Ahead of Philip Pullman’s appearance at the 2017 London Literature Festival, Southbank Centre Literature Programmer Bea Colley explores one of his most fascinating characters, and the heroine of His Dark Materials. Warning: spoiler alert!
Here in Southbank Centre’s literature team, we are eagerly awaiting the publication of Philip Pullman’s new novel, La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One. The first part of the new trilogy by the multi-award winning author, it is set 10 years before His Dark Materials. Pullman however, doesn’t see this as a prequel but as an ‘equal’; a story that stands alongside the many worlds and characters of His Dark Materials trilogy.
Growing up through the trilogy is Lyra Belacqua, the central character without whom ‘we shall all die’. To some, a troublesome schoolgirl, but to others, the subject of a prophecy, the modern-day embodiment of Eve, the mother and saviour or the cause of the fall of mankind, depending on their belief system - no pressure then Lyra!
But who is Lyra and why do generations of readers, young and old, love her so much?
Like many of our favourite literary protagonists, Lyra is a child alone. Pippi Longstocking, The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, and Peter Pan must make their own way in the world, seeking wisdom from parental figures where they can and forming enduring family bonds with other lone children they encounter. And while both of Lyra’s parents are still alive, buying school uniforms and making packed lunches pale into insignificance when you are moving between upholding, then breaking apart, the religious structures of society.
Pullman says that Lyra ‘passed her childhood, like a half-wild cat’, bold, fearless and with complete disregard for any of the gender stereotypes which might otherwise hold her back. Speaking in front of John Farr’s all-male Gyptian council planning their rescue mission to the North, she cunningly tells the men they might need women (or girls) to look after the children when they find them. The reader knows full well that Lyra’s quest is to save her friend and for adventure and that she will not be adopting the pastoral role of the crew.
Lyra challenges our own belief system. She raises questions that theologians and scientists have pondered since the dawn of time. While Young Adult books today raise complex questions and reveal the challenges that face young people, His Dark Materials goes much further. It introduces topics of quantum theory, free will versus fate, good and evil and allows readers to work through their own beliefs alongside Lyra.
Lyra is amongst a handful of people in the world who can read the alethiometer, a truth-telling device, and is certainly the only child with these skills. Seeking answers, Lyra holds a question in her mind and the three needles of the device point to various symbols that Lyra can then interpret to find her answer and guide her on her quest.
Lyra is an adept and cunning liar - but only when she needs to be. ‘With every second that went past, with every second she spoke, she felt a little strength coming back. And now that she was doing something difficult and familiar and never quite predictable, namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again, the same sense of complexity and control that the alethiometer gave her.’ This ability earns her the nickname Lyra Silvertongue, proffered by Iorek Byrnison, panserbjørn (armoured bear), and rightful King of the Bears.
Talking of bears… apparently tricking one of them is an impossibility but Lyra manages to do it. In the first book of the trilogy, the foolish Iofur Raknison is King of the Bears, after having wrongfully taken the throne. Greedy for the trappings of being a human: riches, the walls of a palace and above all, his own daemon (the physical manifestation of a soul), Iofur has lost some of his bear-like astuteness and intuition. So Lyra consults her alethiometer and manages to trick Iofur into believing that she is there to be his daemon, all the while stalling as her friend, Iorek Byrnison, pounds the Arctic tundra on his journey to save Lyra and take his rightful place on the throne.
Lyra is human and falls in love. We see a flicker of this in The Subtle Knife, in a glance that passes between Will and Lyra in the most innocent gesture of grabbing someone’s hand when you are frightened (or as innocent as you can be after having cut through the fabric of one world, stepping into another and are hiding behind a rich, thieving despot’s curtain). By the end of The Golden Compass, the pair are fully smitten and Lyra offers fruit to Will which he takes gladly and the world holds its breath: 'The Dust pouring down from the stars had found a living home again, and these children-no-longer-children, saturated with love, were the cause of it all.'
Lyra feels the fear but does it anyway. Throughout the trilogy, although she doesn’t know of the prophecy that has landed on her shoulders, she continues forward, standing up to bears, journeying into the Land of the Dead and parting from the other half of her soul, her daemon Pantalaimon, and then challenging the horrifying and ghastly harpies she meet there.