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. 

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

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.

The Fandom: Ann Giles, Bookwitch

One reason I am doing this blog is for fans of His Dark Materials. Ann Giles, who writes the enormously popular young people’s book blog, Bookwitch.wordpress.com. A fan herself, Ann is the mother of one of the guiding forces for the UK fans, Ian Giles, who once devoted many hours to BridgetotheStars.net. She did a profile of me and my books yesterday, A definitive guide to HDM.

Bridge’s French Twitter affiliate, Twitàgazze, is now the best source for Pullmania on that platform.

I first “met” Ann when she wrote in 2007 about my sending a copy of one of the guides to her son to review for bridgetothestars.net, And How Son Eventually Became a Footnote. He supplied me with many of the photos of contemporary Oxford. Check the credits.

Ann’s son is a few years older than mine, as is her daughter. We’ve spent the last 12 years as e-mail pals, and it feels like we have brought our kids up together.

One time when they met Philip at a conference, they snapped this picture for me.

A Blog by the Author of The Definitive Guide

Nearly 20 years and 20 pounds of books later, I have decided to write a blog for the already saturated world of Philip Pullman blogs, just brief glimpses of His Dark Materials that continue to fascinate me. Why bother with the annoyances of WordPress? I’m doing it for the fantastic fandom, in hopes a few of you derive some pleasure from revisiting the worlds.

These are the books I am trawling, or really, four versions of my one book. Some of the posts are not based on the books.

The first, The Elements of His Dark Materials, was published by The Fell Press in 2006. It has been out-of-print since 2008. ScholasticUK bought all but the US rights and published Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials in paperback in 2007, followed by the hardcover The Definitive Guide to His Dark Materials in 2008. Last month, September 2019, ScholasticUK reprinted the book under the same name.

It is unlikely that the book will be published again in the US. It would be if I could make it happen. I regret this terribly, primarily on behalf of the fans, but also independent booksellers. It can be ordered from UK book dealers for delivery in the US, including Amazon.co.uk or Waterstones.