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 a theocratic international organisation, the Magisterium (also commonly called "the Church"), which actively suppresses heresy. In this world, humans' individual souls naturally exist outside of their bodies in the form of sentient "dæmons": animals that constantly accompany, aid, and comfort their humans. Children's dæmons can freely and instantaneously change their appearance into that of any creature, extant or imagined; once they reach puberty, however, all people's 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 with her beloved dæmon, Pantalaimon, in the grounds of Jordan College— in her world's Oxford University—for her entire life, under the guardianship of the college's Master. One day, while awaiting the arrival of her uncle, Lord Asriel, Lyra sneaks into a wardrobe, in the hopes of spying on Asriel's lecture to the college's Scholars. Moments before Asriel is scheduled to begin the lecture, she witnesses a bottle of wine being poisoned by the Master, she warns Asriel not to drink it. Asriel then orders Lyra to return to her hiding place in the wardrobe a moment before the Scholars enter the room. From here, Lyra watches Asriel's lecture, thus learning of "Dust", the name given to strangely behaving elementary particles that are inexplicably attracted to adults more than children. The lecture sparks Lyra's interest in Arctic exploration when Asriel reveals groundbreaking images of a city skyline in some parallel universe that can be viewed through the northern lights. The purpose of the lecture is to convince the Scholars that other worlds exist so that they will fund Asriel's ongoing research, which the oppressive Church considers heretical.

After Asriel leaves Jordan, successful in his effort for financial backing, Lyra begins hearing rumours of the Gobblers, a mysterious group that has been kidnapping children throughout England, allegedly for the purposes of torture or experimentation. Shortly after her own friend Roger Parslow goes missing, Lyra meets Mrs Coulter, a beautiful, enchanting, and worldly woman, and eagerly agrees when invited by the Master to go and live with her. Before Lyra leaves Jordan, the Master secretly entrusts Lyra with an alethiometer, a "truth teller" which resembles a four-handed pocket watch that will truthfully answer any possible question asked by a skilled user. Although unable to read or understand its complex symbols at first, Lyra takes it with her, and gradually begins to use the device fluently over the course of the narrative — which, it is later revealed, no adult can do as well as she. Lyra believes that the Master, who tried to poison Asriel, gives Lyra the alethiometer so that she will deliver it to Asriel as a reparation, or token of apology, for the earlier attempt on his life. It later becomes clear that the Master only attempted to poison Asriel under great pressure from the Church.

After living for several weeks with Mrs Coulter, Lyra suddenly realises that Mrs Coulter is the leader of the General Oblation Board: the secret, Church-approved, child-stealing organisation that kids have been calling "the Gobblers". Horrified, Lyra flees and is rescued in London by the Gyptians, a canal-faring nomadic people whose children comprise many of Lyra's closest playmates at Jordan. The Gyptians reveal that Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter are in fact Lyra's father and mother. The Gyptians tell Lyra the true story of her parents' history and she begins life with the Gyptians. The Gyptians have been hit hardest by the Gobblers' kidnapping activities and, during an emergency convocation of the Gyptian clans, they ultimately plan an expedition to the Arctic to rescue all of the missing children, including Roger.

On a stop in Trollesund, Lyra meets Iorek Byrnison, an outcast prince of the panserbjørne, or sapient "armoured bears". His armour, stolen from him by the villagers, is akin to his soul, and without it Iorek is bound in servitude to the village. Lyra uses her alethiometer to locate it for him and in return he—and an old friend of his, an aeronaut named Lee Scoresby—agree to help her on her quest. She also learns that Lord Asriel is now being held in exile by the panserbjørne at Svalbard.

The Trollesund consul of the witches tells the Gyptians that there is a prophecy about Lyra's destiny, which she must not know about, and that it seems the witch clans are choosing sides in preparation for some imminent war. The party consisting of Gyptians, Iorek Byrnison, Lee Scoresby, and Lyra continue moving north toward where they are told the Gobblers hold the children, at a place called Bolvangar. Guided by the alethiometer, Lyra detours at a village and finds, to her horror, a boy who has been severed from his dæmon. Lyra understands now that the Gobblers are deliberately cutting the bond between human and dæmon (a process called "intercision"): an uncanny notion equal to a human body being split from its soul. Though Lyra brings the boy back to her party, his psychological devastation overcomes him and he dies. In the Arctic wilderness, the party is then attacked by bounty hunters and Lyra, captured, is taken directly to Bolvangar: a research station for the General Oblation Board. Superficially, Bolvangar is run like a benign children's centre, complete with scheduled activities for its captured children, who are suspicious but generally compliant. At Bolvangar, Lyra locates Roger and devises a plan for all of the children to escape, knowing through the alethiometer that the Gyptian-led rescue party is still on its way. Mrs Coulter arrives, evidently as a supervisor to the facility, just as Lyra is caught spying by staff-members. The staff decide to silence Lyra through intercision, involving their newly developed dæmon-cutting guillotine; however, she is rescued at the last moment by Mrs Coulter who is shocked by her presence. Mrs Coulter then tries to coax the alethiometer away from Lyra but Lyra has switched the alethiometer case for a decoy, distracting Mrs Coulter long enough to engage the station's emergency alarm. In the ensuing commotion, Lyra sets the station on fire and leads all the children outside where they are met by Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison, the Gyptians, and their new allies, the witch-clan of Serafina Pekkala. Using Lee Scoresby's hot air balloon, Lyra, Roger, and Iorek leave the scene as a battle erupts involving the Gyptians and witches against Bolvangar's mercenary guards and staff members. Lyra befriends Serafina Pekkala and later learns that all of the children have been successfully rescued from Bolvangar.

Determined to deliver the alethiometer to Lord Asriel, Lyra now directs the flying witches to tow the balloon toward Svalbard; however, Lyra falls out of the basket near Svalbard and is quickly taken prisoner by the panserbjørne in their castle. Although captive, Lyra is able to trick their usurping bear-king, Iofur Raknison, into agreeing to fight Iorek, by claiming that she is Iorek's dæmon, and that if Iofur killed Iorek, then she would become Iofur's dæmon—something no bear has and Iofur wants more than anything. Arriving at the castle to rescue Lyra, Iorek successfully kills Iofur in the fight and thus is made king himself. Lyra—now nicknamed "Lyra Silvertongue" by Iorek as a token of her ability to lie — travels onward to Lord Asriel's house of exile, accompanied by Iorek and Roger.

Despite being exiled, Lord Asriel is so influential that he has accumulated all the necessary equipment to continue his research on Dust. He explains to Lyra all he knows of Dust, including the Church's view that it is deeply sinful, his belief that Dust is somehow related to the source of all death and misery, the existence of parallel universes from which Dust originates, and his final goal: he intends to visit the other universes, find the source of Dust (and, therefore, the source of all death and misery), and ultimately destroy it, triumphantly claiming that "Death is going to die". As Lyra sleeps, Asriel leaves to fulfill his great experiment, bringing along his scientific equipment and taking Roger by force. Lyra awakes and pursues them, discovering that she has indeed brought her father what he wanted, though not in the way she thought; it was not the alethiometer he needed, but rather, it was Roger. The severing of a child's dæmon releases an enormous amount of energy, which is precisely what Lord Asriel needs to complete his task. Lyra is unable to save Roger in time though, and his death provides sufficient energy to tear a hole through the northern lights into a parallel universe, ripping the sky apart. Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter (who catches up with him by zeppelin) face the newly revealed world and romantically embrace, but Mrs Coulter feels unable to go with Asriel and painfully declines his invitation. Without further comment, Lord Asriel walks into the new universe alone and Mrs Coulter returns the way she came. Devastated at her part in rescuing Roger only to bring him to his death, Lyra decides that Dust, contrary to what all the vicious, dishonest adults in her life have told her, may be a force of good rather than evil. She and her dæmon Pantalaimon vow to discover if this is true and to stop Asriel. They then follow him through the opening in the sky.

This concludes the first novel, with the trilogy continuing in the next book, The Subtle Knife.


All humans in Northern Light and witches, have a dæmon (pronounced "demon"). It 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. He is killed at the end of Northern Lights by Lord Asriel.
  • 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. 
  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