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His Dark Materials (book series)

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His Dark Materials is a trilogy of novels by Philip Pullman. The series consists of three novels, Northern Lights (released as The Golden Compass in North America and published in 1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000). The trilogy has also been published as a single-volume omnibus in the United Kingdom and North America, titled simply His Dark Materials.

Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry are the two main characters who wander through a multiverse of parallel universes and a backdrop of epic events. The story begins in Northern Lights with fantasy elements such as witches and armoured bears. As the trilogy progresses, it acquires allegorical layers of meaning, introducing a broad range of ideas from fields such as physics (quantum physics), philosophy (metaphysics, philosophy of religion and, arguably, a degree of hylopathism), and theology (biblical symbolism).

Although the series is marketed to young adults, the audience includes many adult readers. Pullman has remarked[1]: "If I think about the audience I’d like to have, I don’t think about a particular age group, or a particular gender, or a particular class or ethnic group or anything specific at all. ... I’d like to think that I’m telling the sort of story that holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner, in the old phrase of Sir Philip Sidney. Everyone is welcome, and no one is shut out, and I hope each reader will find a tale worth spending time with."

Plot summaryEdit

Northern Lights/The Golden CompassEdit

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, Oxford, and her dæmon Pantalaimon learn of the existence of Dust, a strange elementary particle believed by the Church to be evidence for Original Sin. Dust appears to be less attracted to the innocence of children, and this gives rise to grisly experiments being carried out by Church-controlled scientists on kidnapped children in the icy wastelands of the distant North. Lyra and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, journey to save their best friend Roger Parslow and other kidnapped children from this peril, with the aid of the Panserbjørne (armoured bear) Iorek Byrnison, John Faa and Farder Coram, leaders of the Gyptians, the aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and the witch Serafina Pekkala. After dealings with armoured bears and witches and success in many arenas, Roger is killed by Lyra's father Lord Asriel in his own successful experiment to create a bridge into another world. Lord Asriel, followed by Lyra and Pantalaimon, journey through it separately in search of the source of Dust, unaware that they both mean to prevent the Church from destroying it.

The Subtle KnifeEdit

In The Subtle Knife, Lyra journeys through the Aurora to Cittàgazze, an otherworldly city whose denizens have discovered a clean path between worlds at a far earlier point in time than others in the storyline. Cittàgazze's reckless use of the technology has released soul-eating Spectres, rendering the world incapable of transit by post-adolescents. Here, Lyra meets Will Parry, a twelve-year-old boy from our own world who has stumbled into Cittàgazze after recently killing a man to protect his ailing mother in an effort to locate his long-lost father. Will becomes the bearer of the titular Subtle Knife, a tool forged 300 years ago by Cittàgazze's scientists of the same materials as the silver guillotine. One edge of the knife is capable of creating portals between worlds and the other edge easily cuts through any form of matter. After meeting with witches from Lyra's world, they journey on. Will finds his father, who has been lost in Lyra's world under the assumed name of Stanislaus Grumman, only to watch him murdered soon after, and Lyra is kidnapped by her mother, Mrs. Coulter, an agent of the Magisterium who has learned of the prophecy that Lyra is to be the next Eve. Will is then instructed by a pair of angelic lovers, Balthamos and Baruch, that he must travel with them to give the Subtle Knife to Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, as a weapon against The Authority.

The Amber SpyglassEdit

In The Amber Spyglass, Will ignores the angels and with the help of a local girl named Ama, the Bear King Iorek Byrnison, and Lord Asriel's Gallivespian spies, the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia, rescues Lyra from the cave she has been hidden in. They journey to the Land of the Dead to release the ghosts from their captivity imposed by the oppressive God, The Authority. Mary Malone, a scientist of our world interested in Dust (or Shadows, as she knows them), travels to a land populated by strange sentient creatures called Mulefa. There she 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.

Main charactersEdit

  • Lyra Silvertongue (initially Lyra Belacqua) is a wild 12-year-old girl who was brought up in the fictional Jordan College, Oxford. 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 known to Lyra as her uncle at first, but later she learns that he is in fact her father. 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 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. Stelmaria the snow leopard is his dæmon.
  • Marisa 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. 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 (named Ozymandias in the BBC Radio adaptations but never named in the books), 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.It is found out that Mary is to play the part as the tempter (the snake).
  • Iorek Byrnison is a massive armoured bear who regains his armour, his dignity, and his kingship over the Panserbjørne with Lyra's help. In gratitude, and impressed by her cunning, he dubs her "Lyra Silvertongue". A powerful warrior and armour-smith, Iorek repairs the Subtle Knife when it shatters and goes to war against The Authority when Lyra and Will are threatened. As a bear instead of a human, he has no dæmon; instead, his soul constitutes his armour, which he himself shapes.
  • 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 aeronaut 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 Royal Marines. 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 and would-be lover. Grumman's pseudonym is a possible allusion to Stanislaw Ulam, the renowned nuclear physicist.
  • 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. She is several hundred years old but, because she is not a human, she will live many hundreds more.
  • 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 Land 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.
  • Authority The Authority is not the Creator, but God as conceived in Pullman's books. In fact, the first of the angels. The Authority is quite weak, having given most of his power to his regent, Metatron, and has spent most of his existence retired to "comprehend deeper mysteries". He is extremely aged, and is shown as fragile, kind, and naїve, unlike his bitter and thoroughly malicious underling. He eventually dies by being exposed to a gust of wind, his weak form unable to resist it, but appears to find death a release.

Influences and criticismEdit

The three major literary influences on His Dark Materials acknowledged by Pullman himself are the essay On the Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist (which can be found here), 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 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 mix't
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..."


Pullman denies that His Dark Materials can be seen as the antithesis of The Chronicles of Narnia, the seven-book fantasy series by C. S. Lewis.[6] Pullman has accused Lewis of being "blatantly racist" and "monumentally disparaging of women" in his novels.

Institutional religion is criticized by some of the characters. For example, Ruta Skadi, a witch and friend of Lyra's calling for war against the Magisterium in Lyra's world, says that "For all of [the Church's]'s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can't control them, it cuts them out." (see intercision). Skadi later 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." (By this part of the book, the witches have made reference to how they are treated criminally by the church in their worlds.) Mary Malone, one of Pullman's main characters, states that "the Christian religion…is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all." She was formerly a Catholic nun, but gave up her vows when the experience of being in love caused her to doubt her faith.

Pullman portrays the Christian heaven to be a lie. In the third book, the real afterlife is depicted as a bleak place where people are tormented by harpies until Lyra and Will descend into the land of the dead. Through their intercession, the harpies agree to stop tormenting the dead souls, and instead receive the true stories of the dead in exchange for leading them again to the upper world. When the dead souls emerge, they dissolve as they become one with the universe.

Pullman's "Authority" is worshipped on Lyra's earth as God, but he turns out to be the first angel instead. It is explicitly stated that the Authority was in fact not the creator of worlds. Pullman's trilogy does not speculate on who or what might have created worlds. Members of the Church are typically displayed as zealots. Two characters who once belonged to the Church, Mary Malone and Marisa Coulter, are both displayed in a positive light only insofar as they have rebelled against the Church.

Cynthia Grenier, in the Catholic Culture, has said: "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." Grenier fails to recognize that Pullman's text states that the Authority is the first angel, rather than God. In Christianity, the first angel was Lucifer.

Pullman has, however, 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. The trilogy shows the downfall of the Kingdom of Heaven, a hierarchy under the control of the Authority and his regent. In its place is the task to build the Republic of Heaven.

In terms of popularity, the trilogy is sometimes compared with fantasy books like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling and the Narnia books themselves.


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.[16] In 2007 it was selected by judges of the CILIP Carnegie Medal for children's literature as one of the ten most important children's novels of the past 70 years.

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"; and shortly afterwards received the Swedish government's Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children's and youth literature (sharing it with Japanese illustrator Ryôji Arai). In Sweden, the prize is second only to the Nobel Prize in Literature and is worth 5 million Swedish Kronor or approximately £385,000.

The trilogy came third in the 2003 BBC's Big Read, a national poll of viewers' favourite books, after The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. It was one of only two books in the top five not to have had a screen adaptation at that time (the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which came fifth, was not released until 2005), and those two books were the only entries in the top ten to have been written in the last twenty-five years.


His Dark Materials has been adapted for radio, theatre and film. It was 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 and a revised script) for a second run between November 2004 and April 2005. It has since been staged by several amateur theatres in the UK, notably at the Playbox Theatre in Warwick. The play had its Irish Premiere at the O'Reilly Theatre in Dublin when it was staged by the dramatic society of Belvedere College.

A film adaptation, titled His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, is to be released in December 2007 by New Line Cinema, the company behind The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The film was to be directed by Chris Weitz, who also acts 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 and Weitz returned.

The production hopes to stay as true to the book as possible. Prior to his initial 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. This suggestion sparked a fan backlash that some believe was the real reason for Weitz's leaving. Pullman has since stated that "All the important scenes are there and will have their full value."

On March 14, 2006, open auditions for the role of Lyra were announced.[17] Dakota Blue Richards has been cast as Lyra. Nicole Kidman has been cast as Mrs. Coulter, Daniel Craig has signed to play Lord Asriel, and Eva Green will play Serafina Pekkala throughout the trilogy. It is not known how the most recent reversal of directors will alter the course of the auditions that have already taken place. Principal filming is finished as of late January 2007.

See alsoEdit


  1. English Wikipedia - His Dark Materials
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