12 Enlightening Facts About His Dark Materials

Amazon (book cover), iStock.com/bjdlzx (background)
Amazon (book cover), iStock.com/bjdlzx (background)

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 that will debut in 2019—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.

Explore a Visual History of the Internet in This New Book From TASCHEN

Taschen
Taschen

Whether you’re looking for a funny cat video or tips on how to run your own business, chances are you’ll find what you need online. But how did the internet develop into this seemingly never-ending source of information? With so much out there, trying to nail down how the web came to be might seem like an impossible task. But Web Design: The Evolution of the Digital World 1990–Today, a book recently published by TASCHEN, will take you through the journey, complete with year-by-year breakdowns of key developments and visuals from the web's earliest days. It's available on TASCHEN's website now for $50 or you can pre-order from Amazon, with a release date set for December 7.

The 21 chapters of this book explore everything from the first viral website to how artificial intelligence came to live online. Web Design also allows readers to have a glimpse inside the minds of some of the people who paved the way for other online pioneers, such as Jonathan Gay, creator of Flash.

The Cover of the book Web Design. The Evolution of the Digital World 1990–Today exploring the internet's history.
TASCHEN

It's in the visual evolution where Web Design really stands out. Readers can see the first photo ever uploaded online, which was of a comedy band called Les Horribles Cernettes, a group composed of CERN employees. There are also photos of more recent accomplishments, like the Mind Scalextric, where users wore headsets and controlled a racecar with their thoughts. And, of course, there are photos that will simply make you feel just a bit nostalgic—think the famously indestructible Nokia phone.

CERN computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee was the first to propose the idea for a database of hypertext links that allowed people to send data and communicate across a network just over 30 years ago. For Berners-Lee, the creation was meant as a more convenient way to find information at work; little did he know what it would evolve into. You can learn more about the internet—like the fact that you can still visit the first-ever website—by heading here.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

Why Don’t Bugs Eat People’s Bones?

ledwell/iStock via Getty Images
ledwell/iStock via Getty Images

In her new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death, mortician and best-selling author Caitlin Doughty answers real questions she's received from kids about death, dead bodies, and decomposition. In the following excerpt, she describes why the creatures that consider skin and organs a tasty snack just don't feel the same way about our skeletons. (It's nothing personal.)

It’s a lovely summer day and you’re having lunch in the park. You bite into a fried chicken wing, munching on the crispy skin and juicy flesh. Is your next move cracking into the bones, crunching them like the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”? Probably not.

If you yourself wouldn’t eat a pile of animal bones, why would you expect a beetle to show up and eat your bones? We expect too much from necrophages, the unsung heroes of the natural world. They are the death eaters, the organisms that fuel up by consuming dead and rotting things—and bless their hearts! Imagine, for a moment, what the world would look like without the assistance of the consumers of dead flesh. Corpses and carcasses everywhere. That road kill? It’s not going anywhere without the help of necrophages.

Necrophages do such a good job getting rid of dead things that we expect them to perform miracles. It’s like how if you do too good a job of cleaning your room, then your mom will expect perfection every time. Better to not set expectations so high. It’s just not worth the risk.

The corpse-nosher ranks are filled with diverse species. You have vultures, swooping down for a roadside snack. You have blowflies, which can smell death from up to 10 miles away. You have carrion beetles, which devour dried muscle. A dead human body is a wonderland of ecological niches, offering a wide range of homes and snacks for those inclined to eat. There are plenty of seats at death’s dinner table.

Remember the dermestid beetle? The helpful cuties we’d enlist to clean your parents’ skulls? Their job is to eat all the flesh off without damaging the bone. Let’s be clear: we don’t want them to eat the bone. Especially because other methods of flesh removal (like harsh chemicals) will not only hurt the bones, but might damage certain types of evidence, like marks on bones, which could be useful in criminal investigations. That’s why you bring in a colony of thousands of dermestids to do the dirty work. Plus, while you were over here complaining that they don’t eat enough bones, the beetles were also eating skin, hair, and feathers!

All right, but to your question: why don’t they eat bones, too? The simple answer is that eating bones is hard work. Not only that, but bones are not nutritionally useful to insects. Bones are mostly made of calcium, something insects just don’t need a lot of. Since they don’t need much calcium, insects like dermestids haven’t evolved to consume it or desire it. They’re about as interested in eating bones as you are.

But, here’s a dramatic twist: just because these beetles don’t usually eat bone doesn’t mean they won’t. It’s a cost-reward thing. Bones are a frustrating meal, but a meal is a meal. Peter Coffey, an agriculture educator at the University of Maryland, told me how he learned this firsthand when he used Dermestes maculatus to clean the skeleton of a stillborn lamb. Adult sheep bones are robust, “but in fetuses and newborns there are several places where fusion is not yet complete.” When he removed the lamb bones after the beetles finished cleaning them, “I noticed small round holes, about the diameter of a large larva.” It turns out beetles will go after less dense, delicate bones (like those of the stillborn lamb), but, Peter says, “there has to be a perfect storm of good environmental conditions and poor food availability before they’ll resort to bone, which would explain why it’s not more commonly observed.”

So, while dermestids and other flesh-eating bugs do not usually eat bone, if they get hungry enough, they will. Humans behave the same way. When Paris was under siege in the late 16th century, the city was starving. When people inside the city ran out of cats and dogs and rats to eat, they began disinterring bodies from the mass graves in the cemetery. They took the bones and ground them into flour to make what became known as Madame de Montpensier’s bread. Bone appetit! (Actually, maybe don’t bone appetit, as many who ate the bone bread died themselves.)

It seems like no creature out there wants to eat bone, really prefers bone. But wait, I haven’t introduced you to Osedax, or the bone worm. (I mean, it’s right there in the name, people. Osedax means “bone eater” or “bone devourer” in Latin.) Bone worms start as tiny larvae, floating out in the vast blackness of the deep ocean. Suddenly, emerging from the void above is a big ol’ dead creature, like a whale or an elephant seal. The bone worm attaches, and the feast begins. To be fair, even Osedax don’t really devour the minerals in the bone. Instead, they burrow into the bone searching for collagen and lipids to eat. After the whale is gone, the worms die, but not before they release enough larvae to travel the currents waiting for another carcass to comes along.

Bone worms aren’t picky. You could throw a cow, or your dad (don’t do that), overboard and they’d eat those bones, too. There is strong evidence that bone worms have been eating giant marine reptiles since the time of the dinosaurs. That means the whale eaters are older than whales themselves. Osedax are nature’s peak bone eaters, and they’re even sorta nice to look at, orangey-red floating tubes covering bones like a deep-sea shag carpet. Pretty amazing, given that scientist didn’t even know these creatures existed until 2002. Who knows what else is out there in the world, devouring bone?

The cover of 'Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death'
The cover of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death
W.W. Norton

Reprinted from Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty. Text copyright (c) 2019 by Caitlin Doughty. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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