Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
|Book Name:||Northern Lights|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook|
|Release Date:||January 1995|
I’ve always found that the best examples of children’s literature are those that don’t try to be for children, they don’t pander to a younger reader, but rather just aim to be a piece of literature in their own right. Pullman drew his inspiration for His Dark Materials from Milton’s Paradise Lost, Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and the Bible, not exactly what you’d consider reading for children. However, when you look closer children are taught the Bible from a young age, Blake is usually taught around secondary school age and Milton more towards college and University. These are all texts interrogating similar ideas throughout a child’s development and this is what Pullman does in this masterpiece, as his characters progress and mature so do his readers.
For those of you not familiar with this modern classic, Northern Lights is set in a universe parallel to our own in which a human’s soul exists existentially to themselves in the form of a daemon. Within a heartbeat of setting the scene the reader is shaken by the revelation that children are going missing, not just missing, children are being kidnapped. We follow our heroine Lyra into the great and terrible land of the North as she’s tries to rescue these stolen children, discover what is happening to them and to rescue her estranged father, Lord Asriel.
What is clear early on is that Pullman knows exactly what he is doing, as a writer he is an expert at his craft. Aware of a younger audience he does enough telling to make us comfortable in this new world with its different ways but he does it slightly enough to make the world and the notion of daemons very familiar. Furthermore, Pullman is a gifted storyteller, each chapter ends with a revelation, plot point or twist which ensures you go on to the next chapter, there’s a comfort in going to literature like this as an adult. Literature doesn’t always have to grip all the way through, just enough to keep you going but as a piece for children and young adults the writer is aware of an audience with a shorter attention span and less patience; it has to be gripping every step of the way.
There are so many characters that deserve commendation in this book but first I think I should start with daemons. Now whilst this is not entirely Pullman’s original idea as daemons are mentioned in Ancient Greek mythology and pieces of art inspired Pullmans notion, this does not divert away from what a magical notion it is. A daemon is a physical representation of your own soul that exists existentially as an animal which can never be too far away from you. Imagine the best friend you could ever have, who understands you entirely, who loves you exclusively and ultimately and will never leave you. With this truly wonderful notion in mind you are then faced with the idea of this entity being forcibly torn away from you.
A child can identify with loss, the loss of a friend or beloved pet, older readers can understand the horror in a more in-depth sense at the notion of having ones soul removed, seeing correlations with lobotomies. The younger readers can identify themselves with being kidnapped and tortured and the older readers can remember themselves as children or even imagine their own children, the horror of this narrative is absolute. Nor does Pullman shy away from this horror, without giving too much away put bluntly children die in this book, and the graphic nature of their torture and its aftermath are either shown or eluded to.
Now moving away from the horror to return to the characters, firstly our heroine Lyra. Once again Pullman doesn’t pander to his young audience; Lyra is not a simple easily likeable character. She has faults, she can be annoying, she makes mistakes – some with terrible consequences, but she’s feisty and determined, at the heart of it she is a young girl and everything that comes with that. However, my one criticism of this novel is to do with Lyra, simply put I don’t understand how she speaks. I imagine I’m simply missing something here whether her dialect is to do with the time period or a part of Oxford I’m not familiar with or that’s just how Pullman remembers children speaking. Of all the people I’ve met from Oxfordshire none speak in the same manner as Lyra.
Then there’s Iorek Byrnison, from a world where polar bears have their own society, are great warriors and can speak to humans. Once again, even if he is a polar bear, we are met with Pullman’s complex, realistic character portrayal. Iorek has his issues, a tarnished past, he’s fallen on hard times which has resulted in alcoholism but behind this damage and threatening exterior there is a great heart in Iorek. Even if you consider the oaths he takes and benefits to himself, his dedication to Lyra is heart warming, so as well as our daemon lets add a warrior Ice Bear to our list of things we wish we had.
Now I could commend nearly every character but I’ve chosen Seraphina Pekala as she allows me to also discuss another race explored by Pullman. Pullman’s witches aren’t the typical witches children read about; they’re not evil, old crones with warts or Hermione Granger. They’re complex beings, ageless, living to be thousands of years old, they are tribes of strong women who appear to be the greatest entity in this world at present. It is chilling and also very empowering to hear that even Iorek respects and even fears the Witches. I also particularly loved how Pullman managed to get the broomstick into his depiction.
When I began reading this book all I could think was, “I wish this had been out when I was young so I could have read it then.” However, when I looked into it, Northern Lights was published in 1995 when I would have been six. How did I miss this? I was seventeen before these books were even on my radar. However, when I got to the end of the book I was somewhat relieved I had read it as an adult, mainly for the greater appreciation I have of it and I have a knowledge of what Pullman is referencing and also warring against.
Yet on a more basic level, I am glad I read it at this age because I think it may have terrified me as a child, the end shocked me even now. Then again we do always feel braver as children. Our ignorance keeps us safe, as it did for Lyra. And as Serafina Pekala suggests it is Lyra’s childish ignorance that is imperative if she is to succeed. Therefore if you have a child give them this book, if you are in your teens read this book, if you are an adult read this book. It encompasses all of us and there is no excuse to miss the start of this modern classic.