I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman. I can’t even remember the first time I read it, I can just remember loving Lyra, loving Pan, loving the gyptians and Lee Scorseby and Iorek Byrnison. I longed for a daemon of my very own. But I realised recently that my academics meant that I hadn’t picked up this old favourite for a number of years. In fact, I didn’t even own a copy! My family rectified this for my birthday, and I now own a beautiful Everyman’s Classic version of the entire trilogy.
Lyra Belacqua is a half-wild child, running the streets of Oxford with her daemon Pantalaimon. The arrival of her Uncle Asriel while Lyra is hiding out in the Master’s room of her home, Jordan College, she is drawn into the depths of a struggle between good and bad, centuries old. Her world becomes one of intrigues and battles and lies, leaving the safety of Jordan College with the charming Mrs Coulter and ending on an adventure to the North in search of the child-snatching Gobblers, with the gyptians of the canals, an aeronaught, and an armoured bear. By Lyra, caught up in rescuing stolen children in the cold of the North, she doesn’t realise she alone is the lynchpin to the biggest battle imaginable.
I’ll be straight, Lyra is a brat. She is selfish, she’s a liar, but she knows exactly what she wants and she isn’t afraid to stand up for herself, in fact she fights for her friends and she fights against those who try and stop her from doing as she pleases. She’s a child and she is a strong child. But yeah, she’s a liar, and she is so good she convinces herself that she is telling the truth. And I think that’s why I always liked her. Lyra plays by her rules and she may be a deceptive little thing but she never really tries being something she’s truly not. She tries with Mrs Coulter, seduced by the glamour but stifled by the reality. She’s at home with the more wide gyptians, but even with them she doesn’t belong.
Mrs Coulter is even more seductively devious than I remember her being, Lord Asriel even more carelessly cruel and it was interesting reading this as an adult, with Mrs Coulter operating within the strict confines of her elevated society and finding power by basically going against everything society sees as being a woman. She is cold and she is calculating and she doesn’t care. I loved going back to see the gyptians and Ma Costa. Serephina Pekela was different to how I remember her, but that may because I have her fixed in my head as Eva Green and even the description of blonde hair can’t dissuade me from that image!
I partially re-read this because I wanted to see how I read it as an adult and not a teenager, and it was vastly different. There are things I didn’t notice about the way the society works that I didn’t read when I was younger, little things like the she-bears are given separate areas to the male-bears, about how Mrs Coulter uses how the world views her so absolutely to her own advantage. From a gender analysis perspective (I can’t help it I was an English language & Linguistics student!) it’s more interesting to me now than it was then.
But overall, Northern Lights captured my imagination as a young person, and it has stayed firmly lodged there. I love the magic, and little things like how the world is influenced in different ways to our own, it’s Tokay they drink, it’s night-gasts they fear. It is a world that is just deceptively wonderful, with flaws hiding behind a façade as fake as Mrs Coulter.
I was also -re-reading Northern Lights to remind myself of exactly what was going on in the book universe, in preparation for The Book of Dust, which is coming out on the 19th October (I have it pre-ordered and try and stop me from doing anything but reading on Friday night!). Pullman’s newest book, released some twenty years after the initial trilogy, runs parallel to the original series as neither a sequel or a prequel but a companion. I’m really quite excited, and I was initially planning to re-read the whole series in preparation, but I don’t think I’ll have time unfortunately!
I do love the His Dark Materials series, so this is an incredibly biased review of a re-read and I am not afraid to say it!