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. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002716357/. Many balloon pictures are part of the Library of Congress’s Tissandier Collection. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/search/?q=Tissandier%20collection.

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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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 .