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November, 2005 : Essay:

His Norse Materials

The Norse Mythos in Philip Pullman's Epic for Young Adults

The Golden Compass points north. From the beginning of his trilogy His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman evokes the spirit of the northland by mining the deep mother-lode of Norse, the tongue of the vikings, the Eddaic myths and the sagas. The prevalence of Nordic words and names in this work has made many readers curious about their origins. Some of these names, Pullman has explained 1, come from common Norse roots, others from real people and places in our own world, though he has usually given these a subtle twist. Yet digging deeper into the sources of some of these names reveals unexpected significance – more than we might have expected to find in what the author has called a straightforward story for children 2.

As the trilogy begins, Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, describes his adventures on an Arctic expedition beyond Trollesund 3 in Lapland, out onto the ice of Svalbard. These are certainly evocative names. Svalbard, which fittingly means "the cold coast," or the cold edge of the earth, is in our world the northernmost district of Norway, a region of glacier-covered islands in the Arctic Ocean, inhabited mainly by polar bears. In Pullman’s world, Svalbard is the kingdom of the panserbjörne, the armored bears.

Iorek Byrnison, rightful king of the bears, is one of the most important characters in the trilogy, and his name is particularly loaded with significance. A byrnie is an iron mail-shirt, a type of armor 4. When Iorek says, "I am an armored bear," (The Golden Compass, p 159) he is not merely describing the way he dresses, he is defining his very being, his soul.

Iorek is not only an armored bear, he is a master smith. In many ancient cultures, including the Norse, the smith was a figure regarded as practicing a divine or magical craft. When his original armor is lost, Iorek has the skill to forge another set out of sky-iron: meteoric iron fallen from heaven, believed in many cultures to possess a special power. Thus, in making his armor, Iorek forges his own soul, for a panserbjörn's soul resides in his armor 5, just as the human characters in Pullman's world have their dæmons as the incorporation of their souls.

The figure of an armored bear is a striking one, and Pullman’s is not one of those fantasy worlds, such as Narnia, in which talking animals (as opposed to dæmons) are commonplace. This suggests that there must be some particular significance to the panserbjörne, and in Norse history and legend there is certainly another figure evoked by the notion of an armored bear: the berserker. The Norse word berserkr means "bear-shirt." A berserker was a shape-changer, a were-bear. He took on the animal's power by wearing a magical bearskin: the bear-shirt, or bear-sark. This type of transformative magic was common in Norse myth. If the berserker is a warrior wearing a bear-shirt, the panserbjörne are bears who wear armor: bears in armor-shirts such as human warriors wear, man-shirted bears.

The particular god of the berserkers was Odin, who was also known in the myths as a shape-changer; one of his many names was Björn, or Bear. When in battle, the berserkers were possessed by a mad frenzy, which was called Odin's gift. In this condition, they were invulnerable, even though they fought without armor, for they were armored in their madness. Like the berserkers, the panserbjörne are fierce warriors who are considered invincible. Yet, as Lyra discovers in the course of her adventures in the north, the armored bears are actually sane and rational creatures with a strong respect for their own law. Iorek Byrnison, once he has sobered up, is more trustworthy than most of the humans Lyra encounters. He appears to be an anti-berserker, who stands against the lawlessness the berserker represents. As such, he might also be regarded as opposing Odin, the berserkers' god.

Here we find ourselves at the heart of the trilogy: the revolt against God, or the Authority, as he is known in Pullman’s world. If Pullman is indeed identifying the Authority with the Norse god Odin, then Iorek Byrnison is certainly at the center of the conflict, for as a smith, he re-forges the Subtle Knife, Æsahættr. This is another name of great power that Pullman has created from Norse roots – the name which is the most charged with meaning in the entire trilogy. The witch Serafina Pekkala says it might mean "god destroyer." (The Subtle Knife, p 243) But the name Æsahættr specifically means destroyer of the Æsir. Æsir was the Norse name of the ruling gods, whose Allfather was none other than Odin. Thus the true name of the Subtle Knife would be Odin-killer.

In Norse myth, Odin was a cruel and bloodthirsty god, a god of war, a god of treachery and murder, a god of death. He was the god of the berserkers and the source of their madness. His worship involved human sacrifice. The torture called the "blood eagle," which the vikings inflicted on their enemies, was done to honor Odin. He had many alternate names which revealed his aspect as a god of evil, in particular Bolverkr, which means worker of evil. It is also particularly notable that Odin and all the Æsir were doomed to be overthrown in a great battle called Ragnarok, just as Lord Asriel’s rebellion overthrows the Authority at the conclusion of His Dark Materials.

Æsahættr, also known as the Subtle Knife, broken by Will Parry and re-forged by Iorek Byrnison, inevitably reminds us of other famous broken swords. Most of Pullman's readers will be familiar with Tolkien's epic trilogy and recall "the Sword that is broken": Narsil, the sword of Elendil, shattered in battle against the Dark Lord and re-forged by the elves for Aragorn. Tolkien’s model in Norse myth for the broken sword was likely the sword Gram, and in Gram we find the hand of Odin at work. The name Gram means anger or grief, and it was a gift from Odin to the line of the Volsungs. Like most of Odin's gifts, it came with a curse. While it conferred victory on its bearers, Gram inevitably brought them sorrow and grief. It was also a sword which chose its own bearer. The saga of the Volsungs tells how Odin thrust the blade of Gram through the trunk of an oak tree, so that only Sigmund was able to pull it free. Gram served Sigmund well throughout his long lifetime, bringing him many victories, but they came at a high cost: the death of almost all his kin. Finally, in the end, Odin betrayed him while Sigmund was facing his enemies on the battlefield. The blade was shattered, and Sigmund was killed.

But the shards of the broken sword were passed on to his unborn son, Sigurd. Gram was re-forged for Sigurd by the treacherous dwarf Regin, for Regin plotted to have Sigurd kill his brother, the dragon Fafnir, in order to steal Fafnir’s gold. Sigurd inherited the gold, but it was accursed – more of Odin’s doing. Like his father and many other of Odin's favorite champions, Sigurd came to an unhappy end, betrayed in his love for the valkyrie Brunhild.

In this story of Gram, we can see many striking parallels with Æsahættr. Like Gram, the Subtle Knife chooses its own bearer – in this case, Will Parry. Also like Gram, the knife comes with a curse; it marks its bearers by maiming them, by cutting two fingers from their left hand. Giacomo Paradisi, a former bearer of the knife, tells Will that he knows he was meant to have the knife by seeing his missing fingers, for he, too, was once maimed in the same way when the knife chose him.

As a cursed blade, Æsahættr has other models in Norse legend. The most notorious of these cursed swords has to be Tyrfing, also known the Bane of Byrnies. It was forged for a king named Svafrlami, a descendent of Odin. Svafrlami enslaved the dwarves Dvalin and Durin and forced them to forge the sword, but the vengeful dwarves laid a curse on it, that while Tyrfing would bring victory to its bearer, it would also cause the death of all his kindred, and do vile deeds. The edges of the blade were poisoned, and every time it was drawn from its sheath, it must drink human lifeblood; no one would ever survive a wound from it. Tyrfing later came into the hands of a berserker named Angantyr, and the curse caused him to slay his own brothers in a battle in which he was finally killed. The twelve brothers were all buried together in a common grave, and Tyrfing was buried with them, in an attempt to keep the cursed sword from doing more harm on earth. But Angantyr's daughter, Hervor, came to the grave-mound and called him from the dead, demanding Tyrfing so she could take vengeance on his slayers. In the end, Hervor's son and all her kin were dead, and Odin has more heroes dwelling in his hall of the slain.

In Pullman’s story, when Will Parry asks Iorek Byrnison to re-forge the Subtle Knife, the bearsmith in his wisdom perceives the curse on the broken blade. He does not like the knife. He has never known anything so dangerous. "What you don't know is what the knife does on its own. Your intentions may be good. The knife has intentions, too." (The Amber Spyglass, p 161)

But it is not until the end of the trilogy that Will discovers exactly what the Subtle Knife's intentions are, the nature of the curse: that every time it cuts an opening between the worlds, it allows some of the Dust – the source of all that is good in the universe – to drift out into the abyss of nothingness and die. Even worse, every opening made by the knife releases one of the vile, soul-devouring creatures called Specters into the world.

It is the most appalling moment in the story for Will, as he is overcome by the horror of realizing what he has done, unknowing – and that Iorek Byrnison had been right about the knife from the beginning. Like Tyrfing, the Subtle Knife is accursed. It ought never to have been made. Will decides that he must break the blade permanently, so it can never again be used to bring more harm into any world. This decision is necessary and right, yet it causes more grief, as he and Lyra must each return forever to their own worlds, never to meet again, just when they have come to love each other. This ending suggests the doomed love between Sigurd and his Brunhild, the work of Odin’s curse.

There is yet another kind of accursed blade in Pullman’s trilogy, and it, too, is connected to Norse myth – and to Odin. This is the odious instrument that Pullman calls the silver guillotine, and its curse lies in the evil of its consequences. It has been invented by the Church for the purpose of severing humans from their dæmons – from their own souls – in a the process they call "intercision." To this end, they have abducted hundreds of children, who either die as a result of the procedure or linger on soulless, a state of existence in which death would be a mercy. The Church also uses the intercision process to create an army of zombie-like soldiers to enforce its dominion over anyone who might dare to be free.

Their condition closely resembles the victims of the Specters, the soul-vampires who come through the openings in the worlds made by the Subtle Knife. Just as the Specters devour human souls, the Church severs them. In Pullman's moral vision, all the evil of the Authority’s Church is exposed in this process. Lyra is revolted when she first sees a severed child. "A human being with no dæmon was like someone without a face; or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out 6." (TGC, p 188) If ever the characters might doubt their role in the rebellion against the Church and its Authority, they have only to recall how the Church has been creating the severed children. When Lyra is attempting to convince Iorek Byrnison to re-forge the broken knife, she reminds him, "Iorek, you know how wicked those Bolvanger people were." (TAS p 161)

Here, in the name Bolvanger, can be found yet another connection between the Church’s God and Odin. The witches give the name Bolvanger to the place where the silver guillotine is hidden, where the children are severed from their dæmons. Its meaning is "field of evil," and it strongly recalls Odin’s alternate name of Bolverkr. The strength of these connections suggests not only that Pullman is identifying the Authority with Odin, but that His Dark Materials may perhaps be a kind of allegory, with Lord Asriel’s overthrow of God identified with Ragnarok, the downfall of the Norse gods. If this is so, there ought to be other such connections in the text.

For readers familiar with Norse mythology, it is impossible to see the name Æsahættr without thinking of Ragnarok; and it is impossible to think of Ragnarok and Odin without recalling Loki, who was destined to lead the enemies of Odin in that final battle. Norse myth named Loki the adversary of the Æsir, the foe, the deceiver, the forger of evil. The Christian era identified Loki with the devil. In His Dark Materials, it is Lord Asriel who leads the rebellion against God. Is Pullman then identifying Asriel with Loki?

There is much to suggest this possibility. For one thing, the epigraph from Milton's Paradise Lost which opens the trilogy makes it clear that its guiding spirit is Lucifer, the rebel angel. Lucifer, like Loki, is called a devil by the Church. Lord Asriel claims to be making war on the Authority because he wants to avenge the fallen angels who were cast out of heaven along with Lucifer. Pullman would not be the only author to be suggesting that Loki was yet another such divine rebel, acting to overthrow a tyrant god 7.

Moreover, the name Asriel also suggests a fallen angel, as it is nearly identical with that of the angel Azrael, sometimes spelled Azriel, who was regarded in Jewish and Islamic tradition as an angel of evil – again, like Loki. And certainly the scope of what Asriel manages to achieve against the armies of God suggests that his abilities are more than merely human.

However, the identification of Lord Asriel as a Loki-figure does not stand up under closer examination. The angel Azrael was primarily known as an angel of death, and in Norse religion, this was the role of Odin, not Loki. Odin was a psychopomp, a god whose role is to lead the souls of the dead to the place where they will dwell in the afterlife – in this case, to Valhall, the hall of the slain. Odin's particular concern was with warriors who were killed in battle. He brought them to Valhall so they would be on hand to fight in the final battle of Ragnarok. He was assisted in this mission by a band of female followers, the valkyries, which means the choosers of the slain.

In contrast, as an angel of death, Azrael's function was to separate, to sever, the soul from the body at the moment of death. In His Dark Materials there is an object with this same function: to sever the soul, or specifically the dæmon, from the body. It is the silver guillotine, with the difference being that the guillotine is used upon the living, not the dead. Although the Church invents the guillotine, Lord Asriel contributes willingly to its development. Even worse, he creates his own, different way of severing a child from its dæmon.

Asriel uses this method to kill Lyra's friend Roger, in order to liberate enough power to bridge the way to another world across the Aurora Borealis. The phenomenon known as the Aurora is also called the Northern Lights, which was significantly Pullman's original title for the first volume of this trilogy. In Norse myth, the space between the human world and the world of the Æsir, where Valhall was located, was spanned by a shining, gleaming bridge named Bifrost, the shimmering way. Bifrost is most often called the rainbow bridge today, but there is good reason to think that it originally refered to the Aurora, which appears as a broad, shimmering ribbon of multi-colored lights in the northern sky. Also in Norse legend the lights of the Aurora were considered to be reflections from the gleaming shields and armor of Odin's valkyries, as they conveyed the slain warriors across Bifrost to Valhall.

Such evidence suggests that Lord Asriel might actually be an Odin-figre, rather than a version of Loki. Like Asriel, Odin was once the leader of a rebellion. Before he could take power, he first had to overthrow an older god. In the Norse creation myth, Ymir was the father of all the frost giants. Odin and his brothers, who seem to have been frost giants as well, killed Ymir, then used his remains to build their own world. Lord Asriel has a similar ambition: to create the Republic of Heaven in place of the Kingdom of God.

More likely, however, Asriel is not meant to be identified entirely with any specific figure in the Norse pantheon. Alas for the hope of allegory, his position in the trilogy is too ambiguous to fit him so neatly into any particular slot.

Furthermore, it is not even certain that Odin can be equated in all respects with the Authority, despite the many connections strewn throughout Pullman’s text. The Authority’s Church, as he describes it, is static, bureaucratic and hierarchical. Nothing can be done without permission from a higher Church authority. It forbids freedom of thought and dissent, and suppresses original ideas as heresy. Odin, on the other hand, was a chaotic god. He loved nothing better than fomenting war and strife, but he created no institutions; he established no authoritarian Church. The berserker who wanted to sacrifice to Odin did so without needing permission from any priests, bishops or inquisitors. Odin might sever heads, but not souls.

There is one other place in His Dark Materials where we might have expected to encounter Odin in his role as the god of death: in the Land of the Dead. But Pullman appears to have taken his version of the underworld from the classical mythos, not the Norse. When Lyra and Will travel to the Land of the Dead, it is Tartarus they find, not Hel, and there is no sinister, one-eyed old man in a gray hood to meet them.

Nevertheless, to readers familiar with the Norse myths, the spirit of Odin is like an evil shadow that darkens the worlds of Pullman's trilogy – never explicitly named, but always heard as an echo. Such echoes do not finally add up to any systematic allegory, however, and it does not appear in the end that we can unambiguously identify either Odin or Loki with any particular characters in His Dark Materials, however fascinating it might be to try to make such connections.

This sort of speculation is certainly entertaining, though, and we can find many other possible associations between the Norse gods and the characters in Pullman’s trilogy, some of which the author might even have intended. Lyra’s mother Mrs. Coulter, for example, certainly reminds us of Freya, goddess of sex and seduction. There almost seems to be no other possible explanation of her irresistible powers, except to suppose she is really a goddess in disguise, just as her husband Lord Asriel must be a hidden angel.

The witches flying through the sky on their cloud-pine branches would undoubtedly be the valkyries, riding to the battlefields. Like the valkyries, Pullman’s witches are armed warriors. Also like the valkyries, they take heroes to be their lovers. Just as some valkyries were the mothers of legendary Norse warriors, Ruta Skadi wishes she had a daughter of Lord Asriel's, for she would certainly grow up to be a hero.

Will Parry, with his missing fingers, could only be Tyr, the one-handed god of war. Less certainly, Lyra might be Hervor, the shield-maiden who coveted the sword Tyrfing. She is certainly a fighter, as Hervor was, and like Hervor, she makes a journey to speak to the dead. The figure of Stanislaus Grumman, the shaman, suggests Mimir, god of wisdom and knowledge. But the truth-machine that Pullman calls the alethiometer could also be identified with Mimir's severed head, which continued to prophesy the truth even after he was decapitated.

Other such equations are even more problematic. Iorek Byrnison might remind us of Volund the smith, who originally forged the accursed sword Gram, but the rest of Volund’s unsavory history 8 doesn't fit Iorek, a bear of strong moral principles. The panserbjörne in their arctic stronghold may evoke the frost giants, born from the ice. But at some point these comparisons become so tenuous that they clearly originate more in the imagination of the critic than the text of the author, and we can not really suppose that he intended them. We can only speculate.

Yet with so many names taken from Norse myth, Pullman’s work will inevitably evoke such associations and inspire such speculations in readers who are familiar with his sources. For words and names are said to have power, and in using the language of the gods, an author is invoking them, no matter what he might have intended.


    1.   e.g., Philip Pullman Webchat, [Back]

    2.   Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech, [Back]

    3.   In our own world, Trollesund is actually the estate of a noble Swedish family named Trolle; the Trolle coat of arms depicts their ancestor slaying a troll. Northern folklore is certainly full of trolls, but if there are any in Pullman's world, unfortunately none of his characters encounter them in the course of the story. [Back]

    4.   Although Iorek's armor is solid plate, not mail. [Back]

    5.   We meet no female panserbjörne in the course of the trilogy, and thus we do not know if the female bears are also armored warriors. [Back]

    6.   This description also strongly suggests the victims sacrificed to Odin by the method known as the blood eagle. [Back]

    7.   I might immodestly cite my own novel: Written in Venom, Wildside 2000. [Back]

    8.   For one thing, he made drinking cups from the skulls of his enemy's children. [Back]

Works Referenced

    Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass [TGC]. Yearling, 2001.

    Pullman, Philip. The Subtle Knife [TSK]. Yearling, 2001.

    Pullman, Philip. The Amber Spyglass [TAS]. Yearling, 2003

Copyright © 2005, Lois Tilton. All Rights Reserved.

About Lois Tilton

In the past, Lois Tilton's fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Sidewise Awards. She is now reviewing the fiction of others.


Nov 9, 22:37 by IROSF
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