by Philip Pullman
‘Lyra looked, and there was no mistake. Pantalaimon clutched at her, became a wildcat, hissed in hatred, because looking out with curiosity was the beautiful dark-haired head of Mrs Coulter, with her golden daemon on her lap.’
The main protagonist in Northern Lights is Lyra, a twelve-year-old girl who lives in one of Oxford University’s many colleges. Only Lyra’s Oxford is a different Oxford. It lies in an alternate universe, an upside-down world with zeppelins, witches and talking polar bears, and in which all humans have a daemon, a sort of ‘soul’ that takes physical, animal shape. Until a child reaches puberty, its daemon can change form, thereafter it becomes fixed.
Asriel, Lyra’s ‘uncle’, a scientist, is investigating something he calls Dust, an elementary particle that seems to attach itself to adult humans, but not to children. He has also discovered a hole in the fabric of spacetime through which he believes he can travel to another universe. The Magisterium, a sort of supreme church, is interested in Dust too, and also in Lyra, for its own sinister reasons. To explain them in a short review would take up too much space and indeed might be a spoiler but, in short, it has to do with sex.
Lyra is a wild girl child who enjoys fights with the local working class children and the gypsy kids. She likes getting dirty. As she is now growing up, the master of the college decides she should become more ladylike and hands her over to the care of Mrs Coulter. He gives her an alethiometer (the golden compass of the American version of the book), an instrument that enables Lyra to predict the future.
When children around Oxford begin disappearing mysteriously, including her friend Roger, Lyra learns that Mrs Coulter is involved. She is kidnapped, but is rescued by the gypsies, who have lost one of their own children.
Lyra sails with the gypsies to the far north in search of the secret facility where the kidnapped children are being held. They join forces with the witches, the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby and the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison and discover the sinister experiments that are being conducted there.
‘He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon, with both hands, hard, against his heart …. because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child.’
Lyra organises the children’s escape and, accompanied by Roger, sets out on the trail of her ‘uncle’. Northern Lights ends in a dramatic scene on the arctic ice when Lyra confronts Asriel and follows him through a window to another world.
Northern Lights is so much more than a fantasy for young people. Although intended as a children’s book, it is a novel that adults can enjoy. It deals with some very adult ideas such as the nature of the ‘soul’ and of ‘evil’, the multiverse, quantum theory and the conflict of science with religion. It introduces one of the most chilling and calculating, yet not irredeemable, villains in literature. One of its most memorable episodes is a heroic battle worthy of Tolkein or Rider Haggard.
‘Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean …. so Iorek Byrnison rose up against Iofur, exploding upwards from his firm footing on the dry rock and slashing with a ferocious left hand at the exposed jaw of Iofur Raknison.’
The finale is, in a real sense, a cliffhanger, leaving the reader on tenterhooks for the next volume.