Fun Facts about Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass in America) was first published in 1995 by Scholastic. In the 20 years that have followed, there have been two additional books creating a trilogy, plus two separate stories, one a prequel, and one that explores more of Lyra’s adventures after the trilogy.

Since its publication Northern Lights has won numerous awards. In 1995 Pullman won the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, which recognises the year’s outstanding children’s book by a British subject. When the Carnegie Medal had its 70th anniversary, Northern Lights was named in the top ten winning works, and won the public vote naming it the all-time “Carnegie of Carnegies” in 2007.

According to Pullman, he thought “it would be hard to find an audience for this story”. Reading that I was amazed because I can’t imagine this book not being successful, it has gone on to become so iconic and beloved and I do think it will last forever. Just seeing the awards it has won, and the public adoration for it demonstrates that Northern Lights, and the entire series, hold a special place in people’s hearts.

Asked in an interview if there was something he had read, a painting he had seen, or a certain incident that led to the writing of His Dark Materials, Pullman stated that one of the places it came from was Milton’s Paradise Lost. This was a poem he read at school that he loved immediately, not because he understood a lot of it, but because he loved the wonderful sounds the words made when they were read aloud. There are also influences from Blake and Kleist but just because it sounds literary and erudite, it does not mean it shows, these grand literary gods bring influence and inspiration, but Pullman makes it real and makes it readable, while still having the importance and the impact of something powerful.

Aside from its influences, the book itself is immensely complicated, in lots of little ways. Just the creation of the alethiometer and the way it works is admirable, not to mention the stunning and immense parallel world Pullman has created with Oxford, the north, and the numerous types of people and creatures that reside there.

Even small details like the images that accompany new chapters are a small thing that seems inconsequential, but have meaning and a story. Pullman mentions on his website the wonderful illustrations that appear at each chapter are intentional and symbolic. Suggested by his publisher Pullman agreed to include them and asked to do them himself, despite not being an illustrator. His publisher agreed so each of the little drawings included at the start of each chapter were done by Pullman himself.

Another fun fact is that originally, during pre-publication, the prospective trilogy was known as The Golden Compasses, referencing Milton’s Paradise Lost and God’s poetic explanation of the world.

Then staid the fervid wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God’s eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centred, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure

— Book 7, lines 224–229

This was obviously changed, but interestingly, the reason it remains The Golden Compass in America is because the publisher had been calling the first book The Golden Compass, mistakenly believing the reference was to the alethiometer. Despite the UK name change, the American publisher insisted keeping the name because they had grown attached to it and it has stayed the same ever since.

There really are so many fascinating things to discover about Northern Lights, not only about how Pullman developed it and how it has been received, but the world complexity and fantastic characters, the subtle differences with our world and the glaring differences, but the profound ideas that are explored through a story that is so original and unique, but at the same time telling us a story we already know so well.

You can read an extract from Northern Lights here.


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