EVENT REVIEW: Exploring Northern Lights

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Sunday 17 October 2015
Durham Book Festival

Review by Miranda Stephenson

Before the Exploring Northern Lights of event, I honestly wasn’t expecting that much. Stuffy academics in stuffier business suits, talking about a book read largely by children. I expected to be sitting in a room for an hour, surrounded by a crowd mostly over sixty, and so bored by the end that my own hair had turned grey as well.

It’s safe to say that I was proven wrong.

Okay, so it was academics doing all the speaking, but what they had to say was still interesting as heck. The four professors at Durham University – where the author of Northern Lights, Philip Pullman, holds an honorary degree – started by introducing themselves, their subjects, and how they came across Northern Lights. Which was all pretty standard, really.

It was when they started getting really into their exploration of the book that the audience truly got hooked. One of the best ways they did this was by comparing it to the works of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis- both writers who Pullman has previously publicly complained about.

Northern Lights ‘appeals in a way that C. S. Lewis and Tolkien didn’t’, the professors explained, because ‘it challenges us to make us think’. Whilst Pullman’s character Lyra is a child who wants to be taken seriously by grown ups, she doesn’t know where she is going in life and she lies and she is messy and has terrible grammar. And for the readers, the people Northern Lights is made for, this resonates as real. We all know children – and adults – like Lyra.

The professors noted that this level of realism just wasn’t there in C. S. Lewis’s or Tolkien’s characters. Since these writers were deeply religious and just as deeply conservative, in many ways their writing reinforced tropes and stereotypes that Pullman’s writing turns on their heads.

This is particularly shown in that the story is written almost like a medieval romance, a story about a questing knight- except in Northern Lights the knight is Lyra, and Lyra is a girl.

It’s not just the realistic characters that are more relatable in Northern Lights, though. This ‘very resonant world’ that Lyra exists in was described as being almost an ‘alternate universe where enlightenment hasn’t happened’. The professors at the event drew parallels between Lyra’s Oxford and Medieval churches, finishing by proclaiming the book ‘profoundly anti clerical’.

A quote that particularly sticks in my mind, here, is when Lyra asks the question, “What if everyone has it wrong, and sinful is right and good?” And really, that’s the question, isn’t it?

The next event I saw was Philip Pullman being interviewed, and I think without seeing the Exploring Northern Lights event previously, I wouldn’t have been able to become so immersed in his inspirations and philosophies. (Philip Pullman himself was brilliant- extremely witty, with inspiring, thought provoking ideas and enough patience to sign an hour long queue of fans with books.)

One thing’s certain: I won’t have such preconceived ideas about this sort of event again.


Miranda Stephenson is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.

Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.