Review: Northern Lights by Philip Pullman (Book 1, His Dark Materials)

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman Book Cover
Northern Lights (1995), published as The Golden Compass in some territories, is the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Here one is introduced to Lyra Bellacqua, a young girl estranged from her parents, and being brought up in the scholarly atmosphere of Jordan College, Oxford in an alternate universe. In this universe all humans are accompanied by daemons, small animal familiars that represent their human’s soul. Children’s daemons are able to change shape at will until they reach adulthood when they settle on a particular form, one that best represents their human’s character. Lyra is a boisterous and feisty child, who is most at home scaling the roofs of the great college where she resides, or fighting with children from the town. When Lyra eavesdrops on an important college meeting involving her uncle, the brusque Lord Asriel, she learns something of ‘dust’, a mysterious and little understood substance that is somehow intrinsic to the functioning of her world, and which various sinister bodies have a vested interest in. Although her interest is aroused, it’s not until one of her friends is taken by the notorious, child-snatching Gobblers, that Lyra is drawn into the most fantastic quest. Taken from Jordan College by the charismatic Mrs Coulter to start a new life in London, Lyra soon escapes and finds herself wrapped up in a string of exciting adventures, meeting the kindly river-boat-dwelling Gyptians who reveal secrets about her parents, before travelling to the North to rescue her friend and all those stolen by the Gobblers. Along the way she encounters armoured bears, witches, and all kinds of wickedness. Using the Alitheometer, a truth-telling device given to her by the master of Jordan, Lyra navigates her way through great wars and terrible sacrifices until she begins to uncover the truth about ‘dust’.

Despite ostensibly being a children’s novel, Northern Lights, considers deep moral and theological issues. Pullman, a famously active atheist, explores the role of religion in the world and through fictional bodies in the novel, questions the motive of organised religious groups and the application of their principles. In so plainly linking his own work with John Milton’s dark materials, work that carries deep Biblical and Calvinist themes, Pullman sets out to dissect rigid and traditional views of God and spirituality, and explore the idea of free will and destiny. Beyond spiritual concerns, the novel begins to discuss the concepts of time and space, a theme that is expanded upon in later books as Lyra travels across parallel worlds.

The story whips along at some pace, and consequently many characters and relationships are not fully fleshed out, Pullman instead opting for subtle indicators of their personality or assuming relationship development off-stage as it were. There are times when the alethiometer, an incredibly powerful and (seemingly) flawless object could have been used to resolve an issue, but for plot purposes isn’t – this can be a little frustrating. The language is full and Pullman doesn’t talk down to his audience; within the first scene a severed and scalped head is produced and later there is a brutally graphic fight to the death between two bears. Beyond the squeamish elements, Pullman includes obscure references that most adult would have trouble placing. Happily though, these don’t detract from the novel, and only add to one’s enjoyment when one picks such a reference out.

Though she is surrounded by an array of fantastical worlds, Lyra is the heartbeat of the novel, a thoroughly sophisticated child; though she embodies good and naivety, she is cunning and utilizes complex psychology, albeit unconsciously in many cases, to manipulate the adults around her. Like its heroine, Northern Lights is full of ambiguities - the line between good and evil as faint as it has ever been in junior fiction. The world Pullman creates is a wonder and daemons in particular are a masterstroke. Packed full of action, the novel is a fantastic read, whilst also exposing young minds to complex questions of existence.

There are fantastic ideas and heart-pounding action from the first page of Northern Lights. A truly intelligent, fun and inventive example of junior fiction at its best.

Useful Links
Reviews of Northern Lights on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Northern Lights on Amazon (US)

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Anonymous said...

I read this as a child and remember it taking me almost a year to trudge my way through it. It was only in the last section of the book, once I'd got my head around all the elements of Pullman's world, that I got completely hooked on the adventure. I think I read the other two books in the trilogy in about two weeks!
I do agree that it is a brilliant book with a really imaginative storyline, but I do wonder whether Pullman overcomplicates his world and has too much philosophising in it for a children's novel.
You said that the odd references don't detract from the novel, but I distinctly remember being confused a lot of the time about what was always meant by what I'd just read, which hindered my enjoyment of it - maybe I was just being a dumb kid!
A great novel, but too much for a children's one, perhaps?
But like I said, once I'd got into the novel there was no stopping me with the other two and the whole trilogy was one of my favourite reads as a child. I might even pick it up again now that I’ve read this post :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I got into Northern Lights right away and zipped through it. In fact of the trilogy it was probably the quickest read for me.

As a child I probably wasn't as inquisitive as you; I think I was the sort to just shrug my shoulders and skim over anything I didn't really understand. Come to think of it, I haven't changed much ;)

So I guess from that point of view, the philosophy and slightly too-smart references went right over my head and I just enjoyed the adventure side of the book.

It's hard to think back now, but I tend to think we underestimate children so I'd be happy to think they'll enjoy what they get and either ignore or research what they don't.

Anyway, thanks for the comment. If you do decide to re-read it, let me know what you think from an adult perspective. :)

Petra said...

I need to read this as well. I loved the Sally Lockhart books, or the first two anyway. Two more to read. I think he's really good at portraying the ambiguity in life, and I like that!

And when it comes to children, they probably don't get all the ideas and references, but they unconsciously got the book as a whole. This I believe cultivates them and their minds, it changes the way they read and perceive (not only) the written text. You know what I mean? So I think it's a good thing to have books for children (and adults) that might be a bit challenging.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Oh yes, do give it a go Petra - it's definitely one of his best books (of those I've read).

I agree, it's good to have fiction that challenges at any age. Hopefully reading intelligent novels like this at a young age encourages deeper thinking and a thirst for more complex books later in life.

Petra said...

Ok :)

Yes. I think children are very often quite underestimated.

So many books, so little time said...

I haven't read this one but heard lots about it


Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I'd definitely give it a go Lainy - it's a lot of fun!

TToria said...

Another fantastic review!

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Cheers TToria, let me know what you think if you find time for it :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

Just come across an interesting point, which I thought others might enjoy:

Whilst American readers might imagine the golden compass of the title to refer to the alethiometer, Pullman himself has stated that it is in fact a reference to the compasses with which Milton’s God circumscribes the earth from chaos.

Just thought that tidbit might be of interest :)

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

And just following on from that, it might also refer to the golden compass held by God in William Blake's painting 'Ancient of Days'.

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