If you're one of those people who's gone your whole life hearing about The Golden Compass or the His Dark Materials series, but have never tried reading them to figure out what all the fuss was about, you might be a little confused going into HBO's new fantasy show, His Dark Materials. The show comes from Philip Pullman's 1995 novel Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in the U.S. and some other countries), a fantasy set in a world in which everyone's soul, or something very much like it, manifests in the form of an animal that walks by her side, and a small group of people are fighting an all-powerful government for knowledge of a mysterious substance called Dust. With an 8-part first season debuting in fall, we've got you covered on all the questions you either already have or are going to have if you don't have time to read the books (which, let us just say, you should DEFINITELY do).
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When and where is it set?
His Dark Materials dumps us smack in the middle of contemporary Oxford, England… but it's a little different. People travel around in airships, and use something called "anbaric" energy in place of electricity. It's like our world, but different, as if the steampunk tendencies of the Victorian era had taken over modern science and created a kind of chimera of the two. It is set in the modern day -- in this case 2019, though it has the look and feel of something more classical.
What are daemons?
In the world of His Dark Materials -- specifically main character Lyra's world -- everyone has a daemon in the shape of an animal that is in some mysterious way connected to them. A daemon is a manifestation of a person's soul, basically, though it's a little more complicated than just that. You and your daemon can't get very far away from each other without feeling great pain, and, without getting into spoilers for those of you who haven't read the books, the connection between the two of you can't be severed unless by great force. There's also a huge taboo against touching another person's daemon: Only other daemons, under most circumstances, are allowed to do that.
What are "his dark materials?"
The title of the series comes from a passage from Milton's Paradise Lost: "The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave, / Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire, / But all these in their pregnant causes mixt / Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight, / Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain / His dark materials to create more Worlds." The "dark materials" of the series can be read to be the three items each book is based around -- a "golden compass" (a phrase also taken from Milton) also called an alethiometer, a "subtle knife," and an "amber spyglass," each of which is made with the aid of the mysterious power particle known as Dust.
What is Dust?
Dust, in our scientific terms, would be kind of like the Higgs boson, a particle that provides knowledge into the mechanisms of the universe. In the case of His Dark Materials, Dust is a much-theorized-about, but rarely seen, entity that can only be viewed in the most extreme circumstances: In the very first part of the book, we learn that Dust is visible in the rays of the aurora borealis. Dust is a powerful particle, seeming to connect a person to their daemon and, in other circumstances, hint at more universes than just one.
What is the Magisterium?
The Magisterium is the driving force behind much of the action in the series. It's a theocratic all-powerful government modeled, in many ways, after the Catholic Church, which has landed the books and Pullman himself on the bad side of a lot of religious organizations. Because the existence of Dust and the way it may be used could lead to the discovery of universes beyond their own -- universes where perhaps the Magisterium, which lays down the law on Earth according to the demands of the God-like Authority, may not even exist -- the Magisterium does everything in their power to suppress knowledge of Dust in its entirety while trying to harness its power for their own ends, including plotting murder and kidnapping children.
What's with the bears?
In this alternate world, there exists a monarchic society of talking polar bears that live in the snowier northern parts of the world, who forge their own armor and govern themselves separate from humans. It rules, and the first book spends a lot of time with the bears and their relationship to humanity. There's also witches.
Is it all just for kids?
The books are written as young adult fiction, but Pullman has said before that he didn't write them with any age group in mind. Grownups can find plenty within their pages to enjoy -- especially since the books deal with much headier topics than middle-grade literature usually tries to tackle. You know, stuff like how to fight back against an all-powerful theocracy, the nature of the human soul, the existence of free will, etc. Don't be fooled by the show's first few episodes, though, because it gets EVEN WEIRDER than this.