The trilogy takes place across a multiverse, moving between many parallel worlds. In Northern Lights, the story takes place in a world with some similarities to our own; dress-style resembles that of the UK's Victorian era, and technology has not evolved to include automobiles or fixed-wing aircraft, while zeppelins feature as a notable mode of transport.
In The Subtle Knife, the story moves between the world of the first novel, our own world, and in another world, the city of Cittàgazze. In The Amber Spyglass the story crosses through an array of diverse worlds.
Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look'd a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
— Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 910–920
Pullman earlier proposed to name the series The Golden Compasses, also a reference to Paradise Lost, where they denote God's circle-drawing instrument used to establish and set the bounds of all creation:
Then staid the fervid wheels, and in his hand He took the golden compasses, prepared In God's eternal store, to circumscribe This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centered, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure
— Paradise Lost, Book 7, lines 224–229
Despite the confusion with the other common meaning of compass (the navigational instrument) The Golden Compass became the title of the American edition of Northern Lights (the book features an "alethiometer", a rare truth-telling device that one might describe as a "golden compass").
In Jordan College, Oxford, 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua and her dæmon Pantalaimon witness the Master attempt to poison Lord Asriel, Lyra's rebellious and adventuring uncle. She warns Asriel, then spies on his lecture about Dust, mysterious elementary particles. Lyra's friend Roger is kidnapped by child abductors known as the "Gobblers". Lyra is adopted by a charming socialite, Mrs Coulter. The Master secretly entrusts her with an alethiometer, a truth-telling device. Lyra discovers that Coulter is the leader of the Gobblers, a secret Church-funded project, which is abducting children. Lyra flees to the Gyptians, canal-faring nomads, whose children have also been abducted. They reveal to Lyra that Asriel and Coulter are actually her parents.
The Gyptians form an expedition to the Arctic with Lyra to rescue the children. Lyra recruits Iorek Byrnison, an armoured bear, and his human aeronaut friend, Lee Scoresby. She also learns that Lord Asriel has been exiled, guarded by the bears on Svalbard. Near Bolvangar, the Gobbler research station, Lyra discovers an abandoned child who has been cut from his dæmon; the Gobblers are experimenting on children by severing the bond between human and dæmon. Lyra is captured and taken to Bolvangar, where she is reunited with Roger. Coulter tells Lyra that the intercision prevents the onset of troubling adult emotions. Lyra and the children are rescued by Scoresby, Iorek, the Gyptians, and Serafina Pekkala's flying witch clan. Lyra falls out of Scoresby's balloon and is taken by the panserbjørne to the castle of their usurping king, Iofur Raknison. She tricks Iofur into fighting Iorek, who arrives with the others to rescue Lyra. Iorek kills Iofur and takes his place as the rightful king.
Lyra, Iorek, and Roger travel to Svalbard, where Asriel has continued his Dust research in exile. He tells Lyra that the Church believes Dust is the basis of sin, and plans to visit the other universes and destroy its source. He severs Roger from his dæmon, killing him and releasing enough energy to create an opening to a parallel universe. Lyra determines to stop Asriel and discover the source of Dust for herself.
Lyra journeys through Asriel's opening between worlds to Cittàgazze, an otherworldly city whose denizens have discovered a clean path between worlds at a far earlier point in time than others in the storyline. Cittàgazze's reckless use of the technology has released soul-eating Spectres, to which children are immune, rendering much of the world incapable of transit by adults. Here Lyra meets Will Parry, a twelve-year-old boy from our world. Will, who recently killed a man to protect his ailing mother, has stumbled into Cittàgazze in an effort to locate his long-lost father. Venturing into Will's (our) world, Lyra meets Dr. Mary Malone, a physicist who is researching what she calls Shadow Particles, which are the same as Lyra's Dust. Lyra encourages Dr. Malone to attempt to communicate with the particles, and when she does they tell her to travel into the Cittàgazze world.
Will becomes the bearer of the eponymous Subtle Knife, a tool forged 300 years ago by Cittàgazze's scientists from the same materials used to make Bolvangar's silver guillotine. One edge of the knife can divide even subatomic particles and form subtle divisions in space, creating portals between worlds; the other edge easily cuts through any form of matter. After meeting with witches from Lyra's world, they journey on.
Meanwhile, back in Lyra's world, Lee Scoresby seeks out Stanislaus Grumman. When Scoresby finds him, Grumman insists on being taken through the opening into the Cittàgazze world in Scoresby's balloon. Scoresby dies defending Grumman from the forces of the Church. Grumman turns out to be Will's long-lost father and he succeeds in reuniting with his son before he is murdered by a witch who loved him but was turned down. After his father's death, Will discovers that Lyra has been kidnapped and he is approached by two angels requesting his aid.
The Amber Spyglass tells of Lyra's kidnapping by her mother, Mrs. Coulter, an agent of the Magisterium who has learned of the prophecy identifying Lyra as the next Eve. A pair of angels, Balthamos and Baruch, inform Will that he must travel with them to give the Subtle Knife to Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, as a weapon against The Authority. Will ignores the angels; with the help of a local girl named Ama, the Bear King Iorek Byrnison, and Lord Asriel's Gallivespian spies, the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia, he rescues Lyra from the cave where her mother has hidden her from the Magisterium, which has become determined to kill her before she yields to temptation and sin like the original Eve.
Will, Lyra, Tialys and Salmakia journey to the Land of the Dead, temporarily parting with their dæmons to release the ghosts from their captivity. Mary Malone, a scientist from Will's world interested in "shadows" (or Dust in Lyra's world), travels to a land populated by strange sentient creatures called Mulefa. There she comes to understand the true nature of Dust, which is both created by and nourishes life which has become self-aware. Lord Asriel and the reformed Mrs. Coulter work to destroy the Authority's RegentMetatron. They succeed, but themselves suffer annihilation in the process by pulling Metatron into the abyss. The Authority himself dies of his own frailty when Will and Lyra free him from the crystal prison wherein Metatron had trapped him, able to do so because an attack by cliff-ghasts kills or drives away the prison's protectors. When Will and Lyra emerge from the land of the dead, they find their dæmons. The book ends with Will and Lyra falling in love but realising they cannot live together in the same world, because all windows — except one from the underworld to the world of the Mulefa — must be closed to prevent the loss of Dust, because with every window opening, a Spectre would be created and that meant Will must never use the knife again. Also because each of them can only live full lives in their native worlds. This is the temptation that Mary was meant to give them; to help them fall in love and then choose whether they should stay together or not. During the return, Mary learns how to see her own dæmon, who takes the form of a black Alpine chough. Lyra loses her ability to intuitively read the alethiometer and determines to learn how to use her conscious mind to achieve the same effect.
All humans in Lyra's world, including witches, have a dæmon. It is the physical manifestation of a person's 'inner being', soul or spirit. It takes the form of a creature (moth, bird, dog, monkey, snake, etc.) and is usually the opposite sex to its human counterpart. The dæmons of children have the ability to change form - from one creature to another - but towards the end of a child's puberty, their dæmon "settles" into a permanent form, which reflects the person's personality. When a person dies, the dæmon dies too. But if the dæmon dies, the person does not. Armoured bears, cliff ghasts and other creatures do not have dæmons. An armoured bear's armour is his soul.
Lyra Belacqua, a wild 12-year-old girl, has grown up in the fictional Jordan College, Oxford. She is skinny with dark blonde hair and blue eyes. She prides herself on her capacity for mischief, especially her ability to lie, earning her the epithet "Silvertongue" from Iorek Byrnison. Lyra has a natural ability to use the alethiometer, which is capable of answering any question when properly manipulated and read.
Pantalaimon is Lyra's dæmon. Like all dæmons of children, he changes from one creature to another constantly. When Lyra reaches puberty he assumes the permanent form of a pine marten. Pantalaimon and Lyra follow her father, Lord Asriel, when he travels to the newly discovered world of Cittagazze, where Lyra meets Will.
Will Parry, a sensible, morally conscious, assertive 12-year-old boy from our world. He becomes the bearer of the subtle knife. Will is independent and responsible for his age, having looked after his mentally ill mother for several years.
Kirjavais Will's dæmon, so named by Serafina Pekkala. She takes the permanent form of a large, shadow-colored cat.
The Authority is the first angel to have emerged from Dust. He controls the Church, an oppressive religious institution. He told the later-arriving angels that he created them and the universe, but this is a lie. Although he is one of the two primary adversaries in the trilogy — Lord Asriel is his primary opponent — he remains in the background; he makes his only appearance late in The Amber Spyglass. The Authority has grown weak and transferred most of his powers to his regent, Metatron. He is extremely aged, fragile and naive.
Lord Asriel, ostensibly Lyra's uncle, is later revealed to be her father. He opens a rift between the worlds in his pursuit of Dust. His dream of establishing a Republic of Heaven to rival the Authority's Kingdom leads him to use his power to raise a grand army from across the multiverse to rise up in rebellion against the forces of the Church.
Marisa Coulter is the coldly beautiful, manipulative mother of Lyra and former lover of Lord Asriel. She serves the Church by kidnapping children for research into the nature of Dust, where she separated them from their dæmons, which is called amputation. She has black hair, a slim build, and looks younger than she is. Initially hostile to Lyra, she realises that she loves her daughter and seeks to protect her from agents of the Church, who want to kill Lyra. Her dæmon is a golden monkey with a cruel streak.
Metatron, Asriel's principal adversary, was a human in biblical times Enoch and was later transfigured into an angel. The Authority has displayed his declining health by appointing Metatron his Regent. As Regent, Metatron has implanted the monotheistic religions across the universes. He becomes vulnerable to the seductive advances of Marisa Coulter, who betrays him by luring him into the underworld to his death. He is the series' main antagonist.
Lord Carlo Boreal, or Sir Charles Latrom, CBE as he is known as in Will Parry's world, serves as a minor character in Northern Lights, but is a main antagonist in The Subtle Knife. He is an old Englishman, appearing to be in his sixties. He normally wears pale suits and is described as smelling sweetly. He is ultimately poisoned by Mrs. Coulter, to whom he has previously been a lover.
Mary Malone, is a physicist and former nun from Will's world. She meets Lyra during Lyra's first visit to Will's world. Lyra provides Mary with insight into the nature of Dust. Agents of the Church force Mary to flee to the world of the mulefa. There she constructs the amber spyglass, which enables her to see the otherwise invisible Dust. Her purpose is to learn why Dust, which mulefa civilization depends on, is flowing out of the universe. Mary relates a story of a lost love to Will and Lyra, and later packs for them a lunch containing "little red fruits", which her computer, "the Cave," had instructed her to do.
Iorek Byrnison is a massive armoured bear. An armoured bear's armour is his soul. Iorek's armour is stolen, so he becomes despondent. With Lyra's help he regains his armour, his dignity, and his kingship over the armoured bears. In gratitude, and impressed by her cunning, he dubs her "Lyra Silvertongue". A powerful warrior and armoursmith, Iorek repairs the Subtle Knife when it shatters. He later goes to war against The Authority and Metatron.
Lee Scoresby, a rangy Texan, is a balloonist. He helps Lyra in an early quest to reach Asriel's residence in the North, and he later helps John Parry reunite with his son Will.
Serafina Pekkala is the beautiful queen of a clan of Northern witches. Her snow-goosedæmon Kaisa, like all witches' dæmons, can travel much farther apart from her than the dæmons of humans, without feeling the pain of separation.
The Master of Jordan heads Jordan College, part of Oxford University in Lyra's world. Helped by other Jordan College employees, he is raising the supposedly orphaned Lyra. Faced with difficult choices that only later become apparent, he tries unsuccessfully to poison Lord Asriel.
Roger Parslow is the kitchen boy at Jordan College and Lyra's best friend.
John Parry is Will's father. He is an explorer from our world who discovered a portal to Lyra's world and became the shaman known as Stanislaus Grumman or Jopari, a corruption of his original name.
The Four Gallivespians: Lord Roke, Madame Oxentiel, Chevalier Tialys and Lady Salmakia — are tiny people (a hand-span tall) with poisonous heel spurs.
Ma Costa: A Gyptian woman whose son, Billy Costa is abducted by the "Gobblers". She rescues Lyra from Mrs Coulter and takes her to John Faa. We later discover that Ma Costa nursed Lyra, when she was a baby.
John Faa: The King of all the Gyptians. He journeys with Lyra to the North with his companion Farder Coram. Faa and Costa rescue Lyra when she runs away from Mrs. Coulter. Then they take her to Iorek Byrnison.
Father Gomez is a priest sent by the Church to assassinate Lyra. The angel Balthamos kills Gomez before he can reach her.
Fra Pavel Rašek is a representative and alethiometrist of the Consistorial Court of Discipline. He is said to be a sluggish reader of the device, his dæmon is a frog.
Balthamos is a rebel angel who, with his lover Baruch, join in Will's journey to find the captured Lyra. Near the end of the story, he saves both Lyra's and Will's lives by killing Father Gomez. Upon ensuring their safety, Balthamos calls out Baruch's name and dies.
Tony Makarios is a naive boy who is lured into captivity by Mrs. Coulter.
Mulefa are four-legged wheeled animals; they have one leg in front, one in back, and one on each side. The "wheels" are huge, round, hard seed-pods from seed-pod trees; an axle-like claw at the end of each leg grips a seed-pod. The Mulefa society is primitive.
One distinctive aspect of Pullman's story is the presence of "dæmons" (pronounced "demon"). In the birth-universe of the story's protagonist Lyra Belacqua, a human individual's inner-self manifests itself throughout life as an animal-shaped "dæmon", that almost always stays near its human counterpart. During the childhood of its associated human, a dæmon can change its animal shape at will, but with the onset of adolescence it settles into a fixed, final animal form.
The Amber Spyglass won the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year award, a prestigious British literary award. This is the first time that such an award has been bestowed on a book from their "children's literature" category.
The first volume, Northern Lights, won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995. In 2007, the judges of the CILIP Carnegie Medal for children's literature selected it as one of the ten most important children's novels of the previous 70 years. In June 2007 it was voted, in an online poll, as the best Carnegie Medal winner in the seventy-year history of the award, the Carnegie of Carnegies.
A traditional depiction of the Fall of Man Doctrine by Thomas Cole (Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1828). His Dark Materials presents the Fall as a positive act of maturation.
His Dark Materials has occasioned controversy, primarily amongst some Christian groups. While sales in the United States equalled those of the Harry Potter series, Pullman's series received criticism for its perceived anti-religious content from the USA's Catholic League.
Cynthia Grenier, in the Catholic Culture, said: "In the world of Pullman, God Himself (the Authority) is a merciless tyrant. His Church is an instrument of oppression, and true heroism consists of overthrowing both".William A. Donohue of the Catholic League has described Pullman's trilogy as "atheism for kids". Pullman said of Donohue's call for a boycott, "Why don't we trust readers? [...] Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world".
In a November 2002 interview, Pullman was asked to respond to the Catholic Herald calling his books "the stuff of nightmares" and "worthy of the bonfire". He replied: "My response to that was to ask the publishers to print it in the next book, which they did! I think it's comical, it's just laughable". The original remark inCatholic Herald(which was "there are numerous candidates that seem to me to be far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry Potter") was written in the context of parents in South Carolina pressing their Board of Education to ban the Harry Potter books.
Pullman expressed surprise over what he considered to be a relatively low level of criticism for His Dark Materials on religious grounds, saying "I've been surprised by how little criticism I've got. Harry Potter's been taking all the flak... Meanwhile, I've been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God". Others support this interpretation, arguing that the series, while clearly anticlerical, is also anti-theological because the death of god is represented as a fundamentally unimportant question.
Pullman found support from some other Christians, most notably from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury (spiritual head of the Anglican Communion), who argued that Pullman's attacks focus on the constraints and dangers of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself.
Williams also recommended the His Dark Materials series of books for inclusion and discussion in Religious Education classes, and stated that "To see large school-parties in the audience of the Pullman plays at the National Theatre is vastly encouraging". Pullman and Williams took part in a National Theatre platform debate a few days later to discuss myth, religious experience and its representation in the arts.
Pullman renames various common objects or ideas of our world with archaic terms or new words of his own. Below are some of these renamings and new words.
List of terms
Aerodock: Airport. Airships are the dominant form of air travel in Lyra's world, which need to dock at a tower rather than on the land.
Æsahættr: (literally "God-destroyer" in Old Norse) The formal name of the "Subtle Knife"; also deemed the "last knife of all".
Alethiometer: A "truth teller", a rare device in Lyra's world which resembles a four-handed pocket watch, it can truthfully answer any possible question asked by a skilled user. From aletheia (Ancient Greek: ἀλήθεια), meaning 'Truth'.
Ordinator: A computer (from the same root as ordinateur (French) and ordenador (Spanish)).
Philosophical: Having to do with the study of the physical laws of the universe (i.e. what we would call physics). In our own world, science and physics grew out of - and were, until the 19th century usually referred to as - natural philosophy.
Photogram: A photograph; more primitive than those in our own world but able to be developed in multiple ways.
Poppy:Opium. In Lyra's world opium use is quite legal and respectable. Oxford dons traditionally take it with wine after dinner.
Gyptians: A boat-dwelling, transient social group in Lyra's world. They live according to their own customs and traditions, outside mainstream society. They are reminiscent of "Gypsies" (Roma). Our word "Gypsy" is derived from the (mistaken) belief that Gypsies were Egyptian in origin.
Lake Enara:Lake Inari, a lake in Northern Finland. From Enare, the Swedish-language name for the lake.
Panserbjørne (generally italicized and lowercase): Armoured bears (as a whole race or as individuals); a warrior clan of sapient, talking polar bears based on the islands of Svalbard, known for crafting powerful armour from meteoric iron. The word "panserbjørne" literally means "armour-bears" in Danish. The singular is panserbjørn.
The first of two short books, Lyra's Oxford takes place two years after the timeline of The Amber Spyglass. A witch who seeks revenge for her son's death in the war against the Authority draws Lyra, now 15, into a trap. Birds mysteriously rescue her and Pan, and she makes the acquaintance of an alchemist, formerly the witch's lover.
This novella serves as a prequel to His Dark Materials and focuses on the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby as a young man. After winning his hot-air balloon, Scoresby heads to the North, landing on the Arctic island Novy Odense, where he is pulled into a conflict between the oil tycoon Larsen Manganese, the corrupt mayoral candidate Ivan Poliakov, and his longtime enemy from the Dakota Country, Pierre McConville. The story tells of Lee and Iorek's first meeting and of how they overcame these enemies.
The Book of Dust is a second trilogy of novels set before, during and after His Dark Materials. The first book, La Belle Sauvage, was published on 19 October 2017.
In August 2007, Pullman said: "Lyra's Oxford was a dark red book. Once Upon a Time in the North will be a dark blue book. There still remains a green book. And that will be Will's book. Eventually."
Nicholas Hytner directed a theatrical version of the books as a two-part, six-hour performance for London's Royal National Theatre in December 2003, running until March 2004. It starred Anna Maxwell-Martin as Lyra, Dominic Cooper as Will, Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel and Patricia Hodge as Mrs Coulter with dæmon puppets designed by Michael Curry. The play was enormously successful and was revived (with a different cast and a revised script) for a second run between November 2004 and April 2005. It has since been staged by several other theatres in the UK and elsewhere.
A new production was staged at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in March and April 2009, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile and starring Amy McAllister as Lyra. This version toured the UK and included a performance in Pullman's hometown of Oxford. Pullman made a cameo appearance much to the delight of the audience and Oxford media. The production finished up at West Yorkshire Playhouse in June 2009.
New Line Cinema released a film adaptation, titled The Golden Compass, on 7 December 2007. Directed by Chris Weitz, the production had a mixed reception, and though worldwide sales were strong, its U.S. earnings were not as high as the studio had hoped.
The filmmakers obscured the explicitly Biblical character of the Authority to avoid offending viewers. Weitz declared that he would not do the same for the planned sequels. "Whereas The Golden Compass had to be introduced to the public carefully", he said, "the religious themes in the second and third books can't be minimised without destroying the spirit of these books. ...I will not be involved with any 'watering down' of books two and three, since what I have been working towards the whole time in the first film is to be able to deliver on the second and third". In May 2006, Pullman said of a version of the script that "all the important scenes are there and will have their full value"; in March 2008, he said of the finished film that "a lot of things about it were good.... Nothing can bring out all that's in the book. There are always compromises".
Whilst Sam Elliott blamed the Catholic Church's opposition for forcing the cancellation of any adaptations of the rest of the trilogy, The Guardian's film critic Stuart Heritage believed poor reviews may have been the real reason.
^Freitas, Donna; King, Jason Edward (2007). Killing the imposter God: Philip Pullman's spiritual imagination in His Dark Materials. San Francisco, CA: Wiley. pp. 68–9. ISBN978-0-7879-8237-9.
^Squires (2003: 61): "Religion in Lyra's world...has similarities to the Christianity of 'our own universe', but also crucial differences…[it] is based not in the Catholic centre of Rome, but in Geneva, Switzerland, where the centre of religious power, narrates Pullman, moved in the Middle Ages under the aegis of John Calvin".
^Schweizer, Bernard (2005). ""And he's a-going to destroy him": religious subversion in Pullman's His Dark Materials". In Lenz, Millicent; Scott, Carole. His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Philip Pullman's Trilogy. Wayne State University Press. pp. 160–173. ISBN0814332072.
^Pullman, Philip (May 2006). "May message". Archived from the original on 12 October 2007. Retrieved 24 September 2008. And the latest script, from Chris Weitz, is truly excellent; I know, because I`ve just this morning read it. I think it's a model of how to condense a story of 400 pages into a script of 110 or so. All the important scenes are there and will have their full value.
Wheat, Leonard F. (2008). Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials: A Multiple Allegory: Attacking Religious Superstition in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Paradise Lost. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. ISBN978-1-59102-589-4. OCLC152580912.
Yeffeth, Glenn (2005). Navigating the Golden Compass: Religion, Science and Daemonology in His Dark Materials. Dallas: Benbella Books. ISBN1-932100-52-0.