Northern Lights (novel)

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The Northern Lights (in blue)

Northern Lights (published in the US as The Golden Compass) is the first novel in the His Dark Materials series, written by British novelist Philip Pullman, and published in 1995.

In real life, the resemblance of the protagonist's alethiometer to a large compass caused the US publishers of Northern Lights to retitle the book The Golden Compass. In fact The Golden Compasses was an early proposal for the name of the trilogy (instead of His Dark Materials), taken from Milton's Paradise Lost, where it refers to a drawing instrument, rather than a navigation instrument.

Northern Lights won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995.


His Dark Materials

The three books of the His Dark Materials trilogy are:

1. Northern Lights
2. The Subtle Knife
3. The Amber Spyglass

The trilogy is set in a multiverse. The first volume however has its plot routed firmly in only one world, a fictional alternate reality which is only slightly dissimilar, is dominated by a revisionist Church, and seems technologically lagged compared to our own world.


On Radio

A radio drama version of this story was broadcast on RTE (Irish public radio) in 2003 and the entire trilogy was dramatised on BBC radio in the United Kingdom.


A theatrical version of the three books was produced by Nicholas Hytner as a two-part, 6 hour performance for London's Royal National Theatre in 2004.

On Film

A film adaptation, titled His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, is slated for release in 2007 by New Line Cinema, supposedly as the first of three films. The original director, Chris Weitz announced his resignation on December 15, 2004. Prior to resigning he rejected a script by Tom Stoppard and controversially indicated that the film would make no direct mention of religion or of God.

See the IMDb ( website for more information.

Plot Synopsis

Brief and Introductory

The story concerns a mission to recover a number of children that have been abducted by the General Oblation Board (or Gobblers), an arm of the Magisterium, and who are believed to be the object of experimentation to determine the nature and purpose of Dust. Lyra becomes involved after her friend Roger Parslow goes missing. She joins the mission to the North, where she inadvertently penetrates the security at the Bolvangar experimental complex in Lapland.

In High Detail

Reading the following will severely reduce the enjoyment of then reading the book.

The alternate world of Northern Lights is dominated by a revisionist Church, and the collective Magisterium holds a great deal of wealth and power. The world is less technologically advanced than ours, and seems reminiscent of a past age.

The story begins with Lyra Belacqua—a savage, rebellious little orphaned girl under the care of Jordan College, Oxford—secretly entering the Retiring Room in the evening. Her dæmon—an animal-formed, shape-shifting manifestation of her soul that cannot leave her—who is named Pantalaimon, tries to dissuade her (acting as her conscience), but her curiosity to enter this male-only part of the college overwhelms.

Within, she hides herself in a wardrobe, and eavesdrops as her Uncle, Lord Asriel—a man of great reverence and power—explains to the scholars his findings from his travels in the North. In short, he is asking for more funding so that he may return there.

He displays a photograph that when developed using a special emulsion reveals a spray of tiny golden particles being emitted from the characters depicted—but moreso from the adults than the children. When such an emulsion is used on a photograph of the Northern Lights—a fantastic natural light-display in the North of the world caused by the effect of cosmic rays on the atmosphere—the emulsion displays a fresco of the golden particles that together form a distinct image of a city in the sky. These golden particles are called Dust, not ordinary dust but something quite extraordinary which requires explanation. Lastly, Asriel shows the scholars the decapitated head of the murdered explorer Stanislaus Grumman, rather than simply telling them. Lyra hears all of this with intrigue.

Instantly a core theme of the trilogy is established: What is Dust?

There is a child's myth of a group of people called 'the Gobblers', who capture children and take them away. It is in fact true, though the details greatly vary. A Gobbler (a beautiful woman with a golden monkey for a dæmon) captures a young boy by tempting him with chocolate. She then uses her persuasive powers to passively make him want to get on board a ship that will sail him to the North with the other children she's captured.

This happens to Lyra's best friend, Roger, a kitchen-boy at Jordan College.

When Lyra realises Roger is missing, she determines to rescue him (assuming, as the child she is, that he has been caught by the worst demon imaginable—the Gobblers—and her assumption is, as we know, correct). In the meantime however, the woman with the golden monkey comes to Jordan College, revealing herself to be Mrs Coulter, a distinguished member of the Church. She offers to take Lyra away from the college to be an apprentice, and Lyra, enthralled by Mrs Coulter's incredible persuasive and charismatic powers, desperately assents.

Before Lyra leaves, she is entrusted by the Master of the college with a priceless golden 'compass' called the Alethiometer. It is an archaic device that can find the true answer to any question asked of it—though one must spend years studying it to learn how to use it. Why he gives this to Lyra, we do not know.

Life with Mrs Coulter is fun for Lyra for a time, but Mrs Coulter's cold heart beneath her rosy exterior is quickly apparent. At a cocktail party, she meets Lord Boreal, a sinister man with a snake-dæmon. She also discovers that Mrs Coulter is in fact the leader of the Gobblers, a name that actually derives from the acronym of 'General Oblation Board', a sinister sect of the Church. It also becomes apparent that Mrs Coulter's golden monkey-dæmon is searching for Lyra's alethiometer, and the monkey is as sinister as its human.

Lyra runs away, and is saved by the Gyptians, a group of water-friendly gypsy-people who know Lyra well, and whom she almost has a second home with. They explain that many of their children have also been taken by the Gobblers, and that an expedition will be sent to the North to rescue the children. The Gyptians are led by a powerful man called John Faa, who is advised by Farder Coram, and both these two take a liking to Lyra. Lyra is told that her real parents are in fact none other than Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter.

In her time with the Gyptians, Lyra begins to play with the alethiometer, and, inexplicably, learns to use it and totally master it in a matter of weeks, when it usually takes a lifetime. She is henceforth able to know the answer to any question. Meanwhile, Mrs Coulter is scouring the lands for her runaway daughter.

The expedition begins, and comes to its first stop in Lapland, to see a man called Dr. Lanselius, the representative of the witch-clans of that land. Unbeknown to Lyra, he identifies her as the girl prophesied by the witches, the girl who will alter the fate of all worlds. Witches in Northern Lights are beautiful, cold-impervious, scantilly-clad, cloud-pine-flying, proud, wise, ever-young and long-lived females.

Lyra encounters two new characters: an armoured talking bear called Iorek Byrnison, and a Texan aeronaut called Lee Scorseby (an aeronaut is a man who can pilot a hot-air-balloon). These two characters are already friends. Lyra gains Iorek's friendship, and eventually strong affection, when she uses the alethiometer to find for him his armour, which had been stolen. These two characters join with the Gyptians (Lee under hire, Iorek under Lyra's request), and they continue to a place called Bolvangar—where the Gobblers reside.

On the way there, Lyra is given a hint by the alethiometer—which indeed seems to have a mind of its own—to inspect a nearby village. None want to go, so she goes there on the back of the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison. There, they find a child who has been disposed of by the Gobblers—and they discover what gruesome thing it is that the General Oblation Board does to the children it captures: they cut away children's dæmons—the equivalent of slicing away their souls—which renders the child they find a mere zombie. It is hard to express the horror that Lyra feels—seeing a person without a dæmon is like seeing a person without a head. She can't understand why anyone, even the Gobblers, would be so cruel.

On returning to the Gyptian expedition, it is attacked, and Lyra is captured by the Gobblers on their own turf. She is taken to Bolvangar, a scientific research compound where all the children go. Pantalaimon, Lyra's dæmon, is petrified here, because the thought of being cut away from Lyra is unbearable.

Within, she finds Roger, and begins to plot how to escape with all the captured children (she is a born leader, and they listen to her intently). The plot thickens when Mrs Coulter herself comes to inspect on her institute for incision (dæmon-cutting), and finds Lyra. Lyra berates her on the process, but Coulter's sweet voice explains that the process is healthy, and it is designed to stop children from coming to a state of 'impurity' at adolescence. At adolescence, a dæmon's ability to shape-shift ceases, and at this point, Dust begins to get attracted to them more readily. The General Oblation Board views this as a loss of innocence—like Eve's Original Sin, and the Dust is therefore evil. By cutting away the dæmon, that loss of innocence, they believe, will not occur—so it's 'for the good of the children'. Yet quite clearly this procedure is torturous and its effects are hellish. Mrs Coulter is motherly and kind to Lyra, but Lyra knows that Coulter has a bad heart, and has no emotions for her. Lyra is sent back to her dormitory.

The witch Serafina Pekkala sends her dæmon, Kaisa, to help Lyra and Roger. Together they free the separated dæmons from the cages they are stored in, and then help all the children to escape under the cover of a fire-alarm. At that point the Gyptians also arrive with the rescue attempt. Lee Scoresby comes down with his balloon, also carrying Iorek Byrnison the armoured bear, and Lyra and Roger escape from the ensuing battle in the balloon.

Lyra meets Kaisa's human, the witch-Queen Serafina Pekkala, a slender and beautiful woman. She is the Queen of a large clan of similar witches. Together they all travel to Svalbard, where Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, is being held prisoner by a host of other armoured bears. Lyra, of course, determines to save him as well.

On the way there, Lyra is knocked out of the balloon when it is attacked by cliff-ghasts. She lands safely in the snow, but is captured by armoured bears serving under the bear-King, Iofur Raknison. Iofur is a ruler who holds the throne that should rightfully be Iorek's. In Iofur's palace, Lyra manages to talk to Iofur, and using her incredible ability to form plausible lies, she tricks him into challenging Iorek to a duel, when he arrives in his rescue attempt on Lyra.

This duel indeed takes place, but it is a fact that bears cannot be tricked, and Iofur clearly has (for he is no longer acting like a bear)—Iorek picks up on this, and tricks him again, killing him in the duel. Iorek becomes the bear-King.

Roger came with Iorek, and together the three of them then set off for Svalbard where Lord Asriel is being held, and where the Northern Lights are the glory of the skies.

Asriel is not pleased to see Lyra, but relieved when he sees Roger. Due to his inimitable assertivity and power, Asriel has made himself a small comfortable home in his prison—a place where the bears have in fact been supplying him with everything he's needed for his experiments on Dust, the golden particles.

Asriel explains Dust to Lyra. With the help of the Adam and Eve story, he explains that the Church believes it is the physical evidence for Original Sin. That is why the Church wants to destroy it—by cutting of dæmons or by any other means—for it will destroy sin, and retain innocence. Dust furthermore is what makes the alethiometer work. Asriel says he wants to destroy it. (Yet it is clearly something that one would not want to get rid of.)

He also explains the existence of other worlds. There are millions of alternate worlds—like the one seen in the sky of the Northern Lights from the special emulsion photo at the beginning—each beyond the reach of the other. They get created after every quantum event takes place; one world for one way things could have happened, another for another. Asriel wants to be the first man ever to break into another world, to cross into a whole new universe.

Lyra realised early on that the Master of Jordan College may have given her the alethiometer so that she could deliver it to Lord Asriel, but he refuses it, and tells her that it was more likely that he gave it to her on purpose, knowing that she had an important fate.

Later on, when Lyra is asleep, Lord Asriel steals Roger and carries him off into the snowy distance. Lyra is woken by his butler, and she, with Iorek, chase. At the same time, Mrs Coulter's Church-provided battalion of soldiers arrives in a zeppelin. Immediately after that, Serafina Pekkala's witch-clan also arrive. A battle ensues, and Iorek carries Lyra through it to chase her father, who has taken Roger away.

Iorek is stopped from going all the way when they come to a shaky snow-bridge. Lyra parts with him, and continues alone. She finds Asriel with lots of equipment, hooking Roger's dæmon up to it. Asriel had mentioned earlier that when a dæmon was cut from a human, an immense amount of energy is released. They are standing beneath the Northern Lights, in which the Dust-emulsion-photo revealed a city in the sky. That city was one of the alternate worlds Asriel spoke of. He also mentioned that an immense amount of energy could create a bridge into another world.

Lord Asriel plans to kill Roger, take the released energy, and use it to fulfil his ambition to reach into another universe.

Lyra and Pantalaimon, her dæmon, attack. She and Roger break free, but at the last moment are knocked off a cliff, whilst Roger's dæmon is still securely inside the apparatus. The fall tears Roger and his dæmon apart, and kills him. In the same tear, the energy released flows into the sky and tears it apart. Then Mrs Coulter, Lord Asriel's long-ago lover, arrives.

Lyra's fall is stopped on a protruding ledge. She lies still, and hidden, with the dead Roger in her arms, and Pantalaimon quivering at her breast. Lord Asriel is crying above the wind, and he asks Mrs Coulter, who he calls Marisa, to come with him, to venture into the unknown of the universe he's opened up. She declines, though clearly, for the first time, her heart is open. They kiss, passionately. She leaves. Asriel enters the other world.

He has created a vast bridge to the stars, to a gaping hole in the vault of the sky, beyond which Lyra can see the sunny palm trees of an alien world. She and Pantalaimon decide that they don't want Dust to be destroyed—they think it is a force of Goodness, not Evil. She and Pantalaimon decide that they shall find the source of Dust themselves—for preservation, not destruction—and the gaping sky beckons to them.

They get up, and walk up into the stars.

See also

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