In 1995, British author Philip Pullman published The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it was called in most countries outside the U.S.), the first book in the fantasy trilogy collectively known as His Dark Materials. The series’ name referred to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a heady reference for what were ostensibly books for teens. And indeed, each of the books—1995's The Golden Compass, 1997's The Subtle Knife, and 2000's The Amber Spyglass—grappled with questions about philosophy and science, and courted controversy with its critical eye toward organized religion. Yet the series, far from being prohibitively dense, is highly readable and contains all the elements of a spirited fantasy, including armored polar bears, witches, and a Texas gunslinger who flies a hot air balloon. Here are a few things you might not know about Pullman’s books—which HBO and the BBC have turned into a series starring Lin-Manuel Miranda—and the controversy surrounding them.
1. His Dark Materials is a retelling of Paradise Lost.
Milton’s epic poem from the 17th century tells the story of Adam and Eve, and of Satan’s banishment from heaven. Pullman read the book as a teenager and fell in love with it. Years later, he got the idea to write a story that flipped the poem on its head. Instead of an all-powerful God, he crafted a frail, petty deity called The Authority. And instead of a great fall after the loss of innocence, the books celebrate a young girl’s growing up and defying an all-powerful order called The Magisterium. Yes, there are more polar bears and airships in Pullman’s version than in Milton’s, but Pullman maintains the series is in response to the centuries-old work he still cherishes. “My story resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence,” he wrote in his introduction to an edition of Paradise Lost.
2. The title The Golden Compass was a mistake.
Pullman first called his series “The Golden Compasses,” a reference to a line from Milton’s epic poem: “The golden compasses, prepared / In God's eternal store, to circumscribe / The universe, and all created things." The “compass,” in this case, referred to the tool used to draw circles, not the one that indicates direction. After Pullman submitted the first book’s manuscript to U.S. publisher Alfred A. Knopf, editors there mistakenly referred to it as The Golden Compass, thinking the name a reference to young Lyra’s alethiometer. The name stuck, even after Pullman informed them that the title in the UK and elsewhere would be Northern Lights. Rather than fight with Knopf, though, Pullman acquiesced: “Their obduracy in this matter was accompanied by such generosity in the matter of royalty advances, flattery, promises of publicity, etc, that I thought it would be churlish to deny them this small pleasure.”
3. A Leonardo Da Vinci painting inspired Pullman's daemons.
In Pullman’s story characters are accompanied by a daemon, an animal that reflects their inner nature. The concept is heavily symbolic, especially since children’s daemons can change shape while those belonging to adults are fixed. The idea, Pullman notes, was visually inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Lady with an Ermine as well as other classical portraits of young women bravely posing with animals, including Holbein’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, and Tiepolo’s Young Woman with a Macaw.
4. Parts of the U.S. edition of The Amber Spyglass were censored.
The biggest change, occurring in Chapter 33, concerns a paragraph detailing Lyra’s sexual awakening. Both the UK and U.S. versions begin with, “As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body.” What follows in the UK version includes Lyra’s physiological reactions: her breathing quickens, she feels “a stirring at the roots of her hair,” and “sensations in her breast.” The U.S. version cuts these sentences and picks up again with a reference to Lyra feeling as if she’s been handed the key to a house. Knopf has never addressed the changes, though many believe it’s because they didn’t deem the details appropriate for a character under the age of 18.
5. Religious critics call the series "atheism for kids."
Christian organizations have denounced the books and the film version of The Golden Compass, calling them propaganda aimed at steering children away from religion. Bill Donohue, president of The Catholic League, has called the series “atheism for kids,” and his group, along with others, boycotted the film when it was released in 2007. “Atheism is screwy enough,” Donohue wrote in a blog post. “But when it is sold backdoor to little kids, it is downright pernicious.”
6. Pullman hasn't shied away from the criticism.
In numerous speeches, Pullman, who has described himself alternately as an “atheist” and an “agnostic atheist,” maintains that his books are more about the dangers of rigid theological doctrine and institutions than they are anti-God or anti-faith. He also argues that his books are a testament to storytelling’s ability to impart morals to children. “’Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” he wrote in a newspaper column.
7. The former Archbishop of Canterbury endorsed it.
Rowan Williams called the books instructive, saying they are in fact about the death of a false God and the upholding of true Christian values. He and Pullman had a lively public conversation back in 2004, a transcript of which you can read here. Williams even went so far as to say that Pullman’s series should be taught in schools. Fundamentalists, needless to say, did not agree.
8. Pullman rejects comparisons of His Dark Materials to other fantasy series.
Some have likened Pullman’s series to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, much to the author’s dismay. He’s called the Narnia books “blatantly racist” and “disparaging of women,” and wrote an essay called “The Dark Side of Narnia” that outlines his grievances. As for the Rings books, he has this to say: “Tolkien is not interested in the way grownup, adult human beings interact with each other. He’s interested in maps and plans and languages and codes.”
9. The stage version of His Dark Materials was a hit.
Bringing Pullman’s 1300 pages to the stage presented a daunting task, but director Nicholas Hytner was more than game. He staged a two-part, six-hour-long production at London’s Royal National Theater that ran from 2003 to 2004, and was revived from 2004 to 2005. In addition to all the daemons, special effects and world-hopping, the play also managed to show an elaborate fight between two armored polar bears.
10. The Golden Compass movie was not a hit.
New Line Cinema purchased the rights to Pullman’s books in 2002 and hoped they would become the next Lord of the Rings franchise. But development of The Golden Compass was mired in controversy, including a boycott by religious groups, an odd choice of director, and its hand-wringing treatment of the book’s religious themes. The film bombed when it finally hit theaters in 2007—so badly, in fact, that it’s been cited as one of the main reasons New Line went under. Needless to say, there are no plans to produce the second and third installment.
11. Pullman has written to companion works and an audiobook.
Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North include further adventures of Lyra and aeronaut Lee Scoresbee, and include various odds and ends like maps, postcards and playable games. The Collectors, a 32-minute audiobook read by the esteemed British actor Bill Nighy, tells of a conversation between two Oxford scholars that grows increasingly sinister.
12. A prequel to His Dark Materials was released in 2017.
Pullman worked on the first volume of The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, for more than a decade. The book is a prequel to the original series. Lyra is just a baby, and the book introduces a new character named Malcolm Polstead who, according to Amazon, "will brave any danger, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring [Lyra] safely through the storm." The Book of Dust is slated to be a trilogy; a second book in the series, The Secret Commonwealth, has been announced, though there's no release date yet.
A version of this story ran in 2015.