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.

8 Gonzo Facts About Hunter S. Thompson

Hunter S. Thompson in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson (2008)
Hunter S. Thompson in Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson (2008)
Magnolia Pictures

Like any real-life legend, there are many myths surrounding the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson. But in Thompson’s case, most of those stories—particularly the more outlandish ones—are absolutely true. The founder of the “Gonzo journalism” movement is one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. Here are some things you might not have known about the eccentric writer, who was born on July 18, 1937.

1. Hunter S. Thompson was named after a famous Scottish surgeon.

Hunter S. Thompson was reportedly named after one of his mother’s ancestors, a Scottish surgeon named Nigel John Hunter. But Hunter wasn't just your run-of-the-mill surgeon. In a 2004 interview with the Independent, Thompson brought along a copy of The Reluctant Surgeon, a Biography of Nigel John Hunter, a biography of his namesake, which read: "A gruff Scotsman, Hunter has been described as the most important naturalist between Aristotle and Darwin, the Shakespeare of medicine and the greatest man the British ever produced. He was the first to trace the lymphatic system. He performed the first human artificial insemination. He was the greatest collector of anatomical specimens in history. He prescribed the orthopaedic shoe that allowed Lord Byron to walk."

When pressed about what that description had to do with him, Thompson responded: "Well, I guess that might be the secret of my survival. Good genes."

2. Hunter S. Thompson missed his high school graduation ... because he was in jail.

Just a few weeks before he was set to graduate from high school, at the age of 17, Thompson was charged as an accessory to robbery and sentenced to 60 days in jail.

“One night Ralston Steenrod, who was in the Athenaeum with Hunter, was driving, and Hunter and another guy he knew were in the car,” Thompson’s childhood friend Neville Blakemore recalled of the incident. “As they were driv­ing through Cherokee Park, the other guy said, ‘Stop. I want to bum a ciga­rette from that car.’ People used to go park and neck at this spot. And the guy got out and apparently went back and mugged them. The guy who was mugged got their license number and traced the car, and within a very short time they were all three arrested.

“Just before this Hunter had been blamed for a nighttime gas-station rob­bery,” Blakemore added, “and before that he and some friends got arrested for buying booze under­age at Abe's Liquor Store on Frankfort Avenue by the tracks. So Hunter had a record, and he was already on probation. He was given an ultimatum: jail or the military. And Hunter took the Air Force. He didn't graduate with his class.”

3. Hunter S. Thompson's fellow journalist coined the term gonzo.


Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

While covering the 1968 New Hampshire primary, Thompson met fellow writer and editor Bill Carodoso, editor of The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, which is where Thompson first heard him use the word “Gonzo.” “It meant sort of ‘crazy’ or ‘off-the-wall,’” Thompson said in Anita Thompson’s Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson. Two years later, in June 1970, Thompson wrote an article for Scanlan’s Monthly entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” which became a game-changing moment in journalism because of its offbeat, slightly manic style that was written with first-person subjectivity.

Among the many fellow journalists who praised Thompson for the piece was Cardoso, who sent a letter to Thompson that “said something like, ‘Forget all the sh*t you’ve been writing, this is it; this is pure Gonzo.’ Gonzo. Yeah, of course. That’s what I was doing all the time. Of course, I might be crazy.” Thompson ran with the word, and would use it himself for the first time a year later, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

4. Hunter S. Thompson typed out famous novels to learn the art of writing.

In order to get the “feel” of being a writer, Thompson used to retype his favorite novels in full. “[H]is true model and hero was F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker. “He used to type out pages from The Great Gatsby, just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way, and Fitzgerald’s novel was continually on his mind while he was working on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was published, after a prolonged and agonizing compositional nightmare, in 1972.”

"If you type out somebody's work, you learn a lot about it,” Thompson said in 1997. “Amazingly it's like music. And from typing out parts of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald—these were writers that were very big in my life and the lives of the people around me—so yeah, I wanted to learn from the best I guess."

5. Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff in Colorado.

In 1970, Thompson ran for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado on what he called the Freak Power ticket. Among his political tactics: shaving his head so that he could refer to his opponent as his “long-haired opponent,” promising to eat mescaline while on duty, and campaigning to rename Aspen “Fat City” to deter "greed heads, land-rapers, and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name 'Aspen.'" Unfortunately, he lost.

6. Hunter S. Thompson stole a memento from Ernest Hemingway.

In 1964, three years after Ernest Hemingway committed suicide at his cabin in Ketchum, Idaho, Thompson traveled to the late author’s home in order to write “What Lured Hemingway to Ketchum?” While there, according to his widow, Hunter “got caught up in the moment” and took “a big pair of elk horns over the front door.” In 2016, more than a decade after Thompson’s death, Anita returned the antlers to the Hemingway family—which is something she and Hunter had always planned to do. “They were warm and kind of tickled … they were so open and grateful, there was no weirdness,” Anita said.

7. Hunter S. Thompson once used the inside of musician John Oates's colorado cabin as his personal parking space.


Magnolia Pictures

Earlier this month, musician John Oates—the latter half of Hall & Oates—shared a story about his ranch in Woody Creek, Colorado, just outside of Aspen, which is currently on the market for $6 million. In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Oates recalled how when he first purchased the cabin, there was a red convertible parked inside. “I happened to ask the real estate agent who owned the convertible, and he said ‘your neighbor Hunter Thompson,’” Oates said. “Why is he keeping his car in a piece of property he doesn’t own? The real estate agent looked at me and said ‘It’s Woody Creek, you’ll figure this out. It’s a different kind of place.’” After sending several letters to his neighbor to retrieve his vehicle, Oates took matters into his own hands and deposited the car on Thompson’s lawn. Oates said that the two became friends, but never mentioned the incident.

8. Hunter S. Thompson's ashes were shot out of a cannon at his funeral.

On February 20, 2005—at the age of 67—Thompson committed suicide. But Thompson wasn’t about to leave this world quietly. In August of that year, in accordance with his wishes, Thompson's ashes were shot into the air from a cannon while fireworks filled the sky.

“He loved explosions," his widow, Anita, told ESPN, which wrote that, “The private celebration included actors Bill Murray and Johnny Depp, rock bands, blowup dolls and plenty of liquor to honor Thompson, who killed himself six months ago at the age of 67.”

J.K. Rowling Reveals How San Francisco Inspired Major Harry Potter Location

Jamie McCarthy, Getty Images
Jamie McCarthy, Getty Images

The award-winning play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is about to open at the Curran Theater in San Francisco. The two-part drama takes place 19 years after the events in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and depicts Harry’s life as his son, Albus, is about to begin school at Hogwarts.

J.K. Rowling has pointed out that San Francisco had a deep influence on the original Harry Potter novels, SFGate reports. In the video below, Rowling talks about how Alcatraz, the infamous former prison, inspired her creation of Azkaban.

"[San Francisco] is a very distinctive, special place—I love the feel of it, I love the architecture,” Rowling said. “I've actually said this before, but Azkaban is a combination of Alcatraz and Abbadon, which is an old word for hell. I squeezed those words together. The idea of the rock in the middle of the ocean was directly inspired by a visit to Alcatraz."

With its mist and Gothic mood, it’s no wonder this slice of San Francisco inspired a big part of the Harry Potter world.

[h/t SFGate]

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