His Dark Materials in the Classroom

This section of our site was lauched to help educators around the world bring Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy into their classrooms. We believe that His Dark Materials deserves the attention of young adult classrooms around the world because it is a rich and engaging work which challenges readers to think for themselves about fundamental issues. As a web site dedicated to these books, we think it is important to share our resources with educators, book discussion groups, and readers so that they may appreciate the books as much as we do.

If you have used His Dark Materials in your classroom as a teacher, or have studied the books as a student, please help us in expanding this resource with your suggestions and ideas on how to teach His Dark Materials, or books from the trilogy. You can send your suggestions to webmaster@bridgetothestars.net, and we will be happy to add them to the site. His Dark Materials is generally taught to 11-16 year olds, so the material on this site is designed for that age group.

-About Philip Pullman
-Reviews and Awards
-Background Information
-The Characters
-Discussion Topics/Essay Questions
-Further Reading
-Add to our Resources

About Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman was born on October 19th, 1946. Like several other children's authors (something else to ponder, perhaps), his father, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, was killed early in Philip's life, leaving him to be raised by his mother and stepfather, as well as his grandfather who was a clergyman in rural England. Pullman studied for a time at Exeter College, in Oxford (he has said that Exeter has been his primary model for Jordan College in the books). He taught middle-school English for a few years before becoming a part time lecturer at Westminster College, Oxford.

His first well-known books were the Sally Lockhart trilogy published from 1985-1992 (which include The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, and The Tiger in the Well). In 1996, Philip Pullman published The Golden Compass (entitled 'Northern Lights' in countries receiving British copies of books), marking the start of his ambitious "fantasy" trilogy, 'His Dark Materials'. It was followed in 1997 by The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass in 2000. Pullman is currently working on a companion volume to the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy (which gets its name from John Milton's 'Paradise Lost'), called The Book of Dust.

Quotes from Pullman about his books, what he believes, and his feelings towards fantasy can be found on our quotes page or in our collection of Interviews. Pullman lives in Oxford, England with his wife Jude.

Back to Top

Reviews and Awards

For The Golden Compass: Horn Book Fanfare Honor Book, Publisher's Weekly Best Book of the Year (1997), and a Booklist Editors' Choice- Top of the List. It won the Carnegie Medal (England), and the Guardian Prize for Fiction (England). It has received awards and praise from countless literary groups, both children and adult. The Washington Post called it "Superb.. all-stops-out thrilling." Publishers Weekly called it "Breathtaking.. a glittering gem." Of The Golden Compass, New Statesman said "...The most ambitious work since Lord of the Rings, it is as intellectually thrilling as it is magnificently written."

For The Subtle Knife: Winner of the Parent's Choice Gold Book Award, the ALA Best Book for Young Adults, Publisher's Weekly Best Book of the Year, and countless other awards, The Subtle Knife has brought back the excitement and power of The Golden Compass. As the Washington Post Book World said, "Just as quick-moving and unputdownable as The Golden Compass... The mysteries deepen and the wonders grown even more extravagant." The New York Times Book Review said : "The story gallops with ferocious momentum [and] Pullman is devilishly inventive.' The San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle called The Subtle Knife "As rich and complex a fantasy novel as any adult reader could wish for." Acclaimed fantasy author Lloyd Alexander (Newbery Medalist for The High King) said "The Subtle Knife is as absorbing and irresistible as The Golden Compass- even more so, as powerful new forces are set in motion. A brilliantly conceived work."

For The Amber Spyglass: Winner of the 2001 Whitbread Book of the Year (first children's book to ever do so), the WH Smith Children's Book of the Year 2000, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

Back to Top

Background Information

All three books in the trilogy take place in parallel universes. The first book takes place in one world, which is described as being like ours, but different in many ways. Historically, the Church in this world, known as Lyra's world, apparently never went through the protestant reformation. The papacy was moved from Rome to Geneva by Pope John Calvin, where it later dissolved into a loose gathering of organizations and colleges collectively known as the 'Magisterium'. The Magisterium rules supreme in Lyra's world, limiting anything it deems heretical, and keeping a close eye on science, which it calls 'experimental theology'.

In Lyra's world, every human being is accompanied by a daemon, a spirit-familiar based roughly on the daemon of Socrates. Daemons in Lyra's world take the form of animals that represent something about the nature of the person they belong to; i.e. a servant would have a dog daemon because they're eager to serve and please. As a person reaches maturity, the daemon eventually settles into a single form which it will hold for the rest of the person's life. Daemons can speak and think on their own, and act as a sort of conscience or soul for the person they belong to - being one with the person, yet still being a separate entity.

More on Lyra's world can be found here, as well as throughout the Encyclopaedia.

The answers to commonly asked questions about the books and Philip Pullman can be found in our FAQ.

Back to Top

The Characters

-Mrs. Coulter
-Lord Asriel
-Iorek Byrnison
-Lee Scoresby
-Roger Parslow
-Iofur Raknison

More characters are listed alphabetically in the Encyclopaedia. A pronunication guide for some of the names and objects is available here.

Back to Top


Before Reading:
-Select one of the articles linked from our Science of HDM page about parallel universes. Have your students read the article and then discuss whether or not they think parallel universes might actually exist, and what one would be like.

During Reading:
-Have your students write journal entries at appropriate intervals throughout the reading, discussing what they think of the plot, characters, etc. (submitted by Matt A.)

After Reading:
- Recall what the Able-Seaman said to Lyra in The Golden Compass: "There's plenty of folk as'd like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they're going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is." Have your students discuss what they wish their daemon was, and then what they think their daemon really would be and why (what traits does the animal's form represent about them?).

-Let your students look through the fan art collection on our site, and pick an image which they think represents how they imagined a character or scene from the book.

-Look through the international Cover Art Gallery and discuss which covers are best for His Dark Materials and which are the worst (and why).

- Have your students pick one of the articles from our Commentaries section (or assign one to each of them) and have them write a response to the author about whether they agree with what was said or not.

-Have your students think about what a movie adaptation of the book would be like. Divide your students into groups of three or four and have them write a script for a certain scene in the books (or use a copy of the stage play script), and then act it out for the rest of the class.

-Have your students design an instrument similar to the alethiometer, the subtle knife, or the amber spyglass. Have them explain what it does, how it uses Dust, and what they would do with the instrument if they had it.

-Have students bring in a CD (or the lyrics to a song) which they think best represents the story, and have them explain why they chose the song they did. Then allow students to listen /read the lyrics to each song and vote on which they think is the best.

-Have your class visit www.stagework.org.uk, which has video and images from the stage production of His Dark Materials. Choose a few of these images or videos in advance and have your class discuss what they think of how the play presents aspects like daemons or armored bears.

-Have students create a poster to represent different aspects of the story with images that they have drawn or printed out. You could also have them design a movie poster based on posters they have seen for other movies, including a certain scene or character that they think would get the attention of movie-goers. (submitted by Matt A.)

Back to Top

Discussion Questions

We have divided the discussion questions by book so that you can find questions specific to your needs more easily.

-The Golden Comass/Northern Lights
-The Subtle Knife
-The Amber Spyglass
-Trilogy in General
The Golden Compass/Northern Lights
-There are two different titles for the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy: The Golden Compass and Northern Lights. The reason for the difference is explained here, but if you were writing the book, which title would you choose?

-The second to last chapter of The Golden Compass is 'Betrayal'. What do you think Pullman meant was the betrayal? Is it really a betrayal?

-It's sometimes hard to decide who is on what side in His Dark Materials. Are Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel good, evil, or a mixture of the two? Are they on the same side?

-Daemons are important to understanding the story in The Golden Compass. Discuss the daemon/human relationship and think about how the forms of the settled daemons represents their human. What type of animal do you think Pantalaimon will settle as when Lyra gets older?

-Dust is described by the Magisterium as 'the physical evidence for original sin'. From what you've read so far, do you think this is the case? Discuss how innocence and experience are portrayed throughout the book, in the settling of daemons, Lyra's ability to read the alethiometer when adults cannot, and how Iorek cannot be tricked but Iofur can be.

The Subtle Knife
-Why does Lyra feel she can trust Will after the alethiometer tells her that he is a murderer? Why do you think it says this?

-Discuss Will's relationship with his mother and how it has made him who he is. Do you think he did the right thing to leave her with his old piano teacher?

-Compare and contrast Will and Lyra as characters. How does Will's presence change Lyra from the character that she was in The Golden Compass?

-What is the origin of the spectres in the world of Cittagazze? Why do they only attack adults, and leave children alone?

-Compare the subtle knife to the ring from J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings'. Discuss how the user of the knife or the ring can have good intentions, but end up causing evil (creation of the spectres by the knife, and an all-consuming greed for power by the ring). How are Will and Frodo similar or different as bearers of the knife and the ring?

The Amber Spyglass

-If your edition has quotes at the start of each chapter, select a few and then discuss with your students why they think Pullman chose those particular quotes for those chapters. (If you do not have an edition with the quotes, you can find them here as they're used in the books, or highlighted in context.

-Discuss Pullman's portrayal of The Authority as a decrepit old fool, and the Church in general as an entirely corrupt organization.

-Why do Pan and Kirjava settle into the forms that they do? Discuss what these forms say about Lyra and Will.

-In the books, Mary Malone is described as having the role of 'the serpent' in Lyra's "Fall". How exactly does she tempt Lyra, and how does Lyra fall? How is this fall portrayed differently from the story of Adam and Eve?

-When Will tries to break the knife at the end, he is unsuccessful when he thinks of his mother (which broke the knife the first time). Why does it only break when he thinks of Lyra?

Trilogy in General

-Compare the different races created by Philip Pullman: the witches, the armored bears, the mulefas, and the gallivespians. How does Pullman use each to illustrate part of his general themes?

-In The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Will had to make a choice between keeping a window open for themselves or keeping a window open for the dead. How does their decision illustrate their recent fall from grace? Would they have made the same choice earlier in the story? Do you think they made the right choice?

-After the Fall in The Amber Spyglass, Lyra loses her ability to read the alethiometer. How does this fit into the previous theme of innocence vs. experience that is found throughout the trilogy.

-What do you think Pullman meant when he said that His Dark Materials isn't fantasy, it's "stark realism"? Do you think he's correct?

-In what ways are the His Dark Materials books similar to other fantasy classics like 'The Lord of the Rings' or 'The Chronicles of Narnia'? How are they different?

-"In The Amber Spyglass, Mrs. Coulter sacrifices herself in order to force Metatron into the abyss. How much do you feel she has redeemed herself? Does this make up for her atrocious acts in the past?" (Submitted by abc)

Back to Top

Further Reading

-NT Workpack: The National Theatre created an educational workpack for the stage version, which also includes extensive material on the books. Download the workpack [PDF file]
-Darkness Visible: Inside the World of Philip Pullman - by Nicholas Tucker. (our review) - noted as a good biography of Philip Pullman, but its look at the trilogy itself leaves much to be desired.
-Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy: A Reader's Guide - by Claire Squires (our review) - excellent guide to understanding the trilogy and its elements; also features a large list of possible discussion questions.
-The Science of His Dark Materials - by John and Mary Gribbin (our review) - a definitive resource for those who wish to know more about the science-related topics raised by His Dark Materials.
-The Art of Darkness - by Robert Butler (our review) - this guide to the stage adaptation of His Dark Materials lives up to its claim of answering "the central question asked by anyone who knows these epics books: how on earth are they going to do it?"

Back to Top

Add to our Resources

If you have ideas, suggestions, or comments about what can be added to this section of our site, please send an e-mail to webmaster@bridgetothestars.net. We'd be happy to credit you for your suggestions, so feel free to include your name, e-mail, school, or any other information that you feel comfortable with supplying. We will respect your privacy and work with you if you ever wish to remove or modify information that you have given us. We look forward to hearing from you!

If you found this material useful, please let others know about us! If you have a website, you can include a simple text link to this page by copying and pasting the following code onto your website:

<a href="http://bridgetothestars.net/index.php?p=classroom">His Dark Materials in the Classroom</a>
Back to Top

Content © 2001-2011 BridgeToTheStars.Net.
Images from The Golden Compass movie are © New Line Cinema.