Fun Facts About The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

70949The final book in the His Dark Materials trilogy was published in 2000; five years after Northern Lights first came out. At 548 pages it is the longest in the series and Pullman admits it took three years to write. This is an amazing book, not only for the ideas and the masterful execution, but because it brings together everything that Pullman had been working towards and building up to in the previous two books. There are moments towards the end of The Subtle Knife that break your heart, but that is nothing compared to what The Amber Spyglass will do to you.

The title refers to a telescope/spyglass created from two lenses with a lacquer from plants, as well as bamboo to separate the lenses. It was constructed by Dr Mary Malone and allows humans to see Dust. Like the previous two books, The Amber Spyglass has won numerous awards. In 2001 it became the first children’s book ever to win the Whitebread Book of the Year, and was named Children’s Book of the Year. It was also included on the longlist for the Man Book Prize, another first for a children’s book. Other awards it has received include winning the British Book Award, the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, Parents’ Choice Book Award, Horn Book Fanfare Honor Book, New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, and ABC’s Children’s Booksellers’ Choice. It was also featured on the New York Times Bestseller list.

While the previous books has hand drawn images at the start of each chapter, The Amber Spyglass opens its chapters with a quote from one of Pullman’s favourite authors, and like the images, it has symbolic meaning to the coming chapter. Among the authors quoted are John Milton, William Blake, and Emily Dickinson, as well as many others, and Pullman included them as a way to acknowledge their influence. Later editions have the hand drawn images with each chapter, of which Pullman say are some of his best.

Similar to Northern Lights, there has been controversy with certain aspects of the story though less about religion more about apparent sexual references. This series has been marketed primarily towards young adults but Pullman also intended the book to speak to adults. This is clear with the content, themes, and some of the more adult inferences seen in The Amber Spyglass. In North America some parts of book have been censored where Lyra’s incipient sexuality is described, which is a shame because it does actually play an important role, as does everything Pullman includes. In response to this, and his story in general, Pullman has commented “Nowhere in the book do I talk about anything more than a kiss. And as a child, a kiss is enough. A kiss can change the world.” The sexual realisation of the characters is as natural and innocent as the kiss that’s described and as Pullman says, “This is exactly what happens in the Garden of Eden…Why the Christian Church has spent 2,000 years condemning this glorious moment, well, that’s a mystery. I want to confront that, I suppose, by telling a story that this so-called original sin is anything but. It’s the thing that makes us fully human.” You can see the changes here.

With this year being the 15th anniversary of The Amber Spyglass being published and the 20th since Northern Lights, it’s wonderful to see how over the course of five years of writing, three books, and an idea slightly controversial but incredibly brilliant, how much has changed, not only seeing how these characters have grown, but the effect it’s had on people reading about them. Pullman’s trilogy is apparently not as well known or popular worldwide as Harry Potter became (though still managing to sell almost 20 million copies) which is a shame, though interestingly sales matched those of Harry Potter in the USA, and despite the controversy has received a lot less criticism for books with a lot more obvious content than Harry Potter ever had. But all that aside, those who know it love it, and even with that movie it has remained loved and treasured.

Pullman has stated that when he began Northern Lights he did not know where the story was going, at least not in any detail. With a rough idea of where it was all headed it is astounding to see where it ended up. To read only one of these books is doing it a disservice, to understand fully the masterpiece all three need to be consumed, only then can you see the bigger picture, the grand idea and intricate and detailed creation that has been described as being the most ambitious work since Lord of the Rings.

Fun Facts about The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman


The Subtle Knife is the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. It was first published in 1997 by Scholastic Point. Unlike Northern Lights that remains solely in one world, The Subtle Knife begins to explore other parallel worlds, and frequently jumps between three worlds.

The story opens with a new perspective, this time with Will Parry, a young boy from our world. And just like he did with Lyra, Pullman introduces these characters in the middle of a moment and expands the story around them. Will’s life is nothing like Lyra’s, and in our own world a lot more familiar, and after fleeing from his own problems stumbles across a window and finds Lyra, Pan, and a range of new things, both exciting and terrifying. Together Lyra and Will continue on their destined paths and open up a whole other level of Pullman’s creation adding even more depth and complexity to that established in the first book.

Just like Northern Lights, Pullman has included his own mini illustrations. The chapter illustrations are there once more, but Pullman has also thought it would be helpful for the readers to “have unobtrusive running-heads on each page, saying ‘Lyra’s world’ or ‘Will’s world’”, but his editor suggested he do it with little drawings instead; an alethiometer for Lyra’s world, a hornbeam tree for Will’s, a (subtle) knife for Cittàgazze etc. He chose not to explain them because it would be fun for readers to work out themselves that they’re for and what the symbols mean.

The title refers to the dagger found in Cittàgazze by Will and Lyra. Named The Subtle Knife or Æsahættr (pronounced “as-hatter” by the BBC Radio adaptation) meaning “God Destroyer”, it is described as looking like an ordinary dagger but able to cut through any material or substance – lead, flesh, even able to cut through the membrane that separates the worlds from each another. It has also been called “Teleutaia makhaira” which means “the last knife of all”.

The Subtle Knife has won a range of awards. It has won the Parents’ Choice Gold Book Award, American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, Booklist Editors’ Choice, Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, Horn Book Fanfare Honor Book, Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book, Book Links Best Book of the Year, as well as American Bookseller Pick of the Lists.

Adaptations wise, The Subtle Knife was included in the 2003 His Dark Materials audiobook with Northern Lights, as well as the 2004-5 play, and was also formed part of a radio drama on BBC 4. In terms of film, the details and information of a film adaptation are contradictory and ever changing. Deborah Forte, producer of The Golden Compass, is adamant she’ll finish the trilogy, and originally New Line Cinema said a sequel would only be made if the first film was a success, but despite making twice its budget worldwide, the film did poorly in the USA, making the sequel’s fate unclear. Pullman said in 2011 that because of these poor sales in the USA no sequel would be made, but he has admitted he would still like one. I think The Subtle Knife has slightly less obvious religious controversy that I’ve noticed so it may go down better in some places, but even then it is all about doing the story justice. It’s too important not to.

You can read an extract from The Subtle Knife here.


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.


Happy Easter!

EasterA very happy Easter to you all! I hope the Easter bunny was good to you this year and if you were lucky enough to also get a long weekend, then I hope you enjoyed a nice break. I spent my long weekend relaxing and surprise, surprise, some reading! Which while not that much of a stray from my usual routine (but usually with less relaxing), it was still very nice. Easter Sunday was spent eating too much chocolate which resulted in me feeling slightly ill but as my mother said, “I don’t think it’s Easter without making yourself sick on chocolate” so that makes it ok. Having been going non-stop for months it felt very strange doing almost nothing, even if it was only three days and it made me feel like I hadn’t done anything in weeks which was quite disorientating. I had to remind myself that it had only been three days and the world was not going to come to an end. Today I started busying myself again so while still in long weekend mode I was trying not to get too complacent and fall behind again.

In honour of the Easter long weekend, I thought I would quickly provide you with some Easter Fun Facts because who doesn’t love a good fun fact?

Easter Fun Fact #1

While the bunny was used as early as the 1500s in Germany when discussing Easter, the first mention of the Easter Bunny bringing eggs for Easter was in a book by Georg Frankck von Frankenau in 1680. The book was called “De ovis paschalibus” (About Easter Eggs) and refers to the tradition of bringing eggs to children.

Easter Fun Fact #2

The word Easter dates back to early England and is thought to relate to Ēostre, Pagan goddess of spring and fertility.

Easter Fun Fact #3

The reason the Easter date always changes is because it’s based on the lunar calendar and the position of the moon. Easter is celebrated on the Sunday after the full moon following March 21st. Which sounds like a very complicated way to deal with things.

Easter Fun Fact #4

The first Easter egg was made in 1873 by Fry’s of Bristol. Which you can read more about in my Easter post from last year.

Easter Fun Fact #5

The tradition of giving eggs at Easter has been traced back to Egyptians, Persians, Gauls, Greeks and Romans, for whom the egg was a symbol of life.

So there you go, some nice things you may not have realised about Easter. I hope you all had a wonderful weekend and managed not to get any chocolate on your books!

Easter, Fun Facts, and Chocolate


Ah Easter. The day of bunnies, chocolate, and refined restraint on eating the entire day’s loot in one sitting. I know for some Easter is a religious weekend but for me it is about chocolate, four day weekends, and…well there isn’t much else. This is the best time of year because this is the only time that the rare and highly sought after Red Tulip chocolate emerges from its hibernation. The chocolate that only is seen around Easter, but when it comes out it will whip Cadbury’s butt any day. My affection for Red Tulip aside, I am not saying Cadbury is bad, but you can get that in many forms all year round, the Red Tulip experience is a once a year delight. Yes, perhaps its rarity makes it seem more delicious than it is…oh wait, my mistake, that’s completely wrong, it’s a godsend. And not those weird Ferrero Rocher ads where those weird nutty chocolate things fell from the gods, no, Red Tulip rabbits of various sizes with pink and blue waistcoats and bow ties should be falling from the sky not those.

Eggs have always been used for Easter because they represent rebirth and the beginning of life. Something which comes with a lot of images of hatched baby chickens and pastel colours as well. The earliest Easter eggs were not the chocolate kind though. They used to just be painted chicken or duck eggs that were dyed various colours with vegetable dye and charcoal. I recall painting a few blown eggs as a kid, though it was more a paintbrush and random squiggles around it with the odd dot or two. I may have only done it once or twice, I wasn’t overly  fussed about it, and what were you supposed to do with them when you’re done? Display them somewhere? I suppose giving them as gifts as was traditional but that didn’t happen.

Away from the painted eggs, the very first chocolate Easter egg was created by the Victorians in Bristol, England in 1873. It was made by a company called Fry, Vaughan & Co. and instead of being the delicious smooth chocolate we have today, it was bitter dark chocolate with a grainy texture. They also most likely would have been decorated by hand with marzipan and given as gifts by the rich. Much too fancy I think, though those Victorians were an extravagant bunch with their chocolate tastes.  

These were the only chocolate eggs until Cadbury tried to make their own Easter egg a couple years later. Cadbury had been making solid eggs since 1842 but were unable to make finer hollow eggs. Cadbury’s first Easter eggs in 1875 were made of dark chocolate with a plain smooth surface and were filled with sugared almonds, but compared with Fry’s it wasn’t as successful. It wasn’t until the launch of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Chocolate in 1905 that their Easter egg sales improved, and improved tremendously. It was so popular it not only increased the sale of Easter eggs but it also made them a seasonal best seller, something that remains true today. Cadbury merged with Fry’s, Vaughan & Co. in 1919 but still couldn’t produce the quality eggs Fry’s was making. May I say, Cadbury also bought out Red Tulip, along with other companies, in the 80s when they were trying to conquer Australia. Very conquery Cadbury when it comes to other companies and chocolate, very conquery indeed.

So, now you know. While you are all eating delicious chocky eggs, bunnies, bilbys, chickens, or any other chocolate styled thing today you can think that it all started with one Bristol company that brought the Easter egg to the Victorians and subsequently the rest of the world.

Have a wonderful Easter, try not to get melted chocolate on your books, and have a great day!




Next Newer Entries