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Northern Lights (novel)

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Northern Lights
First edition cover
Author(s) Philip Pullman
Cover artist Philip Pullman and David Scutt
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series His Dark Materials
Genre(s) Fantasy, Steampunk
Publisher Scholastic Point
Publication date 1995
Media type Print ( Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 399 pp
ISBN ISBN 0-590-66054-3
Preceded by Once Upon a Time in the North
Followed by The Subtle Knife

Northern Lights, published in 1995, is the first novel in the His Dark Materials trilogy by British novelist Philip Pullman.


The superficial resemblance of protagonist Lyra Belacqua's alethiometer (depicted on the book's cover) to a large compass caused the North American publishers of Northern Lights to retitle the book The Golden Compass. The Golden Compasses (note the plural) was an early proposal for the name of the trilogy (instead of His Dark Materials, taken from Milton's Paradise Lost), where it refers to the compasses as the drawing instrument rather than the navigation instrument.

Plot summary

The story begins when Lyra Belacqua (later Lyra Silvertongue)—an orphaned, eleven-year-old girl residing at Jordan College, Oxford—secretly enters the Retiring Room, despite resistance from her dæmon, Pantalaimon; an animal-formed, shape-shifting manifestation of her soul. Inside the room, they see the Master of the college attempt to poison Lord Asriel, Lyra's uncle. Lord Asriel shows the resident scholars a picture of mysterious elementary particles called Dust. Shortly afterwards Lord Asriel goes north, and Lyra continues with her normal life.

When “the Gobblers”, who are the subject of a recent urban legend, kidnap her friend Roger, Lyra vows to rescue him, and finds her chance when a visiting woman of great importance, Mrs. Marisa Coulter, offers to take Lyra away from Jordan College to become her apprentice. Lyra assents, but before she leaves, is entrusted with a priceless object by the Master of the College: an alethiometer. Resembling a golden compass, it is a device able to reveal the answer to any question asked by the user. Although initially unable to read or understand its complex meanings, Lyra takes it with her to Mrs. Coulter's flat. Lyra becomes suspicious of Mrs. Coulter's motives when Mrs. Coulter's dæmon (a golden monkey) searches Lyra's room for the alethiometer.

At a party hosted by Mrs. Coulter, Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter is the head of an organization known as the "General Oblation Board" and that this board is, in fact, the "Gobblers" who have been kidnapping children. The horror of this discovery causes Lyra to take advantage of the hubbub of the party to flee Mrs. Coulter's flat.

After fleeing the flat, she is rescued by the Gyptians, a group of nomadic, canal-boat-dwelling people, who afterwards reveal that Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are none other than Lyra's father and mother. She also learns that many children like Roger have been disappearing from among the Gyptians, and that the Gyptians are planning an expedition to the north to rescue the missing children. During her time with the Gyptians, Lyra intuitively learns how to operate the alethiometer.

Lyra joins the expedition to the north, and on the journey discovers that the children kidnapped by “the Gobblers” are having their dæmons cut away from them, by way of experiment. Shortly after this revelation, the group is attacked, and Lyra is taken to the experimentation facility in Bolvangar.

Inside it, she locates Roger and devises a plan of escape. Lyra comes across Mrs. Coulter, who tries to take the alethiometer from her. Narrowly escaping her clutches once again, Lyra leads the other children out of the facility, and is rescued by Lee Scoresby (an aeronaut who is an ally of the Gyptians) in his hydrogen balloon. With them go Roger and an armoured bear called Iorek Byrnison. Iorek is an exiled prince of the armoured bears, of whose culture he is a perfect example.

Now that Lyra has found Roger, she wishes to deliver the alethiometer to Lord Asriel, who is imprisoned at Svalbard, the fortress of the armoured bears, because of his experiments on Dust, which the Church opposes. On their way to Svalbard, the bat-like cliff-ghasts attack the balloon; Lyra is thrown out, but lands safely. The armoured bears then capture her. She manages to trick the usurping bear-king, Iofur Raknison, into allowing Iorek Byrnison to fight to regain his throne. Thereafter she travels to Lord Asriel’s cabin, accompanied by both Iorek and Roger.

Despite being imprisoned, Lord Asriel is so influential that he has managed to accumulate the necessary equipment to continue his experiments on Dust. After explaining the nature of Dust, which is an emanation from another world, and the existence of parallel universes to Lyra, he departs, taking Roger and a great deal of scientific equipment. Lyra pursues him, but Roger is killed when he is separated from his dæmon. This act releases an enormous amount of energy, which, due to Lord Asriel’s equipment, tears a hole through the sky into a parallel world. Lord Asriel walks through into the new world. Lyra decides to follow him, on the advice of Pantalaimon. This concludes the first book and goes on to the next book, The Subtle Knife.


Northern Lights won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995, and in 2007 it was selected by judges of the Carnegie Medal as one of the ten most important children's novels of the past 70 years. The Observer rates it as one of the 100 best novels of all time.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

A feature film adaptation of the novel, titled, The Golden Compass, produced by New Line Cinema with a budget of $180 million, was released December 5 2007. The novel was adapted by Chris Weitz, who directed the film. The film stars Dakota Blue Richards, in her film debut, as Lyra. Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Ian McKellen, Sam Elliott and Christopher Lee star. Some organizations have condemned the movie adaptation as well as the trilogy for denigrating the Church and religion, while others have argued that Pullman's works should be included in religious education courses.

Video game adaptation

A video game adaptation of the movie adaptation of the book, titled, The Golden Compass, published by Sega and developed by Shiny Entertainment, was released December 4, 2007. Players assume the role of Lyra as she travels through the frozen wastes of the North in an attempt to rescue her friend kidnapped by a mysterious organization known as the Gobblers. Travelling with her are an armoured polar bear and her dæmon Pantalaimon (Pan). Together, they must use a truth-telling alethiometer and other items to explore the land and fight their way through confrontations in order to help Lyra's friend. The Golden Compass features a mix of fighting and puzzle solving with three characters.

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