His Dark Materials is a trilogy of British epic fantasy novels written for young adults, beginning with The Golden Compass (originally Northern Lights) in 1995, then The Subtle Knife (1997) and concluding with The Amber Spyglass (2000). The series focuses on the coming of age of Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry as they travel through a series of parallel universes. With the highly anticipated HBO and BBC TV show hitting screens this fall, buzz has never been higher for this beloved series—so read on to discover more about it!
1. Beloved in Britain
In 2003, BBC’s Big Read put out a call to find Britain’s best-loved novel, and it turns out that the British like His Dark Materials even more than Harry Potter! The series ranked #3 on the list, just below Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice, which puts it in some serious company!
2. Limited Appeal
When Philip Pullman originally conceived the series, he thought it might appeal to “a few clever kids and a few adults.” Well, the books have sold close to 18 million copies worldwide and been translated into 40 languages since their publication, so there must be a lot of clever kids and adults out there!
3. Flipping Milton
His Dark Materials is actually an interpretation of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which Pullman read and loved as a teenager. As an adult, he decided to take that poem, which focused on Adam and Eve and Satan’s expulsion from heaven, and turn it upside down. In the end, instead of focusing on a fall and loss of innocence, it celebrates it as a part of growing up.
4. High Hopes
Both the BBC and HBO must have been pleased with the advanced buzz the 2019 television adaptation was receiving because they renewed it for a second season of eight episodes before the first season had even aired.
5. Not the Film He Wanted
Chris Weitz, director of the 2007 Golden Compass film, was extremely unhappy with how the movie turned out. He later lamented that despite loving the books, it just wasn’t the film he wanted to make. His biggest beefs? Being forced to change the book’s downbeat conclusion to a happy ending, as well as being forced to cut a lot of what the studio deemed “non-essential” material and the religious subtext that was present in the books.
6. Learning Lessons
After the flop of the feature film version of The Golden Compass, the TV series’ writer, Jack Thorne, says he’s learned from those mistakes. This time, he worked closely with Pullman to ensure that the show retains the spirit of what the author intended.
7. The Next Game of Thrones
BBC, HBO, and the producers are hoping that His Dark Materials will have the same cultural reach as Game of Thrones. Traditionally, fantasy stories have been adapted into feature-length films. GOT proved how effective a TV series can be, as there is space to properly tell the story vs. the time-limited movie format. In fact, George R.R. Martin points to the failed Golden Compass film as the reason he wanted his books to be adapted for TV rather than as movies.
8. Give It To Them
When Pullman presented the manuscript of Golden Compass to the US publisher, it was actually called “Golden Compasses,” referring to a line in Milton’s poem. The editors accidentally called it The Golden Compass, thinking it was referring to Lyra’s alethiometer (a compass-like device). He did let them know that the UK and international title was to be Northern Lights, but the name stuck.
Since they’d been very generous about royalties, publicity, and other matters of key importance to an author, he decided to just let them have their title.
9. Father-Daughter Pair
Dafne Keen, who plays lead character Lyra in the 2019 version, shares a scene with her father Will Keen, who plays Father McPhail. This marks the second time the two have appeared in a film together, the first time being on her very first job!
10. Blockbuster Debut
The first episode of His Dark Materials drew an audience of nearly 7.2 million people on BBC One, making it the highest-rated premiere of the year, and the highest debut period since 2014. Sounds pretty epic!
11. Female First
Amazingly, for all of the previous adaptations of His Dark Materials and other Pullman books, there has never been a female director until now. Dawn Shadforth directed the second episode of the TV series, making her the first female director of Pullman’s work period.
12. They’re “Our Books”
Lin Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame plays Texan aeronaut and adventurer Lee Scoresby in the series. The broadway star admits to loving the books. In fact, he and his wife read the books together when they were first dating, and he notes them as the books they “fell in love to.” How romantic!
13. Banned Books
Religious groups were not happy with what they perceived as anti-religious sentiment in the books and have not only criticized them, but they’ve tried to get the series banned in US schools. In 2008, His Dark Materials ranked second in the top 10 books people have tried to ban in America, which Pullman didn’t mind one bit.
14. Not Just Good vs Evil
One of the reasons that people love His Dark Materials so much is that the story doesn’t simply boil down to good vs. evil, as many other fantasy series do. Every character in the series is capable of both good and evil actions, and Pullman treats them as specific behaviors rather than a definition of what the character is. Imagine that!
15. Da Vinci’s Daemons
The daemons in His Dark Materials take the shape of an animal that represents the inner nature of the character it is tied too. Pullman drew inspiration for the creatures from Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting Lady with an Ermine and other classical portraits featuring women posing with animals.
16. Settling into Form
Pullman’s daemons do not have a fixed shape at first. As their child ages, they constantly change form, only settling permanently as their partner transitions from innocence to experience, or childhood to adolescence.
17. It’s Like Pushing a Fog
Pullman firmly believes that the only time an author has influence over a film script is when he “sells the rights.” He once explained that you can’t interfere early on because it’s like “pushing a fog,” and you can’t intervene near the end because it’s like “pushing against a brick wall.” He does, however, believe that there’s a brief point in the middle where it’s merely like “pushing at a heavy wheeled object,” and only then is expressing an opinion worth a shot.
Clearly, based on how the 2007 movie came out, his suggestions went unheard.
18. Performed in Two Parts
Staging a single play including all three books in the trilogy ended up being far too complicated a feat, so the play was performed in two parts in alternate performances. His Dark Materials was originally staged at the Royal National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre in London, and ran from December 20, 2003, until March 27, 2004. The play was revived at the same theatre a few months later in November 2004 and ran until April 2, 2005.
19. Lady Mary’s Debut
These days, Michelle Dockery is synonymous with her role as Lady Mary on Downton Abbey, but way back in 2004, she made her professional debut out of drama school as Jesse in the stage play revival of His Dark Materials. Not a bad way to start a career.
20. Too Racy
Editors cut some of the more vivid descriptions of Lyra’s carnal awakening from the US edition of The Amber Spyglass. Both the UK and the US editions leave in the beginning sentence where she feels something strange happening to her body, but the US cut the rest of the description. The publisher never commented on the changes, but many people think it’s because they thought it was too much for kids under 18.
21. High Praise
Although a lot of religious groups panned the books, they did receive approval from up high. The Archbishop of Canterbury endorsed them for upholding Christian values with the destruction of a false god, which ought to count for something.
22. Facing it Head On
While many authors would have avoided responding to criticism of their books, Pullman took the opposite approach. He gave several speeches explaining that the books were supposed to caution against blindly following religion rather than being anti-religion.
23. Role Model for Girls
Nicole Kidman was pleased to see The Golden Compass turned into a film largely because she likes seeing a young female protagonist leading a movie. In Kidman’s view, Lyra’s tenacity and independent nature make her a great character for girls to see on screen.
24. Don’t Compare
Pullman is not a big fan of having his books compared to other fantasy novels such as Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. He believes that the Narnia series was full of racism and was demeaning to women, while he didn’t approve of the way LOTR depicted adults communicating.
25. Further Adventures
Fans of Lyra can rejoice—in addition to the original trilogy, Pullman wrote two companion works, Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North, which include all sorts of fun extras like maps, postcards, and playable games. He also released The Collectors, a brief audiobook read by Bill Nighy that covers an increasingly ominous conversation between two Oxford Scholars.
26. And a Prequel
In 2017, Pullman released the first book in the prequel trilogy The Book of Dust. Lyra does appear in the first book, but she’s just a baby. Instead, the focus is on a new character named Malcolm Polstead who is responsible for Lyra’s safety.
127. Head Versus Heart
One of Pullman’s arguments in favor of reading his books is their ability to reach children through storytelling rather than preaching. As he puts it, “’Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘once upon a time’ to reach the heart.”
28. Third Choice
As hard as it is to believe, James McAvoy, who portrays Lord Asriel Belacqua in the TV series, was the third choice for the role and only joined the cast a few days before it was set to begin filming due to other actors dropping out—though, to add the mystery, no one has revealed just who those flaky actors were. Luckily, McAvoy considers himself to be “almost a scholar” of the books and felt a huge amount of pressure to get the character exactly right.
29. A Linking Substance
In Pullman’s entire series, a substance known as dust is what Lord Asriel describes as “the key to unlocking the universe.” The substance is a particle that is both the conscious self and something that gives beings consciousness. In Pullman’s world, dust is responsible for forming the human mind. Dust also links humans to their daemons, which makes it pretty important.
30. An Underwhelming Name
While many people think that naming such an important particle something as boring as dust is pretty underwhelming, the name is actually drawn from the Bible: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” In the books, dust is also interwoven with Adam and Eve’s exclusion from Eden, another aspect that Pullman lifted from.
31. Like Ours but Different
Pullman describes the universe of His Dark Materials as being, “like ours but in a different way.” One of the ways he blends the two worlds is through his use of language. Countries are spelled in an “Olde English” sort of way, such as Brytain, Eireland, Corea, and Groenland. They are also referred to by historical names such as Cathay for China, and the Pacific Ocean is called the Peaceable Ocean—a translation from the Latin name given to it by explorer Ferdinand Magellan.
32. Mistaken Identity
Many people have speculated about the origins of heroine Lyra Belacqua’s unusual name. Some have connected it to Lyca, the little girl found in poet William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, while others have suggested it comes from the Lyra constellation. It turns out they’re both wrong. Pullman took the name from Lyra Davidica, whom he thought was the author of his favorite hymn.
When he learned that “Lyra Davidica” was actually Latin for Harp of David, he decided to use the name anyway. Lyra’s last name is borrowed, of course, from Dante’s Divine Comedy, where it belongs to a craftsman trapped in ante-purgatory.
33. Armored Bears
The panserbjørne in His Dark Materials are polar bear-like creatures with consciousness, opposable thumbs on their front paws, and tremendous strength and dexterity. The bears are also gifted metallurgists and are able to repair and create more complex metal items than human smiths.
34. Plucked from the Phone Book
All of the character names in Pullman’s books are drawn from interesting sources, so when he stated in a radio interview that the witch Serafina Pekkala was taken from a Finnish telephone directory, nobody was sure whether or not he was kidding. It does seem sort of…random, doesn’t it?
35. Exclusively Female
The witches in Lyra’s world are all female and reside in the far north. They have their own gods and goddesses with emphasis on nature and the earth. These lucky ladies are all extremely beautiful, and they retain their youth for their entire lives (which can be as long as 1,000 years) while gaining a wizened look as they get older. Not a bad deal.
36. Human or Witch?
Once in a while, a witch can take a remarkable human male as their lover and have children. If they have a son, the child will be human; if they have a daughter, it will be a witch.
37. Harry Potter Connection
Eagle-eyed fans were excited to spot actor Harry Melling, who portrayed Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, in a recent episode of the HBO series. Melling makes a cameo appearance as another pain-in-the-butt character: A high-ranking government official named Sysselman who is intent on making life as unpleasant for Lyra and Lee as Dudley did for Harry.
38. Lyra’s Song
For the 2007 film version of The Golden Compass, producers commissioned British musician Kate Bush to write a song for the soundtrack. The song, fittingly titled “Lyra,” was used in the closing credits of the film and features the Magdalen College Choir of Oxford. Since Bush didn’t get much notice, she also completed the entire project in just ten days.
39. Knife Bearer
Lyra’s companion and eventual love interest Will Parry is only introduced in the second book of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife. He is the son of explorer John Parry who vanished on an expedition to the Arctic, and he carries a magical tool: the titular subtle knife. Will eventually learns that his pop didn’t exactly vanish, but wandered into another world and has been unable to find his way home. Somebody ought to have given him a golden compass to help him!
40. Gay Rebel Angels
Balthamos and his partner Baruch are rebel angels who want to help overthrow Metatron, the tyrannical leader of the Kingdom of Heaven. However, they’re angels of low rank, so they have limited powers. That is unless you count sarcasm, in which case Balthamos is extremely powerful.
41. Keeping a Lid on It
In both the books and the series, The Magisterium is a powerful entity that is basically a consolidation of all of the “courts, colleges, and councils” of the church. The Magisterium works on behalf of the church to monitor all scientific discoveries that might cause people to question their belief. In other words, think Orwell’s Big Brother but with more of a religious spin to it.
42. A More Modern Feel
As much as fans of any book series want to see a literal adaptation, while the BBC/HBO mini-series is very faithful to the source material, some elements were changed to make it feel more contemporary.