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.

4 thoughts on “Svalbard in the Books

  1. David Arkin

    I love how Pullman creates that parallel between holes in the ozone layer/climate change in our world & the unintended side effects of Asriel’s bridge to Cittigaze. His Dark Materials has so much depth to it!

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      1. David Arkin

        & the RL Svalbard has quite a history. Too bad its gotten so touristy though. Found this interesting article by someone who went recently: https://www.thenation.com/article/svalbard-arctic-open-borders/

        “The terminal’s most prominent signs, however, are aimed at the growing number of tourists—walrus safaris, trips to see the Northern Lights, and shops, restaurants, and bars. In the middle of the baggage claim belt stands a taxidermied polar bear with Svalbard’s most famous bylaws displayed by its side: To leave Longyearbyen, you must respect nature, notify the government, and carry a gun. These days, travelers from around the world go to Svalbard for what has become known as last-chance tourism: The desire to see polar bears, glaciers, and icebergs before they disappear.”

        I think I like Iorek’s Svalbard better!

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