There’s a reason a feature film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy never worked out. The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, hit theaters in 2007, but sequels were never green lit in the face of poor critical reviews and dwindling ticket sales.
Jane Tranter, executive producer of HBO and BBC’s upcoming TV series based on the same books, is in a much better position. “Philip’s books are as deep as they are wide. They exist on many levels and they have a terrific breadth of location stories. That’s very hard for a film to capture,” she previously explained to EW. That said, she still has a lot of ground to cover.
In the prestige TV void left by Game of Thrones, His Dark Materials brings a new kind of fantasy saga to the small screen with a cast including Dafne Keen (the star of X-Men film Logan), The Affair‘s Ruth Wilson, It Chapter 2‘s James McAvoy, and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. It is a journey that starts in one parallel world, then bridges to our own, and then comes back again. There are armored polar bears (> dire wolves?), witches, daemons (but not the kind you might be thinking about), a multiverse, and something equally mysterious called Dust (definitely not the kind you’re thinking about).
To ease the pains of acclimating to completely new fantasy worlds, here is a handy dictionary of people, places, and things.
In short, it’s a truth teller. The more complex answer is that it’s a mystical device, similar in look and feel to a compass, that reveals truths through a series of glyphs. Each combination of symbols can bear multiple meanings depending on the question, and it can take years of study for a person to decipher how to properly read an alethiometer. Only a rare few, like Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen), have the natural ability to decipher them. The bearer of an alethiometer asks questions of the device by placing its hands on the symbols that signify those questions. Lyra describes reading the device as emptying her mind and falling into a kind of trance to see what it’s trying to reveal. Alethiometers are regulated by the Magisterium, but one resides at Jordan College where it is then gifted to Lyra.
Arctic Institute, Royal
An organization of arctic explorers, such as Lord Asriel. The group maintains a headquarters in London.
An explorer and member of high society in Britain who often finds himself at odds with the Magisterium’s ideals and theology. Lord Asriel embarked on a journey to the arctic north under the ruse of visiting the king of Lapland, a country that exists in Lyra’s world. In actuality, he ventured to take photographs of Dust during the Aurora. Through the Aurora, when the veil between worlds appears at its thinnest, Asriel glimpsed the presence of a city existing in an alternate reality. Asriel is Lyra’s uncle. His daemon is a snow leopard named Stelmaria (voiced by Helen McCrory).
An orphan girl raised by Master Carne (Clarke Peters) and the scholars at Jordan College. Adventurous, high spirited, kind hearted, and, at times, a bit too reckless, Lyra dreams of following her uncle, Lord Asriel, on his adventures in the north. But, after she foils an assassination plot against him as he arrives at Jordan College to present blasphemous discoveries, Lyra soon gains bigger problems to deal with. Mrs. Coulter, a mysterious woman, arrives and takes a liking to the young girl and offers her a place as her assistant. Lyra takes it, hoping to leave Oxford to find her friend Roger, the latest victim in a string of child kidnappings. Lyra’s daemon is Pantalaimon.
A building complex established in the north by an organization called the General Oblation Board. The actions of the organization are often elusive and unknown, especially when activities at Bolvangar are concerned.
An aristocrat involved with the General Oblation Board. In the events of Pullman’s The Golden Compass, Lord Boreal (played by Ariyon Bakare) appears at a cocktail party thrown by Mrs. Coulter. In the show, he arrives at Jordan College in Oxford on behalf of the Magisterium. His daemon is a serpent.
A panserbjørn warrior and disgraced heir to the kingdom of Svalbard. A rivalry battle over a female panserbjørn led Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Joe Tandberg) to kill one of his own, an offense that cast him out of society. In his exile, Iorek met and worked with the aeronaut known as Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda). The panserbjørn eventually found his way to Trollesund, a city in Lapland, whose citizens supplied him with liquor. Once dulled, Iorek was taken advantage of by the townsfolk, who stole his armor. In a rampage, Iorek ransacked the port and killed at least two people. He would’ve been shot and killed if not for his skill with molding metals. While working off his penance in Trollesund, Lyra arrives on her journey north.
Coulter, Mrs. Marisa
A mysterious, mesmeric woman who arrives at Jordan College and takes a particular liking to Lyra. As a member of high society, Mrs. Marisa Coulter has connections with the Magisterium, the General Oblation Board, and the Royal Arctic Institute. Her daemon is a golden-haired monkey.
The physical manifestation of a human’s soul in Lyra’s world. A daemon exists outside of their human’s body as a talking animal. During a person’s childhood, their daemon constantly shape-shifts into other animals as it sees fit. With puberty, the daemon will eventually settle into a single form that reflects the person’s true nature. Daemons are extensions of their humans. Should a human and their daemon stray too far from each other, both will suffer tremendous mental and emotional anguish. If a daemon suffers trauma, their human will feel it as well. To see a person without a daemon is like seeing someone walking around with a severed head. It is unheard of in society for one person to touch another person’s body. Killing a daemon kills the human and vice versa. Upon its death, a daemon turns into Dust particles and disappear.
A mystical particle that holds vast secrets to the multiverse and may even hold the key to life itself. Its nature has become a fascination point for many scholars and researchers, including Lord Asriel, though its true potential is considered a threat to the Magisterium. Any research on the subject is heavily regulated by the Magisterium and is often considered heresy. The organization considers Dust the source of original sin.
The name given to those shadowy figures responsible for the string of child kidnappings plaguing Brytain (similar in geography to the U.K. in our world). Tales of the Gobblers spread all over the country and reached Jordan College. Lower-class children, like servants and those among the Gyptian clans, tend to be easier targets of the Gobblers.
Great Flood, The
The name is pretty self-explanatory. Think that Biblical flood Noah was building that ark for. In 1986, supernaturally tinged waters rose and flooded the area known as the Fens and Oxfordshire in Lyra’s world. During this period, Asriel carried Lyra as an infant to Jordan College to live in safety from the Magisterium. Pullman chronicled this event in La Belle Sauvage, the first novel in his The Book of Dust companion trilogy. The premiere episode will dramatize a single moment from this period.
A nomadic group who settled in the Fens and now typically live and travel by boat via waterways. Gyptians consider each other as close to blood as possible. As described in Pullman’s books, if a Gyptian mother lost sight of her child, she could typically rest easy, knowing her neighbors within the community would keep watch over them. Western Gyptians divided themselves into six large families that submit one member to serve on the Gyptians’ Council; Farder Coram (James Cosmo) was one of them. John Faa (Lucian Msamati) serves as King of the Gyptians.
His Dark Materials
A trilogy of novels written by Pullman that consists of The Golden Compass (titled The Northern Lights in the U.K.), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. Season 1 of His Dark Materials, the TV series from HBO and BBC, will adapt the first novel, while season 2, which has already been filmed, will chronicle the events of The Subtle Knife. Though it hasn’t been formally announced, a third season is planned to adapt The Amber Spyglass. Jack Thorne, who wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, penned the teleplay.
A prominent university of Oxfordshire in Lyra’s world. Headed by Master Clarke Peters, Jordan College acts as a sort of sanctuary and laws of the Magisterium rarely apply.
The reigning religious institution of the church in Lyra’s world that replaced the Papacy. The Magisterium maintains firm control around the world and polices any discoveries or research that pertain to the church. When Dust was discovered, they claimed it to be physical evidence of original sin and often suppress any research deemed to be heretical. The Magisterium also maintains control over the world’s alethiometers.
A species of highly intelligent talking armored polar bear who dwell in the north. Their kingdom is Svalbard, currently ruled by Iofur Raknison. Panserbjoørn do not have daemons, though each receive specially forged armor made from a material known as sky-iron. It’s said a panserbjørn’s armor is as precious to them as a human’s daemon. It’s rare for one panserbjørn to kill one’s own. To do so in Svalbard would mean exile. Panserbjørn are so intelligent and perceptive that humans are only able to deceive them in the rarest of cases, often when they act more like humans than bears.
A boy working in the kitchens of Jordan College in Oxford. He and Lyra form a friendship, often venturing together around the grounds or getting into playful turf wars with fellow servant and Gyptian children. Roger becomes the latest kid nabbed in a series of mysterious disappearances, prompting Lyra to search for him. His daemon is Salcillia.
A Texan aeronaut who pilots a hot air balloon. His travels have taken him to all corners of the globe where he’s encountered many, including Iorek Byrnison, the witch Serafina Pekkala, and the young Lyra Belacqua. His daemon is an arctic hare named Hester (voiced by Cristela Alonzo). Lee’s line of work means he’s often alone, so he’s always conversing and singing with Hester.
Subtle Knife, The
A mystical artifact crafted by philosophers in the world of Cittàgazze. It is the only known object (at the start of this story, at least) that’s able to create windows for traveling to other worlds in the multiverse. It’s tip is so fine that neither human nor panserbjørn are able to see it with the naked eye. Its name lends itself to the title of Pullman’s second novel from his original trilogy, while his third novel, The Amber Spyglass, references another object of power.
A barbaric civilization of humans based in Lapland. They often scalp their enemies and all the male warriors have wolves as daemons.
A species of highly intelligent humanoid beings who wield magical abilities and exist in multiple worlds. In Lyra’s world, they commonly dwell in the north. Witches have immensely long lifespans, typically lasting for thousands of years. Witches are able to feel cold, though it does not harm them. Through cloud pine, a tree with mystical properties, they are able to take flight. Their daemons always settle as birds. Unlike humans, witches are able to send their daemons to great distances without harm. Unique to Lyra’s world, witches mate with humans, though only female offspring are born witches. (Male witches exist in other worlds.) Witches don’t commonly involve themselves in human affairs as their concerns are more focused on issues spanning multiple worlds. Serafina Pekkala is the queen of the Lake Enara witch clan in Lyra’s world. Her daemon is Kaisa, who is described as a goose in Pullman’s books.
His Dark Materials premieres Monday, Nov. 4 on HBO.
- His Dark Materials star James McAvoy brings new dimensions to Lord Asriel
- Lin-Manuel Miranda gets a ‘buddy-comedy’ with Lee Scoresby in His Dark Materials
- His Dark Materials star Ruth Wilson unpacks the beguiling Mrs. Coulter
- His Dark Materials premiere photos reveal Book of Dust crossover
- His Dark Materials is definitely a better TV show than a movie