Our recommended read this month is 'Northern Lights' by Philip Pullman. Here is an opening extract to get you started. Discover our resources below, plus here's an activity sheet where you can devise your own daemon! We're delighted that Sir Philip Pullman is joining us for a live Q&A. Register here for this free event.
Welcome to the Oxplore Book Club!
Sir Philip Pullman was born in Norwich in 1946, and grew up mostly in Llanbedr, Ardudwy, Wales. His father, Alfred Outram Pullman, was an RAF pilot who died in a plane crash in Kenya in 1953 when Pullman was seven. Pullman said that as a child he saw his father as a glamorous hero, but later learned that he was combatting revolutionaries in the Mau Mau Uprising, shooting fighters who didn’t have guns that could threaten aircraft.
He went to school in Norfolk, in London, and in Harlech, Gwynedd, and spent a significant amount of time with his grandfather, an Anglican parish priest in Norfolk. While in secondary school, he discovered John Milton’s 'Paradise Lost' and the works of William Blake, passing notes to friends with lines from Blake’s 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' on them in class. Pullman was interested in the way Blake and Milton both made Satan a more sympathetic character and ascribed nobility, creativity, and anti-authoritarian traits to a figure who was supposed to be the ultimate evil.
He graduated from Exeter College, University of Oxford, in 1968 with a third-class degree in English (‘It was the year they stopped giving fourth-class degrees otherwise I’d have got one of those’, he said later). He started creating stories about creatures who lived in the underground stacks in the library. When he became a teacher at Bishop Kirk Middle School in North Oxford he began writing school plays for the students. He wrote two novels before publishing his first children’s book, 'Count Karlstein', in 1982, followed in 1986 by his 'Ruby in the Smoke' series. He became a part-time teacher at Westminster College, Oxford until 1996, during which time he began 'His Dark Materials'. He published 'Northern Lights' in 1995, which won the Carnegie Medal and Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. He has written numerous other books, including 'The Book of Dust' trilogy, a follow-up to 'His Dark Materials', and a retelling of the New Testament titled 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ'. He campaigns on a variety of book and literacy-related issues and was knighted in 2019 for his services to literature.
Title page of Paradise Lost, London: 1667, by John Milton (1608-1674). EC65.M6427P.1667aa, Houghton Library, Harvard University
Bringing 'Northern Lights' to life on screen
Sir Philip Pullman gives his thoughts on the BBC adaptation of 'His Dark Materials'.
'Northern Lights' tells the story of Lyra Belacqua, an orphan raised at Jordan College in an Oxford that is in some ways like our own though very different in others. Lyra goes to the Arctic in a quest to rescue a group of kidnapped children, but finds herself swept up in a war between the all-powerful Church, known as 'the Magisterium', and her father Lord Asriel and his heretical research about an atmospheric particle known as 'Dust'.
Lyra the Hero
Lyra is a particularly compelling heroine precisely because, as Pullman has noted, she is an ordinary girl. Pullman didn’t want a protagonist with special powers or abilities, but he also needed to create a character we can root for. She is competent and clever without being unrealistically capable. She has a satisfyingly practical mind. She has an instinct for the morally right – loyalty to her friends, a willingness to stand up to adult tyranny – without being saccharine (sickly sweet), given that her greatest skill is lying. It is great fun to watch Lyra lie, and earn her nickname 'Silvertongue' because we are seeing a master at work:
‘She had to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible; she had to be vague in some places and invent plausible details in others; she had to be an artist, in short.’
'His Dark Materials' adheres closely to two important themes in fantasy literature. The first is the quest of the orphan hero, which we find in all kinds of fantasy stories, from 'The Lord of the Rings' to 'Harry Potter'. Making your child hero an orphan liberates them – there are no parents to prevent them from going on an adventure – but also makes them vulnerable, because no one is protecting them. Closely linked to this theme is the common fantasy trope that the outcome of a great war depends on the actions of small people and their individual decisions to do the right thing and stay loyal to one another. Pullman uses these tropes because they make for a very compelling story, with a protagonist we cheer for and empathise with.
One of the most interesting, original, and well-known features of the universe of 'His Dark Materials' is that every person has a daemon, an animal companion who is deeply connected to them, a manifestation of their own ‘soul’. What do characters in the book mean when they talk about ‘souls’, though?
We can tell what a daemon is from the way Lyra and Pan talk to each other, and also by what happens to people who are separated from their daemons. Pan acts as Lyra’s conscience; when people tell you to ‘listen to your gut’, they mean something like your daemon. Daemons also seem to be connected to the part of you that is curious, inquisitive, independent, and rebellious; the part of you that asks questions, engages with the world, and comes up with your own opinions. It is a vital part of being human, and one the Magisterium thinks is bad and sinful.
Daemons are a very compelling narrative tool: they reveal things about characters that they try to hide. They’re also very exciting to read about because we all wish we had that kind of self-knowledge. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have an animal daemon to tell you something about who you are as a person?
One of the central themes of 'Northern Lights' is the power of knowing and accepting who you are.
‘There’s plenty of folks as’d like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle,’ a seaman tells Lyra, ‘And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it.’
Iofur Raknison’s fatal error is wanting to be something other than what he is: to be a human, rather than an armoured bear. Iorek Byrnison, on the other hand, liberates Svalbard and allows the armoured bears to be ‘true bears, not uncertain semi-humans conscious only of a torturing inferiority.’ The witch Serafina Pekkala reminds Lyra, ‘You cannot change what you are, only what you do.’ In the world of His Dark Materials, there is strength in self-knowledge.
Religious Undertones and Anti-Authoritarianism
Pullman also uses daemons tell us something complicated in a concrete, straightforward way. Daemons are connected to the part of human beings that is curious, awake, and alive, and daemons also cause humans to start attracting Dust when they go through puberty. The Church thinks Dust is evidence of original sin, the idea that humans are born into the world sinful because of Adam and Eve’s mistake in the Garden of Eden. They think humans should be cut off from Dust – and also, therefore, from curiosity, from their daemons, and from growing up. '
Northern Lights' (and 'His Dark Materials' as a whole) are, at their core, stories about resisting oppressive authority. The blank-faced nurses with their little trotting demons at Bolvangar make Pullman’s point clear: growing up and thinking for yourself is not a bad thing, whereas obeying the Magisterium and cutting yourself off from Dust does something to your humanity. It’s not a coincidence that Pullman’s heroes are explorers, cowboys, and witches, rather than kings, gods, or knights.
The Church in 'His Dark Materials' is all powerful, and interested in censorship, political oppression, and sacrifice. There isn’t any mention of Jesus in the Church of the Magisterium, just God (called ‘the Authority’ in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass); this version of religion doesn’t seem very interested in redemption or care. Bolvangar has parallels in the real fascist regimes of the twentieth century.
Later in the series, Pullman introduces us to the idea of the Republic of Heaven, as opposed to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. Pullman has written that literature should lead us toward the Republic of Heaven: a world where we debate ideas, ask big questions, and strive to be empathetic and kind to one another not because we’re ordered to, but because it’s the right thing to do. Lyra and her allies in Northern Lights are agents of the Republic of Heaven, trying at every turn to find truth, free the oppressed, show loyalty to one another, and offer empathy to those who are suffering.
Milton and Blake
A lot of Pullman’s anti-authoritarian themes and his approach to religion and spirituality come from his reading of two famous poets: John Milton and William Blake.
John Milton was a seventeenth-century writer who defended the freedom of the press and was a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Cromwell. His epic poem 'Paradise Lost' retells the story of Genesis and the Fall of Man in rich and inventive detail. Pullman takes many phrases and ideas directly from 'Paradise Lost': ‘his dark materials’; ‘golden compasses’; the idea of angels made of transcendent light, seen in The Subtle Knife; the building of a dangerous bridge between worlds; and a vivacious, independent, blonde-haired female main character (Eve).
Milton’s poem is famous, however, for making Satan a sympathetic figure. Satan gives voice to all kinds of anti-authoritarian sentiments, saying that even though Hell is awful, he would rather reign there that be a servant to an absolute ruler in Heaven. Pullman was excited by Milton’s Satan and saw heroism in the idea of rebellion against a tyrant.
Pullman wasn’t the only one. William Blake (1757-1827) was captivated by Milton’s Satan, and famously wrote that Milton was ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. In other words, that Milton accidentally and unconsciously sympathised with the Devil, because of his own republican values. Blake was a committed Christian but disliked the Church, which he thought emphasised unthinking obedience rather than free thought. He believed we should look for God ourselves, through creativity and engagement with the world around us. He developed his own mythology, in which Los, the embodiment of imagination, clashes with Urizen, the embodiment of law. Blake believed that innocence necessarily had to turn into cynical experience and awareness of evil, but you can achieve something he called ‘higher innocence’: understanding the world as both good and bad.
Pullman said that Blake awakened something inside him: ‘I knew they [Blake’s writings] were true in the way I knew that I was alive.’ From Blake, Pullman gets the ideas that the whole universe is conscious, that intuition is important, and that human experience and creativity is the highest good. The name Dust comes not from Genesis, but from Blake, who envisions a universe ‘where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.’
Polar bear - by Mali Maeder via Pexels
Blake in a portrait by Thomas Phillips (1807) via Wikimedia
The world of 'His Dark Materials'
Sir Philip Pullman’s work has a deep connection to Oxford. Dr Margaret Kean (University of Oxford) discusses how Pullman has rooted his story in physical objects and encouraged younger readers to encounter the material world around them.
Leave a review on 'Northern Lights'
Tell us what you think about 'Northern Lights' and you could win the complete 'His Dark Materials' trilogy! You have until the end of November to submit your review via this page and a selection of your comments will be posted below.
'Fantastic writing sums up the quality of this book. Philip Pullman has really taken the time to explore the characters. Take Iorek Brynison for example. At first, we think he is a big, angry brute. But then as the story progresses we learn of his background. Once a prince of Bears, after he kills a young male over a female he is exiled from Svalbard, home of the Bears, to the human town where we find him when we first meet him. Then later on in the book, Lyra [ the main character] tricks the current king of the Bears, Lofur Rakinson, into a fight with Lorek which Lorek wins because he tricks the king into thinking that he has broken his arm and then when he finds a nice solid layer of frost, lanches at the king and rips his lower jaw off becoming the new king. Lyra is launched on a crazy journey all the way from England to the North, all because her best friend is kidnapped by her own mother who wants to save people from Dust, believed to be original, pure sin, by cutting away their daemons, which is 50 percent of a person's soul, only for her best friend To be killed anyway by her insane father who wants to build a bridge to another dimension. This book has a large variety of characters who are all interesting in their own unique way. My favourite character is Lee Scoresby, A Texan aeronaut, which is the equivalent of a modern day pilot who is cocky and very sarcastic.' - Lorcan, Belfast Royal Academy
"I really like this story about the daemons because it is really interesting and there were twists.... Lyra was quite a sneaky person, I think. She sneaked to the retiring room and was eavesdropping. Mrs Coulter and her golden monkey daemon were quite mean. Especially the golden monkey kept 'bullying' Pantalaimon. I found it quite pitful for Tony to lose his beloved daemon and he died at last. I kept asking myself a question while reading. 'Do daemons really matter that much to them?' I found it very unbelievable that a daemon could really somehow, control a person's life. Like Tony. The adventure was really dangerous because Gobblers ran in the way. Lyra, Farder Coram, John Faa, and others were really brave to go there. Especially Lyra. I know that John Faa and others didn't want Lyra to go, but Lyra insisted bravely. That was a very brave action for her. She was also a very sincere person, she had a 'desire' to save Roger the kitchen boy. Lyra really liked Roger. I believe that if it was another person who went missing, Lyra would not go. Roger was her friend, so he gave her the courage.
I really like how this story is unpredictable, and I simply couldn't put down this book because it was too interesting... This adventure seemed to be really dangerous, many things happen to them. Lorek Byrinson was a loyal bear. I think the reason he wanted his own armor is because he wanted to protect them. If he died, they would lose protection. I really liked his loyalty to Lyra and the others. Mrs Coulter first seemed to be a nice person in the retiring room. But she then was extremely mean to Lyra and how the author described it made me scared as well. I was quite confused for a while. It was a surprising ending and it made me shocked. However, it was a happy ending. - Ryanna, Downend School
'I like the idea of having a daemon that is tied to a person's soul. They are tied so greatly that they can't go a few feet from each other and all pain the daemon feels, the human they're tied to also feels. A daemon, according to the google dictionary, is '(in ancient Greek belief) a divinity or supernatural being of a nature between gods and humans'. I didn't really like the ending because it was a bit like a fairy tale ending since they walked off into a magical aurora that sent them to another dimension. Also, I didn't really like the idea of dust. The whole concept of it is a bit confusing anyway. The book talks about it being something children don't have but then they eventually get it, adults are completely full of it and it has something to do with sin. Therefore, they separate children from their daemons to stop them from getting it, inferring that daemons have something to do with dust...Apart from that, I thought the book was really good...' - James, Downsend School
If you enjoyed 'Northern Lights', you might also like...
'The Subtle Knife' and 'The Amber Spyglass' by Philip Pullman
These are the gripping sequels to 'Northern Lights' continuing to venture into the world of 'His Dark Materials'. They include episodes such as 'Lyra’s Oxford' and 'Once Upon a Time in the North'.
'The Ruby in the Smoke' by Philip Pullman
This is a historical novel, set in 1872, and follows a strong young woman who has been trained as a financier and snipper by her father in the opium-ridden smoky streets of Old London. It is the first of the four Sally Lockhart books, which follow the gutsy heroine as she struggles to be taken seriously in a world defined by men.
'Songs of Innocence and Experience' by William Blake
Blake’s poems were originally published on bronze with decorative margins – much of his work is in fact art mixed with poetry. The Songs are particularly focused on the innocence of children, and Blake is credited with contributing to the phasing out of child labour in the UK due to his advocacy for children’s rights.
'Paradise Lost' by John Milton
This is considered one of the greatest epic poems in English. The final twelve books of blank verse cover 'The Fall of Man' (as Milton saw it) and were intended to range across time and space. Milton was almost totally blind by the time he wrote 'Paradise Lost', and his daughter and friends took it down through dictation.
'The Bartimaeus Sequence' by Jonathan Stroud
This is a series of four novels, beginning with The Amulet of Samarkand (2003), followed by The Golem’s Eye (2004), Ptolemy’s Gate (2005) and The Ring of Solomon (2010). The eponymous protagonist (the character after whom the series is named) is Bartimaeus, a mischievous and clever djinni. He is only nominally controlled by the teenager wizard Nathaniel who has summoned him, and the pair’s adventures range across an alternative history of London as the cente of a magical empire.
'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L’Engle
First published in 1962, 'A Wrinkle in Time' has become a cult classic, beloved across age groups. The book follows three teens, Meg, Murry and Calvin as they engage in the battle between light and dark while trying to save family members and come to terms with their adolescence.
'The Merlin Conspiracy' by Diana Wynne-Jones
This novel follows Roddy, the daughter of magicians, and her best friend Grundo, as they try to reveal and stop a conspiracy at the royal court. She accidentally calls across universes to a young man, Nick, from our own world, and he is drawn into Roddy and Grundo’s world as they fight to stop the evil Merlin.