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The Golden Compass

The Subtle Knife


Read an Excerpt

Reader’s Guide

Teacher’s Guide

Cast of Characters


The Liber Angelorum


The Amber Spyglass

Lyra’s Oxford

The Science of
Philip Pullman’s
His Dark Materials

The Subtle Knife: Teacher’s Guide

Teachers can use this guide to discuss the His Dark Materials trilogy with their students. Here are several themes, topics, and other connections appropriate for class work and discussion. For use with grades 7-12.

About these Books

Philip Pullman's intriguing and haunting trilogy sends fantasy lovers on an incredible journey through other worlds where they meet mysterious creatures and a brave and extraordinary 12-year-old girl, Lyra Belacqua, who has the power to seek truth.

The Golden Compass, young Lyra Belacqua journeys to the far North to save her best friend and other kidnapped children from terrible experiments by evil scientists.

The Subtle Knife takes Lyra to Cittàgazze, where she meets Will Parry, a fugitive boy from our own universe who becomes her ally and friend. On their journey from world to world, Lyra and Will's lives become forever intertwined as they uncover a deadly secret.

And finally, in The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Will, with the help of two tiny Gallivespian spies and Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear, set out to a world where no other living soul has ever gone, to make their most haunting discovery yet.

In the Classroom

The Amber Spyglass is the crowning conclusion to the intrigue begun in The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife. Each of the novels in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy offers an exciting adventure that takes readers, young and old, on a journey through different dimensions to unknown worlds. The electrifying plots and unusual and mysterious characters make these novels excellent choices for reading aloud.

Themes of good vs. evil, betrayal, courage, fear, trust, and love raise important questions, offering students a wonderful opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue. This guide offers questions for discussion and includes activities that connect the language arts, social studies, science, music, and art curriculum.

Pre-Reading Activity

Religion plays an important part in many works of fantasy, which often include themes of good versus evil and characters searching to understand the basic foundations of their faiths. Ask students to use the Bible, a storybook, or an encyclopedia to read about the Garden of Eden and the fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3). Have students discuss original sin, why God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and how Adam and Eve's lives changed once they gained knowledge.

Thematic Connections

Betrayal - Ask the class to look up the various meanings of the word betrayal. How does Lyra betray Roger in The Golden Compass? Discuss whether she was aware that she was betraying him. How does she try to rectify this betrayal? What is Lyra's great betrayal in The Amber Spyglass? How do Lyra's mother and father betray her--and then protect her? Discuss how Lyra deals with these betrayals.

In The Subtle Knife, Will's mother is in a serious emotional state. He takes her to stay with his piano teacher while he sets out to recover important papers that belong to his father. Discuss whether Will is betraying his mother or helping her in her time of need.

What other characters in His Dark Materials trilogy are guilty of betrayal? Ask the class to draw a parallel between the betrayal in Pullman's novels to that found in the story of Adam and Eve. How is the betrayal in the novels important to the basic conflict in the stories? Ask students to discuss whether reading His Dark Materials has altered their understanding of the act of betrayal.

Good vs. Evil - The trilogy challenges our assumptions about good and evil: some witches are good, while some members of the church are evil. What are other examples of unexpected forms of good and evil in the trilogy? At the end of The Amber Spyglass, what do Will and Lyra learn about good and evil, about actions versus labels? How will this affect the way they will live the rest of their lives?

What does Lyra mean when she tells Will in The Subtle Knife that his dæmon is "inside"? Discuss whether people in Will's world--our world--have dæmons at all. What animal form do you think Lyra's dæmon will take when she becomes an adult? Explain.

In The Subtle Knife, the soldiers in the land of Bolvangar are cutting childrens' dæmons away. Why does Dr. Lanselius consider this evil work? How does Lord Asriel's mission reflect evil?

Courage - Have students trace Lyra's courage as she travels from one dimension to another. At what point does she almost lose her courage? How does Will show courage in The Subtle Knife? Discuss how Lyra and Will help one another sustain their courage throughout their quests in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Engage the class in a discussion about whether having possession of the alethiometer and the subtle knife either gives Lyra and Will courage or threatens it. How does it take courage to leave one another and return to their own worlds at the end of the trilogy?

Fear - At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra is afraid of her father, yet admires him. Why does he evoke fear in her? How can she be afraid and admire him at the same time? How is fear the basis of Will's mother's illness? Discuss how fear is related to courage. Engage the class in a discussion about how Lyra and Will's fears contribute to their courage as they face the evil forces.

Trust- In The Subtle Knife, Will accidentally kills an intruder who wants his father's personal documents and then labels himself a murderer. Why does this enable Lyra to trust him? Which characters do Serafina Pekkala and Lee Scoresby decide to trust? Is their trust warranted? Who are the characters that Lyra once trusted, but in the end finds that she cannot? In what other way does trust play an important role in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy?

Love - In The Amber Spyglass, Will says to Serafina, "Thank you, Serafina Pekkala, for rescuing us at the belvedere and for everything else. Please be kind to Lyra for as long as she lives. I love her more than anyone has ever been loved." (p. 509) Trace the development of Will and Lyra's love for one another from the time they first meet in The Subtle Knife until they part in The Amber Spyglass. How does their love affect the fate of the living--and the dead? How does Lyra's adventure help her to discover a new meaning of love?

In The Subtle Knife, Will "loved her [his mother] so much he would have died to protect her." (p. 9) How is his search for his father related to his love for his mother? Why can't the subtle knife cut Will's love for his mother?

Interdisciplinary Connections

Language Arts - The Golden Compass has been described as a heroic novel. Ask students to identify the qualities of a hero. Who are the heroes in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy? Have students select a hero from one of the novels and write a poem about that hero. Encourage students to share their poems in class.

It is quite common for writers of fantasy to create their own vocabularies. Vocabulary, including the names of characters, is often symbolic of the underlying themes and messages of the story. Make a glossary for Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy that represents the unique vocabulary he created.

Philip Pullman is very successful at creating terror in all three novels of his trilogy. Ask students to review the novels and select a scene or episode that is especially terrifying to them. Then ask them to rewrite the passage as a horror story. Their stories should have a beginning, middle, and an end. Some students may wish to illustrate their stories.

Social Studies - At the end of The Amber Spyglass, Will and Mary return to their world and Will accompanies Mary to her flat. Mary explains to Serafina that she can't just give Will a permanent home because in her world you must follow rules and regulations regarding keeping children. Find out today's rules regarding foster care. What is the purpose of foster care? Discuss whether Will would qualify for foster care. Would Mary qualify as a foster mother?

Art - Masks have been used through the ages to represent animals, monsters, supernatural spirits, dream creatures, etc. Ask students to think about which animal would most likely be their dæmon and create a mask to represent that animal. Allow students time to share their masks and to explain why they chose that particular animal as their dæmon.

Health - Mary says that Will's mother sounds like a "classic manic-depressive." Ask students to research the symptoms and characteristics of manic-depression or bipolar disorder. How is it different from other types of depression? From anxiety? Research the treatments for various types of depression. What type of treatment is Will's mother likely to need?

Science - In Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra has the alethiometer, Will has the knife, and Dr. Malone has the spyglass to aid them in their quests. Though these items are fictitious, scientists have always used tools and instruments to conduct investigations. Have students research the type of instruments used through the ages and construct a time line that reveals their development. What instruments do scientists use today?

Music - Music plays an important role in modern fantasy and science fiction films. Play music from films such as Star Wars and ask students to analyze the music as it applies to plot development. How is music an important link in communicating story? Divide students into three groups and assign each a novel in the trilogy. Instruct them to locate music that would be appropriate for a film of their assigned novel. Allow time to share the selections.

Vocabulary/Use of Language

There maybe unfamiliar words throughout Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Ask students to jot down words that are new to them and try to define the words taking clues from the context of the novels. Such words may include:

In The Golden Compass: languid (p. 13), renegade (p.30), malodorous (p. 44), inveigled (p. 46), sanctimonious (p. 60), desultorily (p. 63), soporific (p. 111), and stanchion (p. 274).

In The Subtle Knife: despotic (p. 43), malevolent (p. 44), putrefaction (p. 79), parapet (p. 175), and academicians (p. 281).

In The Amber Spyglass: lee (p. 8), perpetual (p. 16), vortex (p. 18), decoction (p. 20), propitiate (p. 23), serpentine (p. 29), impregnable (p. 42), hexagram (p. 65), adamant (p. 120), ruthless (p. 128), and fiercest (p. 387).

Teaching ideas prepared by Pat Scales, Director of Library Services, the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, Greenville, South Carolina.

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Reviews and Awards

Reviews for The Golden Compass

* "This first fantastic installment propels readers along with horror and high adventure...a shattering tale that begins with a promise and delivers an entire universe." --Starred, Kirkus Reviews

* "A totally involving, intricately plotted fantasy that will leave readers clamoring for the sequels." --Starred, Booklist

* "As always, Pullman is a master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension." --Starred, Publishers Weekly

Awards for The Golden Compass

An ALA Notable Book
An ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
A Booklist Editors' Choice-"Top of the List"

Reviews for The Subtle Knife

* "Presented in a rush of sensuous detail that moves and entrances...gorgeous imagery, pulse-pounding action, and the baiting of readers' affections." --Starred, Kirkus Reviews

* "Stunningly ambitious, original, and fascinating...Pullman offered an exceptional romantic fantasy in The Golden Compass, but The Subtle Knife is adding a mythic dimension that inevitably demands even greater things from the finale." --Starred, The Horn Book

* "The character development as well as the relentless pace...make this a resounding successful sequel." --Starred, Booklist

Awards for The Subtle Knife

An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
A Booklist Editors' Choice
A Book Links Best Book
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
A Horn Book Fanfare Honor Book

Review for The Amber Spyglass

* "The longed-for third volume in this trilogy satisfies deeply: full of grand set pieces, resplendent language, and glorious storytelling...Across this brilliant and vivid canvas, the largest of themes play out: life and death, goodness and evil, self and other, the redemptive power of love. Readers will be chastened -- and warmed -- and sorry to see the last page." -- Starred, Kirkus Reviews

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