[The World of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights 
Most fantasy novels share two great obsessions: the heroic and the holy. They come across less as themes than as questions. Is the heroic possible in this world, are there heroes? Is the sacred possible, where is it? Of course the two questions are ultimately inseparable, because the heroic can be a sacred calling, and the sacred can de defined as what is worth dying for. In this essay I’ll focus on the heroic as it is manifested in Pullman’s enthralling alternate universe.
The heroic is a question in fantasy novels because they are written in a time when heroes cannot be taken for granted: everything is for sale and can be priced, everyone has hidden motivations, there is no one who is not shrunk down to the normal human scale and commensurable — capable of being measured — with everyone else according to that scale. This has been so since about 1600, about the time when Hamlet despaired of being like his father, and when heroes became fantasy figures in the world of Don Quixote. The hero of antiquity knows who he is and what he is here for; he does not doubt himself like Hamlet and Montaigne — and he does not doubt that he towers over everyone else. He may, like Achilles, question the war he is fighting, but he does not question the war he should be fighting. The heroic comes under interrogation in a time that no longer believes in it, perhaps after too many wars and too many disillusionments, and after a period of unrelenting skepticism in which all past ideals have been torn down. Thus War and Peace, set in the Napoleonic wars, is the first great modern quest for heroism and the sacred. In ancient literature, Virgil in the Aeneid already expressed the profoundest loathing of war and, in my opinion, the futility of heroism. Even the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, an epic composed by non-warriors about warriors, is a post-heroic work, expressing on every page perplexity about heroism as a vocation. In all post-heroic writing, the story-telling is animated by a yearning for a charismatic manly potency that is felt as absent in our daily lives, a potency that involves greatness of soul, justice, courage, as well as capacity for terrible violence. The modern superhero fantasy is post-heroic in the same way: there is usually an ordinary man struggling with having to be the superhero, and the struggle is because there is no reconciliation between the two. Tolkien’s books are preoccupied with heroes: the old types are powerless in the face of the new threat, and a new kind of hero has to appear — yet even with his deep affection for his new heroes, Tolkien venerates the old heroes and constantly refers to them. Philip Pullman, who is not a conservative and has no reverence for a golden age, also searches for a new kind of hero, but in Northern Lights has to work towards this by first giving us four different types of possible heroes. In a fantasy novel it is possible to juxtapose versions of heroism from different literary worlds that would not otherwise be seen together, and this is a marvellous opportunity to contemplate each one of them in the critical light of a strange new context.
There has to be at least one representative of pagan heroism, often a fusion of Greek and Germanic types. In Tolkien these are the Aragorns and Boromirs and warriors of Rohan. In Pullman it is the unforgettable figure of Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear. Who on first reading of Northern Lights is not struck and intoxicated by the wonderful image of a talkng polar bear clad in armor made of meteoric iron? The polar bear is a notoriously solitary animal, but here it becomes even more isolated by its armor, which is like the souls of the people in this world: “A bear’s armor is his soul,” says Iorek, “just as your daemon is your soul.” (p.192)
“I made it myself in Nova Sembla from sky metal. Until I did that, I was incomplete.”
“So bears can make their own souls…” she said. (p.220)
Yet one doubts that the armor is the same as a person’s daemon; it can’t talk, and it doesn’t give companionship. Perhaps an armored bear cannot understand what a daemon is for a human being. Iorek acknowledges that “Bears are made to be solitary,” (p.218) whereas a person with a daemon is never truly alone. Is there ever a hero who is alone, or are all heroes beings with friends and community? — Achilles and Hector both have profound human attachments, for the sake of which they are willing to die. Or does a hero become fully a hero only after experiencing absolute aloneness? — Hector at his death, Achilles grieving for Patroclus, Priam coming to beg for Hector’s body. Something in us knows that the person who has never faced utter aloneness might have at most tremendous practical strength, but not spiritual strength. If this is so, no one in Pullman’s book can be a full hero except an outcast armored bear, who has neither daemon nor community.
Pullman’s prose captures beautifully the grand style of pagan heroism. He does this in Iorek’s balanced speech rhythms — “…and I am an armored bear; war is the sea I swim in and the air I breathe” (p.178), and the crisp Nordic solemnity and legalism of Iorek’s challenge to the usurper Iofur:
“The terms of this combat are these. If Iofur Raknison kills me, then he will be king forever, safe from challenge or dispute. If I kill Iofur Raknison, I shall be your king. My first order to you all will be to tear down that palace, that perfumed house of mockery and tinsel, and hurl the gold and marble into the sea. Iron is bear-metal. Gold is not. Iofur Raknison has polluted Svalbard. I have come to cleanse it. Iofur Raknison, I challenge you.” (p.344)
The syntactical balance of these sentences expresses internal poise: it is the poise of a speaker who knows who he is and has no quarrel with himself. This results in a simplicity of action that is like Nature reasserting equilibrium, which Pullman renders with Homeric similes:
Like two great masses of rock balanced on adjoining peaks and shaken loose by an earthquake, which bound down the mountainsides gathering speed, leaping over crevasses and knocking trees into splinters, until they crash into each other so hard that both are smashed to powder and flying chips of stone: that was how the two bears came together. (p.345)
That was when Iorek moved. Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean, and which makes little stir in the deep water, but which when it reaches the shallows rears itself up high into the sky, terrifying the shore dwellers, before crashing down on the land with irresistible power — so Iorek Byrnison rose up against Iofur...(p.348)
Iorek can fight and has a great lyrical gift with words, but his intelligence does not have sufficient deviousness and obliquity to fight the great enemies of this world. Because of this he is a partial hero, useful and admirable but somehow also inadequate. A hero needs to be able to understand what is going on, and one can’t imagine Iorek growing in understanding.
Iorek is the most fleshed out character in Northern Lights: he is formed, complete; what you see is what you get. The others are either still being formed, still open to influence, or concealing under-levels of activity and motivation. Perhaps this is one difference between daemoned and daemonless life: to be intelligent and open to engaging with the new, one needs a kind of split soul, whereas the unified soul of the daemonless is locked in itself and protected from otherness, like being enclosed in an impenetrable suit of sky metal.
Lord Asriel has intelligence, vast knowledge, unpredictability: He was said to be involved in high politics, in secret exploration, in distant warfare, and she never knew when he was going to appear. (p.4) He is like a more complicated Jules Verne hero, a more interesting Indiana Jones. He is surely modeled on the intrepid British explorers/ethnographers of Africa and Central Asia who combined the talents of scientist, linguist, historian, philosopher, and warrior-spy, like Sir Richard Burton. Yet when Pullman tries to convey aristocratic severity, he fails as Tolkien often does in describing old-style warriors. He can only think of giving Lord Asriel an unsurprising warrior-totem such as a snow leopard, and Asriel himself is compared to predictable beasts: Yawning like a lion (p.9) Sometimes the description is awkward, strained, unclear:
Lord Asriel was a tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face, and eyes that seemed to flash and glitter with savage laughter. It was a face to be dominated by, or to fight; never a face to patronize or pity. All his movements were large and perfectly balanced, like those of a wild animal, and when he appeared in a room like this, he seemed a wild animal held in a cage too small for it. (p.11)
What does a fierce dark face look like, or eyes that flash and glitter with savage laughter? Asriel should not be so transparent, otherwise there would not be so much puzzlement as to what he is up to. The repetition of wild animal suggests vague desperation: do all wild animals have movements that are large and perfectly balanced? — a ferret, a seal? And which wild animal held in a cage too small for it? I’m sure Pullman is being vague because he doesn’t want to do another big cat simile, but he is also at this stage not interested enough in Asriel to try to get the right word. He is much more interested in Iorek, and writes better when he writes about Iorek — because he is excited about this spectacular reconceiving of the ancient hero:
He stood high up on his hind legs and looked west, so that the last of the sun colored his face a creamy brilliant yellow white amid the gloom. She could feel the power of the great creature coming off him like waves of heat. (p.192)
Another sketched-in heroic figure is the witch, with Serafina Pekkala as the one we get to know. The witches come across as Pullman’s version of Tolkien’s elves: an ancient warrior aristocracy, not as tied to place as the elves are but of a similar light, aerial quality and refinement. Their age gives them a different view of human events: “…men pass in front of our eyes like butterflies, creatures of a brief season. We love them; they are brave, proud, beautiful, clever; and they die almost at once.” (p.309) Witches also differ from bears; their longevity gives them a calmer, more philosophical view of war, and an indifference to some of the things that matter hugely to warriors:
“…all of us, humans, witches, bears, are engaged in a war already, although not all of us know it…If there is a war to be fought, we don’t consider cost one of the factors in deciding whether or not it is right to fight. Nor do we have any notion of honor, as bears do, for instance. An insult to a bear is a deadly thing. To us…inconceivable. How could you insult a witch? What would it matter if you did?” (p.304-5)
Ancient epics generally have characters that can give expression to a vaster time scale, in which prophetic insight and sense of mortality set the immediate events of the narrative in a larger background that has the potential either to reduce all human action to insignificance or to make certain actions seem destined, or both. In Homer this view of things is voiced by Nestor, the gods, the soothsayers, Odysseus’ visit to the underworld. In Tolkien it is given by Galadriel and Gandalf, among others. Serafina is only adumbrated in Northern Lights; it remains to be seen what Pullman will make of her in the subsequent volumes.
The fourth heroic type in this book is pulled from yet another literary genre, the Western. The aeronaut Lee Scoresby is a stringy gunfighter with a balloon: here is a dreamlike conflation of Western with Jules Verne and Frank Baum.
He was a tall, lean man with a thin black moustache and narrow blue eyes, and a perpetual expression of distant and sardonic amusement. She felt strongly about him at once, but wasn’t sure whether it was liking she felt, or dislike. His daemon was a shabby hare as thin and tough-looking as he was. (p.188)
The description itself is a stereotype, and the choice of hare is predictable. He is the anti-hero gunfighter of the post-western, who makes no claims about justice or other ideals and who avows only the straightforward contractual and monetary sensibilities of the mercantile class. Pullman is effectually alluding to the entire genre through his description of Scoresby and the rendition of his way of speaking, but through the allusion we have no doubt that Lee Scoresby will always do the right thing:
“Sticks and stones, I’ll break yer bones, but names ain’t worth a quarrel. But ma’am, you see my dilmma, I hope. I’m a simple aeronaut, and I’d like to end my days in comfort. By a little farm, a few head of cattle, some horses…Nothing grand, you notice. No palace or slaves or heaps of gold. Just the evening wind over the sage, and a ceegar, and a glass of bourbon whiskey. Now the trouble is, that costs money. So I do my flying in exchange for cash, and after every job I send some gold back to the Wells Fargo Bank, and when I’ve got enough, ma’am, I’m gonna sell this balloon and book me a passage on a steamer to Port Galveston, and I’ll never leave the ground again.” (p.305)
What he avows is love for materialistic, homely comfort, but he does have a balloon — and it is obvious to us that a man who lives his life in a balloon is unlikely to have ideals that are down-to-earth. As with Serafina, this is a character who needs to be fleshed out. Later his friendship with Iorek will give the bear connotations of another pagan hero, the Native American warrior, and the friendship will feel a bit like Leatherstocking and Chingachgook.
Four types of hero — but what about Lyra? She has unquestioned courage, intelligence, love of justice, and empathy, but she is a child. Can a child be a hero? — because a child has no grasp of mortality, doesn’t understand the world, and spontaneously throws herself into action. Amazing, wonderful, admirable — but heroic? Her hero type is the urchin of 19th century novels or earlier, a Dickens child, a Huck Finn: practically an orphan, who has to discover herself, and to make the fragmented world she finds herself in into a whole. The classical hero cannot be an orphan; he knows who he is and where he comes from, and is defending what he knows against the menace of the unknown. But a child literally faces the world as an unknown; an orphan even more so, because the confrontation is unmediated by parental protection. The prophecy says that Lyra will in fact save the world, but as yet we do not know enough to interpret the cryptic Miltonic overtones of the prophecy. Will Lyra turn out to be a new kind of hero?