Begun in 1995 and finished five years later, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… is a trilogy of uniquely imaginative fantasy books written for both teenagers and adults. A product of post-modern times if ever the phenomenon existed, Pullman’s objective in the trilogy is to invert/subvert a variety of literary conceptions, particularly Milton’s Paradise Lost and C.S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia. Naturally drawing the ire of a variety of religious organizations and institutions in the process, the trilogy also attracted critical acclaim, two of the books winning major awards. The dearth of imagination, daring storytelling, and overall sense of wonder are undoubtedly the reason. Perhaps most interesting, however, is its originality.
The first book of His Dark Materials... is called Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), which tells the story of Lyra Belacqua and her quest to discover what Dust is. Lyra existing in a world not our own, a strong steampunk feel permeates the setting of Jordan College where she lives with her uncle, Lord Asriel. Privy to a conversation she was never supposed to overhear, Lyra, and her daemon, Pantalaimon, soon find themselves on the adventure of a lifetime. Following in the footsteps of her uncle, all manner of witches, armored polar bears, gypsies, hot air balloons, and mystical northern lights aid and chase her into the arctic north. With the magical and mysterious alethiometer in hand, Lyra needs every bit of her rebellious wit and cleverness if she is to remain one step ahead of Mrs. Coulture and her golden monkey, and draw one step closer to the answers of what exactly her uncle is doing with Dust.
Northern Lights is a highly imaginative story full of unique ideas, not to mention a great introduction to the three-part series. Iorek the armored bear is a wonderful character that, on top of being the first of his kind in literature, is also a highly likeable yet not-always-benevolent creature. After all a bear, Iorek’s thinking is primitive at times yet wise at others, and is representative of some of the universal themes of life Pullman was attempting to weave into the narrative. Lyra’s alethiometer, not quite a compass and not quite a crystal ball, is a device that can provide knowledge if the user knows how to channel it properly. That it uses the mysterious Dust as an energy source only heightens the mystery surrounding Lyra’s journey.
But no discussion on the imagination invested in His Dark Material would be complete without mentioning the daemons. Quasi-spiritual/pseudo-materialistic, these animal representations of a person’s soul accompany each human character in Northern Lights. Pantaliamon, Lyra’s daemon, cycles through a variety of animals, pine marten, mouse, wildcat, and moth the most common, depending on Lyra’s mood. When children become adults, these daemons fix themselves in one form: Lord Asriel’s daemon a snow leopard, Mrs. Coulture’s the golden monkey, and the witch Serafina Pekkala’s a snow goose, for example. Each daemon a direct or indirect representation of a person’s personality, Pullman uses the motif to offer insight into the characters to great, and not always readily explainable, effect.
The second and third books of His Dark Materials… digging much deeper into the themes and ambitions Pullman has for the series, Northern Lights is largely an introduction to the world, the characters, the daemons, the cultures, the beliefs, Dust, and the interaction of these elements. Without spoiling the story, Pullman puts a lot of effort into subverting classic notions of good and evil, as well as religious concepts quietly innate to traditional fantasy. Thus, those expecting a classic tale with semi-predictable outcomes will be disappointed. Not everything presented is clearly black or white, making the series a more complex read than the novel’s YA categorization would imply.
In the end, Northern Lights, and the His Dark Materials… trilogy in general, is a highly imaginative and unique addition to YA/adult fantasy literature. Pullman intentionally setting out to undermine many of the notions innate to traditional fantasy, the book will divide readers based on the post-modern fashion in which he tackles topics like religion and coming-of-age. Speaking strictly from a story point of view, however, more people have the opportunity to enjoy Pullman’s creation. Lyra’s tale is an adventurous, suspenseful, vividly imagined, and a colorful quest full of original fantasy ideas that are integral to the plot, and not just side dressing. Defying categorization, Northern Lights is fantasy with literary ambition both the young and old can enjoy.
(For those wondering, The Golden Compass film adaptation does a marvelous job of capturing much of the imagery and imagination of the book. Not held to a two-hour time frame, however, the book is a more in-depth story that betters the film. But I do keep waiting for The Subtle Knife to be released in cinemas...)