When you ask anyone with a soft spot for young adult fantasy to list their favorite books of all time, you’ll notice certain key titles appear again and again. It’s the usual suspects — Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronices of Narnia, The Earthsea Cycle, The Chronicles of Prydain … and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.
Those who have read The Golden Compass and the other His Dark Materials books understand why it is a perennial favorite. The series is epic, emotional, dense (in all the best ways), inventive, and flat-out breathtaking. However, if you’ve never read Pullman’s groundbreaking series, trust us: it is a great time to become a new His Dark Materials fan.
In 2017, Pullman launched The Book of Dust — a new trilogy within the same world as His Dark Materials. La Belle Sauvage, the first volume in the series, was recently followed by The Secret Commonwealth — the author’s latest book and the second volume in The Book of Dust trilogy.
If that wasn’t enough, HBO and the BBC are launching a new television adaptation of the His Dark Materials books on November 4th. The early trailers have been phenomenal, boasting a cast of heavy-hitters — including James McAvoy, Ruth Wilson, and Lin-Manuel Miranda. If you haven’t already heard of Lyra Belacqua, dæmons, and alethiometers — just wait. They’re going to be the talk of your library, Twitter feed, and Monday morning watercooler chats very, very soon.
It can be daunting to jump into a new series of books, particularly when you know they have a rabid fan base already. (Just ask any Game of Thrones fan who started reading the books after watching the television show.) If you have a young reader at home who’s interested in the series, or if you’re just looking for your next young adult fantasy obsession, we’ve assembled this quick guide to everything you need to know to get started in the His Dark Materials universe.
WHAT IS HIS DARK MATERIALS?
His Dark Materials is a trilogy of original fantasy novels written by British author Philip Pullman, which were published between 1995 and 2000. The first novel is The Golden Compass, though it was originally published as Northern Lights in the U.K. and Australia, followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
The Golden Compass opens in an alternate version of our world, centered around Jordan College in Oxford, England. It’s a universe of Victorian manners and steampunk airships — where the largest political force is The Magisterium, a hierarchical religion similar to the Holy Roman Empire. However, it’s also a world of magic. While things may seem stuffy and academic in Oxford, to the North you can find clans of witches and tribes of talking polar bears who battle each other wearing elaborate armor.
Every person in The Golden Compass universe is accompanied by a dæmon, which is a kind of animal familiar with strong ties to their master’s personality. A child’s dæmon can constantly change shape —alternating between different animals—but, when they grow older, their dæmon must pick one animal form and stay with it forever.
WHO ARE THE MAIN CHARACTERS?
Lyra Belacqua is the central protagonist — a headstrong 11-year-old girl being raised by the scholars and professors at Jordan College. (Her playful dæmon is called Pantalaimon.) Lyra gets drawn into a global mystery when her friend Roger is abducted by the Magisterium, and she sets out to save him — traveling to the artic North. To help her on her journey, the Master of the college gives Lyra a rare device known as the alethiometer, which, if read correctly, can unlock secret truths.
Along the way, Lyra finds herself entering the orbit of two powerful adults — Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter.
Lord Asriel is Lyra’s uncle, a strong, stern explorer who rejects the teachings of the Magisterium. Asriel is preoccupied with the study of “Dust,” the strange elementary particles that seemingly make up the universe.
Mrs. Coulter, an agent of the Magisterium, is a suave, cunning socialite with a terrifying golden monkey as her dæmon. She takes an intense interest in Lyra, shares Asriel’s fascination with “Dust,” and may have played a role in Roger’s abduction.
As she travels North, Lyra finds a series of unlikely allies, including Lee Scoresby, an American aeronaut from Texas who travels the globe in a hot-air balloon; Iorek Byrnison, a disgraced armored bear; and Serafina Pekkala, the queen of a Northern witch clan.
Lyra’s quest to find her friend leads her into a truly epic struggle between science and religion that might rip down the walls between universes and alter the very nature of life, death, and everything in between.
(We’re trying not to give too much away, because it’s so, so good. Trust us. You’ll also eventually meet a boy named Will Parry and a scientist named Mary Malone, but we’d have to get into murky spoiler territory to tell you anymore about them.)
Another good thing to know is that Pullman’s trilogy is heavily inspired by the poems of William Blake and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is where the phrase “his dark materials” comes from.
WHAT IS THE BOOK OF DUST?
The Book of Dust is the name of Pullman’s second trilogy of novels set in the His Dark Materials universe. The first, La Belle Sauvage, came out in 2017, and the second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, was just recently published.
In terms of where these novels fit into the His Dark Materials timeline, perhaps it’s best to use a Star Wars comparison. La Belle Sauvage is a prequel like The Phantom Menace, showing how baby Lyra originally came to arrive at Jordan College. The Secret Commonwealth, on the other hand, is more like The Force Awakens, giving us the first-ever glimpse of an adult Lyra, years after the events of 2000’s The Amber Spyglass. (Which is one of many reasons why His Dark Materials fans are eager to read The Secret Commonwealth.)
IS THAT ALL?
There are also two His Dark Materials novellas, which were published as separate volumes with cool fold-out maps. The first is Lyra’s Oxford (2003), a quick adventure featuring a teenaged Lyra that very briefly introduces us to Malcolm Polstead — the main character in La Belle Sauvage. Next, there’s Once Upon a Time in the North (2008), which shows us the very first meeting of Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison.
There is also a short story called “The Collectors,” focused on a young Mrs. Coulter, that Pullman released exclusively as an ebook.
In addition to these extras, you should also know that the original His Dark Materials trilogy has some of the best audiobooks ever recorded. They’re all massive productions with a full cast and Pullman himself reading the narration. Each one is fabulous and immersive, like a top-notch radio play.
The Book of Dust novels don’t have full cast recordings, but they are both read by Good Omens actor Michael Sheen, who gives a brilliant performance.
There have also been a few BBC Radio adaptations of the original trilogy and a 2007 big-budget movie version of The Golden Compass, which had a killer cast including Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Eva Green, and Sam Elliott.
While that movie unfortunately only got to cover the first book of the series, it looks like the new television adaptation will get to cover substantially more material — they’re already filming a second season, which will tell the story of The Subtle Knife.
SHOULD I READ HIS DARK MATERIALS AND THE BOOK OF DUST?
Yes, you should. Pullman is a magnificent writer and every single book drips with character and ambition. While some have chaffed at the series’ depiction of religion, His Dark Materials is a humanist masterpiece, strongly advocating for a world where love, free will, and bravery prevail.
It’s also hugely heartbreaking, romantic, and personal, while still being mind-blowingly huge in scope.
Basically, it has everything. And, now that there are new novels and a new television show coming out, it’s the perfect time to revisit His Dark Materials or journey into Lyra’s world for the very first time.
His Dark Materials Series
The Book of Dust Series