His Dark Materials

The three volumes (left to right) of the trilogy
The three volumes (left to right) of the trilogy

His Dark Materials is a trilogy of novels by the fantasy fiction author Philip Pullman, comprising Northern Lights (released as The Golden Compass in the United States), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Although ostensibly for children, the novels were written to be equally compelling for adults, albeit on a different level. Pullman himself describes the target range as 'young adult', and some say that the books are too intellectual in content for most children. Pullman's universe —or rather multiverse— like those of many other contemporary fantasy writers such as Michael Moorcock and Clive Barker, is multilayered and multifaceted, with possibilities for characters to slip between them.

The story begins in Northern Lights, initially as a typical fantasy. However, Pullman introduces ideas throughout the trilogy which have implications in many areas, such as metaphysics, religion, and philosophy. The third book, The Amber Spyglass, relies heavily on quantum physics and philosophy.

Because of the trilogy's allegorical meaning and purpose, told through the medium of a fantasy novel, the books have appealed to readers of all ages, some of whom have termed the book as "life-changing".



Missing image
Pullman receiving the Whitbread award

The Amber Spyglass won the 2002 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 (US:The Golden Compass) won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995

On May 19, 2005, Pullman was beckoned to the British Library in London to be formally congratulated for his work by the culture secretary Tessa Jowell, "on behalf of the government"; he is to receive the Swedish government's Astrid Lindgren memorial award for children's and youth literature. The prize, second only to the Nobel prize for literature, is worth £385,000.

The trilogy came third in the 2003 BBC's Big Read, a national poll of viewers' favourite books. (1. Lord of the Rings; 2. Pride and Prejudice).

Influences and Reactions

The three major literary influences acknowledged by Pullman himself, are the essay On the Marionette Theatre by Heinrich von Kleist, the works of William Blake, and most important (being the source of the basic ideas of the trilogy) is John Milton's Paradise Lost, from which the title 'His Dark Materials' derives. 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 draw heavily on gnostic ideas, and His Dark Materials has been at the heart of controversy, especially with certain Christian groups. Pullman has, however, also found support from more liberal Christians, most notably Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. These say that Pullman's attacks are focused on the constraints of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not Christianity itself.

In terms of popularity and excitement, the trilogy is often compared (http://www.sd68.k12.il.us/schools/orchard/LMC/fantasy.htm) with the likes of the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Some have called His Dark Materials the anti-Narnia, referencing the seven book fantasy series by C.S. Lewis. This image has been reinforced by Pullman making public statements calling Lewis "blatantly racist" and "monumentally disparaging of women" in his novels (The Guardian, 03/06/02, John Ezard). Furthermore, the Narnia series distinctly favours faith and religion over any form of realism or science, whereas His Dark Materials seems to suggest the opposite.

Other often-compared novels are A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle and the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane.

The Books

The trilogy takes place across a multiverse. In other words, it goes between many alternate worlds. In Northern Lights the story takes place in a world much like our own, though with many differences. In The Subtle Knife, the story passes into our world (what we might define as a break into reality), and in The Amber Spyglass, it crosses through a large array of diverse worlds.

The trilogy has also been published as a single-volume omnibus in the UK, as simply His Dark Materials.

Plot Synopses

Reading the following will not ruin the experience of reading the books, though it does contain spoilers.

  • In Northern Lights, the heroine Lyra Belacqua, a young girl brought up in the cloistered world of Jordan College, Oxford, and her dæmon—an animal-shaped manifestation of her soul—journey to the icy wastelands of the far North to save their best friend Roger, and other kidnapped children from experimentation by evil scientists and a revisionist church in an alternate universe. This world is much like our own, but with many differences.
  • In The Subtle Knife, Lyra journeys to another world, to a city called Cittàgazze (the "city of magpies"), where she meets Will Parry, a twelve-year-old boy from our own world who has recently killed a man to protect his ailing mother. Together they travel from world to world and discover the Subtle Knife of the novel's title—so called because it can cut through the barriers between the worlds—and begin to uncover the truth of their own destiny.
  • In The Amber Spyglass, the series concludes with Will and Lyra visiting the Land of the Dead and releasing the dead souls from their captivity, the overthrow of The Authority, the destruction of the Subtle Knife, and the sealing of the passageways between the worlds by the angels.

For highly detailed synopses that cover nearly every aspect of the individual books, and other more specific information, see their individual pages at:

Esoteric Renaming

To enhance the feeling of being in a parallel universe, Pullman renames various common objects of our world with historic terms or new words of his own. The alternative names he chooses often follow alternate etymologies, but in most cases make it possible to guess what everyday object or person he is referring to.

The following are translations of some of the words he uses:

  • Anbaric: Electric
  • Bryton, Corea, etc: Phonetically identical respellings of countries. (Britain, Korea).
  • Chocolatl: Chocolate.
  • Chthonic Railway Station: A Tube-station.
  • Coal-silk: Carbon-fibre (coal as in carbon, silk as in soft, like carbon-fibre coats). An artificial fibre similar to rayon, which was once known as art-silk in our world.
  • Electrum: Amber
  • Gyptian: A (boat-dwelling) Gypsy.
  • Muscovite: A Russian, from Moscow.
  • Naphtha: Oil (as in oil-lamp, rather than naphtha-lamp).
  • Skraeling: A person of Greenland.


The following list of how to pronounce certain words from the books is, for the most part, drawn from BridgetotheStars.Net (http://www.bridgetothestars.net). However, some of the pronunciations have been corrected.

  • Alethiometer: al-ETH-ee-om-et-er
  • Æsahættr: EYE-sha-ter
  • Aurora Borealis: uh-ROR-uh bor-ee-AH-lis
  • Chthonic (see above): kuh-THON-ic
  • Cittàgazze: chee-tuh-GAHT-s(z)ay (as Italian)
  • Dæmon: DEE-mon
  • Iorek: YOR-ick
  • Iofur: YO-fur
  • Kirjava: keer-YAH-vuh
  • Lyra: LIE-ruh
  • Mulefa: m(y)ool-EFF-uh
  • Panserbjørne: PAN-ser-buh-yorn
  • Pantalaimon: pan-tuh-LIE-mon
  • Quantum: KWON-tuhm
  • Salmakia: sal-MACK-ee-uh
  • Serafina Pekkala: seh-ra-FEE-nuh pek-KAH-luh
  • Tialys: tee-AH-lis
  • Torre degli Angeli: TOR-ay DAI-(y)-lee A(H)N-juhl-ee (as Italian)
  • Xaphania: zaf-AY-nee-uh


On Radio

His Dark Materials has been made into a radio drama on BBC Radio Four 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 RTE (Irish public radio).


A theatrical version of the books has been produced by Nicholas Hytner as a two-part, 6 hour performance for London's Royal National Theatre in Q1 of 2004. The play returned for a second run between November 2004 and April 2005.

On Film

A film adaptation, titled His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, is slated for release in 2007 by New Line Cinema, the company behind the The Lord of the Rings movies. The latest information can be found on the Internet Movie Database, [1] (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0385752/). 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 due to the viewpoint the books suggest. This however may not still be the case. It is likely that the film will take the UK title of Northern Lights in the UK.

Related Books

Missing image
Lyra's Oxford

In the autumn of 2003, Pullman published Lyra's Oxford, which consists of a short story called "Lyra and the Birds," focusing on Lyra at sixteen years old, and a collection of materials from all over the His Dark Materials universes, including a map of the Oxford of Lyra's world. Lyra's Oxford is a precursor to Pullman's forthcoming The Book of Dust, which will explore the trilogy's secondary characters, for example, how the balloonist aeronaut Lee Scoresby (and his dæmon Hester) met the armored bear Iorek Byrnison.

Other authors have also written books based on the topic of His Dark Materials, such as Claire Squire's A Reader's Guide, Mary and John Gribbin's The Science of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, Carole Scott's His Dark Materials Illuminated, and Glen Yeffeth's Navigating the Golden Compass.

External links

de:His Dark Materials fr:À la croisée des mondes


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