoilt for choice and can never hope to read everything worthwhile in existence. Even this worthiness is a subjective thing. Does one simply follow one’s curiosity in reading, or does one aim to have a sound knowledge of everything deemed to be important literature? Or does one specialise in a genre to forsake all others?

My inclination is to follow my curiosity, which has led  me to classics, to sci fi, to Australian literature, to essays on design, to etymology, to quantum physics, to fashion history, to Marie Antoinette…and so on and so forth.

My inclination doesn’t often lead me to fantasy, although I adore the work of Isobelle Carmody, finally cracked and ventured into A Song of Fire and Ice and appreciated the classics that are The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Indeed, what child book fiend hasn’t checked the back of their wardrobe in case the portal to Narnia was concealed within?

So, I suppose it’s somewhat surprising that I’ve never read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy before now. True, it’s not really one of my favoured genres, but it is widely loved and admired and considered a key work of fantasy writing. For some reason, on one of my recent bookstore visits, I felt drawn to this series. Perhaps it’s due to the prominence of the recently released prequel, The Book of Dust which has such an attractive cover that I’m always drawn to it. Perhaps it’s because I felt that a good dose of non-reality would give me a much needed boost since certain aspects of reality are getting me down lately.

If any part of me thought that Northern Lights was going to be a light, fun, magical read, then I guess that part of me must be disappointed. The rest of me however, was thoroughly engaged with the blend of plot-driven adventure, complex and unusual characters and weighty moral and philosophical questions that are encountered throughout this book.

Northern Lights centres around Lyra Belacqua, an orphan who has been left in the care of the academics at Jordan College, Oxford. The setting gives the book immediate classic appeal – the prestigious halls of Oxford, antiquated costume and speech, and bearded Englishmen (presumably in waistcoats). We soon realise that this is not merely a past view of our world – each person has a magical, talking creature constantly by their side and the scholars speak of theology as though it were physics or chemistry.

Our child protagonist, Lyra, is likeable in her imperfection. She runs wild at Oxford, amongst the children of servants and "gyptians". Like Harry Potter, she lives under the weight of an ominous prophesy. Unlike Harry, she has no idea of it and continues about her childhood in blissful ignorance.

The tale has many twists and turns, from Lyra's removal to London, the sinister "Gobblers" who steal children for mysterious nefarious purposes, the revelations of Lyra's parentage, a rescue expedition to the frozen North, the Aurora Borealis, armoured warrior bears, witches, and a good old battle between good and evil.

It becomes clear pretty early on that the creature companions each human character has, or daemons, are their soul, their true self. Indeed, the book explores themes of self and soul and spiritual authority – weighty subjects for a book that is ostensibly written for younger readers. That's what makes Northern Lights one of those special books, enjoyed by all ages.

By presenting us with a physical manifestation of a person's soul, Pullman allows us to see how some people's inner selves match their outer and some don't, how some people are content with their true natures and some aren't. By seeing a person and their soul presented separately, we wonder how separate can they be? The book answers this – without a daemon, a human dies. If the consequence of having a soul removed is death, what are the repercussions of being discontent with one's soul, with one's own nature – denying one's true self? It must be a sad kind of semi-life to live like that.

The armoured bears are interesting characters. They are the intellectual and emotional equals of the human characters with self awareness, self-determination and the power of speech and logic. But they don't have daemons. Their souls are their armour... which I guess makes sense for a bear? Their soul is the ability to fight, to be a warrior... to be a formidable beast.

"Lyra looked at the two of them, so utterly different: Iofur so glossy and powerful, immense in his strength and health, splendidly armoured, proud and kinglike; and Iorek smaller, though she had never thought he would look small, and poorly equipped, his armour rusty and dented. But his armour was his soul. He had made it and it fitted him. They were one. Iofur was not content with his armour; he wanted another soul as well. He was restless while Iorek was still."

As fascinating as I find all the questions swirling around in my head from reading this book, I have some problems with the logic that Pullman has presented. The idea that a child's self is not yet formed and is mutable, but an adult's is fixed... can a person not seek to improve, strive to be better? It's a pretty bleak outlook if one can't hope to improve one's faults, hope to change for the better. Who achieves more – the content, or the discontent? Who has more drive, more reason to take action?

Perhaps Pullman is right. If I seek to become more kind, it's because I am not already kind. If I were naturally kind, I would already behave in that way. If I want to behave in that fashion, I have to take more care, to work against my nature. Perhaps the self acceptance is not accepting that one is UNkind, but accepting that it's an area that you are weaker in and need to be more aware of in order to do the right thing.

“When he rescued me, he was young and strong and full of pride and beauty. I loved him at once. I would have changed my nature, I would have forsaken the star-tingle and the music of the Aurora; I would never have flown again—I would have given all that up in a moment, without a thought, to be a gyptian boat wife and cook for him and share his bed and bear his children. But you cannot change what you are, only what you do. I am a witch. He is a human.”

I don't know what the answers are, but I'm definitely looking forward to the next two books and seeing where this discussion can move to next...