It might not be the “next Game of Thrones,” but HBO didn’t even have to wait until the end of the year to unveil another fantasy epic: His Dark Materials. Premiering on Monday, the new series—a coproduction with BBC—takes its name from Philip Pullman’s acclaimed trilogy centered on parallel universes, talking animal companions, authoritarianism, the nature of existence, and, most terrifying of all, growing up. They’re exceptional novels filled with rich world(s)building and multifaceted characters, but unless you’ve got the motifs of Paradise Lost singed into your brain, His Dark Materials is a tricky show to dive into cold turkey. (Think of the early episodes of Game of Thrones having to breathlessly explain the histories and motivations of various houses across Westeros, except now there are also talking polar bears to worry about.)
So, in advance of the show’s premiere, and in lieu of reading Pullman’s trilogy for yourself—though it’s still very much worth your time!—we’ve put together a primer for the world of His Dark Materials, the most important terms to remember, and why the Catholic Church has denounced Pullman’s texts as atheist propaganda, which is about the highest compliment a novel can receive. For the spoiler-averse: This guide isn’t intended to give away any of the series’ big developments—if you’re upset to learn that His Dark Materials concerns parallel worlds, um, the opening credits pretty much spell it out for you. Instead, consider this a golden compass guiding you toward discovering the answers for yourself.
The biggest sign that the world introduced at the beginning of His Dark Materials is not quite like our own is the presence of daemons. Basically, daemons—pronounced “demons”—are physical manifestations of human souls, which take animal forms. Daemons can talk; not just to their human, but to other people. When someone in this world is still a child, their daemon can continuously change into any animal—it’s when a daemon settles into a final form that a person is considered to have come of age. The relationship between a daemon and their human is sacred; it’s considered taboo for someone to touch another person’s daemon. A human also can’t stray too far from their daemon, or vice versa, without experiencing a significant amount of pain (with the exception of witches—yes, witches exist in this world as well—who can travel great distances from their daemon). Likewise, daemon-on-daemon fighting causes as much pain to their human companion as a human-on-human fight would; if you were to kill someone’s daemon, you’d kill them too.
A daemon’s permanent form is meant to reflect a person’s true nature. In Northern Lights—Pullman’s first installment of the trilogy—our protagonist Lyra Belacqua, a tween orphan living in (alt-universe) Oxford, meets the beguiling Mrs. Coulter, an emissary of the church who charms Lyra and whisks her away to London. However, it’s repeatedly stressed in the books that Mrs. Coulter’s daemon—a beautiful but unsettling golden monkey—has a menacing presence, underscoring that she has dark intent hiding under a veneer of pleasantness. One of the great thrills of reading and/or watching His Dark Materials is imagining having a daemon of your own, and what yours would turn into. For better or worse, mine would definitely be a house cat—but like, a chill one who loves belly rubs.
To start: This is unrelated to the smut that accumulates in your home. The Dust at the heart of His Dark Materials is a mysterious substance that may have importance to life itself. Dust is initially brought up in Northern Lights by Lord Asriel—Lyra’s uncle—at Oxford’s Jordan College, when he returns from a northern expedition with evidence supporting the matter’s existence and how it can be viewed through photograms. (Dust cannot be seen with the naked eye.) There are more Dust-related revelations as Lyra’s journey continues in the series, but it remains an enigmatic thing with special properties—kind of like the Force in Star Wars before George Lucas went AWOL with all the talk of Midi-chlorians.
Any research pertaining to Dust is considered heresy by the Magisterium: the authoritarian regime of this world with religious undertones similar to the Catholic Church. The Magisterium believes Dust is the root of sin, and conducts mysterious, harmful experiments on children to try to shield them from the matter’s supposedly corruptive influence. As a result, Asriel’s discovery and subsequent research is treated as a threat to their regime and mankind. Dust is important enough that Pullman’s second trilogy in the His Dark Materials universe (more on that later) is called The Book of Dust. As the kids say: Watch this space—er, Dust.
Also known as the “golden compass,” the Alethiometer is a device that communicates with Dust and can reveal the truth to anyone who can successfully interpret its symbols after asking it a question. An Alethiometer has 36 total symbols—each of which has myriad meanings, depending on what it’s trying to answer—and it can take a trained scholar several weeks to decipher the answer the device provides to a specific inquiry. In Lyra’s world, only six Alethiometers exist—one of which is placed in her care at the beginning of Northern Lights (as well as the TV series), when she leaves Jordan College.
One of the first clues given to the reader that Lyra might be a prodigious child is that she can read the Alethiometer without any training, relying on instinct to to unpack its clues. (By comparison, Alethiometer scholars spend their whole lives studying to use it, and then they’ll need literal weeks to figure out what the fuck it’s trying to say.) The name of Pullman’s two sequels—The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass—refer to two other objects of import in the book series, both of which also have a tangential relationship to Dust.
Armored! Polar! Bears!
If you thought direwolves, dragons, or Harry Potter owls were the epitome of dope fantasy animal companions, you evidently didn’t read His Dark Materials, because there is surely nothing cooler than a talking, armored polar bear. (Or, in His Dark Materials parlance, a Panserbjørn.) The biggest difference between the polar bears from our world and the Panserbjørn—aside from them being able to talk—is that they have opposable thumbs, impressive abilities as smiths, and a keen intellect. (The Panserbjørn are notoriously difficult for people to deceive; they have elite bullshit detectors, in other words.)
When Lyra journeys north to find her missing—and presumably kidnapped—friend Roger, she encounters Iorek Byrnison, the disgraced and ousted king of his bear-kind who’s lost his armor. For the Panserbjørn, the relationship between a bear and their armor is analogous to humans and their daemons; thus, Iorek feels that he’s lost part of his soul without it. Iorek is a very good polar boy, and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that he and Lyra form a bond. (Also, if you want to see what armored polar bears would be like in combat, you’re in luck.)
Why the Catholic Church Hates His Dark Materials
With the Magisterium and its members serving as the main antagonists of this series—repressing research and ideas the church deems heretical as well as being responsible for kidnapping children from marginalized communities—it’s not all surprising that Christian organizations have slammed Pullman’s material. (In 2007, the president of the Catholic League called His Dark Materials “atheism for kids.”) Indeed, the relationship between the Magisterium and children appears to be inspired by the Catholic church’s systemic and decades-and-continent-spanning cover-ups of sexual abuse by priests and other authority figures. If this narrative thread really pisses off Christian organizations, well, then it’s rather unfortunate that they created it.
While Pullman, for his part, has described himself as an “agnostic atheist,” he says His Dark Materials isn’t intended to be antireligious so much as skeptical of rigid theological practices. A reasonable person might agree that suppressing freedom of thought is often bad and dangerous! Nevertheless, several religious groups—as well as the Vatican—boycotted and panned the books in addition to the 2007 film The Golden Compass, an adaptation of Northern Lights, largely under the pretext that the material is “godless” and “hopeless” atheist propaganda. It’s their prerogative if they want to do that again, but if they don’t, you’ll probably see the Vatican in the news for other reasons.
The Golden Compass Movie
While religious boycotts likely harmed The Golden Compass’ tepid box office haul, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the film adaptation was … quite bad. For context: This was 2007, the Harry Potter movies were making Marvel amounts of money, and New Line Cinema had purchased the rights to Pullman’s trilogy in 2002 and sought to make a killing on a YA fantasy adaptation of their own. The studio had the right impulse in trying to adapt Pullman’s books when YA content was thriving—The Hunger Games trilogy would similarly make bank five years later—but the execution fell flat.
The Golden Compass, already the subject of a massive boycott for its antireligious themes, still neglected to dive into Pullman’s religious themes—eschewing these ideas in favor of a more straightforward adventure story on Lyra’s journey to the north to find Roger and Lord Asriel. The larger problem is, were sequels actually green-lit, the books go further into these themes, while Pullman’s material gets considerably darker and way weirder. The Golden Compass also ends without reaching the conclusion of the first book—instead of a scintillating cliff-hanger, you’re left with some characters hanging out in a hot air balloon. The film was really dumb, and one undeniably dope polar bear fight aside, wholly forgettable. And if that wasn’t enough of an L, The Golden Compass’s financial failures were reportedly a major reason why New Line Cinema went under.
Pullman’s New Companion Trilogy, The Book of Dust
Seventeen years after publishing The Amber Spyglass, Pullman released the first book in a new trilogy, intended to be an “equal” to His Dark Materials—meaning, it will take place before and after the events of the original series. But the first book, 2017’s La Belle Sauvage, lies firmly in prequel territory; in it, Lyra is an infant, and the story concerns her perilous journey, as she’s taken to Oxford. The book is largely about the actions of the people who protected her from dangerous Magisterium-adjacent figures during an event called the Great Flood. (Casual Noah’s Ark vibes, I know.)
The second book, however, was set to take place after The Amber Spyglass with Lyra as a young adult, an enticing prospect for anyone who dug the original trilogy. And instead of having to anxiously wait years and years to see what would happen, that book, The Secret Commonwealth, dropped earlier this month. Thus far, the Book of Dust publishing slate has followed the brisk release pattern of His Dark Materials, which Pullman dropped within a five-year span from 1995 to 2000. These are dense, richly detailed novels, so it’s hard to overstate how quick of a turnaround this is from Pullman—much to the delight of his readers. George R.R. Martin, buddy, I hope you’re taking notes!
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.