30. ‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman

Something very important is happening on 19th October this year: Philip Pullman is releasing The Book of Dust, a prequel to his His Dark Materials trilogy. I’ve written before about how important that series is to me, and so, in preparation for handing over my heart to Philip Pullman once again, I’m rereading His Dark Materials.

Amazingly, I’ve never actually reviewed these books on my blog before, but I think at this point it’s difficult for me to review them with any kind of objectivity, so instead I’m going to talk about what it’s like reading them again for the fourth (?), fifth (?) time, including how it feels different and how it feels the same.

[This review will contain plot spoilers.]

northern lights his dark materials philip pullman

The first thing that’s different is that I’m reading a new edition: this gorgeous hardback from Everyman’s Library. This is fitting, actually, because in reading the Introduction I learned that Philip Pullman never actually considered His Dark Materials to be three separate books, or a trilogy, at all. To him, it’s one novel which is usually published in three separate volumes. This will be the first time I’ve read it as a single volume, and I think it’ll make that continuity a lot clearer. (Although I will obviously still review them as three separate books – gotta get that count up, yo).

So I read the Introduction first because, having read the book before, I didn’t need to worry about spoilers (although props to Everyman’s Library for including a footnote right at the beginning that says the Introduction includes plot spoilers; I think every Introduction should have this). I have to say, even reading someone else (Lucy Hughes-Hallett) writing about the world of His Dark Materials made me tear up a bit, so clearly the emotional impact is still strong with this one.

The Introduction is followed by Philip Pullman’s Preface, in which he talks about his writing process for this book:

“I began to write this novel with little sense of the plot, even less notion of the theme, and only the vaguest idea of the characters.”

That he wrote this masterpiece as a ‘pantser’ rather than a ‘planner’ is further proof, I think, that Pullman is a genius.

Of course, one of the most significant parts of Northern Lights is the daemons: extensions of a person’s soul manifested as an animal outside of their body. Naturally, as a child, I desperately wanted a daemon, and that feeling hasn’t gone away (although I’m still not sure what it would be, which maybe suggests I haven’t grown up yet). This read-through also brought back the supreme anxiety I always felt about the ‘spy fly’ – a beetle-like contraption containing an angry spirit that will chase its target forever – especially when Lyra releases it into Mrs Coulter’s daemon’s face. It’s free now! Won’t it keep following her? Where does it go? It’s the tiniest of loose ends, but it’s always bothered me.

I had a new observation too, which will probably win me an award for Slowest Reader in History, but I only noticed this time round that the first child we see taken by the Gobblers (Tony Makarios) is the same child Lyra finds later on in the far North, daemon cut away, clutching a dead fish. I can’t believe that went over my head before.

Of course, I can’t turn off my editing brain completely, and on this read-through I did spot a few flaws in the writing that I’ve never seen before. For example, Lyra doesn’t seem very suspicious of the Master of Jordan College after he tries to poison Lord Asriel; she has scenes with him later and, even though it is touched upon briefly, I think she should be a lot less trusting of him. I also felt that, in places, elements of the story (especially characters’ motivations/relationships) are rushed along in order to advance the plot. This makes sense – Pullman’s primary aim is to tell a rip-roaring story – but every now and again I could feel the acceleration.

But these concerns hardly matter against the grand spectacle of the whole book. The most impactful moments of the story are still just as affecting, even after several reads. Lyra and Pan in the guillotine-like machine, about to be separated forever, is a breathtaking scene. There’s also Iorek’s battle against Iofur, involving the gruesome ending which shocked me deeply as a child but is absolutely necessary for the story. And Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel at the end, their daemons caressing each other strangely, their complex adult relationship playing out in front of Lyra and being described through the eyes of a child.

At the end of this edition there are ‘Lantern Slides’, short paragraphs by Philip Pullman that provide just a little more insight into the world of Northern Lights. My favourites were the one about Lee Scoresby, in which we learn he had a witch lover who ‘spoiled him for women younger’n three hundred’, and Serafina Pekkala’s, which goes like this:

I’ve always said the Northern Lights is the weakest book in a ‘trilogy’ which only gets stronger and stronger, and so far I stand by that (although, let’s be clear, it is by no means actually weak). The subsequent books are grander in their ambition – they span different worlds, and of course we get to meet Will – but for all its relative ‘smallness’, Northern Lights is still enormously ambitious and completely captivating. It’s also the one I know the best, because it’s the one I’ve read the most (I think I read the first half of Northern Lights several times before I finally made it through all three volumes), and there’s nothing quite like slipping back into that beautiful, familiar world.

“There,” he said, “I have just brushed ten million other worlds and they knew nothing of it. We are as close as a heartbeat, but we can never touch or see or hear these other worlds except in the Northern Lights.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here. (I highly recommend this hardback edition.)

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