Lyra and her animal daemon live half-wild and carefree among the scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. That is until she embarks on a dangerous journey to the frozen North in search of a kidnapped friend. Little does she know that this sets the destiny in motion that has awaited her since birth. Her adventure leads her to talking bears, flying witches and eventually the northern lights, where she might learn more about the mysterious Dust that worries the adults.
I was almost old enough to read Northern Lights when it was first published in 1995, so it’s a shame really that so many years had to pass before I picked up this children’s classic. In my defense, I tried to read it ten years ago around the time that The Golden Compass – which is the US title of the first volume in the His Dark Materials series – movie came out, but couldn’t get into it. Looking back now, I can’t possibly remember why, as there is so much to love about this book.
For starters, Northern Lights has one of the best opening scenes of the children’s books I’ve read so far. Philip Pullman drops you right in the middle of the action, explains nothing and builds up tension and mystery. If he does throw the reader a few crumbs of information, they are rather vague and difficult to understand. Despite it being marketed as a middle grade book, I expect some themes of the series to be lost on young readers. Northern Lights is one of those books that could benefit from a reread a few years down the road.
A child going on a quest to make the world a better place isn’t the type of plot one would describe as groundbreakingly original. Even back in prehistorical 1995, it had been done before. But unlike many other fantastical children’s stories, the protagonist didn’t stumble upon a strange magical land. Instead, the magic is woven within our world, which makes Northern Lights more of an urban fantasy. At the time of its release, two years before that other famous urban fantasy (Harry Potter) was published, this specific genre wasn’t much of a thing. This approach and the rather disturbing example of terrible parentage classified Northern Lights as an unorthodox middle grade in the nineties.
What also struck me in Pullman’s story was the explicit depiction of violence and death. That combined with the sadness of Lyra Belacqua’s relationship with her parents and the depressing nature of Iorek Byrnison when we meet him for the first time, make Northern Lights far from a happy story. Therefore, I think that the inclusion of daemons is incredibly important. It must be a satisfying thought to children to know that even in shock and solitude there will always be a daemon to turn to for support and comfort.
The heartbreaking character of the novel is precisely what makes Northern Lights such a great book for me, as well as the multicultural world the author created, even though there wasn’t yet room for feminism in that time period.
“She regarded female Scholars with a proper Jordan disdain: there were such people but, poor things, they could never be taken more seriously than animals dressed up and acting a play.”
This makes it all the more wonderful that the story is narrated by a feisty female character who, in my opinion, is much more likeable than say Harry Potter. When comparing Philip Pullman’s story to the Harry Potter series, though, I have to admit that his characters don’t cling to your heart as strongly as many of J.K. Rowling’s characters do. Of all the characters we’ve met in Northern Lights, there are only a few who managed to make me fall in love with them. There’s Lyra (and Pantalaimon), of course. But other than her, only Iorek Byrnison stands out to me. I suspect we’ve seen too little of the side characters to care for them. I’m sure that John Faa, Farder Coram and Lee Scoresby and even Serafina Pekkala are nice people, but they miss this magical spark that many of J.K. Rowling’s characters have.
Having said that, I do treasure the story. Whenever I think of it, my heart makes a leap of joy. I can’t wait to delve back into this Nordic Noir for children. On that note, I leave you with this beautiful sentence from Northern Lights.
“She swept him up and hugged him as if she meant to press him right into her heart.”
Have you read Northern Lights? What is your favourite scene? And who is your favourite character?
Have a bookish day!
Buy this book at The Book Depository.