Philip Pullman – Northern Lights reread

June 27, 2016

Growing up

Northern Lights
Philip Pullman, Scholastic, 1995

philip pullman

Philip Pullman – one of the most vocal defenders of the rights of authors and readers, both young and old

(Warning: this review contains spoilers for the Harry Potter series.)

For approximately three years after the release of The Golden Compass, the 2007 Hollywood adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, I was expecting news of a sequel. Then I, like most of the rest of the world, forgot about it. All things considered, the film—bowdlerized and in some places quite clunky—was a disappointment, but it could well have led to something better. After all, the two Columbus-directed Harry Potter films are, even seen through the prism of nostalgia, a bit rubbish. But the films that followed were excellent, marked by skilful direction and increasingly good acting.

The His Dark Materials trilogy got no such chance to redeem itself—until now, that is: the BBC have announced that production has begun on a miniseries based on Pullman’s novels. As much as I am excited by this development, I can’t help but feel a little sad that we will not again see Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter, or hear Ian McKellen as Iorek Byrnison.

But as wonderful as those actors are, the real star of any interpretation of His Dark Materials must be the text itself. This past week I have revisited Northern Lights, for the first time in almost ten years, and I am relieved that it stands up to that fickle servant, memory.

I always have this dilemma when approaching books I first read as a child. Every two years when I reread The Lord of the Rings I half-expect to have outgrown it, and I was prepared to wince in displeasure when I began my Harry Potter marathon last year. Fortunately, I have not yet been disappointed: each of these novels has so far managed to keep me hooked, even as I have (sometimes reluctantly) put away childish things and moved into a world of marriage, spreadsheets and nectar points.

No one can have failed to notice the explosion of Young Adult fiction (and film adaptations) in recent years: in Harry Potter’s wake came Twilight, The Hunger Games and a number of lesser-known series (Divergent, for example). A distinguishing feature of these books and films is how much darker they are than the Babysitter books of yore. If anyone was in doubt that children would want to read about gladiatorial child combat, sexualized vampirism or snakes bursting out of the bodies of old ladies, then in 2016 those doubts have surely passed.

Northern Lights predated Harry Potter by two years and the murder of Cedric Diggory—arguably a watershed moment in the genre—by five. And yet it is ‘dark’ from very early on. It doesn’t take long before the Gobblers—a playground nickname given to mysterious kidnappers—become the General Oblation Board, a sinister arm of the Church. Dæmons are another case in point: early on, when Pantalaimon frets over Lyra’s interfering with an old scholar’s remains (she swaps the coin representing his dæmon with that of another scholar), it is an amusing quirk. Later, we get closer to discovering daemons’ true natures: in the chapter in which we meet Tony Makarios, a “severed” child without a dæmon, Pan’s horror is palpably intense and chilling.

But then if Pullman had written a cosy, fireside sort of children’s book it would have undermined the trilogy’s message: children become adults, and this is not something to be lamented but celebrated. In Pullman’s world, adulthood is seen as sinful (read: sexual), and so Mrs Coulter and her ilk privilege The Child. But ideals have to be policed, and so what would otherwise be seen as a continuum of learning and experience is cut into two discrete phases, with puberty the necessary evil which divides them.

J.R.R. Tolkien laments this puritan trend among his contemporaries, those who “for whatever private reason (such as childlessness), tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large”. He calls for us not to “divide the human race into Eloi and Morlocks: pretty children […] with their fairytales (carefully pruned), and dark Morlocks [adults] tending their machines”. Pullman would surely agree: why should we deprive adults the enjoyment of reading his books? More importantly, why should we shield children from every hint of darkness, if we expect them to grow and confront it? The adults of Lyra’s world would no doubt want to protect children from a book like Northern Lights, as indeed some adults in this world do. But in seeking to do so they risk creating something like the nurses at Bolvangar: docile, uninteresting and unthreatening.

I was reminded while rereading Northern Lights of Kingsley Amis’s fantastic novel, The Alteration. It tells of a present (the 1970s) in which the Catholic Church, which in the sixteenth century came under the influence of Pope Martin Luther, has unchallenged dominance over Europe. A young treble is promised fame and fortune if he becomes a castrato. The operation (like in His Dark Materials, a “cutting”) is a potent symbol of control, of making people into instruments. What are the best weapons that we have against such subjugation? Curiosity, knowledge.

Philip Pullman has possibly been the most outspoken defender of libraries in these years of cultural vandalism, and His Dark Materials shows us one reason why. To check a growing child’s natural curiosity about the wider world is a form of violence to the soul. What is achieved by the Gobblers through their instruments of castration is achieved by other means in this world: the suppression of those environments—like libraries—in which a child’s mind might flourish. But I’m sure that authorities in both worlds, Church or State, would argue that a little cut can’t hurt, can it?

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