“Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it. Death is going to die.”
I read this book probably once every two years, simply because every time I finish it I think I have fully grasped all of its intricate details, but a few months later, I think about it again and feel like I missed something. Or I can’t remember one key element. And so I go back and read it again, and then after a few months, the same thing happens.
I have thought about whether I would read this book to my children (or encourage them to read it themselves). From the start, it deals with difficult concepts. The main character, Lyra, is an orphan, living in a world parallel to our own where people’s souls manifest themselves outside of their bodies in the form of an animal. Lyra is strong and determined and sometimes acts like a bit of a brat. But she knows what she wants and what she needs to do. She takes responsibility for a group of kidnapped children, and with the help of her daemon Pan and the alethiometer, a watch like device that tells truths to only the most skilled users, she journeys to the far north in search of her missing friends.
“It was such a strange tormenting feeling when your daemon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love. Everyone tested it when they were growing up: seeing how far they could pull apart, coming back with intense relief.”
There are some fantastic characters in this book, which surround Lyra and make her story all the richer. From the Texan Lee Scorseby and his daemon Hester, to the witch Serafina, Iorek, King of the Ice Bears, and the perfectly wicked Mrs Coulter. As the story progresses, the world around Lyra suddenly expands beyond her comprehension – her isolated life at an Oxford college, playing by the river with local children, explodes outwards into a journey by sea to the frozen north, meeting witches and ice bears and people who would do her nothing but harm, ultimately realising how cruel the grown up world can be. The book then ends on a spectacular note, with Lyra’s world cracking apart and leading her away from everything she knows, to another world parallel to her own.
Northern Lights is a fantastic introduction to this trilogy, which gets much darker and more complex in the subsequent novels. The reader is free to read as much or as little into it as they like – there are obvious religious themes and allusions to loss of innocence, original sin, death, and in the following two books, heaven and hell, the importance of the soul and the bringing together of parallel worlds. But, at the heart of it all, I think, are the fabulous characters and rich, imaginative lands that Pullman has created. I still can’t explain what it is I feel I miss when I read these novels, but I always seem to come away from them having discovered something new.
“So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.”