Portal to the Pages

A quick glimpse into my thoughts on various fiction

Retrospective: Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

on October 27, 2012
Book cover of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Northern Lights

Northern Lights is a book I first read when I was quite young; around nine or ten years old. I instantly loved it and always referred to it as “my favourite book of all time”. It is the first book in the trilogy His Dark Materials, however, I did not become aware of this until years later so I feel that it also functions as a stand-alone book. Recently, I was trying to make some space on my bookshelf and came across Northern Lights. I decided I would revisit the book and see how my perceptions of it had changed over time, if at all.

Northern Lights is set in an alternate universe, very similar to our own, with the exception that every human has their own dæmon (pronounced “demon”), which is a companion similar to the person’s spirit or soul. The book follows the escapades of Lyra Belacqua, a twelve-year-old child living in the equivalent of Oxford University. The basis of the story centres on the kidnapping of Lyra’s best friend and her efforts to rescue him. In the process of tracking her friend, Lyra finds herself thrust into an adult world full of politics and intrigue. Her travels include finding out more about her mysterious family, discovering a number of secret projects run by important bodies and learning how to utilise an ancient truth-telling device known as an alethiometer.

I found this to be a very different book to read as an adult as it was as a child. My perspective of various events had changed, due to knowing what was yet to come and having an altered frame of reference. I could see a significant difference between Lyra’s point of view and what was actually happening around her. She, naturally, had a very childish outlook on events; however Pullman decided to place this outlook in a realistic, adult setting. For example, Lyra is convinced that if she gathers enough help, she can simply rescue her friend and everything would return to normal. Without revealing details of what happens, the outcome is less clean-cut and fraught with the grey areas of what is right and wrong that adults are used to dealing with.

It could be argued that this is simply a coming-of-age novel aimed at highlighting the need to evolve from childish thinking where there is absolute right and wrong to understanding that there are grey areas and two sides to every action. I would strongly argue that to think this is to miss the depth of this novel. Lyra’s approach to life is extremely motivational as she places no limits on herself and when she is told she cannot possibly do something, she finds another way around the problem.

This ties in with Pullman’s writing style, which enables this approach to work. In essence, Pullman is writing an adult book that features a child as the main character. He does not talk down to the reader, as many children’s books do; there are numerous books I read as a child that I could not possibly enjoy rereading now. I have to credit Northern Lights with being one of the first prompts in my life that encouraged me to start thinking critically and not simply take things at face value. However, as an adult, it has now reminded me of the importance of the child’s perspective, or in other words, not placing limits on myself and my thoughts.

Northern Lights and His Dark Materials as a whole are well-known for their controversial content regarding religion. This comes to the forefront in the later books in the series; however the groundwork for this is laid in Northern Lights. As a child, much of this passed over my head. I was aware of the church’s presence in the book but I did not infer anything on it, bar that which was explicitly stated. Upon rereading the book however, I viewed the religious element in a very different light. I could identify a number of parallels with the Catholic Church in real life. I found it fascinating that there were a number of different levels of content that, as a child, I did not even begin to scratch the surface of.

Northern Lights remains one of my favourite books and will always be an important book in my life. I was surprised at how much I still enjoyed the story, even though I’m not longer in the target audience. I would strongly encourage anyone to approach this book with an open mind and not consider it to be just a child’s book. Also, if you have children, please don’t let them miss out on this classic novel (and the other books in the trilogy!), you could even enjoy it together.

If you hadn’t already picked up on this, I could talk about Northern Lights forever so, as always, I welcome any of your comments or thoughts on the book.



12 responses to “Retrospective: Northern Lights – Philip Pullman

  1. ahamin says:

    At first glance I thought this was ‘The golden compass’… it looks far more interesting.

    • sineadfoy23 says:

      It is actually the book that “The Golden Compass” is based upon, but it was a very poor adaptation. Most, if not all, of the religious references were removed and the last fifty pages were also removed to make for a “Hollywood” ending.

      If you saw “The Golden Compass”, please consider this something totally separate and unrelated.

  2. gracekenny2 says:

    I kind off feel a bit deprived that I never read this book! I intend to give it a read soon! 🙂

  3. Having enjoyed reading this book at school, I was unaware that it was developing my ‘thinking critically’ skills and I am only realising the value of reading such a book now. I can also appreciate Northern Lights, for its clever storyline and its longevity, which I would not have done whilst reading the book at school. This is a great review as it gets you thinking about all those books that you read and treasured as a child

  4. Sarah says:

    I loved this book as a child too, and actually reread the whole trilogy over the summer, and found the same thing – I had never really realised as a child how political and critical of the church the book really is. I think this is really most evident in ‘The Subtle Knife’. I also remembered wanting more than anything a deamon of my own when I was a child having read this book…until I wanted to go to Hogwarts of course 😛

    • sineadfoy23 says:

      It’s funny how things can go completely over your head as a child. I plan on rereading “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” soon too, but they may have to wait until I get my hands on a Kindle – they’re too heavy to carry around!

      You just reminded me of all the days I spent mourning the fact that I would never truly know what animal my dæmon would be. Although I secretly hoped they’d be a really exotic animal!

      • Sarah says:

        I think everyone who read the books wanted a really exotic animal! I personally thought Lord Asriel’s snow leopard would have been a great one to have! I was dissapointed with the animal Lyra’s settled as in the end, though I don’t exactly remember what it was…something like a ferret I think?

      • sineadfoy23 says:

        Yeah I would have loved to have his snow leopard, or any of the big cats really! According to Wikipedia, Lyra’s was a pine marten in the end. That was a bit disappointing, but Will got a big cat! Lucky him!

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