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19 December 2019

Far-away, forbidding, dangerous, and yet strangely alluring

and beautiful: The Arctic has for centuries inspired southern

imaginations. From medieval tales of monsters and magic, to

Poe’s gothic horror, the idea of North is and has been a rich

source for storytellers across time. And this autumn, the North

has once again been welcomed into popular imagination

through the new BBC/HBO TV series, His Dark Materials.

The series is based on the first book in the trilogy by the

same name by Philip Pullman, first published in 1995.

Throughout the series, viewers follow young Lyra Belacqua

on her treacherous journey in a parallel world to our own: from her home in scholarly Oxford to the North. 

From the very start, it is clear that Lyra is drawn to this threateningly intriguing North: a space where adventuring researchers go, in this case, to study the mystical Northern Lights for the secrets they may hold. 

Without giving away the plot, episode two is aptly titled “The Idea of North”, and from The Arctic Institute in London, viewers go northwards with Lyra. The North we encounter is indeed that: an idea. In this parallel world, the North is presented as an amalgamation of our own Arctic – some of which are clearly inspired by Norway, Finland, and Iceland – but also different in important ways.

For example, some of the key locations include Svalbard, Trollesund, and Bolvangar – the first of which is of course also real, whereas the latter only sounds uncannily so. Characters hold names such as Iorek Byrnison (an armoured (polar) bear) and Serafina Pekkala (a witch from Lake Enara) – not to mention Lee Scoresby and Will Parry, whose names echo the very real explorers, William Scoresby and William E. Parry. 

The cast and crew of 'His Dark Materials' at the 2019 Comic Con, from left to right: Jane Tranter (Executive Producer), Jack Thorne (Script), Dafne Keen (Lyra Belacqua), Ruth Wilson (Marisa Coulter), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Lee Scoresby), and James McAvoy (Lord Asriel) © Gage Skidmore

The Idea of North and

His Dark Materials

Trailer: His Dark Materials © HBO

There is no doubt that the books’ author Philip Pullman has drawn inspiration from a wide range of sources; at least the naming of Scoresby is something he has said was deliberate. However, Pullman has not travelled in the Arctic, but is instead based in Oxford. And so, what we are presented is precisely no more and no less than a beautiful idea and a rich imagination.

When I personally read the books as a child, I was living in the North; and when I now watch the TV series, I do so from the other end of the story, Oxford. Whereas the Oxford of this parallel universe is recognisable, the North is less so. With all the liberties that comes with an invented universe, all the imagination from a career in writing, and all the inspiration from a lifetime of reading, Pullman’s North as it presented in the TV series is a magical one. 

This fictional North is not just entertaining though – it tells us about Arctic imaginations as seen from the south. It tells us how fragments from history, stories, myths, and art can distil into an idea. And this is an idea that I would argue matters – perhaps particularly so for those of us seeking to understand Arctic political and social relations.

Of course, as audiences and readers, we (usually) know that what we are presented with is fictional, and much of the enjoyment lies precisely in the escape to another world. Yet, in us too such fragments of experiences and of feelings remain, later to resonate with other stories of the North. Whereas no one is likely to think they will find panserbjørne(r) and witches there (at least not in our world!), we might still retain that vague feeling that the North holds answers to mysteries, adventures, and potential threats. Clearly, these resonate with the kinds of media narratives we often hear about the Arctic too: hopes and promises contrasted with threats and fears.

On the one hand, how the Arctic is represented on screen, in books, art, and indeed in academic research matters for how we engage with it, potentially shaping outlooks and dispositions. But on the other, those same representations are equally an outcome of shared outlooks and dispositions. 

Either way, as we follow young Lyra and her friends to the series’ finale in the furthest North – towards the Northern Lights and the answers they might hold – try to appreciate the idea of the North and the power it holds. And if you happen to be an Arctic social scientist like me, watch and enjoy the TV series knowing you’ve just done some useful research.

Ingrid Medby is a Political Geographer at Oxford Brookes University in the UK. Before this, she taught at UCL and completed her PhD at Durham University in 2017. She is originally from Northern Norway, and became interested in questions of political representation while working as a trainee for the North Norway European Office in Brussels. You can find out more on her staff profile.


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