Family Separation in His Dark Materials

It’s not unusual for the protagonists of children’s or young adult literature to be orphaned, a runaway, or otherwise making her way without a parent’s aid or interest. But the case of Lyra in The Golden Compass/Northern Lights is extreme. Her parents are alive but neither want her, and she is told they are dead. She discovers who her mother, Mrs. Coutler is, after the woman acts with deceit and cruelty. Her father, Lord Asriel, dumps her at Jordan College, and although he does see her when he visits, being with her is not his goal. When she knows who they are, it is soon after they engage in an act of unbearable brutality against Lyra’s best friend, one she blames herself for.

In a parallel universe, Will Parry has become his mentally fragile mother’s caretaker and effectively the head of the household out of fear they will each separately end up institutionalized, a fear that is heightened when his world’s authorities begin to harass his mother about his father’s fate.

What sets the events of His Dark Materials in motion is random family separation focusing on the poor, powerless, and minority populations. It’s a means of destroying people who are considered less than human by the rich and powerful. In American history, this abuse is continuing but not new. Auctioning of different family members to different plantations was a way to destroy family units during the brutal centuries when the slave trade was on-going. “To sell someone down the river” meant exactly that: to remove a slave from his or her group by selling to a distant plantation. Family separation broke Native American communities when the children were sent to boarding schools, forbidden to speak their own language, and had their hair cut and traditional dress forbidden.

From the opening chapters of Golden Compass/Northern Lights, the horror of family separation drives the plot. It is overshadowed by the ultimate separation, that of child and dæmon, but intercission would not be possible without the State and Magisterium’s kidnapping of children, mostly from poorer or marginalized communities.

The trauma felt by the children is shared by their families and communities, and those involved are dehumanized by their participation. In 2020 in the US, it isn’t hidden from view; it’s on the nightly news, as the political party in power, with the backing of self-proclaimed Evangelical Christians, attempt to end immigration and asylum seeking from Central America by punishing the parents seeking better lives for their children, scattering them in institutions across the country, the locations, numbers, and safety records kept secret.

When I see images of toddlers alone in courtrooms, images of nursing babies taken from handcuffed mothers, lines of preschool and school aged kids in camps with locations unspecified, when I realize these kids don’t share a common language and have no communication with their parents and no reunification plan, one word comes to mind: Bolvangar, an unknown number of Bolvangars with untold numbers of children. Even if some are eventually placed with family, the trauma is permanent, not altogether unlike being separated from one’s dæmon. Stories hit the news now and then but as soon as they do, they sink from sight. The overriding feeling is hopelessness.

And there is no John Faa on the way with gyptian fighters. There is no Iorek Byrnison to lead the charge. 

Lee Scoresby’s Balloon

This edited description of Lee Scoresby’s balloon from my Definitive Guide draws on both The Golden Compass/Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife. Most relevant chapters are 10-11, 13-15, and 17-22 in the first volume.

Ropes criss-cross the balloon and are secured to an iron ring protected by a sheath of leather; this is the balloon’s suspension ring. On the leather rimmed basket edge, there’s an instrumentation panel with a compass and altimeter. The basket is level with Lyra’s chin. Lee Scoresby carries oxygen tanks and piles of furs to offer some protection from the extreme cold of open-air Arctic flying, sometimes using canvas as a bivouac.

He also travels with a back-up, smaller balloon for emergencies or flying without passengers, for example, surveying for the gyptians as they approach Bolvangar.

Scoresby’s main balloon can handle the weight of himself, two children, and an armored bear.

Lee’s is a hydrogen balloon. He can tell from above if the ground looks promising for refueling. Ground-gas vents near mines are most efficient sources, or he can make the gas from rock-oil or coal. In a pinch, he can pour sulphuric acid over iron filings. At Bolvangar, he helps himself to some from Mrs. Coulter’s zeppelin’s gasbags.

Lee controls buoyancy by a spring-levered gas-valve attached to a rope, which can be looped around a cleat in the suspension ring in order to keep the valve open. He can slowly open sandbags that have been used as ballast around the balloon’s basket to ascend more rapidly. To descend, he can gradually release gas. For a quick landing, as in Bolvangar, he can use a rope to open a flap on the top of the balloon.

One problem is the wind can make a partially deflated balloon into a sail. In an emergency, the aëronaut can use a grapnel, like an anchor, to snag onto a treetop from which he can assess his best next move.

Once landed, the balloonist needs a new source of fuel to get going again.

Weather conditions are the greatest concern. Lightning can cause explosions, and fog makes navigation nearly impossible. Speed and direction depend on prevailing winds. Scoresby was lucky to have Serafina Pekkala’s witch clan drag his balloon against prevailing winds as he approaches Svalbard.

Featured image is Lunar halo and luminescent cross observed during the balloon Zénith’s long distance flight from Paris to Arcachon in March, 1875. Many balloon pictures are part of the Library of Congress’s Tissandier Collection.

Our Svalbard

The last two decades have changed Svalbard in our world from once being considered a stable enough place to house the International Seed Vault to one affected dramatically by global climate change, including the loss of polar bear and reindeer habitat, and the growth of tourism with the stress that the introduction of transient humans put on a place.

There has been a human population on the island archipelago for some time now; the first big thrust were Soviet mining operations, long abandoned.

It is home to the University Centre in Svalbard, the most northernly of universities and the Norwegian Polar Institute

Life as as a student on Svalbard sounds fascinating; no one is allowed beyond the school’s fenced parameters without a rifle or being in the company of someone trained in firearms. The threat of bear attacks is taken quite seriously. I recommend browsing the student life handbook for its worst case scenarios before submitting an application.

The Norwegian Polar Institute has extensive resources on problems facing the islands. Good maps are found here. There’s a concise summary of Svalbard essentials at Cittagazze

For more information on the unarmored bears of Svalbard, go here.

When I first started on The Definitive Guide, close to 20 years ago, I had a window open to a real time webcam. It was black and white and trained on a parking lot. Through the winter, I saw no signs of life but the occasional change of car or truck in its place. It was strangely peaceful to tune in throughout the day and night and see nothing happen.

Now there are lots of webcams to choose from.

Svalbard in the Books

Our world’s Svalbard,  NOAA geood 0479:

Edited from The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Lyra “asked Iorek Byrnison about Svalbard, and listened eagerly as he told her of the slow-crawling glaciers; of the rocks and ice-floes, where the bright-tusked walruses lay in groups of a hundred or more, of the seas teeming with seals, of narwhals clashing their long white tusks above the icy water; of the great grim iron-bound coast, and the cliffs a thousand feet and more high” (NL 225)

In HDM, Svalbard is the island nation of the panserbjørne (or armoured bears) and the site of Asriel’s exile, where he plans to reveal a bridge to another world by creating a “breach in the sky.”

Its interior is “mountainous, with jumbled peaks and sharp ridges deeply cut by ravines and steep-sided valleys,” and extremely cold. When Lyra arrives, the snow is thigh deep and its perimeter high cliffs are plagued by cliff-ghasts. There is no wood on the island, but coal pits are numerous. Asriel’s lab is south of the frozen sea that reaches to the Pole. To the east and west are “Great jagged peaks thrusting sharply upwards, their scarps piled high with snow and raked by the wind into blade-like edges as sharp as scimitars” (NL/GC 390).

Although they have visited and been imprisoned there, no human settlements exist on the island. Traditionally, the bears live in ice forts and forge iron into armour in fire mines.

When HDM opens, Iofur Raknison, the prince who succeeded the exiled king Iorek Byrnison, has rejected this culture and is determined to impose a human culture in place of the bears’. Mrs. Coulter has encouraged this because “There are human laws that prevent certain things that she was planning to do, but human laws don’t apply on Svalbard” (GC/NL 357). There she can build her experiment stations without scrutiny. In exchange she promises Raknison what he covets most, a daemon. Svalbard is also where she fatefully imprisons Lord Asriel, but Raknison allows him to set up a lab.

With the restoration of Byrnison, the returned king demands a clearance of all things human and the return of human prisoners to their homelands. However, the breach in the sky Asriel makes radically changes the island’s climate: “the mountains lay bare and black, and only a few hidden valleys facing away from the sun had retained a little snow in their shaded corners” (Amber Spyglass). He contemplates moving his bears to the Himalayas until the hole in the sky can be sealed.

Lyra’s Wardrobe for the Far North

These descriptions of Lyra’s wardrobe during her visit to the Far North are based on the texts for Northern Lights/The Golden Compass and are edited from the entries in my The Definitive Guide: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Original Trilogy. Her wardrobe diverges from the film story of His Dark Materials; you can do in a third person narrative what can be awkward in film; for example, were the film actors in huge hoods, their faces would be hard to see. The novels are deliberate in creating a sense of how cold the Far North would be in a time of year when the aurora would be visible, that is, not high summer.

Anoraks: Essential outerwear. Lyra’s fur one is contrasted with the coal-silk ones provided the children at Bolvangar. Coal-silk is likely nylon, suitable for shopping bags (NL 98), but not sub-zero temperatures at this time. Anoraks are hooded garments that go over the head and use no buttons or zippers.

Money-belt/oilskin pouch: Lyra trades in the purse which so infuriated Mrs. Coulter when she wore it indoors in London for a water-resistant oilskin pouch the nurses at Bolvangar call her money pouch. It helps keep the alethiometer safe and would not have been conspicuous under the layers of furs she wore.

Skins and Furs: When Lyra runs away from Mrs. Coulter, she wears a dark wolfskin coat, one of the items Coulter outfitted her with including “furs and oilskins and waterproof boots” (NL 82) when she claimed she planned to take the girl north.

Wolfskin is not as good as reindeer for extreme cold, and the gyptians take Lyra to be outfitted in Trollesund, Norroway. There she gets a “parka made of reindeer skin, because reindeer hair is hollow and insulates well;” her hood is “lined with wolverine fur, because that sheds the ice that forms when you breathe.” Completing her outfit are reindeer calf undergarments, reindeer skin mittens, and boots with sealskin soles. Her waterproof cape is made of “semi-transparent seal intestine” (Chapter 10).

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When Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison became Allies

There are two quotations which I think sum up best the characters of armored bear Iorek Byrnison and aëronaut Lee Scoresby. 

When Lyra asks Iorek if he is frightened as they watch witch armies approach Svalbard toward the end of Northern Lights, he responds, “Not yet. When I am I shall master the fear” (NL Chapter 12). He is the ideal warrior, who once he decides that by his own code physical fighting is required, enters it without second-guessing his decision.

Lee Scoresby’s values are similar, as he explains in The Subtle Knife: it”seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it is needed” (p. 403). Together, as Lyra’s allies, they are a formidable team.

How the two met and formed their alliance is the subject of Once Upon a Time in the North, a novella Philip Pullman released in 2008, although it is set some 35 years prior to His Dark Materials.

Looking for work, Scoresby lands in a Muscovy oil town where corrupt officials have seized goods of a schooner captain and where it looks certain that the town will soon be run by a politician who despises armored bears and uses a paid assassin Scoresby bore witness against back in the Dakotas.

Scoresby, never one to avoid a confrontation with evil, takes on the role of ” guardian angel” for the captain, and Iorek offers his services on the grounds the captain’s enemy, the politician who despises bears, “is his enemy too” (51). And thus Iorek pledges his help to Scoresby.

Scoresby is not above spinning a yarn about being the captain’s attorney and fast talking the Customs officer with reference to plausible but fictional laws governing seizure of property. He is as slick a talker as he is fighter, and with Hester’s help, successfully defeats the assassins.

The townspeople prove to be relieved at the defeat of the seemingly popular politician; his stirring up feelings against the bears was aimed at getting into office so he could economically exploit the labor and resources of the town of Novy Odense. Nevertheless, they are happy to see the last of Iorek and Scoresby, who depart via balloon.

  • This is occasion during which Scoresby is given his Winchester in thanks by the captain after a gun battle with the politician’s assassin, whose dæmon is a rattlesnake.
  • Iorek declares Hester to be an Arctic Hare, meaning that Scoresby himself belongs in the Far North.

There are some found materials in the back, which tell us that

  • Lyra’s thesis for her M Phil is in Economic History is on Developments of Patterns of Trade in the European Arctic Region with Particular Reference to Independent Cargo Balloon Carriage (1950-1970).
  • One of her professors is Dr. Polstead (hero of La Belle Sauvage, I bet).
  • Other found bits include an illustration from The Elements of Aerial Navigation, which includes instructions on landing a balloon, and The ‘Shipping World’ Year Book.
  • John Lawrence is the illustrator, and there is a fold-out “board game,” “Peril of the Pole,” along with a spinner and game pieces, a snakes-and-ladders type of game of chance.

Once Upon a Time in the North: His Dark Materials

Lee Scoresby in His Dark Materials: Sources for His Name

Here is a sidebar  I wrote about Lee Scoresby in my The Definitive Guide: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Original Trilogy.

His name is derived from two sources: Lee Van Cleef and William Scoresby, Sr. and Jr.

Lee Van Cleef was an actor who appeared in a number of Westerns, including High Noon; The Good the Bad, and the Ugly; The Magnificent Seven; For a Few Dollars More, and other tales of bounty hunters, desperadoes, and treasure hunters — all variations on the theme of outlaws and lawmen in the Wild West.

William Scoresby, Sr. (1760-1829) of Whitby, North Yotkshire, captained whaling ships in arctic waters. In 1806, when Scoresby Sr., navigating through the ice off Spitzbergen, the largest of Svalbard’s islands (Svalbard ranges from 81º N to 74º N) made it to 81º N, he had gone further toward the North Pole than any white person before him. His record was broken by Sir William Parry (!), who traveled to 82º N.

William Scoresby, Jr. (1789-1857) began his arctic explorations aboard his father’s whalers and made yearly explorations off the coast of Greenland from 1803-1822, gaining renown as a scientist. In 1820 he published An Account of the Arctic Regions, which laid the foundation for future arctic studies in geography, natural history, and physical sciences.

Scoresby Jr. was the first to show that the temperature of arctic water is warmer below than on the surface. Terrestrial magnetism was one of his particular interests, which he continued to study even after ceasing his arctic explorations in 1823 and becoming ordained as an Anglican clergyman in 1825. He devised improvements in compass needles at the request of the British Admiralty, lectured in America, and in 1856 journeyed to Australia to make observations on magnetism in the southern hemisphere. His accomplishments as a mapmaker led to a large area off Greenland’s east coast being named Scoresby Sound in his honor, and there is a Scoresby, Victoria, Australia,  commemorating his southern travels.

For two instances of where Pullman mentions Scoresby, see Philip Pullman: A Life in Writing  and (Van Cleef) The Last Word .



The Alethiometer and Photo-mills [radiometers]


Learning to use the alethiometer, Lyra and Pantalaimon discuss the possibility that after she sets the three symbol dials on her alethiometer,  what drives the unfixed needle to circle round and stop at symbols that answer her question is a spirit. Or it might be elementary particles. A discussion of the photo-mill at Gabriel College follows:

At Gabriel College there was a very holy object kept on the high altar of the Oratory….At the height of the invocation, the Intercessor lifted the cloth to reveal in the dimness a glass dome. . .he pulled a string attached to a shutter above, letting a ray of sunlight through to strike the dome exactly. Then it became clear: a little thing like a weathervane, with four sails black on one side and white on the other, that began to whirl around as light struck it. (Northern Lights 149)

The Intercessor takes it as an illustration that “ignorance fled from the light,” but the white side of the vane, wisdom,  “rushed to embrace it.” Now,

“… perhaps Pantalaimon was right. If elementary particles could push a photo-mill around, no doubt they could make light work of a needle” (NL 149).

Lyra has her doubts, and will later remember this conversation when she asks Serafina Pekkala about Dust, who replies that worries about it are a Church thing, of no interest to witches, but Lyra is left wondering if what pushes the alethiometer’s needle could be the same as the elementary particles the Intercessor claimed “pushed the little vanes around” of the photo-mill kept on Gabriel College’s high altar (NL 318).

Whatever acts upon the alethiometer’s unfixed needle, it remains a question why Lyra the child can interpret its movements in trance or intuitively, but the mature Lyra will need to study the voluminous commentaries on the symbols’ multi-faceted meanings in order to understand what she is seeing. I suspect this territory is where William Blake on innocence and experience, and the doors of perception, would be our best guide.

On the problem of radiometers (our world’s photo-mills): Radiometer.



Aurora Borealis in Art & the Barnard- Stokes Business

Until recently, the aurora had been seen by few. Now you can check daily on its activity at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and view dozens of professional and amateur photos as you do so. Start here.

Or enjoy some artists’ renderings, imaginative and as seen on expeditions.

The Uprising of the North
 [Grand caricaturama]
Creator(s): Nast, Thomas, 1840-1902, artist, 1867
Medium: 1 painting : tempera(?) ; 7 ft. 10.5 in. x 11 ft. 7 in.
Summary: Cartoon shows “a night scene. Columbia stands on a balcony draped with the United States flag, with the American Eagle beside her, wings outspread. She brandishes her sword, and below her, mounted knights salute her with drawn swords. In the distance is a wide landscape of mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes–a whole continent–with beacon fires everywhere. In the sky is a vision of the Capitol, with rays of light radiating from it like the aurora borealis. … The painting reveals Nast’s complete belief in the righteousness of the Northern [American Civil War] cause. It also reveals the basic romanticism that governed his politics and art. …”
 No known restrictions on publication. No renewal in Copyright Office.

This odd painting is an allegory of the 19th century American Civil War but of note is that in Lyra’s world the aurora borealis is associated with battling armies of angels. Moreover, there is a city in the sky.

The Barnard-Stokes Business: (GC/NL Chapter 2): Accoording to the Jordan College Master, while the Holy Church claims there are only two words, one physical and the other “the spiritual world of heaven and hell.” Barnard and Stokes, a pair of “renegade theologians, theorized that there are numerous physical worlds — “material and sinful…close by, but invisible and unreachable.”

While I am not claiming any such status for the city in Thomas Nast’s painting, it seems too cool in context to overlook. Less fantastic first-hand geographical explorations follow.

 Aurora borealis, as observed March 1, 1872, at 9h.
25m. P.M. C. 1881
Medium: 1 print : chromolithograph ; sheet 92 x 122 cm. or less.
No known restrictions on publication.
flick’r commons (British Library)

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What Brought Me to His Dark Materials

I am well-positioned to agree with Pullman that school librarians should be professionally trained. When my children were young they went to a small, progressive private school, and in exchange for their tuition, I was the sole librarian. I was enthusiastic, loved the job, and unqualified. I read to my kids a lot, but that isn’t enough.

The picturebook crowd was easy enough; I’d simply choose books with large, vivid pictures that those in the back could see. But what about those who were older? Library time was an hour a week, with 20 kids in a roughly 18 ft by 30 ft space. So I read to all groups.

The ages extended to about 14 years; grade divisions included several years in a single class. But even the oldest kids loved to be read to. Sometimes I read Peter Sis picture books with them, Tibet through the Red Box, for example. Some of the best art, I’d argue, is to be found in children’s books. David Almond’s Skellig worked well, and I recall one mother telling me the only reason her daughter came to school was to hear the next chapters of Kit’s Wilderness.

But where to go next? Harry Potter they would read on their own. The Series of Unfortunate Events proved unpopular because some did not see the humor in the events endured by the orphaned children. So I got on a children’s lit list-serve, and the answer was unanimous: Philip Pullman. I ordered a selection and started reading.

The school was small enough that there was no cafeteria and the kids ate their lunches outside or in a commons area shared by all the classes. 

A November day came with a soaking rain. The kids dashed over to the trailer (or caravan) housing the library, and I began reading Philip Pullman’s Clockwork, or All Wound Up. It’s suspenseful, with a sinister villain, a mechanical heart, and a storyteller. Library time ended, the rains did not, and the kids asked if I would keep reading through lunch. I said sure, but no one was obliged to return (I think they all did anyway). They ran and collected their lunches, and I resumed. I was about 15 pages from the end when lunch was supposed to be over. They asked if they could send an emissary to the classroom teacher for an extension of lunchtime, and she of course agreed.

That was a very satisfying day.

I had begun The Golden Compass with them, but we didn’t get too far. I had been watching the antics of the soccer coach. This was a school that previously had no bullies. Parents would complain; I suggested we approach the Head. No one went with me, but I took the matter up, notwithstanding that the coach’s mom was the Head. She ranted and raved at me. In the end, my children were allowed to finish the year but I was banned from campus. The Philip Pullman books I’d ordered remained, of course.

My instincts, my gut-feelings, that this man did not belong around children are now indisputable. Ten years after my departure he was convicted of felonious child endangerment.

After I was fired, I began writing The Elements of His Dark Materials.