Northern lights

A journey into the history of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

Northern lights
Image: Andrew Liptak

Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights, for those living outside of the United States) is a deceptive novel.

On its face, it pivots on its extraordinary worldbuilding—in a world both like and very unlike our own, magic exists, science is ascendant, and all people are accompanied by a shapeshifting animal called a dæmon, a sort of outer manifestation of their inner soul—rather than its plot, a hero’s journey about young girl named Lyra who embarks on a journey to save her friend Roger, who’s been kidnapped by an oppressive religious order. Lyra encounters aeronauts; talking, armored polar bears; and witches along the way—exciting stuff of the sort that could have easily led to a charming but familiar work of fantasy.

But Pullman’s novel has endured over the years and among new generations of fans, perhaps because the first book is so charming and familiar—and because from there, the series became increasingly anything but. The sequels The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass take the trilogy in odd, angular directions, journeying to new worlds and introducing new protagonists, sometimes leaving Lyra far in the background.

Pullman is in the midst of writing a second, companion trilogy, The Book of Dust, which began with La Belle Sauvage—a book in which Lyra only appears as an infant. She returns to the fore in the latest installment, The Secret Commonwealth, released in 2019, and comes to new prominence in the BBC/HBO series His Dark Materials based on the original trilogy, which began airing November 4 in the U.S. The third installment if Pullman's second trilogy has yet to come out – he's said that hes "steadily" writing it.

Pullman’s creation has also enjoyed film and theater adaptations, and remains one of the most unusual franchises in mainstream fantasy: a series as much about adventure as it is about philosophy; as much about a girl’s coming of age as a world grappling with the meaning of existence itself.

Before you sit down with the new HBO series, let’s take a tour through the series’ history so far…

Three novels on a table: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.
Image: Andrew Liptak

The Original Trilogy

Born in 1946 just after the Second World War, Pullman spent his early years traveling around the world, following his father, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, and later, his mother and stepfather. He lived in England, Zimbabwe, and Australia, and ended up in North Wales as a teenager. It was there that he discovered poetry, and where, he said, “I started learning to read things that I wanted to read.” He eventually went to Exeter College in Oxford, where he studied English. Soon after, he began teaching English to middle school-aged children.

Eventually, he began to write, first plays for the schools he worked at, and eventually, a novel: 1972’s The Haunted Storm, about troubles in a small village, which earned him the New English Library’s Young Writer’s Award in 1972 (Pullman has since disowned it.)

Eventually, he adapted one of his school plays as a novel, 1982’s Count Karlstein: or The Rise of the Demon Huntsman.

The children’s book follows a man named Count Karlstein, who made a deal with the Demon Huntsman, Zamiel, to become rich, but at a terrible cost: he must sacrifice his two nieces. (Those plans are eventually foiled, naturally.) The book received acclaim, and was followed by The Ruby in the Smoke, the first of a four-book period mystery series about a young woman named Sally Lockhart that continued in The Shadow in the North (1986), The Tiger in the Well (1990), and The Tin Princess (1994), earning the author a legion of young fans (and no doubt many older ones too, particularly among teachers and librarians).

It was in 1993 that the first sparks of what would become The Golden Compass emerged. Pullman recently recounted that he had been speaking with his publisher, David Fickling, who asked him what he’d be writing next.

“I remembered those lessons in that little classroom, and I thought, You know, what I’d really like to do is Paradise Lost, but in a different way. It turned out that David had been to school a little later than me but that he had done the same books. And so we sat there over lunch and exchanged quotations and finished each other’s lines. By the time the lunch was finished, I had a contract to write a fantasy.”

Pullman noted that while he had read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels, he disagreed significantly with their world views.

“I dislike his Narnia books because of the solution he offers to the great questions of human life: is there a God, what is the purpose, all that stuff, which he really does engage with pretty deeply, unlike Tolkien who doesn’t touch it at all. The Lord of the Rings is essentially trivial. Narnia is essentially serious, though I don’t like the answer Lewis comes up with. If I was doing it at all, I was arguing with Narnia. Tolkien is not worth arguing with.”

His fantasy took on a slightly different approach, drawing influences from John Milton’s epic poem. Milton’s work helped cemented his status as one of the canon’s greatest practitioners, following the biblical story of the fall of Man by exploring the temptation of Adam and Eve, and the fall of Satan. The work appealed to Pullman, who noted that his fantasy story “began partly with my memories of reading the poem aloud at school so many years before;” he said that after speaking with his publisher, he “seemed to have agreed to write a long fantasy for young readers, which would partially we hoped, evoke something of the atmosphere we both loved.”

“So it was the landscape, the atmosphere that was my starting point. But as the narrative began to form itself on the page, I found that — perhaps drawn by the gravitational attraction of a much greater mass — I was beginning to tell the same story, too.”

In his collection of essays, Dæmon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, Pullman writes that the overarching theme of his fantasy novel “is the end of innocence,” and that the “story of Adam and Eve seems to me the fundamental myth of why we are as we are;” in short, it’s a story in which the characters are utterly changed by their experiences, and about how they move forward from there. Adam and Eve were thrown out of Eden, and “we have to forget about innocence— it’s gone; it’s no use moping around our lost childhood, and becoming intoxicated by the sickly potency of our own nostalgia; we have to grow up. We have to leave the unselfish-conscious grace of childhood behind and go in search of another quality altogether, the quality of wisdom.”

It’s that thought that is nestled at the core of His Dark Materials.

A spread of pages 138-139 of the illustrated edition of The Golden Compass, featuring a polar bear an Lyra.
Image: Andrew Liptak

In The Golden Compass, he introduces readers to Lyra Belacqua and her dæmon Pantalaimon, a young, orphaned girl living in an alternate Oxford. As the story opens, children have been going missing, including her friend Roger. Early in the book, she foils the assassination of Lord Asriel, her uncle, who was about to deliver a lecture on “Dust,” mysterious, elementary particle.

In Lyra’s world, Dust is a heretical concept, the knowledge and study of which is actively stamped out by the Magisterium. Lord Asriel is looking to study the particle, believing that it could hold the key to learning about alternate realities. It soon becomes clear that Dust holds some relationship between people, their dæmons, and the very nature of consciousness itself.

Over the course of the novel, Lyra is given a truth-telling device called an alethiometer, and discovers that the woman that has adopted her, Mrs. Coulter, is responsible for the disappearances of the children in Oxford—part of a plot on the part of the Magisterium to study the secrets of Dust, and the ramifications they hold for humanity.

The first book ends on a monster cliffhanger, and in 1997, Pullman published a sequel, The Subtle Knife, largely set in our world, and following a boy named Will Parry, who accidentally discovers a portal to a parallel universe where, in the city Cittagazze, he discovers Lyra and Pan, who have themselves crossed over into another world. Lyra is searching for information about the nature of Dust, and Will acquires a particular artifact, the Subtle Knife, that allows him to cut his way into other dimensions. Over the course of the novel, Lyra’s role in this greater fight becomes clear: some believe that she’s a second Eve, and the Magisterium is determined to prevent a second fall of mankind.

The final installment of the trilogy The Amber Spyglass, arrived in stores three years later, and takes the story in more overtly theological directions, climaxing in a massive battle between factions of angels—those loyal to the Authority (the first Angel to form out of Dust, and Pullman’s equivalent of God), and Metatron (the Regent of Heaven, who seeks to overthrow the Authority). Will and Lyra travel to the world of the dead to free the souls trapped there, and are forced to part from their dæmons. They succeed, allowing the dead to rejoin the universe. There’s a tragic element to the novel’s finale, however: Lyra and Will must part, as each is only able to exist in their own world.

With The Amber Spyglass, Pullman brings his epic reinterpretation of Milton’s Paradise Lost to a close. In Dæmon Voices, he sums up his thesis aptly: “my story resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence.”

The trilogy attracted considerable acclaim and considerable criticism from various circles. Each of the books were lauded by literary critics, earning Pullman numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal and Whitbread Book Award, and eventually, a knighthood. Praise focused in His Dark Material’s powerful investigations of morality and maturity, while at the same time, the books were derided by religious groups that saw them as an attack on faith. Some calling for the books to be banned or even burned.

Cinematic Failure

In 2000, New Line Cinemas unleashed a game-changing film franchise on theaters across the world: a big-budget adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Filmed simultaneously in New Zealand, the trio movies hit theaters in succeeding Decembers, telling the epic story of Frodo Baggins and his companions as they sought to destroy the Ring of Power and save Middle-earth from an eternity of evil.

The trilogy’s box office success drove studios to seek out other projects that would appeal to the same viewers who made Frodo a household name (again). After all, if Tolkien’s epic could be adapted, others could be as well. Warner Bros. landed J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, leading to an $8 billion franchise, while Disney had some success wit the early Narnia books. In 2003, New Line Cinemas began work on its next big fantasy bet: an adaption of Pullman’s trilogy, penned by Oscar-winner Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), with Chris Weitz (American Pie, About A Boy) in the director’s chair.

On its face, the premise of His Dark Materials seems ideal material for a fantasy film aimed at young adults. In a world where people are accompanied by shape shifting creatures, one girl must journey north with an alliance of witches, armored polar bears and aeronauts to save her kidnapped friend.

Weitz told His Dark Materials fansite Bridge to the Stars that he had proposed a trilogy of films to New Line, saying that the novels were “too complex and grand to confine to two films,” and that while the first film would be shot on its own, adaptations of the second two novels would follow. The sequels, he predicted, would “probably be shot at the same time, as was done for the second and third Matrix films.”

Religious groups such as the Catholic League had criticized the novels, and Weitz admitted that as a result, New Line had concerns about the viability of its film trilogy. Speaking with Bridge to the Stars, he explained that “I think [His Dark Materials] is, in fact, not an atheistic world but a highly spiritual and even reverent piece of writing.” But, “New Line is a company that makes films for economic returns… They have expressed worry about the possibility of HDM’s perceived anti-religiousity making it an unviable project financially. My job is to get the film made in such a way that the spirit of the piece is carried through to the screen, and I must contend not only with the difficulties of the material, but with the fears of the studio… you will probably not hear ‘Church’ but you will hear of the Magisterium.”

When The Golden Compass hit theaters in 2007, it was certainly a smoothed out version of the story, lacking the overtly religious angle and minus the darker aspects of the cliffhanger ending. Unfortunately, it seems the studio may have interfered too much: Weitz left the project in 2005 and was replaced by Anand Tucker, only to return when Tucker departed in 2006, and the resulting adaptation, while largely faithful to the events of the novel, lacked the deeper, philosophical core that made the novels stand out from the adventure fantasy crowd. And still, even with the controversial themes diluted, religious groups called for a boycott of the film. Whatever the reasons, it was dead on arrival in cinemas, a commercial and critical dud—at least in the United States; it performed marginally better overseas, to the point that rumors of a sequel lingered for years. But given that the series was imagined as a sort of successor to the The Lord of the Rings, the lack of momentum proved fatal for the franchise. The two sequels never materialized.

The Book of Dust.
Image: Andrew Liptak

A long-awaited return

Following the publication of The Amber Spyglass, Pullman revisited the world of His Dark Materials several more times. In 2003, he published a short book called Lyra’s Oxford, featuring some illustrations and a short story called “Lyra and the Birds.” In 2008, he released Once Upon a Time in the North, a prequel to His Dark Materials that detailed the meeting of the bear king Iorek Byrnison and aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and in 2014, a short audio story called “The Collectors,” featuring Mrs. Coulter. Meanwhile, he worked on a handful of other projects, including a children’s novel called The Scarecrow and his Servant; the 2010 allegorical adult novel The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, a retelling of the story of Jesus; and a book of Fairy Tales From The Brothers Grimm in 2013.

But Pullman had greater ambitions for Lyra’s world. Following the publication of Lyra’s Oxford, his editor told The Guardian that the author was working on a “continuation” of the trilogy, a project called The Book of Dust, and in 2007, the author announced that the book was “underway.” He issued a number of updates in the following years, explaining that the story had grown in scale, and that he was, “encountering complexities that seem to be making it longer than I thought it should be.”

With those complexities, the timeline for publication lengthened and the scope expanded; he said in 2011 that it would be two books: one set before the original trilogy, and the other afterward. The years passed and fan pressure mounted. In 2013, Pullman told the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast that he was working on the book in earnest. “I’m going to clear the whole of next year, and most of the year after, and I’m not going to accept any invitations or do anything, make speeches, go anywhere, do anything at all,” he said. “I’m staying at home at my desk, and I’m going to write The Book of Dust until it’s completed.”

In 2017, he formally announced that The Book of Dust had become a trilogy, and that the first installment, La Belle Sauvage, would hit bookstores that October. He described the project not as a sequel trilogy, but as an equal companion, and promised it would return to the world and some of the same characters. The first book would be set prior to the events of the first trilogy, while the second two installments would be set after. Pullman explained that he wanted to explore “more about the nature of Dust, and consciousness, and what it means to be a human being.”

Set 12 or so years before The Golden Compass, La Belle Sauvage features two children: a bright 11-year-old named Malcom Polstead, who would prefer to spend his time in his canoe, and an abrasive and tough 15-year-old named Alice Parslow. Malcom learns that some local nuns have taken in an infant named Lyra, and watches as a man is arrested, and recovers the secret message that he carried.

Those events thrust Malcom into events that stretch far beyond his home in Oxford, right as a massive storm sweeps over the country, flooding it. Agents from the Magisterium and a scientist named Gerard Bonneville are keenly interested in Lyra, and he and Alice are forced to rescue Lyra and take her to safety by boat.

Pullman uses La Belle Sauvage as an ardent cry against the rising forces of authoritarianism, echoing some of the themes that pop up in His Dark Materials. Those themes are also at the forefront of the followup, The Secret Commonwealth, when it hit stores in October of 2019.

The Secret Commonwealth picks up Lyra’s story in the years after the events of The Amber Spyglass. Now 20, she’s a student at Oxford, where she has been studying how to use the alethiometer. Lyra becomes enamored of a new movement that prizes rationality—something that has begun to drive her and Pantalaimon apart, emotionally. When Pan sees someone attacked in Oxford, the victim’s dæmon asks for help completing a mission, thrusting Pan and Lyra on separate journeys across Europe and into Asia. This penultimate Lyra story (for now, anyway) echoes many of the same anti-authoritarian themes as the preceding novels, and feels particularly relevant in the political climate of 2019. The final installment of The Book of Dust has yet to be announced.

HBO’s His Dark Materials

Despite the lackluster response to New Line’s The Golden Compass, studios and writers remained interested in adapting the novels again. The UK’s National Theater staged an adaptation of the trilogy in 2003, and in 2015, the BBC announced that it was producing a TV series based on the saga. The channel commissioned the series from Welch production studio Bad Wolf, and at the time, Pullman noted that the surge in interest in adapting big fantasy novels—such as with HBO’s Game of Thrones—would give the production the ability to delve deeply into the characters and stories to a level beyond that of which a typical feature film could accomplish.

Production on the series began in 2018, with an all-star cast in tow, including marquee stars in James McAvoy and Lin Manuel-Miranda. Soon after, HBO formally boarded the project, allowing the BBC to order a second season. The first season of the show will cover the events in the first novel, while the second season would move through The Subtle Knife. While a third season has yet to be ordered, producers say they envision  splitting The Amber Spyglass into two seasons. And the series might not stop there — producer Jane Tranter told Deadline that they’re not ruling out the possibility of adapting Pullman’s The Book of Dust novels.

It seems all of us—readers, film studios, and, hopefully, television viewers, have trouble leaving Lyra’s world behind.

That's all for today. Since this post was originally published way back in 2019, HBO and the BBC have released a second season, based on the second book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, while this latest, six-episode season is based off of The Amber Spyglass. This final season will run through the middle of December, and I'll be really interested to see how well they adapt it: the novel is all about multiverses, a war between heaven and angels, and quite a bit more; a lot to pack into just six hours.

I started rewatching the series last night. I watched the show when it started, but I didn't manage to watch Season 2 when it came out in 2020, and I'm looking forward to sinking back into it and revisiting this excellent story.