A couple of weeks ago I read Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights for the first time. There’s a reason for this, which shall become apparent soon, but for now, I’ll regurgitate the reason for missing it when it was first published. Just as I did for missing H.P Lovecraft the first time around, I dismissed it because it likely not that sophisticated (Talking bears? Pur-lease. I dropped C.S Lewis talking animals when I dropped my testicles). And so, just like I did with H.P Lovecraft, I missed out on more great stuff the first time around.
I’m ashamed – ashamed, I tell you! – of my snotty-nosed teenage snobbery. I was fourteen when Northern Lights was published in 1995, and should have been the absolute bang-on age for its intended target audience. But no, I neglected it, despite it causing quite a stir and amassing bestseller status in nothing flat, in favour of more esoteric fare. In fact, I’m probably one of the weirdo readers of my generation to have read the original source material, John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, before reading Pullman’s just-as-epic retelling of that tale. I read Paradise Lost at the age of seventeen or so, when devouring lots of such examples of classical English literature, and even wrote an epic poem of my own, Black Rainbow, as a result.
I’m a little older and a tad wiser now, and realise that the most sophisticated of stories can come dressed in modest cloth. That’s certainly the case with Northern Lights and the trilogy His Dark Materials in general. Pullman has always been explicit in his admiration and love for Paradise Lost, going so far as to quote it directly in the preface of Northern Lights, and write an impassioned introduction to the epic poem for its 2005 edition published by (who else?) Oxford University Press.
It turns out Northern Lights is sophisticated, and then some. It consists of almost unfathomable depths. When you scratch the surface and begin to ask questions about the meanings that lay behind this book it opens up myriad new possibilities to explore; it’s almost as if the book itself is a symbol of the multiverses which it describes; you can open a door of enquiry and end up in whole new world of meaning if you step through. This, in my opinion, is what all great books do and what all writers should at least aim for; presenting the reader with unending possibilities and endless possible interpretations. And here’s the thing: even the writer needn’t be aware of the full potential depth of their work, and perhaps is best off not knowing, so as to leave things open and interpretable to the reader. But both Milton and Pullman wield symbols like landmines, planting them all over the narrative landscape, allowing them to explode in completely random ways depending on how the reader approaches it. If you’re writing something which can only be interpreted in one way, or is designed to be interpreted in only one way, you’re not that far away from propaganda. That’s not the case with Northern Lights, which is actually rather ironic, as it’s clear Pullman seems to be pushing an atheist angle from the get-go. But whether he actually succeeds or not is quite debatable.
The plot revolves around Lyra, a precocious and bricky girl on the cusp of young womanhood who has been raised in a literally otherworldly Oxford University after being brought there as a child by her supposed errant uncle, the explorer Asriel. Asriel visits the university – Jordan College, where Lyra lives – to present to the scholars his proof of the existence of a mysterious substance called Dust, observed in the Arctic through the aurora, the Northern Lights. We quickly learn that talk of Dust is somehow heretical, and attempting to prove its existence will awaken the wrath of the Magisterium (an avatar for a Church that has, in Lyra’s world, seemingly not undergone an excision from the state and thus maintains a holy – and extremely powerful – hand on the national tiller). Nevertheless, Asriel inveigles the scholars for more funding, and leaves without Lyra, despite her protestations. Later, a woman known as Mrs Coulter arrives to take Lyra away, with promises of adventure and passage to the Arctic north, which Lyra dearly wishes to visit. The Oxford masters cannot prevent this, and so her journey begins.
It transpires that a prophecy surrounds Lyra, and she is quickly earmarked as a classic Chosen One character. This colours the narrative immediately. Prophecies abound in fantasy literature and storytelling, and have to be handled carefully. The best ones tend to revolve around the idea that the Chosen One can restore what once was lost, and will defeat whatever tyranny is blighting the land. The worst ones simply telegraph the plot. But there’s more. The great characters marked by prophecy – Lyra, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, several characters in A Song Of Ice And Fire, Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings, and of course Jesus Christ (not to mention several other brilliant works such as The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth etc) – are not simply presented as being destined to save the world. There is always choice involved. Each of these characters – even Christ – is at some point presented with the temptation to take the expedient path, the dark side, or succumb to some form of temptation and neglect their destiny. Lyra’s destiny is complex: she is fated to destroy destiny itself, as the witch Serafina Pekkala describes:
“There is a curious prophecy about this child: she is destined to bring about the end of destiny. But she must do so without knowing what she is doing, as if she were her nature and not her destiny to do so. If she’s told what she must do, all will fail; death will sweep through all the worlds; it will be the triumph of despair, for ever.”
Why are prophecies so prevalent in these great stories that grip the collective consciousness? My feeling is that it speaks to that ancient part of us that knows that the life of the individual is immutable, and can only be defined by the person living it. We are all the Chosen One of our existence, and if we really are honest with ourselves, have the choice between the expedient path, and the meaningful path. I think we can gauge this, as well: anything good that has come out of life tends to come as a result of opting to do something. Very little comes of sitting tight and waiting for life to reward us. We have to do. Take control of existence and make decisions to act in the right way. Create opportunities and seize them. Turn away from the Devil, the Death Eater, the Sith. In Lyra’s case she must follow her natural instincts.
This is where Pullman’s skill as a writer comes in. The cast of characters in His Dark Materials is large, necessarily so in an epic fantasy like this, yet many of the characters are essentially ciphers. Pullman has been quite explicit in creating characters which are representative of abstract qualities or particular mythic ideas, and yet they do not feel like lifeless chess pieces, carved to play a particular task. Lyra is fated – she represents a kind of awakening, or opening to the truth – but she is a fully rounded character in her own right; she is fierce, independent, inquisitive, as all children should be. She’s an adept liar, she’s adaptable, and has a strong exploratory nature. She’s courageous, loyal, trusting but not naïve. She’s also quick to anger, and lazily blasé at times. She is impressed upon by good adults in her life, such as Farder Coram, Lee Scoresby and, in latter books, Mary Malone; and also by ambivalent adults, such as Asriel and Lord Faa; and even downright malevolent ones, such as those operating under the auspices of the Magisterium, and the wicked Mrs Coulter.
Milton had no need to create rounded characters in the way that we modern audiences understand it, in the manner Pullman does. In Paradise Lost the characters are explicit symbols. How can they not be when our cast of characters includes Satan, Raphael, Adam, Eve, Belial, Beezlebub, Mammon, and other such mythical titans? Yet even so, Satan himself is cast as the Chosen One in his own narrative; Hell, and Pandaemonium, may be his abode, but even he aspires to Heaven, and to act. He acts with the goal of corrupting God’s greatest creation, humanity, of which Adam and Eve are the prototypical emblem.
Satan, in such a respect, becomes as Quixotic and romantic a hero as any other from the period, and may even be said to serve as the template for characters such as Gulliver and Victor Frankenstein who would follow later. He strives for vengeance and glory with a burning intellect and a pathological rationale. Paradise Lost opens with Satan and his demon followers in Hell, having been exiled by God after the War in Heaven. Satan summons the devilish inhabitants of Hell to a parley at Pandaemonium (which of course contains the word daemon) and decide how best to avenge themselves against God, and Satan considers the various options carefully. Yet for all Satan’s intellectual gymnastics, God remains a mysterious and dangerous foe. So, he reasons, it would be better to attack God by proxy by targeting his most precious creations, humankind. Thus, the epic poem takes Satan on an Odyssean journey through space and time to the Garden of Eden, where Satan sets in motion the events concerning Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. The ultimate consequence of Satan’s actions is to extricate from the human characters their spark of unknowable divinity, which shields them from the double-edged blade of self-consciousness.
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan referred to the early infantile stage of human development as the Imaginary Age, which lasted until a conceptual moment called the Mirrorphase. The Mirrorphase is thus named as it stands for the moment an infant recognises him or herself in a mirror, thus understanding that the world and s/he are not one holistic object, and that there is a separation at play. The Imaginary Age is applicable to humans individually, and while it’s impossible to pin down the Mirrorphase to an exact point in time (even if you really watch your children), it’s an evidently astute observation, even if the emblem of the mirror is largely symbolic. This Lacanian idea of the Imaginary Age can also be applied to humanity as a whole; humanity’s Mirrorphase could be pinpointed to the exact moment that Adam and Even see each other after eating the fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge; they immediately recognise each other as vulnerable, and are afraid. The falling of the scales from the eyes of the first humans is, then, the Satanic act. We are shouldered with the insufferable burden of knowledge, and must bear it to the end of our days. The imaginary age is over, and the spark of divinity that was once in us is gone forever. While this is distilled in this incredibly ancient story, and retold in Paradise Lost, in Northern Lights it is subtly hinted at. We read mentions of trepanning, an ancient noble custom of drilling holes into human skulls not as torture, but as a ritual reserved for the most revered shamans, to let in the angels – or the Dust. The drilled skulls in Northern Lights (and which are seen more in the sequel The Subtle Knife) are dated from thirty to forty-thousand years ago, which is roughly when the first true human civilisations began to assemble. Or, to think of it in another way, it is when when the scales fell from our eyes, and we understood the existential burdens of life, such as the concept of the future, and of work, of pain, and the finitude of individual existence.
For Lyra, this is the “end of destiny” that Serafina Pekkala speaks of. It means the end of predestination, careening through life with no freedom or agency. It means an awakening of the human mind to not only freely pursue sunnier uplands, but also to be encumbered with the burden of work and death. Pullman, then, is working in both the ancient past and the present day.
Men, Women and Bears
The distillation of men and women into Adam and Eve is one of the tasks undertaken by the Book of Genesis, and neither of them come off very well. Eve is tempted by the serpent into erring, and Adam, rather than defend her, immediately dobs in his missus to management when God figures out what’s gone down and starts asking awkward questions.
The distillation of men and women also occurs in Northern Lights: for men, read armoured bears, and for women, read witches, such as Serafina Pekkala. I see the witches as an archetypal representation of the feminine as nature. They are painted with supernatural characteristics, such as unnatural long life, thereby reflecting constance of rebirth and continuity, and they possess an immunity against the cold. Witches can love men, just as Serafina Pekkala loves Farder Coram, and reward those men who treat them well, as does nature when well-tended. But like nature they are also capable of great fury and vengeance, and while they are long-lived they are not eternal; even nature has a shelf-life, which may expire depending on the actions of men.
The men in the witches’ lives – sons, lovers – cannot become one with them. They are destined for the human labours of industry, academia, defence, and toil. The witches’ long life means they do not require property, or have notions of it, unlike the humans, whose finitude requires them to trade in order to survive, which in turn requires notions of property. These concepts allow human societies to evolve even as individuals die out.
Much of this worldbuilding is elegantly laid out in a conversation between Serafina Pekkala and the aëronaut Lee Scoresby, whose command of material things – guns, hot-air balloons, mechanics – acts as a counterpoint to the witches. Lee is a practical man versed in not only engineering but also trade, property, freedom of choice, horses, Bourbon and returning to the land. As a “New Texan” he is the quintessential American optimist, and believes strongly in the freedom to choose one’s own course, which defines Lee’s own story, even as he falls into line with the fates of those around him. He says a man ought to have a choice. He doesn’t want a palace or slaves, he wants “the evening wind over the sage, a ceegar, and a glass of bourbon whiskey.” He also believes that destiny is not fixed, and doesn’t like the idea of Lyra being a “clockwork toy” with no control over her destiny. Lee’s mastery of material things also stands as a foil to the witches’ lack of property and ability to trade; they may be long-lived and disabused of ideas of property, but this bounds them to a kind of stasis. They have no need for trade, and so cannot advance themselves – their society remains stuck in an order of primitive tribalism, whereas Lee, for all his finitude, is free and can advance and apply himself however he sees fit.
The one woman who has evolved beyond her station is Mrs Coulter, one of literature’s great villains, whose cold calculation means she can extricate herself from her daemon at will and ignore the undercurrents of her conscience. In the fabulous BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials we are even shown a short scene where Mrs Coulter is furiously gripping the neck of her own daemon, the cruel, golden-haired monkey; she is literally torturing her own soul, which is exactly what you do when you do wrong. You agonise over your crimes and mistakes, and your conscience is hurt. It’s a short but frightening and intense scene. In a very real sense she continues a long and great tradition of corrupt mothers in fable, such as The Queen in Snow White; the wicked stepmother in Cinderella; Dame Gothel (which translates as Godmother) in Rapunzel; and Hansel and Gretel’s mother. Like all of these figures, Mrs Coulter is a perversion of the mother figure; in her own perverse way she cares for Lyra, but is quite happy to brutalise her and other children. She is the antithesis of Serafina Pekkala and the witches; where they display their femininity overtly, she jettisons hers, except for on a superficial level. Yes, she’s very beautiful, and refined, and well-dressed, but she is more at home in the world of men, and is able to manipulate them for ill-gains. In a wonderful touch, Pullman even writes that she smells of metal and, when angered, of hot metal, the smell of industry, the domain of men.
Mrs Coulter (played here by Ruth Wilson) is a continuation of the long line of corrupt mother figures in literature, such as the Queen in Snow White.
For much of the narrative Mrs Coulter is absent, lurking in the shadows, similarly to Lord Asriel. Where Mrs Coulter plays the corrupt mother, Asriel plays the Satanic romantic hero. He is a lord who spends much of his time in the hellish permafrost of the Earth’s outer reaches, beyond the reach of the totalitarian Magisterium, but plots to undo their controlling grip over the world. In fairy tale or mythic lore you tend to have characters that are representative of either the good father and the bad father, or the good king and the bad king. This dichotomy is also represented by the armoured bears Iorek Byrnison (good king) and Iofur Raknison (bad king), but Asriel represents both of those figures in one character, which makes him very sophisticated and difficult to read. At times you root for Asriel, and you want him to err on the side of good. He is driven by the highest ideals of good, yet he is capable of great brutality, wickedness, and cold cruelty. Like Satan he is unrelenting in his desire to bring low the ones who would humiliate and destroy him. He is also, as is Satan, a shining beacon of intellect and rationale, using reason and method to plough ahead and release the true potential of the human mind. He pursues Dust, neither knowing what it is nor the true consequences of pursuing it, but he is driven to it, and uses all his intellect and cunning to do so. Even when he is captured by the errant bear king Iofur Raknison, Asriel inveigles him to continue his research while under house arrest. Raknison, drunk on power, permits this, not alert to his own fate.
The armoured bears, or panserbjorne, themselves are the distilled male counterpoint to the witches’ femininity. Asriel, being the good king and bad king in one character, is mirrored in the characters of the tyrant king Iorek Byrnison, and the ruined king Iofur Raknison, who must battle each other to determine the fate of the whole. Iorek Byrnison is discovered by Lyra as an indebted, drunken, servile creature, exiled in disgrace for his crimes. It is here, in the pits of hell, his lowest ebb, far from home, that he is reintroduced to his true sense of self, and imbued with the sense of meaning and purpose that will see him return to his rightful spot on the throne.
The Bears’ story is in this sense extremely close to The Lion King. While Iorek Byrnison undergoes the same journey of fecklessness and servility Simba does when he is banished, Iofur Raknison stands in for the wicked Scar – they both represent a corruption of the natural order of things. Iofur Raknison’s kingdom is, like Pride Rock in The Lion King, ruined; although it’s rich with perfume and gold, the floor is stained with stinking filth, bones, and rubble. It’s a corrupt kingdom. For the world to be restored the good king has to do battle with the tyrant king and win out, just as Simba must battle Scar. That confrontation is also echoing another ancient storyline, from Cain and Abel through to Batman and the Joker. Of course, if we’re thinking metaphysically, there’s only one bear; the battle between good and evil is within the individual, all the time. Who will win out – the tyrannical, corrupt, nihilistic aspect of your personality? Or the kingly, benevolent aspect? In that sense, the bears’ story is a microcosm of the story as a whole.
There are many similarities between Milton and Pullman themselves, and not simply in their retelling of the same Genesis story across the ages. Milton was one of the great historical champions of free speech for individuals, and of freedom for the press and for artists. His 1644 book Areopagitica passionately argued for writers to publish works freely, without requiring permission from an official licencer, essentially a state censor. Likewise Pullman, the current president of the Society of Authors in the UK, is a vociferous defender of freedom of expression. He is on record as having described freedom of speech as “precious” and that “no-one has the right to spend their life without being offended.” They are both men of the great Oxbridge universities. They are both towering figures of English literature. They both have God running through their work like a stick of rock. Where they differ is in their representation of God. Milton’s God is a benevolent King, a good monarch. For Milton, freedom is intertwined with the ability to live by God’s word; in other words, it is by acting in accordance with an ethical framework that is informed by God (or, at least, to modern sensibilities, the idea of God) and codified by religion that gives one the greatest possible chance of being free. In other words, by sorting out your ethical frameworks first, you create the optimum conditions for creation, success, security, and contentment.
Conversely, Pullman sees God – or, as He is called in Northern Lights, the Authority – as a malign and repressive tyrant, representative of a rigid set of rules which prevents humans from flourishing. So there’s a very fundamental diametric opposition between the two pieces of work, despite Pullman’s very sincere admiration and love for Paradise Lost, and homage and retelling of that great story through His Dark Materials. But is Pullman’s bogeyman really God/ the Authority, or is it the Church? It’s the Magisterium, not God, who wields true authority in Northern Lights. The truth is that they are both right, all the time. Whether we experience God as the good king or the raging tyrant very much depends on us. But we cannot ignore that dichotomy, as we have been Satanically woken from unconsciousness into the light of knowledge, which brings choices.
And it wasn’t God who was angered at the publication of Northern Lights; it was the Church. The book – or, more accurately, His Dark Materials as a whole, once the entire narrative plays itself out – was very controversial upon its publication. From the perspective of an embattled Church (which nonetheless frequently does itself no favours) it was antagonistic and hostile. It was published over a hundred years after Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, in which the pronouncement “God is Dead!” is made, and the parable of the madman searching for God is related. Nietzsche goes on to have the madman refer to Plato’s allegory of the cave:
“…God is dead:
but as the human race is constituted, there will
perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which
people will show his shadow.—And we—we have
still to overcome his shadow!”
The idea that religious-based human societies are predicated upon the idea of original sin – and therefore offer a framework for living that is based upon subjugation of individuality – is tempting, especially when one sees the almost unbelievable extent of the Church’s powers in the middle ages through to the Early Modern period.
The lasting irony is, that the books were eventually lauded as a triumph by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. And in 2021 Pullman himself is being supported by defenders of free expression in the light of yet another risible Twitter ruckus, for which he is undergoing a depressing period of “rehabilitation” at the Society of Authors. Religious totalitarianism doesn’t require God, nor even religion, to function perfectly well. And so we have to continue to reawaken ourselves from these oppressive structures, in ourselves, in society, all the time, forever.
The Satanic awakening of humanity cannot be a distinct event, one markable by a timestamp, or captured by a newspaper. It happens to all of us, all the time, forever, which is why The Book of Genesis, Paradise Lost, and Northern Lights – not to mention the multiple other versions and retellings of this ancient story – become timeless; the same story is told using multiple different techniques and settings, becoming relevant to different people in different eras and places. Do we choose to lurk in the abyssal throat of an uncaring, unfeeling predestiny, or do we emerge from the cave, knife in hand, ready to reckon with God and take on the world? That’s the question we must all answer, and which these wonderful stories relate to us in every era, now and for all time.