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)

Join the discussion on the Facebook Page, Compounding His Dark Materials.


























































































Fens Gyptians’ Byanroping

When a Byanroping, or gathering of families, is called by  John Faa, the king of the Eastern Anglia water gyptians, to discuss the kidnapping of their children by the Gobblers,

by a thousand winding channels and creeks and watercourses, gyptian boats were moving in toward the Byanplats, the only patch of slightly higher ground in the hundreds of square miles of marsh and bog. . . . so many boats filled the waterways that you could walk for a mile in any direction over their decks; or so it was said. (Northern Lights, 112-13)

Lyra delighted in this.
When I read La Belle Sauvage in 2017, I had to stop a few times because it was a fierce year for hurricanes, both in Florida and in Houston, two places I have lived. There was record flooding in Houston. As climate change continues to worsen, such events will be more common.
One image that struck me was in the Florida Keys, where there was a neighborhood with boat docks like carports. The boats were toppled and strewn. I thought, these people don’t know how to take care of their boats, remembering stories I had heard of people in the Keys in the past driving their boats deep into mangroves and lashing them together. In Miami, boat owners drove up the Miami River, and with the smaller boats in the center, tied up together and to the docks.

These pictures are to show how narrow these contemporary, urban canal boats can be — and how narrow the canals.

True, we aren’t talking about climatic storms in  Northern Lights but instead the gyptians coming together to counter a moral catastrophe. For the innocent Lyra, it it began as a time of play, to run uninterrupted from boat to boat, but soon she will be hiding in a cedar lined cupboard as the gyptians decide democratically to protect her and, at all risks, to save their children and others’ stolen and hidden in the North.

The gyptians demonstrate the power of community against authorities. They have kept themselves free of their manipulations and obligations.


Photo shared by Theresa Drouin.

This work has been released into the public domain by its author, G-Man. This applies worldwide.


Skraeling Island

I was looking for something else entirely when I came upon Barry Lopez’s Horizon. Opening it at random I was on Skraeling Island. 

I had worked hard 15 years ago looking for connections between our world and Lyra’s, and thought I’d found what there was to be known of Skraelings. Either there wasn’t much on the web or I should have focused on Norse sagas.

Skraeling Island is about 660 miles nautical  north of the Pole, off the coast of Ellesmere, Canada, where there is evidence of 4000 years of human habitation, including migratory paleoEskimos or Thule habitation 800 years ago, and relics and materials found in Norse excavations. West Greenland can be seen from the East. SW Alaska is 1500 miles west.

A question that may come to unexpected consequences as the poles continue to melt is whether this is evidence of Scandinavian colonization of these remote horizons of Canada or instead of trade in neighboring Greenland.

Lopez is on this archaeological expedition because writing about living in extreme environments is his life’s work, and he speculates on what dealing with the scarcity of resources in a land of such stunning horizons could have been like, if, for example, the dreamscapes of people living through months of darkness would differ, if their shamans would guide them through. Perhaps ceremonies comparable to Navajo Beautyways helped in time of privation to reveal a high level of coherence existing everlastingly as these explorerers lived on the brink of survival in the harshest of lands.

Lopez speculates that the Skraelings’ relationship with the bears was quite complex. They needed their meat and furs, every part of them, to survive. But they respected them. In their isolation they saw the bears as the only other beings able to walk upright. Perhaps they lived in villages, too.

It opens ways of considering how Lee Scoresby of New Denmark [Greenland] fought Skraelings on Nova Zembla. Consider that the original Americans were thought to have arrived via the Bering Strait. As the Paleo-Eskimos came east through New Denmark and on into Muscovy lands, Russian archipelagos, this means peoples of the Old World came to the New, although in our world’s history, a mirror reality says that Europeans coming into New France [Canada] were inhabitants of  the Old World encountering the New.

Ruins on Skraeling Island. Nick Newberry Archive (see below).

Photo from Nick Newberry Archives. For educational purposes only.https://www.newberyphotoarchives.ca/in/photos/15-skraeling-island

Map by Mike O’Rourke. Used for educational purposes only. https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-location-of-Skraeling-Island-in-the-Canadian-High-Arctic-Map-by-Mike-ORourke_fig1_264004582

Details below. The island is 7000 ft long y 4600 ft in width and is part of the Queen Elizabeth/Canadian Archipelago

Source: Barry Lopez. Horizon. Chapter “Skraling Island.” pp. 131 – 203. NY: Knopf, 2019.




The night before they depart for London, Mrs. Coulter tells Lyra, “Now we’re going to leave very early in the morning bu the dawn zeppelin” (NL 72).

So I thought, we need some zeppelin images, for who can have enough of these? I turned to my favorite site for images that have public domain status, the Library of Congress’s Photographic division. There are dozens more you can search with keywords, zeppelin, airship. If you want to look at these in more details, I have included LoC call numbers. There are also some intriguing images in the Flick’r Commons, including some from Bergen, Norway.

Title: Wellman Lifeboat from “Trent.”

Airship (blueprint) Bain News Service, publisher

Cabin of Zeppelin airship, ggbain 08376 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.08376

The “Graf  Zeppelin” as it appeared in its last trial flight, which included a visit to England. 1928.

Zeppelin Passenger ship from 1920-15 appears to have an inside and outdoor passenger area. The outside basket in other documents refers to the “lifeboat.” Library of Congress, ggbain 09494 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.09494

Perhaps this onelike the mooring mast at Bolvangar is. Photo from the early 1920s shows shows a British rigid airship R33 tied to its mooring mast. (ggbain 32943 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.32943)

i’m very curious about the docking of this Graf Zeppelin in Norway, found on Flick’r Commons. I suppose it is a space-saving technique for unoccupied airships, which must  land on the ground, in spite of mooring masts, and at a horizontal position.

(Passing the Hotel Bristol
Artist: Atelier K.K. (Knud Knudsen), Date/place: 1930, Bergen/Norway, Subject: Graf Zeppelin over Bergen).


From Chapter 2 of His Dark Materials, “The Idea of North,” Golden Compass/Northern Lights: Lord Asriel began:

“As some of you know, I set out for the North twelve months ago on a diplomatic mission to the King of Lapland. At least, that’s what I pretended to be doing. In fact my real aim was to go further north, still, right up on to the ice, to try and discover what has happened to the Grumman expedition” and to investigate “phenomenon only seen in the lands of the North.”

Lapland has become a largely derogatory to refer to the land of the Sami, the indigenous people of the far North extending across Scandinavia and into Russia, boundaries largely irrelevant to the semi nomadic reindeer herders. Their problem isn’t within themselves, but with colonists from the South, seeking their land, lumber, and resources, and creating mayhem in the usual way — family separation: sending children to government schools or factories, fostering them with non-Sami families, and forbidding the use of language. Slow genocide.

Was there a King of Lapland in Lyra’s world? Perhaps; the scholars do not doubt Asriel’s claim. But more than a standing army, they seemed to fear the witch clans and further north, the armed bears. North and north are used throughout the book. North is the destination; north is the way there.

On the Sámi people of today, I recommend: 

Documentary: The Only Image of My Father.(https://www.amazon.com/Only-Image-My-Father/dp/B07H5P9MXY/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF80. May be found on Amazon Prime. Fifty years on, the pain of family separation endures. Also, see these websites:



Join our conversation at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2376856019242919/. This is a group page for Compounding His Dark Materials.


Norrbotten, Kiruna, Jukkasjärvi, Lappland, Byggnadsverk-Jordbruk, Miljöer-Fjällmiljö

Norrbotten, Kiruna, Kiruna, Lapland, Other-Animals, Environments-Mountain environment
Norrbotten, Kiruna, Kiruna, Lappland, Övrigt-Djur, Miljöer-Fjällmiljö

Norrbotten, Kiruna, Jukkasjärvi, Lapland, Other-Animals, Environments-Mountain environment
Norrbotten, Kiruna, Jukkasjärvi, Lappland, Övrigt-Djur, Miljöer-Fjällmiljö

Sami camp at lake Luossajärvi near Kiruna in Lapland. People, dogs and huts.

Sami family with reindeer, Jukkasjärvi, Lappland, Sweden.

Sami family in Lapland, with a sledge, reindeer and a dog.





https://www.europeana.eu/portal/record/91622/raa_kmb_16001000027564.html. Allard, Björn. Riksantikvarieämbetet – http://kmb.raa.se/cocoon/bild/show-image.html?id=16001000027564. Public Domain Mark – http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

Featured Image: Njommelsaska i Lappland by Carl Svantje Hallbeck, 1856.

Satellite Image:

 Image courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC – Moderate-resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), flying aboard NASA’s Terra satellite.http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/natural_hazards_v2.php3?img_id=2611, Public Domain


@Laurie Frost, 2019. all rights reserved. Photos are in public domain or Fair Use.


Lord Asriel lies in the Retiring Room when he presents a head packed away in ice as that of Stanislaus Grumman, formerly a scholar at Jordan College. It isn’t Grumman’s but some other unfortunate’s.

Immediately, the scholars deem the scalping patterns and evidence of trepannation to be the work of Skraelings (indigenous peoples of their New Denmark (our Greenland)) or Tartars of Siberia. These are perhaps the people least understood and hence most despised in Lyra’s world.

Trepanning is basically drilling a hole in the head. I first read of it way back in the 1970s, maybe in Village Voice, who knows, as a means of alleviating pressure in the skull. I suffered from sinus problems as the consequence of having moved to a place with open air iron smelting and terrible pollution, and it didn’t seem a half bad idea.

The next time I encountered it was here in Jordan College’s Retiring Room. The assumption is it was an act of aggression.

Sometimes you bore in to let something out, and sometimes you bore through to let something in. Stay tuned.

Caption for featured photograph: “The crude method of trephining [sic] with the sharpened edge of a stone practiced by peoples living in Peru some 500 or 600 years ago is revealed by the skulls at the National Museum.” 1926, LC-USZ62-115187

Ideas of North

If you want to know in general what His Dark Materials is about, read chapter 2, “The Idea of North,” in Golden Compass/Northern Lights. The North is not the Arctic, it is conceptual rather than geographic, and a malignant site, although others have been attracted to its pristine quality. The Jordan Scholars fall in the first category, fearing it as the home of vicious armored bears, witches, and vile peoples.

Their stance is Biblical. “Then the Lord said unto me, Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.” Jeremiah 1:14. See also Isaiah 14:12-19 and Jeremiah 6:1, and 4:6.

This is also part of Scandinavian mythology or folklore. In Robert MacFarlane’s The Underland’s chapter “Red Dancers,” he visits a very remote archipelago north of Norway to see cave paintings. It is a difficult journey, and MacFarlane notes that writer Hein Bjerck says of the artists who made the paintings that visiting the caves were “‘ritual actions,’ journeys to the ‘outer fringe of the human world'” and that some of the traditional names for the spot are “Church-Cave, Hell’s Mouth, Hell’s Hole, Troll’s Eye” (264).

The Idea of North by Peter Davidson: read its table of contents here is the best all-around book on the subject I’ve read.

On polar exploration, I recommend The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny. A good deal of it is about Sir John Franklin’s early life, when his qualities of deliberateness and slowness were widely condemned. But they proved needed in the trudge to try to get to the North Pole.

Nadolny’s prose is slow in the way Franklin’s approach to life was, making the book a stylist’s dream, whatever the subject,

What amazes me about polar explorers isn’t their initial voyages, but that once home, they turn around and do it again. The audacity of Vitus Bering’s two expeditions across the whole of Russia to the Pacific is the subject of The Island of Blue Foxes by  Stephen R. Brown. The logistics of lugging from St. Petersburg all that was needed to build ships on the Far East coast is mind-boggling. Again, he did it twice.

One of my favorite movies about life on the taiga of Siberia being lived traditionally in contemporary times is Happy People by Wernher Herzog.

As a native Miamian, I had (have?) a romanticized notion of North. I didn’t see snow fall until I was 19, and have never been in snow deeper than 10 inches. But as a child, North was the Other: a place never hot or humid.


Picture: Iceberg in North Star Bay, Greenland. By Jeremy Harbeck – NASA

Comment here, or join the discusssion on Facebook in the public group, Compounding His Dark Materials at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2376856019242919/

Magic Lantern and Athanasius Kircher

Possibly invented by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) and a precursor to pre-digital 20th century slide projectors that used 35 mm slides, the projector Lord Asriel requests was once called a magic lantern. A reflector and lens focused light on a glass slide; oil (naptha in Lyra’s world) provided the source of light.

In the 2007 10th anniversary editions of His Dark Materials include what Pullman calls “lantern slides,” ideas or images that came to mind after the books’ initial publication. He uses this term because they remind him of his grandfather’s collection of painted slides for storytelling, a way-back precursor to film.

Athanasius Kircher makes an appearance in Lyra’s Oxford in an ad as the author of Polymathestatos: A Festschrift in Honour of Jocelyn Godwin.

In our world, Jocelyn Godwin is a composer and author of Athanasius Kircher: A Renaissance Man and the Quest for Lost Knowledge (1979).

The magic lantern image is from Giorgio de Sepibus, Romani Collegii Musaeum Celeberrimum, p. 39, and is among the Athanasius Kircher ((1602-1680)) collections and research activities at Stanford University. Public domain.