Northern Lights (novel)

Northern Lights (novel)
Northern Lights  
Northern Lights (novel) cover.jpg
First edition cover
Author(s) Philip Pullman
Cover artist Philip Pullman and David Scutt
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series His Dark Materials
Genre(s) Fantasy, Steampunk
Publisher Scholastic Point
Publication date 1995
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 399 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-590-66054-3
OCLC Number 43633272
Preceded by Once Upon a Time in the North
Followed by The Subtle Knife

Northern Lights, known as The Golden Compass in North America, is the first novel in English novelist Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Published in 1995, the fantasy novel is set in a universe parallel to our own and tells of Lyra Belacqua's journey north in search of her missing friend, Roger Parslow, and her imprisoned father, Lord Asriel, who has been conducting experiments with a mysterious substance known as Dust. Winner of the Carnegie Medal in 1996, the novel has been adapted into a Hollywood feature film, released in 2007 as The Golden Compass along with an accompanying video game.



For some time during the pre-publication process, the series of novels were known as The Golden Compasses. The word Compasses referred to a pair of compasses—the circle-drawing instrument—rather than a navigational compass. Pullman then settled on Northern Lights as the title for the first book, and continued to refer to the trilogy as The Golden Compasses. Like the eventual title for the trilogy, the original title The Golden Compasses comes from a line in Milton's Paradise Lost.[1]

Then staid the fervid wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God's eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centered, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure

— Book 7, lines 224–229

In the United States, in their discussions over the publication of the first book, the publishers Alfred A. Knopf had been calling it The Golden Compass (omitting the plural), which they mistakenly believed referred to Lyra's alethiometer, because the device superficially resembles a navigational compass. Meanwhile, in the UK, Pullman had replaced The Golden Compasses with His Dark Materials as the title of the trilogy. According to Pullman, the publishers had become so attached to The Golden Compass that they insisted on publishing the U.S. edition of the first book under that title, rather than as Northern Lights, the title used in the UK and Australia.[1]

Plot summary

The story starts when Lyra Belacqua— a supposedly orphaned 11-year-old girl residing at Jordan College, Oxford—secretly enters and hides in the forbidden 'Retiring Room' in the college, despite resistance from her dæmon, Pantalaimon — an animal-formed, shape-shifting manifestation of her soul. Hidden behind an armchair, Lyra and Pan (her daemon) see the Master of the college putting poison into wine, intending to assassinate the visiting Lord Asriel, Lyra's uncle. Lord Asriel later enters after the Master of the college has left and Lyra, having by now hidden in a wardrobe, bursts out and immediately throws the glass out of his hand. Rather than punishing her for being where she should not, he allows her to stay hidden if she will spy on the Master at his upcoming meeting. When the meeting commences, Lord Asriel shows the resident scholars and the Master pictures of the Aurora Borealis (the 'Northern Lights' of the title) and the mysterious elementary particles called Dust. Shortly after, Lord Asriel travels to the Arctic North, and Lyra continues her studies at the college.

After the meeting, the Master and the librarian discuss Lord Asriel's journey to the north and allude to another invisible and untouchable world.

When the 'Gobblers', who have become a recent urban legend, kidnap her friend Roger, a kitchen boy from the college, Lyra vows to rescue him. But instead an important visitor, a woman named Mrs. Marisa Coulter (who has already been revealed as one of the Gobblers to the reader) offers to take Lyra away from Jordan College to become her apprentice. Lyra assents, but before she leaves, the Master of the college entrusts to her (with the condition that she keep it absolutely secret) a priceless object previously given to the College by Lord Asriel: an alethi­ometer. Resembling a golden, many-handed pocket-watch, it can answer any question asked by a skilled user. Although presently unable to read or understand its complex symbols, Lyra takes it with her to Mrs. Coulter's flat. Soon after, Lyra becomes suspicious of Mrs. Coulter's motives when the woman's dæmon searches Lyra's room for the alethiometer.

At a cocktail party hosted by Mrs. Coulter, Lyra discovers by eavesdropping that Mrs. Coulter heads an organization known as the 'General Oblation Board' and that this board is in fact, the 'Gobblers' who have been kidnapping children. Horrified, Lyra flees Mrs. Coulter's flat during the party.

While escaping from the 'Gobblers', Lyra is rescued by the Gyptians (nomadic, canal-boat-dwelling people) who afterwards reveal that Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are Lyra's father and mother. She also learns that many children like Roger have been disappearing from among the Gyptians, and that the Gyptians are planning an expedition to the north to rescue them. During her time with the Gyptians, Lyra intuitively begins to learn how to operate the alethiometer.

On a stop in Trollesund, Lyra meets a sapient armoured bear called Iorek Byrnison. Iorek is an exiled bear prince who is paid for his work in spirits, a considerably dishonorable job for a panserbjørn. However, the villagers had taken his armour, which is comparable to a dæmon for him, binding him to his work. Lyra uses her alethiometer to aid Iorek in reclaiming his armour, thereby enlisting his aid.

After departure from Trollesund, the Gyptians and Lyra continue north to the destination of Bolvangar, where they believe the Gobblers are keeping the children. On the way, Lyra stops at a village in response to her alethiometer readings, looking for a child. She finds a boy, Tony Makarios, who had been separated from his dæmon, Ratter. Lyra then realizes that "intercision" carried out by the Gobblers is actually a process that severs the tie that binds children to their dæmons, effectively removing their soul. Tony dies within the day, and the group continues on after burning the body.

Soon after, Lyra is captured by a party of hunters who take her to an experimentation facility in Bolvangar, where she discovers that the children are being subjected to experimental intercision. Inside, she locates Roger and devises an escape plan. She is caught spying on Mrs. Coulter and a group of workers at the facility, and narrowly escapes suffering the intercision process herself; she is rescued, unfortunately, by Mrs. Coulter, who tries to take the alethiometer. Lyra escapes the clutches of Mrs. Coulter once again, leads the other children from the facility, and is rescued by Lee Scoresby in his hydrogen balloon. Iorek Byrnison and a clan of witches friendly with the Gyptians also aid in rescuing the children by fighting the guards of Bolvangar.

Having found Roger, Lyra now is determined to deliver the alethiometer to Lord Asriel, believing that he needs it for his purposes. He is imprisoned at Svalbard, the armoured bears' fortress, because the church opposes his experiments on Dust. As they travel to Svalbard, bat-like cliff ghasts attack the balloon; Lyra is thrown out but lands safely, only to be captured by the armoured bears. Upon speaking with another prisoner, Lyra remembers hearing in the Retiring Room that Iofur wants a dæmon more than anything. So, she tricks the usurping bear-king, Iofur Raknison, into fighting Iorek Byrnison, by claiming that she was Iorek's dæmon, and that if Iofur killed Iorek, then she would become Iofur's dæmon. Iorek is victorious and regains his throne. Thereafter, Lyra travels to Lord Asriel’s cabin, accompanied by Iorek and Roger.

Despite being imprisoned, Lord Asriel has become so influential that he has accumulated the necessary equipment to continue his experiments on Dust. After explaining to Lyra the nature of Dust, an emanation from another world, and the existence of parallel universes, he departs, taking Roger and much scientific equipment. Lyra pursues them, having discovered that she has indeed brought her father what he wanted, though not in the way she thought. It was not the alethiometer he needed, but Roger: the severing of the child-dæmon tie releases an enormous amount of energy, which Lord Asriel needs to complete his task. Roger dies when Lord Asriel separates him from his dæmon, and with the enormous energy released-- combined with his specialized equipment-- Lord Asriel is able to tear a hole through the sky into a parallel world. Lord Asriel offers to bring Mrs. Coulter, who had come by means of her zeppelin, with him, but she declines. Lord Asriel walks through into the new world alone. On Pan's advice, Lyra follows.

This concludes the first novel, with the trilogy continuing in the next book, The Subtle Knife.


  • Lyra Belacqua and Pantalaimon: The principal characters. Lyra is described as having blue eyes and blond hair, along with being short for her age and quite thin but is still quite attractive. Though young and attractive she is brave, curious, and crafty. Pantalaimon is Lyra's daemon, nicknamed Pan, and the manifestation of her soul. Because she is still a child, Pan is capable of changing into any shape he wishes, through he frequently appears as a brown moth, a wildcat, a white ermine, and a mouse. Lyra has been prophesied by the witches to help the balance of life, but must do so without being aware of her destiny.
  • Roger Parslow: One of Lyra's friends, a boy whose family works at Jordan College. When he is kidnapped and taken north, Lyra pursues him in hopes of rescuing him. He is killed at the end of Northern Lights by Lord Asriel.
  • Lord Asriel: Lyra's uncle, though it is later revealed that he is actually her father. He performs experiments in the north on the Dust, which are considered threatening for the Magisterium as they are part of Asriel's fight against the Authority. His dæmon is Stelmaria, a snow leopard.
  • Mrs. Marisa Coulter: An agent of the Magisterium, who does not hesitate to manipulate the Church to obtain funds for her projects. She is intelligent and beautiful, but extremely ruthless and callous. She is revealed to be Lyra's mother; as a result, she is unexpectedly kind to Lyra. Her dæmon is a golden monkey.
  • Iorek Byrnison: A panserbjørn, an armoured bear capable of human speech, who becomes very protective of Lyra. After Lyra successfully tricks Iofur Raknison into submitting to Iorek, Iorek gives her the name "Lyra Silvertongue."
  • Iofur Raknison: A panserbjørn who wants a dæmon and has usurped Iorek's authority as king. Lyra tricks him into fighting the exiled Iorek Byrnison by pretending to be Iorek's dæmon, and promising that when Iofur wins the fight, she will become his.
  • Serafina Pekkala: A witch who closely follows Lyra on her travels. She is aware of Lyra's destiny. Serafina's dæmon is Kaisa, a snow goose, who is capable of physically moving separately from Serafina over long distances, a quality that only witches' dæmons appear to possess.
  • Lee Scoresby: A Texan aeronaut who transports Lyra in his balloon. He and Iorek Byrnison are good friends and Lee comes to see Lyra as a surrogate daughter. His dæmon is Hester, an arctic snow hare.

Critical reception

Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in America) was highly acclaimed and won prestigious book awards, putting Pullman on the literary map. It won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Fiction Prize in England, and was named a Horn Book Fanfare Honor Book, a Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book, Publishers Weekly Book of the Year, and Booklist Editors Choice - Top of the List.

Some critics have asserted that the trilogy and movie adaptation present a negative portrayal of the Church and religion,[2][3][dead link] while others have argued that Pullman's works should be included in religious education courses.[4] Peter Hitchens views the His Dark Materials series as a direct rebuttal of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series.[5] Literary critic Alan Jacobs (of Wheaton College) argues that in his recasting of Lewis's Narnia series, Pullman replaces a theist world-view with a Rousseauist one.[6]

Film and video game adaptations

A feature film adaptation of the novel, titled The Golden Compass, produced by New Line Cinema with a budget of $180 million, was released 7 December 2007. The novel was adapted by Chris Weitz, who directed the film. The film stars Dakota Blue Richards, in her film debut, as Lyra. Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Ian McKellen, Sam Elliott, Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee also star.

A video game of the movie adaptation of the book, titled The Golden Compass, published by Sega and developed by Shiny Entertainment, was released 4 December 2007. Players assume the role of Lyra as she travels through the frozen wastes of the North in an attempt to rescue her friend kidnapped by a mysterious organization known as the Gobblers. Travelling with her are an armoured polar bear and her dæmon Pantalaimon (Pan). Together, they must use a truth-telling alethiometer and other items to explore the land and fight their way through confrontations in order to help Lyra's friend. The Golden Compass features a mix of fighting and puzzle solving with three characters.[7]

Audio books

In 1996, Natasha Richardson narrated an audiobook version of the novel.

The trilogy, His Dark Materials, was abridged in a dramatization by BBC Worldwide Ltd. that was published on 1 January 2003.

It was also adapted unabridged and released by BBC Audiobooks. It is narrated by the author, Philip Pullman, with a full cast, including Joanna Wyatt as Lyra, Alison Dowling as Mrs Coulter, Sean Barrett as Lord Asriel and Iorek Byrnison and Stephen Thorne as the Master and Farder Coram.



  • Lenz, Millicent (2005). His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Phillip Pullman's Trilogy. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-3207-2. 

External links

Preceded by
Whispers in the Graveyard
Carnegie Medal recipient
Succeeded by

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