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Thoughts On Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights

Excuse the lack of images this week – things should be back to normal next month.

I believe I said in another post that I first read Northern Lights in my single digit years. That’s not quite right – on thinking about it I must have been in my early teens, but regardless my reading then was very different, as you might expect.

This is now my third read of the book, my second was a few years ago, and I know they say you learn more the more you re-read, the same way you notice the hints as to who the killer is that the film maker provided that you didn’t notice the first time, but in this first part of the trilogy, in my case at least, I’ve found it even more true.

I have always loved the book – it shocked and thrilled me as a teen and it continues to do so now – I think it’s going to be one of the books that will be our era’s contribution to the canon; but I find I appreciate it in a different way now. I understand it; in many ways, as much as this book was written for children – and you can see that in the writing, the character of Lyra who seems to have been created to appeal to both genders, and the odd words that push you to get out a dictionary and learn – this book is also for adults. There is so much more to this book than what’s on the surface and whilst a child would realise that, the depth itself, and the meanings, are surely most apparent and enjoyable as an adult. (I’m not sure how much re-reading has to play in this regard – I rather think a person who first reads this book as an adult will find it as fantastical as they would have as a child.)

Have I waxed lyrical enough? Yes; I think it’s time I moved on. I’m not sure if I’d be able to review this book in my usual way, hence this post. Perhaps I could but at this stage in my relationship with it, I just want to study it.

What struck me first this re-read was the name of the Pope of Lyra’s parallel Oxford – Pope John Calvin. I’m not sure if Pullman was looking to say much in particular as he does about later elements, I think in this case he’s simply setting the scene, showing as much as he can without relying on description that this is Oxford but it’s not the Oxford we know. And I think the similar-but-not-quite factor is what he’s going for, that it’s not just a parallel universe but is also a demonstration to the reader of what could happen if different choices are made, different histories written. My thought is that perhaps in Lyra’s universe Calvinism was the Catholicism (if we match ‘pope’ to ‘Roman Catholic church’ rather than the Reformation and Protestantism that our own Calvin was a part of). It’s the ruling class. Is Pullman saying something about Calvinism in particular? Perhaps, but it’s less certain. Is pre-destination a theme of sorts in the book? Not really – if anything the book’s about tricking nature, de-constructing what it means to be human – in this case what it means to be a human in this parallel soul-as-separate-to-the-body universe.

Most poignant, I find, is the daemon element. More than the severing, which is remarkably terrifying because whilst we do not have daemons we can consider a people trying to wrench our very selves away from our bodies, it’s the question of what the daemon’s actions mean that I find so literarily stimulating. (I’m going to have to officially coin that word at some point.) For me the discussion, well, allright, it’s more a device, between Lyra and the gyptian seaman pre-journey has more relevance as a comparison to our own world as it is important to the book. The way a daemon will stop changing, will assume one shape for the rest of the person’s life post-puberty. I think J M Barrie would say that Peter Pan’s daemon never changed – as much as a daemon is fun it represents the inevitable growth and maturity of a person. In many ways it’s a humbling reminder that as we mature we become who we were made to be, we grow into ourselves and our purposes in life. A daemon’s shape is the outward expression of its human’s mind, their person. But it’s also an almost regrettable reminder of reality – a daemon has fun changing and being many different things but then well, it’s time to grow up after a while, take up some responsibilities, be a steady and consistent person. And Pullman’s idea is to let this whole mode of thinking sink in slowly – a daemon is a ‘them’ or a ‘he’ or ‘she’ long before Pullman fully refers to a person and their daemon as an ‘us’.

Tony Makarios is the character I’ve just reached, and as horrific as the situation is, Pullman shows life without… ourselves. Without our emotions, without our passions, without ambitions and fears and hopes, Tony is who we would be. (A millennial book comparison would be Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, in which a person’s ability to love is medically removed, reportedly so that they can feel no pain.) On the surface the villagers who are frightened are frightened because they do not know life without daemons – they would view Will Parry, the character from the next book who is a human of our own kind in our own universe – as inhuman. But they also surely represent a worry about what we would be if we weren’t who we were. There’s nothing to be afraid of – Tony’s simply a boy in need – but they react in the way we do to difference, to a lack of self-awareness in others. And Pantaliamon’s desire to lick the boy – Lyra’s compassion – shows a basic empathy. In a book wherein we could brush it off with thoughts that people are afraid of a person who doesn’t have a pet, Lyra brings us back down to earth and reminds us of compassion.

In many ways I think it’s more important to discuss these themes rather than the obvious conflict between church and state, the church’s extreme power, just because religion has been discussed so much. That the Oblation Board is from a group from the church is a big statement from Pullman, alluding to that idea of the soul and God that of course here is being exploited, person-hood taken for church gain. It also speaks of a desire to keep children pure and innocent – the necessity for Lyra to go about her quest without knowing what she’s doing, pulling children and daemon apart in a misguided attempt to make things better, to take away their ability to do wrong. It’s Pullman looking at the Susan Pevensie problem. Keep Dust away, keep sin away and children pure, says the Oblation Board – don’t do that, says Pullman, let them be themselves.

I’ve never read The Amber Spyglass; I stopped after chapter two because I didn’t want it to end. I still don’t want it to end but after so many years it’s probably time I finished it. Perhaps there are no answers. Perhaps that’s part of the point – to explore the possibilities by yourself. I guess I’ll see.

What are your thoughts and, a specific question that we have been discussing together here, what do you think is the meaning of the gyptians? Is the inspiration the Middle East, gypsy travellers, both, or something else entirely?



January 27, 2016, 1:48 pm

I always thought the gyptians were independents–people who had refused to get caught up in the politics of any particular country, so more open to change.
I also thought the first book in this series was terrific, the second one a bit less terrific, and the third one not so good, because the author spent most of his time trying to tie up the thousands of loose ends.

Alex (Sleepless Reader)

January 27, 2016, 3:24 pm

I know there were several people in the book blogging and vlogging community that were re-reading the series recently and I was sorry not to be able to join. Still want to pick it up at some point this year. It’s one of those children’s series that provoke different opinion if you read them at different stages in your life.

Tracy Terry

January 27, 2016, 4:48 pm

A boxset we have on our shelves. One of a collection Mr T tells me I must read.

A fascinating post, certainly food for thought for when I eventually get around to reading the book(s).


February 1, 2016, 12:24 pm

Jeanne: I think you’re right; I hadn’t seen it that way but certainly they try to stay away from everything. Same here. I love the first and very much like the second but I think he lost his barings a bit by the third.

Alex: Yes, it is. I think that’s one of the best parts, that it’s readable for different reasons and although it’s obviously the same book the ‘atmosphere’ of it changes as you age and gain knowledge. Quite fitting, really!

Tracy: You should listen to Mr T :) There is a lot out there to read, so many opinions and interpretations. I put one question to Google and found forum threads that were over a hundred pages.



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