Book review: Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

26

“Without this child, we shall all die.” Lyra Belacqua and her animal daemon live half-wild and carefree among scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. The destiny that awaits her will take her to the frozen lands of the Arctic, where witch-clans reign and ice-bears fight. Her extraordinary journey will have immeasurable consequences far beyond her own world…”

(Read more here.)


Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, the first book in the series entitled His Dark Materials, is about a young girl named Lyra Belacqua. A ward of Jordan College, she knows the parameters of her world well, and spends her time almost entirely as she wishes, acquiescing only rarely and very reluctantly to the instructions conferred upon her by a variety of well-meaning if usually distracted authority figures. When children go missing, however, plucked uncaringly from their lives, Lyra’s world changes. Finding herself too close to comfort to those responsible, her principles – and loyalty to her best friend, Roger – demand action.

When I first read Northern Lights, I was enchanted. The plot, the characters, the setting, and the number and nature of the ideas lending weight and coherency to the entirety were a veritable feast for the imagination, and the novel had admirable depth and undeniable quality. I was hooked from the very first page, and held spellbound until the very last.

That is to say: Northern Lights trounced even the greatest of my expectations.

A quietly undisclosed number of years later, a re-read has proven that Northern Lights is just as enjoyable, and just as relevant in its approach and themes now as it was when I was first fortunate enough to read it. Readers of all ages continue to love and devour it, and such wide and lasting appeal should not – and cannot – be underestimated.

Northern Lights isn’t needlessly complex or disappointingly simple. It is clever and accessible, never condescends to younger readers, and postulates the concepts that form the foundation of the narrative in an understandable and engaging fashion. Aiding comprehension is the fact that they are presented to the reader in intuitive terms by the protagonist, Lyra, and the rich, logical details are easily enough to satisfy even the most discerning mind. Lyra’s youth and refreshingly direct approach make her an ideal character to shepherd readers through Pullman’s world, and the possibility of thorough engagement with the protagonist’s perspective encourages an immersive experience.

Thematically, Northern Lights has broad scope, from the representation and perception of children, and of youthful characters, to the ramifications of pursuing unchartered waters and unprecedented, live-changing, discoveries. The protagonist, Lyra, proves to be a useful vehicle in the exploration of such topics, for her practical, no-nonsense approach and unflappable sense of fairness cast the inconsistencies and uncertainties behind popular assumptions into sharp relief, and she regularly challenges groundless prejudices. An obvious example is the moment in which Lyra played a pivotal role in liberating Iorek from his captors – while many of the other characters were hesitant to take a stand, or concerned by his ferocity, Lyra just saw a brave, proud, misunderstood creature that had been treated with needless cruelty, and knew that she had to offer what assistance she could.

Importantly, Northern Lights isn’t a feel-good romp. While it is definitely a tale of adventure and grand exploits, helmed by a young, heroic protagonist, it is also poignant and sensitive, moderating victory and achievement with prevailing loss and realistic complexity. The destruction wrought upon the lives of the unfortunate children cruelly experimented upon is undeniable, and while Lyra succeeds in liberating them from the facility in which they were being held, the damage cannot be reversed. Further, she ultimately delivers her best friend, Roger, into the greedy clutches of Lord Asriel, as a result of which he tragically perishes.

Roger’s death is an important plot point, propelling Lyra into a startling new world, freshly determined to pursue and fight for her beliefs, and to discover more of what she was so ignominiously introduced to. It also provides evidence for the maturity of Pullman’s approach to a narrative primarily populated by youthful characters, as difficult scenes are neither sugar-coated beyond all recognition nor needlessly, starkly harsh. The vulnerability of children – especially to adults – is recognised, but so is their strength and their tenacity, within realistic bounds.

It would be remiss of me, even foolish, to conclude a discussion on the merits of Northern Lights without reference to “daemons”. From the experiments conducted by the Oblation Board into the possibility of separating children from their daemons, to the armoured bear wishing to obtain one so that he might become human, “daemons” are foregrounded in Northern Lights, presenting an important aspect of the narrative, and an interesting addition to the development of the characters. A daemon is the physical manifestation of the human soul, visible in the form of an animal, and they vary in accordance with the person with which they are linked, changing constantly throughout childhood, and settling upon a final form during puberty. Assumptions can be made about personality and mood from a daemon, and there are strict, unspoken rules against touching that of another person. Pullman’s development of his characters involves establishing their daemons, and as such it is an exciting and inspiring addition to a narrative already rich in detail. Their inclusion remains a unique and impressive concept when considered in the wider context of fantasy novels.

Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is a clever, imaginative novel, filled to the brim with intriguing ideas and many details capable of engaging and inspiring readers of many ages. The language is, on occasion, plain, but never tedious, and lacks neither detail nor rich description. Pullman’s world building is arguably my favourite aspect, but everything from the structure of the plot to the variety of the characters is enjoyable. As such, I am happy to give Northern Lights 5 out of 5 stars.