Northern Lights – Phillip Pullman (1995)
For a juvenile novel, this is an impressive piece of work, and rather hard to classify. Like a lot of modern genre fiction it tends to blur the boundaries. One could possibly class it as Science Fantasy or post-modern fantasy, since it bears similarities to work by Mervyn Peake, Michael Swanwick (particularly ‘The Iron Dragon’s Daughter’) and De Larabeitti’s ‘The Borribles’.
Technically it is Science Fiction, since Lyra, the intriguing and engaging central character, lives in a world parallel to our own. It is a world where some things are familiar and others very different. All people in Lyra’s world, for instance, have a personal daemon. Until the onset of puberty, the daemons are shape-shifters and take on the shapes and abilities of a multitude of creatures, but following puberty they are fixed into one shape. Lyra’s Uncle Asriel’s daemon is a white leopard, while the daemon of Mrs Coulter, head of the General Oblation Board, is a golden-haired monkey.
Lyra does not know a great deal about the world she lives in. Her Uncle Asriel (who performs, it seems, important work on behalf of the Government) has sent her to live at Jordan’s College, Oxford, where she spends most of her time exploring the ancient buildings or fighting and playing with local children.
So consequently, the reader learns about the world as Lyra learns, and many things in Lyra’s world are not what they seem.
Stylistically, rather like the Harry Potter book, this has a retro feel to it, and an atmosphere which is very much enriched by the classical names and references (Asriel, for instance, is the name of the Angel of Death), and the Steampunk mixture of Victoriana and more modern sciences.
There’s also an interesting moral ambivalence which seems to permeate all the way through as, since we don’t really know whether certain characters are on the side of Right or Wrong (if such a thing applies in this book) we are never sure whether they are performing nefarious acts for the greater good, such as when the Dean attempts to poison Lord Asriel in the first chapter, if indeed, that was what he was planning to do, since we never discover what it was that he put in the wine.
Indeed, Lyra discovers that Lord Asriel has been lying to her and is not her Uncle at all, but her Father, and that the sinister Mrs Coulter is her mother. Mrs Coulter also lies to her daughter and ultimately, Lyra, having rescued her father, is betrayed by him also.
Things are not well between Asriel and Coulter, however, as Lyra discovers later that it is Mrs Coulter who was responsible for having her father imprisoned in Svalsbad, in the Land of the Armoured Bears.
Lyra sets out in this book to not only rescue the children kidnapped and severed from their daemons by the General Oblation Board under orders from the sinister Mrs Coulter, but also to free Lord Asriel.
Revelation follows revelation, and the reader is constantly surprised by yet another exposure as the layers of Lyra’s world are slowly peeled back.
Controversially, the Christian Church is depicted as being a powerful political influence in British society and not, it would seem, a beneficial one, since the echelons of The Church (rather like the Vatican one imagines) spend an inordinate amount of time arguing obscure points of theology while excommunicating those who point out unpalatable truths which conflict with standard doctrine.
Some sectors of the real Church have attacked this trilogy as being ‘Anti Christian’ and have called for the books to be banned, although thankfully so far parents and teachers have wisely considered these outbursts to be the rantings of people with too much time on their hands.
Oddly enough, one of the published paragraphs of praise in the frontispiece comes from the Church Times so perhaps there is some degree of common sense to be found in the corridors of organised Christianity.
The Christian element comes to the fore in the concluding chapters when Lord Asriel announces his belief – which seems to be shared by both his enemy, Mrs Coulter and The Church authorities – that Dust (a mysterious subatomic particle which humans attract) is a manifestation of original sin.
Dust is only drawn to humans who have passed through puberty which is why Mrs Coulter was so keen to sever the children from their daemons in her experiments since the result appears to be similar to that of castration.