Sunday, April 21, 2024

Northern Lights Puts Away Childish Things

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When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

— 1 Corinthians 13:11-12

Several of my colleagues here at Fandom Following have taken it upon themselves in recent months to go back to their adolescence and reread the SF series that were important to them, to see if they still held up under the hard, cynical light of adulthood. So I’ve decided to jump onto this bandwagon of literary analysis and revisit the series that meant a lot to me when I was growing up: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

This series is a little infamous for being “the atheist Narnia”. And to be fair, yeah, it kind of is. The author, and outspoken atheist himself, has flat out saidMy books are about killing God.” And to be doubly fair, that was a large part of the reason why I liked them so much when I was sixteen and only just discovering the fact that atheism was actually a thing. But now that I’ve read this first book again, I feel like it’s less about “killing God” and more about growing up, and become more than what you’re made of and where you come from.


Northern Lights (published in some places as The Golden Compass) is the first volume in this trilogy. It follows the journey of Lyra Belacqua, a little girl with a magical destiny. (Of course.) She inhabits a world—a parallel universe, actually—that is much like our own, but also not. It’s worth going through some of these divergences of universe, because Philip Pullman’s skill with world building is possibly second only to George R.R. Martin.

The most obvious (and as it turns out, important) difference is that humans in Lyra’s world have constant companions in animal form that are called “daemons”. These daemons are a little tricky to explain; they are, literally and metaphorically, an external representation of a person’s soul, but they’re also both more and less than that.

Puberty in Lyra’s world is given visible form by the daemon. During childhood, deamons change shape at will, but as a person gets older, their daemon settles on a final, permanent form.

This world also contains a host of non-human sentient beings. Most memorably, there is a race of polar bears who speak, work metal, and have a sophisticated culture all they own. They don’t have daemons, as humans do, and their way of thinking and relating to the world is alien enough that no human can truly understand them.

There are also the witches of the north. They’re human enough to have daemons, but they also fly around on broomsticks and live for many hundreds of years.

The most enjoyable part of the worldbuilding are all the little details in the background, completely unremarkable to Lyra but wonderfully bizarre to the reader. Did you know that the Tartars are about to attack Saint Petersburg, or that the Fens were never drained, or that “skraelings” live in North America and have nation states integrated into the international system, or that the pope lives in Geneva?

Speaking of the pope, let’s discuss The Church in this universe.

“Shalt thou give law to God, shalt thou dispute
With Him the points of liberty who made
Thee what thou art and formed the pow’rs of Heav’n
Such as He pleased and circumscribed their being?”

–John Milton, Paradise Lost

Yup. I shalt.

It’s unlikely to be surprising that “the atheist Narnia” is not exactly kind to the Catholic Church. Even if it’s a Church in a world where John Calvin became pope and there is still a religious stranglehold on law and family life and academia.

The Church, and all its branches like the General Oblation Board and the Consistorial Court of Discipline, are really the boogey man of the novel. And like any classic creeping thing under the bed, it’s never exactly seen, just spoken about. We know what the “Magisterium” does sometimes, we know doesn’t approve of certain things, but it doesn’t, at this point, have a face.

Unless, of course, you count Mrs. Coulter. And if she is what the Church is, then it is cruelty and barbarity, wrapped in the veneer of civilization and beauty. Because no boogey man could ever be as horrible as Mrs. Coulter.

Marisa Coulter, as a character, is fascinating to me. She’s a woman who has managed to gain a significantly large amount of power in a patriarchal system. Even notwithstanding the how severely she broke the puritanical sexual rules of that patriarchal system. She’s clearly ambitious, power hungry even; it’s obvious that she had to work very hard to get where she is, but just as clearly, she believes in her cause. She buys into the concept of sin hard enough to refuse to escape from the system when she has the chance.

This is in stark contrast to Lord Asriel, who is what would happen if you took the abstract concept of privilege and gave it human form. He’s male, and rich, and noble, and intelligent, so he can more or less do whatever he likes and people will get away with it. Even when he’s in prison he gets whatever he likes.

And he’s at least as horrible a person as Mrs. Coulter. He’s just as willing to do unspeakable things to get what he wants, and he’s just as horrible a parent.

Lord Asriel is obsessed with the hypothesis, condemned as heresy by the Church, that there exists countless other universes, each different from his own. To build a bridge to one of these world, he is willing to sacrifice the life of a child.

Not Lyra, his own child, of course, don’t be silly. He’s no more willing to do that than Mrs. Coulter is willing to let Lyra, her own daughter, be mutilated. Hundreds of other children, yes, but not hers.

Those two were probably very happy together while it lasted.

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”

-John Milton, Paradise Lost

It’s a little surprising then, that these two horrible people managed to get together and, through sin, create someone like Lyra.

Well, eventually it is. When we first meet Lyra, she has a severe case of child. And all children are kind of self-centred to the point of narcissism. Her self-centeredness, the way that she doesn’t seem to care about much but running wild all over Oxford, makes it a little hard to be on her side at first. But on the reread, I don’t think she’s ignorant so much as she is innocent.

Lyra in Oxford is very much “like the beast in the field.” Her world is circumscribed and safe. She knows there is something outside it, but it doesn’t affect her at all. Not until three things happen. First, her friend Roger disappears, presumably snatched by these mysterious figures known only as “Gobblers,” then Mrs. Coulter shows up and tempts her. She offers her knowledge (*cough*) and a chance to leave the garden college to experience the wide world.

Finally, she is given the alethiometer. This mysterious instrument tells the truth. Unfortunately, it does so in a very esoteric way that even highly trained experts can’t understand.

Lyra can, though. She can do it instinctively. Why is that? Perhaps it has something to do with Lyra as the child, as a person who is not yet so prejudiced by all the baggage of her society that she can’t see the truth.  

GC_01694 The Golden Compass , September 18, 2006 Photo by Laurie Sparham/ To license this image (10717581), contact NewLine: U.S. +1-212-686-8900 / U.K. +44-207-868-8940 / Australia +61-2-8262-9222 / Japan: +81-3-5464-7020 +1 212-686-8901 (fax) (e-mail) (web site)

On her journey, first to London and “proper society” with Mrs. Coulter, then into the lower ends of it with the Gyptians, and then into the north where she encounters the horrors of the goings on at  Bolvangar, and lastly to the palace of the Bear King, she doesn’t change, exactly. It’s more that she finds out who she really was all along. All the qualities she had when she was a rich little hooligan in Oxford have a purpose now.

Lyra is a leader, she uses her ability to intuit other’s motivations to talk herself out of anything. She learns very quickly. But most of all, Lyra has a lot of love—she’s just never really had anyone to share it with before. Her parents are both terrible and were never part of her life, the scholars and servants at Jordan’s College were always too distant to be real family, and the other children feared her more than liked her.

It was only when she had the chance to live in a real family, with the Costas on the river boat, that she really started to show just how empathetic and compassionate she could be. Then her empathy is all over the place. She even feels empathy for a giant drunk bear.

One of the most moving moments of the novel is at Tony Makarios’s makeshift funeral. Her empathy for the mutilated child overwhelms her, and she uses her bossy-pants powers for good, at last.

“[P]oor little Tony Makarios was no different from any other human whose daemon had departed in death. Oh, if they took Pantalaimon from her! She swept him up and hugged him as if she meant to press him right into her heart. And all little Tony had was his pitiful piece of fish….  

Where was it?  She pulled the blanket down. It was gone.  

She was on her feet in a moment, and her eyes flashed fury at the men nearby.  

“Where’s his fish?”  They stopped, puzzled, unsure what she meant; though some of their daemons knew, and looked at one another. One of the men began to grin uncertainly.  

“Don’t you dare laugh! I’ll tear your lungs out if you laugh at him! That’s all he had to cling onto, just an old dried fish, that’s all he had for a daemon to love and be kind to! Who’s took it from him?

Where’s it gone?”

“Our state cannot be severed, we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself.”

-John Milton, Paradise Lost

Yes, let’s talk about Bolvangar and the mutilated children. As little as I like to.

As I said, a person’s daemon in Lyra’s world is an external representation of their “soul”. They’re one being, but they’re not really one person. (If this reminds anyone of the trinity, that’s probably not an accident.) A human and their daemon can disagree, but they always reach conclusions together. The bond is a little impossible to explain, but it’s the most important bond in a person’s life. To lose your daemon is to lose a part of your personhood.

So when I tell you that what the Church is doing at Bolvangar is surgically separating children from their daemons, I want you to fully appreciate just how horrific that is. The closest analogy I can think of in Speculative Fiction is being assimilated by the Borg, but at least Borg drones have their feelings surgically removed too.

These kinds are destroyed then told it’s for their own good, that they should be happier this way. Because this is how the Church will protect us all from Original Sin.

“Knowledge forbidden?
Suspicious, reasonless. Why should their Lord envy them that? Can it be a sin to know?
Can it be death?”

-John Milton, Paradise Lost

Just in case there are any readers who aren’t familiar with the basics of Christian Theology, Original Sin is the concept that humanity as a whole is collectively guilty for the sin that Adam and Eve committed when they disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. This disobedience resulting in them obtaining “knowledge of good and evil”, but throughout history, Original Sin has also been heavily associated with sex and (hence) loss of innocence.


The theological consequence of this is that everyone is born already a sinner, already stained by our common humanity.

In Lyra’s world, there is a mysterious particle called “Dust” that the Church has decided is the physical proof of this stain. It starts to settle onto people when they reach the age of puberty, when the daemon settles on one form, and travel along the connection the two share…

No connection, no Dust, no Original Sin.

“[I]f they all think Dust is bad, it must be good.”

But remember, we’re here to kill God, to “dispute with him the points of liberty.” What Adam and Eve gained when they disobeyed God in the garden was not lust, or the stain of sin…it was the knowledge of good and evil. The ability to judge for themselves who they were and how to navigate the world. This is the kind of crystallization of identity and purpose that happens when your deamon discovers their true form, when you, in short, grow up.

And Lyra, like countless other baby atheists before and since, asks, in the climax of the novel: “Isn’t that a good thing?”

Lyra isn’t constrained by the cruelty and inhumanity of her parents, or the soulless controlling piety of the society that raised her. Lyra is growing up. No matter what happens in the rest of the series, Lyra has already killed God, because she had broken out of the narrow purpose that he created us for.

She’s not a child in a garden anymore. As she steps into a new universe, she leaves childish things, like sin and ignorance, behind.


Images courtesy of Scholastic and New Line Cinema. Cover Image courtesy of Khaerii @ Deviant Art

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