REVIEW | Philip Pullman, Territory and ‘An Idea of the North’

By Miriam Hamblin

‘If I write fantasy,’ he says, ‘it’s only because by using the mechanisms of fantasy I can say something a little bit more vividly.’

(Pullman, P. quoted in Rustin and Rustin, 2011)

‘The sea as ice confuses and complicates acts of territorial and sovereign control’

(Steinberg and Peters, 2015)

Thursday 19th October 2017: Mark it in the diary. It’s the release of the first of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, The Book of Dust, to be set in the fantasy world of his previous collection, His Dark Materials.


Pullman, P. An original sketch for ‘An idea of The North’ chapter (

Learning about the contemporary geopolitics of the poles took me back to The Northern Lights, which shaped my earliest view of the Arctic. Pullman promised a story immersed in ‘high politics, in secret explorations, in distant warfare’ (1995), all while rushing towards an Earth-like North. His polar spaces served to clarify themes of authority and of hidden currents of interest and power.

Pullman pushes his characters into wet and unstable environments and simultaneously tests their power narratives. As geopolitical theorists Steinberg and Peters note, ‘altitude, along with other geophysical factors – rivers, marshes, swamps and so on – are generative of… an alternative understanding of who holds power and how they project and reject it.’ (2015) Mudflats, rooftops, fens and rivers, oceans, ravines, and especially ice: Pullman’s characters traverse them all, highlighting the vulnerability of ‘territory making’ to “social and geophysical” flows (Steinberg and Peters, 2015). In The Northern Lightshis fascination with territory making is present at all scales. Power stakes are traced and troubled from patriarchal Oxford drawing rooms to Arctic laboratory prisons.


Expedition photograph: Dobbin Bay looking N.E Book © Science Museum Group Collection

Along this journey, Pullman pits both environment and characters against territory makers. As Steinberg and Peters explain “the nature of territory as a “political technology” means that this process will always be met with resistance…both social and geophysical.” (2015) Just as in our poles, there are many legalities at play in Pullman’s north. His bears and witch tribes have their own laws; different human legalities are present also. As his characters move through these regimes they play state actors off against each other. Legal spheres are permeable or unstable and states find themselves subjected to flows of intention and attention beyond their control.

Quite aside from legalities, the integrity of the land itself is affected by human attention. Like ours, this North is uniquely vulnerable. Here, his characters pass through multiple worlds along weakened links, wreaking environmental havoc (see Cantrell, 2014, for Pullman and environmental warnings). However, Pullman is circumspect in defining disaster: this too can be a politicised. Steinberg and Peters reflect, having seen a village designed to periodically flood, “temporal rhythms force us to rethink unquestioned understandings … (as well as the categories of “disaster” and “exceptionality”). Pullman’s characters seek control over exactly these categories. From the fall of man to the meaning of death, social agreements are bitter sites of contention.

westward ho

Expedition photograph: Westward Ho! Valley, Spring © Science Museum Group Collection

As Pullman recognised, the Arctic is a site for territorial wrangling and constructing exceptionality (Dittmer et al, 2011). In his writing, unstable physical volumes echo the instability of States. His reader questions the political mobilisation of ‘disaster’, the solid ice melts from underneath conflicting legalities, authority is overturned. Keep an eye out in The Book of Dust for territory making and unmaking!

Miriam followed her interest in site and atmosphere from the Theatre Department to Geography, where she is completing an MSc in Geopolitics and Security. @m_hamblin


Cantrell, S. K. 2014“Letting Specters In: Environmental Catastrophe and the Limits of Space in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 39(2), pp. 234-251.

Dittmer, Jason et al. 2011. “Have you heard the one about the disappearing ice? Recasting Arctic geopolitics”. Political Geography. 30. pp. 202-214.

Pullman, Philip. 1995. The Northern Lights. Penguin Random House: London.

Rustin, Margaret and Rustin, Michael. 2011. “Where is home? An essay on Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights” (Volume 1 of His Dark Materials). Journal of Child Psychotherapy. 29(1).  pp. 93-105.

Steinberg, P. and Peters, K. 2015. ‘Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking.” Environment and planning D : society and space., 33 (2). pp. 247-264.

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