12 Enlightening Facts About His Dark Materials

Amazon (book cover), iStock.com/bjdlzx (background)
Amazon (book cover), iStock.com/bjdlzx (background)

In 1995, British author Philip Pullman published The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it was called in most countries outside the U.S.), the first book in the fantasy trilogy collectively known as His Dark Materials. The series’ name referred to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a heady reference for what were ostensibly books for teens. And indeed, each of the books—1995's The Golden Compass, 1997's The Subtle Knife, and 2000's The Amber Spyglass—grappled with questions about philosophy and science, and courted controversy with its critical eye toward organized religion. Yet the series, far from being prohibitively dense, is highly readable and contains all the elements of a spirited fantasy, including armored polar bears, witches, and a Texas gunslinger who flies a hot air balloon. Here are a few things you might not know about Pullman’s books—which HBO and the BBC have turned into a series starring Lin-Manuel Miranda that will debut in 2019—and the controversy surrounding them.

1. His Dark Materials is a retelling of Paradise Lost.

Milton’s epic poem from the 17th century tells the story of Adam and Eve, and of Satan’s banishment from heaven. Pullman read the book as a teenager and fell in love with it. Years later, he got the idea to write a story that flipped the poem on its head. Instead of an all-powerful God, he crafted a frail, petty deity called The Authority. And instead of a great fall after the loss of innocence, the books celebrate a young girl’s growing up and defying an all-powerful order called The Magisterium. Yes, there are more polar bears and airships in Pullman’s version than in Milton’s, but Pullman maintains the series is in response to the centuries-old work he still cherishes. “My story resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence,” he wrote in his introduction to an edition of Paradise Lost.

2. The title The Golden Compass was a mistake.

Pullman first called his series “The Golden Compasses,” a reference to a line from Milton’s epic poem: “The golden compasses, prepared / In God's eternal store, to circumscribe / The universe, and all created things." The “compass,” in this case, referred to the tool used to draw circles, not the one that indicates direction. After Pullman submitted the first book’s manuscript to U.S. publisher Alfred A. Knopf, editors there mistakenly referred to it as The Golden Compass, thinking the name a reference to young Lyra’s alethiometer. The name stuck, even after Pullman informed them that the title in the UK and elsewhere would be Northern Lights. Rather than fight with Knopf, though, Pullman acquiesced: “Their obduracy in this matter was accompanied by such generosity in the matter of royalty advances, flattery, promises of publicity, etc, that I thought it would be churlish to deny them this small pleasure.”

3. A Leonardo Da Vinci painting inspired Pullman's daemons.

In Pullman’s story characters are accompanied by a daemon, an animal that reflects their inner nature. The concept is heavily symbolic, especially since children’s daemons can change shape while those belonging to adults are fixed. The idea, Pullman notes, was visually inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Lady with an Ermine as well as other classical portraits of young women bravely posing with animals, including Holbein’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, and Tiepolo’s Young Woman with a Macaw.

4. Parts of the U.S. edition of The Amber Spyglass were censored.

The biggest change, occurring in Chapter 33, concerns a paragraph detailing Lyra’s sexual awakening. Both the UK and U.S. versions begin with, “As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body.” What follows in the UK version includes Lyra’s physiological reactions: her breathing quickens, she feels “a stirring at the roots of her hair,” and “sensations in her breast.” The U.S. version cuts these sentences and picks up again with a reference to Lyra feeling as if she’s been handed the key to a house. Knopf has never addressed the changes, though many believe it’s because they didn’t deem the details appropriate for a character under the age of 18.

5. Religious critics call the series "atheism for kids."

Christian organizations have denounced the books and the film version of The Golden Compass, calling them propaganda aimed at steering children away from religion. Bill Donohue, president of The Catholic League, has called the series “atheism for kids,” and his group, along with others, boycotted the film when it was released in 2007. “Atheism is screwy enough,” Donohue wrote in a blog post. “But when it is sold backdoor to little kids, it is downright pernicious.”

6. Pullman hasn't shied away from the criticism.

In numerous speeches, Pullman, who has described himself alternately as an “atheist” and an “agnostic atheist,” maintains that his books are more about the dangers of rigid theological doctrine and institutions than they are anti-God or anti-faith. He also argues that his books are a testament to storytelling’s ability to impart morals to children. “’Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” he wrote in a newspaper column.

7. The former Archbishop of Canterbury endorsed it.

Rowan Williams called the books instructive, saying they are in fact about the death of a false God and the upholding of true Christian values. He and Pullman had a lively public conversation back in 2004, a transcript of which you can read here. Williams even went so far as to say that Pullman’s series should be taught in schools. Fundamentalists, needless to say, did not agree.

8. Pullman rejects comparisons of His Dark Materials to other fantasy series.

Some have likened Pullman’s series to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, much to the author’s dismay. He’s called the Narnia books “blatantly racist” and “disparaging of women,” and wrote an essay called “The Dark Side of Narnia” that outlines his grievances. As for the Rings books, he has this to say: “Tolkien is not interested in the way grownup, adult human beings interact with each other. He’s interested in maps and plans and languages and codes.” 

9. The stage version of His Dark Materials was a hit.

Bringing Pullman’s 1300 pages to the stage presented a daunting task, but director Nicholas Hytner was more than game. He staged a two-part, six-hour-long production at London’s Royal National Theater that ran from 2003 to 2004, and was revived from 2004 to 2005. In addition to all the daemons, special effects and world-hopping, the play also managed to show an elaborate fight between two armored polar bears.

10. The Golden Compass movie was not a hit.

New Line Cinema purchased the rights to Pullman’s books in 2002 and hoped they would become the next Lord of the Rings franchise. But development of The Golden Compass was mired in controversy, including a boycott by religious groups, an odd choice of director, and its hand-wringing treatment of the book’s religious themes. The film bombed when it finally hit theaters in 2007—so badly, in fact, that it’s been cited as one of the main reasons New Line went under. Needless to say, there are no plans to produce the second and third installment.

11. Pullman has written to companion works and an audiobook.

Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North include further adventures of Lyra and aeronaut Lee Scoresbee, and include various odds and ends like maps, postcards and playable games. The Collectors, a 32-minute audiobook read by the esteemed British actor Bill Nighy, tells of a conversation between two Oxford scholars that grows increasingly sinister.

12. A prequel to His Dark Materials was released in 2017.

Pullman worked on the first volume of The Book of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, for more than a decade. The book is a prequel to the original series. Lyra is just a baby, and the book introduces a new character named Malcolm Polstead who, according to Amazon, "will brave any danger, and make shocking sacrifices, to bring [Lyra] safely through the storm." The Book of Dust is slated to be a trilogy; a second book in the series, The Secret Commonwealth, has been announced, though there's no release date yet.

A version of this story ran in 2015.

11 Scrumdiddlyumptious Roald Dahl Facts

Ronald Dumont / Getty Images
Ronald Dumont / Getty Images

A world without Roald Dahl would be a world without Oompa Loompas, Snozzcumbers, or Muggle-Wumps. And who would ever want to live in a world like that? Celebrate the author with these gloriumptious facts about the master of edgy kids' books.

1. Writing was never Roald Dahl's best subject.

Dahl held onto a school report he had written as a kid, on which his teacher noted: “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended.”

2. Making up nonsensical words was part of what Roald Dahl did best.

When writing 1982’s The BFG, Dahl created 238 new words for the book’s protagonist, which he dubbed Gobblefunk.

3. Roald Dahl's first profession was as a pilot.

And not just any pilot: Dahl was a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during World War II. And it was a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt that actually inspired him to begin writing.

4. Roald Dahl got into some 007 kind of stuff, too.

Alongside fellow officers Ian Fleming and David Ogilvy, Dahl supplied intelligence to an MI6 organization known as the British Security Coordination.

5. Roald Dahl's first published piece was accidental.

Upon recovering from that plane crash, Dahl was reassigned to Washington, D.C., where he worked as an assistant air attaché. He was approached by author C.S. Forester, who was writing a piece for The Saturday Evening Post and looking to interview someone who had been on the frontlines of the war. Dahl offered to write some notes on his experiences, but when Forester received them he didn’t want to change a word. He submitted Dahl’s notes—originally titled “A Piece of Cake”—to his editor and on August 1, 1942, Roald Dahl officially became a published author. He was paid $1000 for the story, which had been retitled “Shot Down Over Libya” for dramatic effect.

6. Roald Dahl's first children's book was inspired by the Royal Air Force.

Published in 1942, The Gremlins was about a group of mischievous creatures who tinkered with the RAF’s planes. Though the movie rights were purchased by Walt Disney, a film version never materialized. Dahl would go on to become one of the world’s bestselling fiction authors, with more than 100 million copies of his books published in nearly 50 languages.

7. Roald Dahl read Playboy for the articles.

Or at least his own articles. While he’s best known as a children’s author, Dahl was just as prolific in the adult short story sphere. His stories were published in a range of outlets, including Collier’s, Ladies Home Journal, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Playboy, where his topics of choice included wife-swapping, promiscuity, suicide, and adultery. Several of these stories were published as part of Dahl’s Switch Bitch anthology.

8. Quentin Tarantino adapted a Roald Dahl short story for the big screen.

One of Dahl’s best-known adult short stories, “Man from the South” (a.k.a. “The Smoker”), was adapted to celluloid three times, twice as part of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (once in 1960 with Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre, and again in 1985) and a third time as the final segment in 1995’s film anthology Four Rooms, which Quentin Tarantino directed.

9. Roald Dahl's own attempts at screenwriting were not as successful.

One would think that, with his intriguing background and talent for words, Dahl’s transition from novelist to screenwriter would be an easy one ... but you would be wrong. Dahl was hired to adapt two of Ian Fleming’s novels, the James Bond novel You Only Live Once and the kid-friendly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; both scripts were completely rewritten. Dahl was also hired to adapt Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the big screen, but was replaced by David Seltzer when he couldn’t make his deadlines. Dahl was not shy about his criticisms of the finished product, noting his “disappointment” that the film (and its changed title) shifted the story’s emphasis from Charlie to Willy Wonka.

10. Roald Dahl made an important contribution to the field of neurosurgery.

In 1960, Dahl’s four-month-old son Theo’s carriage was struck by a cab driver in New York City, leaving the child suffering from hydrocephalus, a condition that increases fluid in the brain. Dahl became very actively involved in his son’s recovery, and contacted toymaker Stanley Wade for help. Together with Theo’s neurosurgeon, Kenneth Till, the trio developed a shunt that helped to alleviate the condition. It became known as the Wade-Dahl-Till valve.

11. Even in death, Roald Dahl's sense of humor was evident.

Roald Dahl passed away from a blood disease on November 23, 1990 at the age of 74. Per his request, he was buried with all of his favorite things: snooker cues, a bottle of Burgundy, chocolate, HB pencils, and a power saw.

How Beatrix Potter Pioneered the Art of Merchandising

Carl Court, Getty Images
Carl Court, Getty Images

When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released by Walt Disney in 1937, it was accompanied by a cascade of licensed merchandise. Tea sets, a wind-up Dopey toy, a sand pail, and a board game were among the items on offer. Both the movie and its ancillary products were a tremendous success, though it would be decades before movie studios made a habit of licensing their characters for consumer goods. It wasn't until Fox’s 1977 release of Star Wars that entertainment properties were considered to be highly marketable on store shelves. Today, creative property owners can make as much, if not more, on tie-in products as they do on the movies, television shows, or books that inspired them.

To trace the source of that strategy, you have to go back further than Star Wars and decades prior to Snow White. According to Smithsonian, it was Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter who emerged as the unlikely pioneer of character licensing. She was virtually a one-woman operation, designing prototype products and vetting the quality of licensed goods some 30 years before Dopey ever took his first spring-assisted step.

Author Beatrix Potter is pictured circa the 1890s
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Born Helen Beatrix Potter on July 28, 1866, the author spent her formative years under the care of a governess and largely left to her own imagination on the third floor of her wealthy family’s home in London’s posh Bolton Gardens area. Potter rarely ventured outdoors until a family vacation took them to a summer getaway, where she soaked up animals, insects, and plant life, even taking several animals home with her for a domestic menagerie. The collection included two rabbits, which she named Peter and Benjamin Bouncer. That fascination with furry things eventually led her to detail the adventures of Peter Rabbit in a letter to her former governess’s son, Noel, in 1893. Noel and his siblings were delighted by Peter, who was presented as a mischievous young rabbit living in a sandbank.

Later, Potter decided to produce a book of Peter Rabbit’s adventures, using the letter as source material and filling it out with illustrations. Though she initially had trouble finding a publisher and had to print off 450 copies to sell at her own expense, The Tale of Peter Rabbit was eventually published by Frederick Warne and Company in 1902 to great acclaim, moving 28,000 copies that first year. Potter would go on to write 22 more books, including 1903’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and 1913’s The Tale of Pigling Bland. Her cast of characters grew to include Jemima Puddle-Duck, Samuel Whiskers, and Tom Kitten.

From the beginning, Potter was fascinated with the idea of taking her creations from the pages of her palm-sized books and into other mediums. She wasn't the first (author John Newberry packaged his books with toys in 1744), but Potter would be the most organized. Inspired by London department store Harrods' marketing products based on an advertising character named Sunny Jim, Potter decided to begin sewing a stuffed Peter Rabbit doll herself, hoping to get the character’s proportions and look right before finding a production partner. Patenting the doll in December 1903—a highly unusual and savvy move—Potter wrote to one of her publishers, Norman Warne, with a progress report:

“I am cutting out calico patterns of Peter, I have not got it right yet, but the expression is going to be lovely … I think I could make him stand on his legs if he had some lead bullets in his feet!”

A Peter Rabbit doll and patent application from 1903 is pictured
Beatrix Potter's 1903 patent application for a Peter Rabbit doll.

The doll was eventually produced sans ammunition and became a hit. For years, Potter became preoccupied with merchandising, designing a board game, painting figurines, and carefully overseeing licensed Potter paraphernalia from tea sets to puzzles to bookcases made especially for her books. With each licensee, Potter was careful to make sure the contractual language was to her benefit. Though she liked the Warnes, they had erred in failing to copyright The Tale of Peter Rabbit in America, leading to knock-offs. Writing of an agreement to produce a china set with her characters, Potter told Harold Warne:

“I have been thinking about that china agreement, it is rather an awkwardly worded document. I think the words ‘all earthenware’ would prevent me from offering the statuettes to other firms …But if you decide to let them go on making tea-sets—with a promise of improvement—I should think the agreement had better be written out again? In a less wholesale style? The agreement with Hughes seems a much better model.”

Although the Warnes worked with Potter on licensing, it was Potter who often took the lead. Between 1907 and 1917, she was heavily involved in products ranging from slippers to stationery. When World War I broke out and production slowed, Potter took the opportunity to break off from companies she had become dissatisfied with. Among the casualties: Hughes, which made soft rabbit toys, and Levien, which made the tea set that seemed to disappoint her.

When she agreed to let manufacturer J.K. Farnell make a Jemima Puddle-Duck doll in 1910, she personally visited their factory to collect her royalty payments. When another company planned on making fabric characters in 1923, Potter declared them awful and forced them to revise their plans until they were to her satisfaction. The fabric items came out three years later, in 1926.

If someone had a better idea, Potter was willing to listen. After designing the board game in 1904, she set it off to the side. In 1917, Fruing Warne’s wife, Mary, suggested some tweaks that made it more kid-friendly. Potter tested both on her nieces and determined Mary’s version was better. Peter Rabbit’s Race Game was released in 1919. Potter funneled the profits directly to Mary.

A Peter Rabbit dinnerware set is pictured
A Peter Rabbit dinnerware set.

Potter did involve Norman Warne in another capacity. She became engaged to him in 1905, though he tragically died of pernicious anemia just weeks following the announcement. Potter eventually married in 1913, at age 47, to William Heelis, a real estate solicitor who had helped her locate to a residence in Cumbria. When Heelis also died early, Potter was without a spouse and without heirs. Upon her death on December 22, 1943, her will left her characters and the rights to their merchandising fortunes to the Warnes, who continued to market them through the 20th century and beyond. By 1981, Beatrix Potter ephemera was taking in $5 million annually, including Peter Rabbit-adorned wallpaper and serving trays.

Today, Peter Rabbit merchandise is marketed through Penguin Random House, a cotton-tailed empire with an estimated value of $500 million. The images and characters remain popular in a climate where licensed characters are commonplace and revenue for official merchandising of all kinds of products from Marvel heroes to Disney icons is a $270 billion annual business. That can be traced back to Potter, who spent several hours stitching her own Peter Rabbit in the knowledge that readers would one day want to fill their shelves with more than just books.