Northern Lights (novel)

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For the film based on the novel, see The Golden Compass (film).
Northern Lights
Northern Lights (novel) cover.jpg
First edition
Author Philip Pullman
Cover artist David Scutt and Pullman
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series His Dark Materials[1]
Genre Children's fantasy novel, steampunk
Publisher Scholastic Point
Publication date
July 1995
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 399 pp
ISBN 0-590-54178-1
OCLC 37806360
LC Class PZ7.P968 No 1995[2]
PZ7.P968 Go 1996[3]
Preceded by Once Upon a Time in the North
Followed by The Subtle Knife

Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in North America and some other countries) is a young-adult fantasy novel by Philip Pullman, published by Scholastic UK in 1995. Set in a parallel universe, it features the journey of Lyra Belacqua to the Arctic in search of her missing friend, Roger Parslow, and her imprisoned uncle, Lord Asriel, who has been conducting experiments with a mysterious substance known as "Dust".

Northern Lights is the first book of a trilogy, His Dark Materials (1995 to 2000).[1] Alfred A. Knopf published the first US edition April 1996, entitled The Golden Compass.[1][3] Under that title it has been adapted as a 2007 feature film by Hollywood and as a companion video game.

Pullman won the 1995 Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising the year's outstanding British children's book.[4] For the 70th anniversary of the Medal, it was named one of the top ten winning works by a panel, composing the ballot for a public election of the all-time favourite.[5] Northern Lights won the public vote from that shortlist and was thus named the all-time "Carnegie of Carnegies" on 21 June 2007.


For some time during pre-publication of the novel, the prospective trilogy was known in the UK as The Golden Compasses, an allusion to God's poetic delineation of the world. The term is from a line in Milton's Paradise Lost,[6] where it denotes the drafting compass God used to establish and set a circular boundary of all creation:

Then staid the fervid wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God's eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centred, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure

— Book 7, lines 224–229

Meanwhile, in the US, publisher Knopf had been calling the first book The Golden Compass (singular), which it mistakenly understood as a reference to Lyra's alethiometer (depicted on the front cover shown here), because of the device's resemblance to a navigational compass. By the time Pullman had replaced The Golden Compasses with His Dark Materials as the name of the trilogy, the US publisher had become so attached to its mistaken title that it insisted on publishing the first book as The Golden Compass rather than as Northern Lights, the title used in the UK and Australia.[6]

Europe a Prophecy, copy D, object 1 (Bentley 1, Erdman i, Keynes i) British Museum.jpg   God-Architect.jpg

God as architect, wielding the golden compasses, by William Blake (left) and Jesus as Geometer in a 13th-century medieval illuminated manuscript of unknown authorship.

In the film version, the alethiometer is specifically referred to as a golden compass.



The novel is set in a world dominated by an international theocracy, the Magisterium (also commonly called "the Church"), which actively suppresses heresy. In this world, humans' souls naturally exist outside of their bodies in the form of sentient "dæmons": talking animal spirits that constantly accompany, aid, and comfort their humans. Children's dæmons can freely and instantaneously change their appearance into that of any real or mythical creature; once people reach puberty, however, their dæmons settle into one permanent form.

Plot summary[edit]

Lyra Belacqua, an English girl on the cusp of puberty, has been allowed to run wild her whole life with her beloved dæmon, Pantalaimon, around Jordan College—in her parallel world's Oxford University—under the guardianship of the college's Master. One day, Lyra witnesses the Master poison a bottle of wine intended for the visiting Lord Asriel, Lyra's rebellious and adventuring uncle, though Lyra warns Asriel, then spies on his lecture to the college's Scholars. The lecture focuses on "Dust", mysterious elementary particles that are oddly attracted to adults more than children, as well as groundbreaking images of a city skyline in some parallel universe that can be viewed through the northern lights, which Asriel uses to convince the Scholars to fund his ongoing research, considered heretical by the oppressive Church.

Meanwhile, unidentified child kidnappers, "Gobblers", have recently been operating throughout England, and a close friend of Lyra's named Roger Parslow goes missing. Lyra is comforted only when she meets Mrs Coulter, a beautiful, enchanting, worldly socialite, who adopts her. Before Lyra leaves Jordan, the Master secretly entrusts her with an alethiometer, a mystical truth-telling device that honestly answers any question asked by a skilled user. Despite its complex symbols, Lyra gradually begins to use the device fluently, believing that the Master wants her to pass it along to Asriel as a token of apology for the earlier attempted poisoning, orchestrated covertly by the Church. After several weeks of a charmed life, Lyra suddenly deduces that Mrs Coulter is the leader of the the Gobblers: a Church-funded project officially called the General Oblation Board. Horrified, Lyra flees to live among the Gyptians, a canal-faring nomadic people whose children comprise several of Lyra's playmates, many of whom have also been abducted by the Gobblers. The Gyptians reveal that Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter are in fact Lyra's father and mother. During an emergency convocation of the Gyptian clans, they decide to form an expedition to the Arctic, joined by Lyra, to rescue all of the Gobblers' victims, including Roger.

The expedition party stops in Trollesund, and Lyra meets Iorek Byrnison, a dispossessed royal heir of the panserbjørne, or "armoured bears". Lyra uses her alethiometer to locate Iorek's beloved missing armour and, in exchange, he—and his aeronaut friend, Lee Scoresby—join Lyra on her Artic quest. She also learns that Lord Asriel has been exiled, guarded over by the panserbjørne on Svalbard. Meanwhile, Trollesund's witch consul tells the Gyptians that there is a prophecy about Lyra that she must not know and that the witch clans are choosing sides for a war. The party consisting of Gyptians, Iorek, Scoresby, and Lyra continue moving north towards Bolvangar: the Gobbler research station. Guided by the alethiometer, Lyra detours at a village and finds, to her horror, an abandoned child who has been cut from his dæmon. Lyra understands now that the Gobblers are experimenting on children by severing the bond between human and dæmon (a process called "intercision"): an uncanny amputation between body and soul. The boy soon dies from the psychological toll. Moving onward, Lyra and her companions are attacked by bounty hunters, and Lyra is captured and taken directly to Bolvangar.

Superficially, Bolvangar is run like a harmless children's centre, complete with scheduled activities for its captured children, who are suspicious but generally compliant. Here, Lyra joyfully locates Roger, but is spotted by the staff while devising an escape. A shocked Mrs Coulter arrives and halts the intercision process just as Lyra and her Pantalaimon are about to be divided by a dæmon-cutting guillotine. Mrs Coulter argues that intercision is a positive way to stop the onset of troubling adult emotions and then requests Lyra's alethiometer, but Lyra engages Bolvangar's emergency alarm. In the ensuing commotion, Lyra sets the station on fire and leads all the children outside where they are rescued by Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison, the Gyptians, and their new allies, the flying witch clan of Serafina Pekkala. Using Lee Scoresby's hot air balloon, Lyra, Roger, and Iorek flee as a battle erupts involving the Gyptians and witches against the Bolvangar guards and staff.

Determined to deliver the alethiometer to Lord Asriel, Lyra now directs the flying witches to tow the balloon towards Svalbard; however, she falls out and is taken by the panserbjørne to the castle of their usurping bear-king, Iofur Raknison. There, Lyra is able to trick Iofur into agreeing to fight Iorek, who soon arrives with the others to rescue Lyra. Iorek successfully kills Iofur and takes his place as the rightful king. Lyra, Iorek, and Roger then travel onward to Lord Asriel's house of exile.

Despite being banished, Lord Asriel has continued his research on Dust. He explains to Lyra all he knows of Dust, including the Church's view that it is the physical basis of sin, the existence of parallel universes from which Dust originates, his belief that Dust is somehow related to the source of all death and misery, and his final goal: to visit the other universes, find the source of Dust, and destroy it, triumphantly claiming that "Death is going to die". Lyra discovers that she indeed brought her father what he wanted: not the alethiometer as she assumed, though, but Roger. The severing of a child's dæmon releases an enormous amount of energy, which Asriel harnesses, suddenly killing Roger, to tear a hole through the northern lights into a parallel universe. Just after the sky is ripped apart, Mrs Coulter arrives and romantically embraces Asriel, but painfully declines his invitation to join his quest. Lord Asriel walks into the new universe alone and Mrs Coulter departs, while Lyra, devastated at Roger's death, decides that Dust, contrary to what all the vicious and dishonest adults in her life have told her, may be a force of good rather than evil. She and Pantalaimon vow to discover if this is true and to stop Asriel. Together, Lyra and Pantalaimon pass through the opening in the sky.


All humans in Northern Lights as well as witches, have a dæmon (pronounced "demon"), which is the physical manifestation of a person's "inner being", soul, or spirit. It takes the form of a creature (moth, bird, dog, monkey, snake, etc.) and is usually the opposite sex to its human counterpart. The dæmons of children have the ability to change form - from one creature to another - but towards the end of a child's puberty, their dæmon "settles" into a permanent form, which reflects the person's personality. When a person dies, the dæmon dies too. Armoured bears, cliff ghasts and other creatures do not have dæmons. An armoured bear's armour is his soul.

  • Lyra Belacqua and Pantalaimon: The principal characters. Lyra is described as having blue eyes and blond hair, along with being short for her age and quite thin but is still quite attractive. She is also brave, curious, and crafty. Her dæmon is Pantalaimon, nicknamed Pan. Because she is still a child, Pan is still capable of changing into any shape he wishes (often a brown moth, a wildcat, a white ermine, or a mouse). Lyra has been prophesied by the witches to help the balance of life, but must do so without being aware of her destiny.
  • Roger Parslow: One of Lyra's friends, a boy whose family works at Jordan College. When he is kidnapped and taken north, Lyra pursues him in hopes of rescuing him, meeting up with him again at Bolvangar.
  • Lord Asriel: Ostensibly, Lyra's uncle, though, it is later revealed that he is actually her father. His dæmon is Stelmaria, a Moroccan snow leopard.
  • Marisa Coulter: An agent of the Magisterium, who does not hesitate to manipulate the Church to obtain funds for her projects. She is intelligent and beautiful, but extremely ruthless and callous. She is revealed to be Lyra's mother; as a result, she is unexpectedly kind to Lyra. Her dæmon is a golden monkey who, unusually, is not named throughout the trilogy.
  • Iorek Byrnison: Rightful king of the panserbjørne, armoured bears with human-level intelligence, Iorek has been tricked out of his armour and reduced to a slave of the human village Trollesund. After Lyra helps him recover, he becomes very protective of her and joins the expedition to find the children seized by Gobblers. He gives her the name "Lyra Silvertongue" after she tricks the usurper Iofur Raknison into fighting him.
  • Iofur Raknison: A panserbjørn who has usurped Iorek Byrnison's authority as king. Iofur wants a dæmon and Lyra tricks him into fighting the exiled Iorek by pretending to be Iorek's dæmon, and promising that when Iofur wins the fight she will become his.
  • Serafina Pekkala: A witch who closely follows Lyra on her travels. She is aware of Lyra's destiny. Serafina's dæmon is Kaisa, a snow goose, who is capable of physically moving separately from Serafina over long distances, a quality that only witches' dæmons appear to possess; although in the third book in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, Lyra gets this capability. It is said she and Farder Coram had a son together.
  • Lee Scoresby: A Texan aeronaut who transports Lyra in his balloon. He and Iorek Byrnison are good friends and Lee comes to see Lyra as a surrogate daughter. His dæmon is Hester, an arctic snow hare.
  • Ma Costa: A Gyptian woman whose son, Billy Costa is abducted by the "Gobblers". She rescues Lyra from Mrs Coulter and takes her to John Faa. We later discover that Ma Costa nursed Lyra, when she was a baby.
  • John Faa: The King of all Gyptian people. He journeyed with Lyra to the North with his companion Farder Coram.

Critical reception[edit]


For Northern Lights Pullman won both the annual Carnegie Medal for British children's books[4] and the annual Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a similar award that authors may not win twice.[7] Six books have won both awards in 45 years through 2011.[a]

In the US, The Golden Compass was named Booklist Editors Choice – Top of the List, Publishers Weekly Book of the Year, a Horn Book Fanfare Honor Book, and a Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book.[citation needed]


Some critics have asserted that the trilogy and the movie portray the Church and religion negatively.[8][9] while others - notably Dr Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury - have argued that Pullman's works should be included in religious education courses.[10] Peter Hitchens views the series His Dark Materials as a direct rebuttal of The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.[11] Literary critic Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College Illinois argues that Pullman recasts the Narnia series, replacing a theist world-view with a Rousseauist one.[12]

Adaptations and video game[edit]

A feature film adaptation of the novel, named The Golden Compass, was released in December 2007. The novel was adapted by Chris Weitz, who also directed the film. Dakota Blue Richards, in her film debut, played Lyra. The cast included Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Ian McKellen, Sam Elliott, Derek Jacobi, and Christopher Lee.

In 1996, Natasha Richardson narrated an audiobook version of Northern Lights. The trilogy, His Dark Materials, was abridged in a dramatisation by BBC Worldwide, published on 1 January 2003. It was also adapted unabridged and released by BBC Audiobooks. It is narrated by the author, Philip Pullman, with a full cast, including Joanna Wyatt as Lyra, Alison Dowling as Mrs Coulter, Sean Barrett as Lord Asriel and Iorek Byrnison and Stephen Thorne as the Master and Farder Coram.

The National Theatre in London staged a two-part adaptation of the trilogy in 2003–2004.

A video game of the movie adaptation of the book, titled The Golden Compass, published by Sega and developed by Shiny Entertainment, was released 4 December 2007. Players assume the role of Lyra as she travels through the frozen wastes of the North in an attempt to rescue her friend kidnapped by a mysterious organisation known as the Gobblers. Travelling with her are an armoured polar bear and her dæmon Pantalaimon (Pan). Together, they must use a truth-telling alethiometer and other items to explore the land and fight their way through confrontations to help Lyra's friend. The Golden Compass features a mix of fighting and puzzle solving with three characters.[13]

It was announced in November 2015 by BBC that it will be making a new TV series adaptation of the book series, with Bad Wolf and New Line Cinema producing.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alternatively, six authors have won the Carnegie Medal for their Guardian Prize-winning books. Professional librarians confer the Carnegie and select the winner from all British children's books. The Guardian newspaper's prize winner is selected by British children's writers, "peers" of the author who has not yet won it, for one children's (age 7+) or young-adult fiction book. Details regarding author and publisher nationality have varied.


  1. ^ a b c His Dark Materials series listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved 2012-07-28. Select a title to see its linked publication history and general information. Select a particular edition (title) for more data at that level, such as a front cover image or linked contents.
  2. ^ "Northern lights". Library of Congress Catalog Record (LCC). Retrieved 2012-07-28.
  3. ^ a b "The golden compass" (first US edition). LCC record. Retrieved 2012-07-28.
  4. ^ a b (Carnegie Winner 1995). Living Archive: Celebrating the Carnegie and Greenaway Winners. CILIP. Retrieved 2012-07-09.
  5. ^ "70 Years Celebration: Anniversary Top Tens". The CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Children's Book Awards. CILIP. Retrieved 2012-07-09.
  6. ^ a b Frequently Asked Questions, 1: "Why is the trilogy called His Dark Materials? Why are there two different titles for the first book?". His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, and other ideas ... (fan site). Retrieved 2007-08-20.  Article 1 is a direct quotation of Pullman (no date).
  7. ^ "Guardian children's fiction prize relaunched: Entry details and list of past winners". theguardian 12 March 2001. Retrieved 2012-07-31.
  8. ^ Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked - Catholic League
  9. ^ La Crosse Tribune – Bishop Listecki: 'Golden Compass' points to evil.
  10. ^ Petre, Jonathan (10 March 2004). "Williams backs Pullman". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2010-02-02. 
  11. ^ Hitchens, Peter. "A labour of loathing". The Spectator. Retrieved 2006-09-21.  External link in |publisher= (help)
  12. ^ "Audition – Program 10 (On Philip Pullman)". Mars Hill Audio. 6 November 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-13.  With MP3 audio recording.
  13. ^ "The Golden Compass Review: Not as magical as you might hope". IGN Entertainment ( Retrieved 2007-06-02.  Review of the video game.
  14. ^
  • Lenz, Millicent (2005). His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Phillip Pullman's Trilogy. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-3207-2. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Whispers in the Graveyard
Carnegie Medal recipient
Succeeded by