Literature: His Dark Materials aka: The Golden Compass
“Without stories, we wouldn't be human beings at all.”
Fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman.Pre-teen Lyra Silvertongue (originally Belacqua, but she soon disowns this name due to the events of the first book) lives in an alternate, Gaslamp Fantasy world (Zeppelins!) in which people's souls live outside their bodies in the form of Dæmons, which take on animal forms according to the person's personality. She leaves her life as a wild child roaming Jordan College to go on a quest to save her best friend who has been kidnapped.Lyra encounters a boy from our world named Will Parry, and the two of them find themselves involved in a war involving all worlds that will change the very fate of The Multiverse and all who live in it...This has proven to be a fairly polarizing series. For some, the author seems to be constantly railing against religion, and in the third book that the message bursts outof the plot's chest and devours it. Others argue that this angle is at least handled much more tastefully than other series with similar tendencies. For many fans, the series is really more about a breathtaking dimension-hopping odyssey that turns into a fist-pumping ode to The Power of Love. Also it is hard to dispute the quality of the writing. The series was critically acclaimed, especially in Pullman's native England, and The Amber Spyglass is the first children's book to receive the Whitbread Award for a category other than children's literature.And a Bad AssArmoredPolar BearWarriorKing. Can't forget him.As a point of clarification, the first book was retitled The Golden Compass for its release in the states, and in many places is better known under this title than as Northern Lights. For the film adaptation, see The Golden Compass.Books two and three are titled The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, respectively. Philip Pullman has more recently written two spin-off works: a sequel, Lyra's Oxford and a prequel, Once Upon a Time in the North.Apart from the film adaptation of the first book, there has been a stage play adaptation and two radio adaptations — one an unabridged recording of the books, with Pullman himself narrating and a full cast playing the various characters, and one a more traditional radio drama in three two-and-a-half-hour episodes.Now has a character page, which desperately needs work.
Provides examples of:
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Absurdly Sharp Blade: The subtle knife. It can cut through the universe. Lyra speculates that the same materials from the subtle knife were likely used to make the guillotine of the intercision machine that can cut through the psychic connection between human and dæmon.
Action Girl: Interestingly, Lyra swings through Chickification once Will enters the story in the second book but recovers about halfway through the third book (she spends the first half of the third book in a coma).
Aerith and Bob: If Lord Asriel versus Mrs. Coulter isn't enough, you can also get the effect as a kind of Bilingual Bonus, due to the use of Scandinavian and Finnish names. For example, if you're Finnish, the surname of the witch Serafina Pekkala sounds extremely mundane, especially compared to her first name (Pullman found the name in a Helsinki phonebook). The fact that there are many different cultures involved explains most of the variation, but not examples like the above.
Aliens Speaking English: Somewhat justified in the Gallivespians as they live on a parallel Earth where there obviously are people who speak English.
Despite being in a climate described as Mediterranean, the citizens of Citigazze, another parallel Earth) speak English.
Averted on the Mulefa's parallel Earth. Mary spends some time trying to learn their language. Being elephant-like creatures, part of their language involves movements of the trunk along with words, so she has to use her arms to speak as well. They also learn a little English from her.
Justified with the Angels. They know all human languages.
All There in the Manual: Unusually for a work of literature. Some significant back story and detail about the series' Multiverse can be found on the official websites, interviews with the author, and two spin-off novellas: Lyra's Oxford is a sequel and Once Upon a Time in the North is a prequel, and both books contain maps, brochures, and other fun world-building ephemera. Additionally, we've been teased something called The Book of Dust, which promises to address some of the things we've brought up in both It Just Bugs Me! and Wild Mass Guessing, for ages now.
Amazon Brigade: The witches form exclusively female clans, they're deadly shots with bow and arrow, are good with knives, are quick to swear vengeance; and they attach themselves as a bodyguard to the protagonists.
Though at one point the characters speculate about whether it's even more complicated in some universes.
Turns out it is. In the land of the dead, all mortals are accompanied by their "death" from cradle to grave.
Animal Stereotypes: Justified with the Dæmons. They eventually "settle" on an animal form that best reflects their counterpart's personality. The fact that some of the animal symbolism used is ridiculously obscure (anyone who tells you they knew right away what the Alpine Chough symbolized is a damn liar or a PhD in literature) is just an example of how hard the author thought about this.
In case you don't feel like digging it up: in Paradise Lost, an Alpine Chough is form Satan uses to sneak into Eden.note it was actually a black cormorant in the poem, but the two birds look similar
Anti-Advice: At the end of Northern Lights, Lyra and Patalaimon reason that if villains like Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel want to suppress or destroy the Dust, it must actually be good.
Anticlimax: For some. For others, the scene in question is a terrific subversion of typical fantastic fiction. Asriel's rebellion, the war that will change the very structure of the Multiverse, is ultimately treated as an irritating distraction as Will and Lyra frantically search for their missing Dæmons.
Further, the stated Big Bad, God, is revealed to have aged to such a state of extreme senility and fragility that he is eventually killed by a stiff breeze, because of two kids, and not even on purpose. Seriously. Fortunately for the story, his Dragon, the Metatron, takes on the mantle of prime villain.
Albeit, Metatron gets punked by a monkey so . . .
A badass evil monkey, universally feared, a snow leopard and two full grown humans
The Anti-Nihilist: the books eventually come down in favor of this, with a touch of Fantastic Aesop courtesy of Dust. God doesn't give the world meaning, Dust does. Dust is essentially fundamental particles/bosons of conscience, endeavor, knowledge, curiosity, etc., and are created by acts of teaching and learning, ergo...
Which plants the series distinctly on the side of Existentialism. YMMV as to to what extent those two philosophies genuinely differ.
Anyone Can Die: Roger Parslow, Lee Scoresby, John Parry, Lord Asriel, Marisa Coulter, and GOD.
Army of the Dead: When Will and Lyra emerge from the Land of the Dead, the spirits of various dead characters and other onetime warriors join the battle between the Kingdom of Heaven and the Republic of Heaven on the side of the Republic, countering the Spectres who had until then been consuming souls unchecked.
Audio Adaptation: Two, a radio dramatisation and a full-cast unabridged recording narrated by Pullman.
Badass Normal: While Dust is responsible for human and mulefa civilisation (and both species show up as ghosts in the land of the dead), there are no references to the Panserbjørne getting any such assistance. Plus, they forge their own souls.
Bamboo Technology: Lord Asriel requires a special emulsion, prepared in a laboratory, to see Dust in a photograph. Mary Malone makes a spyglass to see Dust out of bamboo, hardened lacquer, and seedpod oil. Later, this is justified. The seedpods in question come from some very strange trees.
Because Destiny Says So: Subverted in a way; in order for Lyra to fulfill the prophesy, she can never be told what she's supposed to do.
Berserk Button: It is inadvisable to steal Iorek's armor while he is passed out. He killed about two people trying to find it and nearly cracked the skull of a sentry after getting it back. It was only his debt to Lyra that kept him from killing the man.
Big Bad: Metatron, although aside from his first impressive entrance, where the entire world is screaming, he gets taken out pretty easily by two humans and their souls.
Bittersweet Ending: Oh yeah. Lyra and Will changed the very foundations of the Multiverse, but only those who were directly involved notice. Furthermore, they must return to their own respective Worlds forever (never to see each other again), moments after they've realised their passionate love for each other. Some have argued that this last twist crosses into Diabolus Ex Machina. The "good" angels could have solved this by teaching them how to cross worlds, but instead decide not to share.
Well, at least until they die.
It's implied that it might be possible for them to reconnect, but it's discouraged by just about everyone
Blessed with Suck: Will Parry is given the Subtle Knife, which can slice through the barriers between worlds. It also mutilated his left hand, and every time he uses it, he creates a hole into which Dust drains out of the world, and another Spectre is unleashed.
Broken Aesop: Pullman is mostly trying to criticize the Catholic Church...but by the end of the series its been twisted so much he's turned his "Catholic Church" into what is essentially Gnosticism. Fans argue that Pullman's target is not any one institution but instead general zealousness and dogmatism, with the Church just being his whipping boy because, well, they're a handy example.
The universe as a WHOLE is somewhat gnostic, though the Monad is a bit absent, but the Church itself supports the demiurge.
Card-Carrying Villain: There is a priest in the third book who is sent out to assassinate Lyra, preventing her from altering the 'verse. For his next trick, said priest wants to convince the mulefa that their primary method of transportation is sinful — for no apparent reason — and then sides with their enemies, who then follow his every command because, come on, he's evil.
Children Are Innocent: The very soul and fiber of this work is about averting this trope. Although whether this is a aversion or playing it straight probably depends on your definition of innocence.
It seems to go back and forth. The children of Oxford are very mischievous are repeatedly given pejorative descriptions; though the tone reinforces this trope. Later, though, children are downright malicious when they find out about Elaine Perry's mental illness. Even later, the children of Citigazze actually attempt to murder Will and Lyra.
It is also played straight with the fact that children's dæmons changing while adults dæmons keeping one shape. There is also the idea that specters don't bother children, who can't see them anyway. The whole series is about solving the question of the difference between childhood and adolescence.
The Chosen One: Lyra is deemed to be a chosen one, but she can't know anything about it. In the second book, Will finds out he was chosen to own the Subtle Knife due to his injuries. They also become the chosen couple after all is said and done, though only for a few weeks.
Christianity Is Catholic: In Lyra's world John Calvin, instead of being excommunicated, somehow was elected Pope, and then abolished the Papacy upon his death. Thus, the Protestant Reformation never happened, leaving a Church that has unquestioned power over all of Europe. The trope applies, however, not because only Catholicism exists in Lyra's world but because what is meant to parallel Christianity only parallels Catholicism with no attempt to differentiate.
Combat by Champion: Metatron identifies Coulter as a woman whose entire life is based on betrayal, yet he willingly goes alone with her to ambush Lord Asriel instead of sending a legion of mooks. Asriel, meanwhile, plans this elaborate setup to catch and kill Metatron but decides to spring the trap on the ruler of the multiverse with only himself instead of with a platoon of heavies. To top it off, they both go unarmed (although there is probably a different trope for this)
Coming-of-Age Story: Taken to the point of metaphysics. There are fundamental magical differences between children and adults, and the process of growing up drives many aspects of the plot.
Compressed Adaptation: The stage play. Three books into two nights, and they combined the characters of Mary Malone and Serafina Pekkala, as well as never revealing Will's dæmon.
Corrupt Church: The entire series is a war on a church that doesn't follow its own teachings and uses its power and authority to ruthlessly persecute those who challenge it.
Darker and Edgier: The third book, specifically. While the first book was more of a standard coming of age fantasy, the third part spirals into some heavier stuff.
Dark Is Not Evil: The dæmons, mostly because they represent free will and the church is against it. Also some angels like Baruch and Balthamos can only be seen when there's little to no light, while the harpies and the other things from the Land of the Dead are morally neutral or amoral.
"-reich" in this context means "to be rich of" or simply "-full" so it translates into "cunningfull", her German name though sounds a little off because of the missing article, so "Lyra die Listenreiche" wouldve a better ring to it but YMMW.
In French, it is translated to Lyra Parledor. (they switched silver for gold, basically).
Possibly because argent, the French word for silver, is also the word for money. Lyra Moneytongue sounds a bit weird.
According to the HDM Wiki: Lyra Linguargentina in Italian and Lyra da Língua Mágica in Brazilian Portuguese.
Due to the Dead: In the first book, Lyra puts a gold coin bearing his lost daemon's name into the mouth of Tony Makarios, treating him with the same respect that is traditionally given to Scholars at Jordan College. The body is then cremated by the gyptians.
Early-Installment Weirdness - In early editions of Northern Lights, one of the deceased Scholars had a daemon taking the form of a young woman - later retconned out when Pullman decided that daemons could not take human shape.
Empathy Pet: Although it would be in the worst taste to refer to someone's Dæmon as a "pet", they do serve a similar purpose - and more.
Empty Shell: What happens when a Specter gets you. Also what happens to people whose dæmons are removed. In fact, that's pretty much the same thing.
Enfant Terrible: The children of Cittàgazze. Justified in that, between the specters and having no adults around, they must be living in fear.
Expospeak: Noted for its lack of any Exposition. In fact, first time readers of Northern Lights might find themselves confused as hell about the various terminology (demons/dæmons as man's best friend? For real?) and why the North pole is said to be populated by head shrinkers and talking polar bears. Until it hits you that the world of His Dark Materials is a very different one from ours.
Everyone Is Bi: Angels fall in love with each other, but they don't seem to differentiate much between genders. Being as they barely have bodies to begin with, this is hardly surprising.
Actually, it's strongly implied that Metatron is highly homophobic, and Baruch's homosexuality was a driving force in his being disowned by his family, and also possibly a factor in his and Barthalmos's getting kicked out of heaven.
Free-Range Children: Justified with the children in Citigazze. Adults can't go into Specter-ridden areas, so the children are sometimes hired out to scavenge from the cities.
Furry Confusion: Aside from some odd moments involving the Dæmons and their interactions with real animals, there is a scene early on where Mrs. Coulter tells Lyra that it isn't safe to eat polar bear liver, but the rest of the animal is edible. Unless there are non-Panserbjørne polar bears (we never see any), this raises some very awkward questions...
God: Well, sort of. In actuality, "The Authority" is the oldest of the Angels, and claims to have created the universe. It is heavily implied that God is a far more abstract presence that manifests, in the various worlds, as "Dust".
God Guise: This is how the angels created the Abrahamic religions. The first of them all convinced the ones that were born after that he was the supreme creator and being, and so he came to rule them. Later, when the rebel angels gave sentience to mankind and other races, all he had to do was to send his agents and see the awestruck people convert to his cause.
The witches in Lyra's world worship deities based on our Finnish mythology, but no indication about their nature is present. One of said witches does, however, kill the false gods that a human tribe worshipped - tigers.
God Is Evil: Well, "The Authority" isn't evil, just senile. He's supplanted by Metatron, though, who does have totalitarian plans for the multiverse. In his prime it seems the Authority was something of a Jerk Ass too, but when you're the first sentient thing in the universe perhaps you really are Above Good and Evil, or at least can't be blamed for thinking you are.
"The Authority" isn't currently evil. It's stated though that he wasn't the creator, just the oldest angel, yet presents himself to everyone as the creator. Metatron was his second in command and took over as "The Authority" became senile
G-Rated Sex: There is some between Ruta Skadi and Lord Asriel in The Subtle Knife. Also, in The Amber Spyglass, when Lyra and Will finally realize that they're in love with each other, they break into a storm of ridiculously passionate kissing, and the scene cuts right at that moment, so it leaves the reader wondering if they had sex. The whole scene is basically written to show that they have finally began the transition to adulthood..
Subverted; In the first book, the antagonists believe that Growing Up Sucks, and do truly horrifying things because of it. Including "severing" children's souls from their bodies..
Later played very straight in Cittagazze due to the Spectres.
In the beginning, Lyra and Roger are content to just play and make trouble in the streets near Jordan College, not wanting their lives to change.
But one of the big themes of the entire series is the idea that Dust, which constitutes the transition into adulthood, is a good thing, and not a bad thing as the Church believes. The Church believes that humans must retain the innocence of childhood, and so must never come in contact with Dust. But the series implies that Dust, although indeed bringing sin, also brings knowledge and understanding and discovering and curiosity and many other wonderful things, and that it's in a human's nature to be sinful and the Church shouldn't fight it.
Which brings a whole new level of irony to the Church's motives, given the horrific, innocence-stealing measures they take to retain a child's innocence.
Hard Work Hardly Works: Lyra is able to read her alethiometer right after picking it up; other characters note that alethiometer-reading is supposed to be extremely difficult and suited to Scholars. Later subverted; once the adventure is over, Lyra suddenly loses her talent because . . . well . . . just becausenote Probably because she reaches puberty. However, she is told that if she wants to, she can take the route of hard work to learn the skill back, and will have a better understanding of the alethiometer's answers for it.
This is probably intended to be symbolic of the changes in how a person perceives the world as a child and an adult. Children can be good at reading people's moods instinctively without fully appreciating all the undertones in any given social situation. Adults may be more uncertain because they are aware of more.
Heroic Sacrifice: Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter both sacrifice themselves to drag Metatron down into a bottomless pit - the bittersweet end to Mrs. Coulter's Heel-Face Turn. Arguable as to whether they count, as this had been Asriel's driving goal from the first and Coulter's life was essentially a shambles and it was unclear what else she might have to live for. Although knowing her, she'd probably have been able to cast herself as the hero of the battle with her magic lie powers post facto, so maybe she really was giving something up.
Lee Scoresby and Hester while holding off the tartars. Which definitely doubles as a Tear Jerker. Not to mention that he's then magically preserved by Serafina Pekkala, so that his body can eventually be eaten by his friend Iorek Byrnison and sustain him on his own journey to help Lyra. Which is described in such a way that it's clear that Lee would've been immensely proud to have it happen. Tearjerker indeed.
Hero Secret Service: Nearly every group of supporting characters that the heroes have befriended at some point. In particular, the Witches and the Angels.
Hide Your Gays: "One of the rare people whose dæmon was the same sex as himself." No further mention is made of this but it's fairly obvious what it means once you learn that when a couple fall in love, their dæmons romantically bond too.
According to Pullman, he actually didn't intend that particular implication when he wrote it, but a fan suggested homosexuality as the reason for the same-sex dæmon and Pullman said Sure, Why Not?.
Honor Before Reason: Lyra deliberately abandoned her own soul in the World of the Dead, so that she could make amends to a friend that she unwittingly led to his death.
Humans Are Special: Even though angels can live forever, travel between worlds, and know the secrets of the universe, they envy human beings, who have real bodies and thus can enjoy the physical world in ways that angels can't. Also, most humans can physically overpower a low-to-mid-ranking angel (Will tackles one and is astonished at how weak it is.)
Humans Are Ugly: The mulefa can't help but think of Mary as hideous, even when they've adopted her and learned from her.
I Am Not Left-Handed: Iorek, in his fight with Iofur in the first book — not that his right paw is his dominant paw (because all bears are left handed), but that his left paw is injured and he can't use it.
In Spite of a Nail: Lyra's world has visible souls and at least five species (humans, witches, bears, cliff-ghasts and foxes) with some level of sentience, but every religious figure from Moses to John Calvin still existed in modified roles.
Istanbul Not Constantinople: One of the best uses yet and another example of just how much thought the author put into Lyra's world. (Lee Scoresby is described as a New Dane from the country of Texas for starters.)
Jaw Breaker: Iorek tears his rival's jaw off. Symbolic, because the other was a liar.
Light Is Not Good: Mrs. Coulter is physically attractive, glamourous and charming but is capable of terrible things, so it's difficult to sympathise with her until the last book. Angels are made of light (well, some kind of energy anyway), but their moral nature is just as uneven as humans'.
And Stanislaus Grumman is Will's long lost father John Parry.
Market-Based Title: The Northern Lights was renamed The Golden Compass for North America. This is apparently due to The Golden Compasses (pulled from a line in Paradise Lost, just like the final title, His Dark Materials), being a Working Title for the trilogy as a whole. The American publisher had apparently mistaken the title for a reference to the alethiometer (the "golden compasses" are actually circle-drawing devices God uses during creation) and had been referring to the first novel as The Golden Compass during prerelease, and decided to stick with the title. It does create some nice Idiosyncratic Episode Naming, with all three books being named after some Iconic Item.
Mind Rape: What a human feels when his/her dæmon is touched (violently) by a stranger, comes close to actual rape.
Minovsky Physics: Rusakov Particles appear to be as such for the first two novels. For a Biblical pun, it's also called Dust. Dust, an "elementary particle" (similar to an electron or quark) can only be seen either when vast quantities are for some reason all brought together, or through special emulsions. Dust's most interesting quality, though, is that it attracts itself to sentient beings: anything made by humans with thought and observation will attract Dust, such as a ruler, and Dust also attracts itself to people - adults especially, and the wiser the better. When the big reveal comes, "Dust" turns out not to be a substance at all. It's essentially subatomic Angels.
That big reveal perhaps justifies the previously odd-if-not-silly convention of referring to particle physics as Experimental Theology.
Mood Whiplash: Happens every other chapter in the third book, switching back and forth between the bleak underworld and the world of the lovably alien mulefa.
The Multiverse: There may be no limit to the number of separate worlds and universes.
Never Was This Universe: Lyra's world. While many differences between our world and hers are clearly just ordinary Alternate History, there are also some altered laws of physics and nature in general - e.g. a fully living sentient dæmon of each human being.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In the end we learn that every time Will used the knife he created a specter and helped undermine the structural fabric of sentient life. To be fair, this is really not his fault, it was the hundreds of years of casual abuse and neglect of the power that caused the problem.
Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: Armored Royal Polar Bear Warriors! (Even the author gleefully admits that this is the coolest thing ever.)
The Nothing After Death: The land of the dead isn't exactly nothing, but it is insanely close: just a bleak wasteland with almost no light in which nothing happen. And then there's the Abyss, which really IS nothingness. And of course now people just dissolve after dying.
Dissolving is a little inaccurate and incomplete. The spirits more disintegrate and are returned to the universe so that they can be a part of everything again (Nature's spirit recycling service)
Or, as the saying goes, ashes to ashes, Dust to Dust.
Not So Great Escape: Played for drama in the beginning when Lyra is in the Master's retiring room, a place for men only and only by invitation. She hides behind a chair in the middle of the room and sees him poisoning a bottle of Tokay meant for her uncle. The hesitation she has after he leaves forces her to find a better hiding place when her uncle enters.
Oh Crap: Lord Asriel is absolutely aghast when Lyra arrives at his prison in the North - "Get out! I did not send for you!" - since he thinks whatever weird forces he's commanding have sent her to him as a sacrifice to open the passage between the worlds and, while he's a pretty amoral guy, he hardly wants to kill his own daughter. Still, he calms down a lot when Roger arrives right behind her...
One Steve Limit: Did any other non-Scandinavian readers find it confusing that the two panserbjørne (well, the only significant characters among them) are named Iorek Byrnison and Iofur Raknison?
This is probably why Iofur Raknison's name was changed to Ragnar Sturlusson in themovie.
I'm not Scandinavian or similar and I don't understand the confusion. Their names are less similar than "cat" and "bat".
Only a Flesh Wound: Subverted. Lee attempts this by shooting a church flunky in the leg, but nicks the artery and ends up killing him anyway.
The most powerful being in the Universe (Metatron) cracks Lord Asriel on the back of the head as hard as it can with a rock, but Asriel still drags him into the Abyss.
Opposite Sex Dæmon: Most of the time, a woman's dæmon is male and vice versa. People with dæmons of the same sex as themselves are noted to be rare in Northern Lights. Two examples are found in the series (both in Northern Lights): a male servant with a male dog dæmon, and a maid with a hen dæmon. Readers speculate that having a dæmon of the same sex signifies homosexuality or transgenderism. Pullman has stated he isn't sure what it means himelf: "[it] might indicate homosexuality, or it might indicate some other sort of gift or quality, such as second sight. I do not know. But I don't have to know everything about what I write."
Our Souls Are Different: Indeed, the series could be considered a very long meditation on the nature of the soul (see that trope page for details).
Parental Abandonment: Lyra has parental issues in spades (to say more would spoil quite a lot of the dramatic tension). Will's parents both follow this trope (his father has been missing for years) and subvert it (his mother is implicitly mentally ill and his involvement in the larger story begins when he must save her.)
The Power of Legacy: in The Amber Spyglass, Will lets Lyra think that Mrs Coulter was watching over her while some disease kept her asleep, when in reality, Mrs. Coulter was drugging her. He already cares quite deeply for her and is aware that Lyra has very few good memories of Mrs Coulter.
The Power of Love: Basically the entire point of The Amber Spyglass. Some controversy emerged over what may or may not have been a depiction of teenage sex, to the point that some US printings of the book were censored. No matter what your interpretation is, though, it appears that snogging saved the multiverse.
Powered by a Forsaken Child: Lord Asriel opens up the path to Citagazze at the end of the first book by killing the urchin named Roger. Lyra blames herself for taking Roger to what she thought would be a safe place for both of them.
Psycho for Hire: Pierre McConville from the prequel novella, Once Upon a Time in the North. A hired gun who Loves the Sound of Screaming, has comitted at least twenty murders, and whose idea of fun is killing his victims slowly by ripping their dæmons away from them over a long period of time.
Punny Name: Lyra = Liar, (free) Will, Will Parry-Will can cause others to not care about him, or parry their attention.
Rouge Angles of Satin: Some people reckon that an individual of the horse-elephant (for want of a better term) race is a "mulefa" whilst the race as a whole is the "mulefas". If they had been paying attention, they would realise that an individual is a "zalif" and the race is the "mulefa".
Rule of Symbolism: The dust, the mulefa's wheels, and the dæmons are all used as criticism of real-world politics, religion and morality. The dæmons are used to represent a human's conscience/soul, and, in turn, their sexual nature. The scene in which Will and Lyra free God from his glass cage is meant to represent the separation of the human idea of God from the political idea of God. And so on. Basically, this series has symbolism in spades.
The Runaway: Both Will and Lyra. Will does so to both protect his mother and because he killed a man. Lyra does so with Mrs Coulter because of too stern punishments on Mrs Coulter's part and because she was just too wild to be tamed at the time.
Science Is Bad: Played with. The rise of science and technology across multiple worlds set in motion the course of events that imperils sentient life in the books. However, in the end it seems that, like most things in Pullman's world, science is only as good or bad as whoever is using it.
The housekeeper at Jordan College is Mrs Lonsdale. Lonsdale College is a fictional college in the universe of Inspector Morse.
Significant Anagram: Lord Asriel (and Marisa Coulter) ultimately sacrifice themselves by wrestling the Metatron and dragging him into the Abyss. "Asriel" is an anagram of "Israel" - a Hebrew name commonly interpreted as "struggled with God".
It may also be a play on the name Azrael — The Angel of Death.
Skinny Dipping: Three of the main characters did this at different times. Lyra is said to have done so with her friends when she was younger. She also swims naked in the Mulefa world just to freshen up. Will first skinny-dips when he first gets to Citigazze. He also freshens up in the Mulefa's world. The mulefa are shocked when Mary strips off to go swimming, but only because they never go into the water. She swims to save some seed pods that are vital to the herd.
The Soulsaver: Lyra. She not only frees the severed dæmons of Bolvangar and spares the other children there the same fate — her eventual destiny is to open the World of the Dead to the multiverse, with all its limitless number of souls.
Spirit Advisor: Everyone in Lyra's world gets their own spirit advisor in the person of their Dæmons. Dæmons come in handy for spying, arguing with and there are several parts where a person was able to utilize the improved senses and/or vantage point provided by their Dæmon(birds can get higher, some animals can smell better, some animals have better sight).
Steam Punk: Sort of. Lyra's world has zeppelins, but its "anbaric power" is simply electricity under another name (the substance amber and electricity get switched - in Lyra's world, they call amber "electrum"). Nuclear power is Atomcraft works in this world, and there are frequent mentions of "gyrocopters" and similar devices.
The electricty/amber switching becomes Fridge Brilliance (again!) when you know that the first experience humans had of electricity was in Ancient Greek times, when static electricity could be created by rubbing fur against amber.
Subspace Ansible: There is a universe where entire lodestones can be quantum entangled.
Supernatural Angst: It is mentioned early in the first book that one human never touches another's dæmon, ever. Later on, Lyra's dæmon is seized by another human, and the incident is described in terms very similar to sexual assault. It renders Lyra, the indomitable, high-spirited Lyra, practically catatonic for a decent chunk of time.
In the second book, we meet Spectres, which are only visible to adults and can only hurt adults. Once a Spectre attacks, its prey is left absolutely without energy or any sort of interest in the world. Will even draws parallels between Spectres and depression or mental illness.
Sure, Why Not? / Throw It In: In an interview, Pullman was asked whether the few people who had Dæmons of the same gender as themselves were LGBT. He hadn't thought of it, but agreed with the fandom.
He's also said that a same-sex Dæmon could instead be indicative of some other "gift or quality," like second sight.
Synchronization: We see repeatedly and graphically how inconvenient it can be to have a mystical bond with someone. If a Dæmon is too far separated from their human counterpart, they both risk incredible pain, and if they are forcibly and permanently separated, both suffer permanent psychological damage and eventually waste away. The third book explains that there are ways around this. On the other hand, we also see many, many reasons why this sort of bond could be extremely useful.
Take That: Phillip Pullman has said that the series was a "response" of sorts to the Christian allegory-resembling books, such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Differs from those books in that Lewis at least claims he didn't originally set out to create allegory and that it worked its way into his books, while Pullman openly stated that he wrote his series to "kill Christianity in the minds of children." Oddly enough, although God is talked about ad nauseum, Pullman never talks about Christ.
Word of God is that Jesus, while he doesn't show up in the books, does exist in the universes and was a servant of the rebel angels as he tried to spread their message, but his words of wisdom were taken and twisted by The Authority. Apparently, even Philip Pullman thinks Jesus Was Way Cool.
Talking Animal: Played absolutely straight with the Panserbjørne, intelligent polar bears with thumbs and a talent for metalworking. Lyra's world also features talking foxes and nasty creatures called cliff-ghasts (who have a language of their own).
The dæmons are a more obvious, yet ambiguous, example of this trope; although they are not thought of as animals by the humans of Lyra's world, they take the form of animals and would be called that in other worlds.
Technically Living Zombie: Originally referenced as a background detail, but becomes relevant late in the first book and then throughout the series. According to Lord Asriel, there's an African tribe which can permanently separate a human from their dæmon without killing them - just rendering them a mindless, corpse-seeming slave called a zombi. Later, the General Oblation Board modified this process to create intercision using a Subtle Knife-like guillotine to sever the connection between human and dæmon forever. Intercision never worked on children, but the doctors at Bolvangar and Mrs. Coulter's bodyguards/soldiers all underwent intercision successfully, meaning that Mrs. Coulter and by extension the Church essentially had an army of zombies.
Teenage Wasteland: Cittagazze (and the rest of that world), where most of the adults have been killed off by Spectres.
Thunderbolt Iron: "Sky-Iron" (presumably from meteorites) forms Iorek's (and presumably all the Panserbjørne's) armour.
The Vamp: Mrs. Coulter raises this almost to a superpower.
Vaporware: The Book of Dust is creeping into this territory.
Villain-Beating Artifact: A subversion of this. The subtle knife is claimed more than once to be the only weapon capable of killing God (the supposed Big Bad of the series), and its owner is urged to take it to the guy opposing God so he can win the war. Then God turns out to be too old and senile to be the Big Bad, and simply dies of old age.
Well-Intentioned Extremist: Lord Asriel talks a good game about ending tyranny, but he does some terrible things in the process. Oddly, few people object to his bloody deeds except for Lyra, and she seems to forgive and forget Asriel's part in Roger's death after the first book. However this could be because Lyra never spends any time in Asriel's company after the first book.
Not exactly true, there is at least one instance where a character suggests Lyra give herself into the protection of Lord Asriel but she promptly responds by saying she doesn't trust him. The reason the two never meet again is because Lyra doesn't want to see him She sees Roger's death as her own fault and not his but she still disagrees with what Asriel did and sees him as her enemy.
What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The Panserbjørne are not treated too well by humans. In one of the novellas, a mayoral candidate actually proposes forcibly banishing them from human cities. The main reason for this is because they have no Dæmons, which humans take as proof that they have no soul. Iorek makes it very clear to Lyra that his armor is his soul.
Witch Species: Subverted. Witches can breed with human men, and have witch daughters and human sons. They don't feel the cold (and mostly live in the Arctic), they can use magic, and they live to hundreds of years.
In the last book, Will's finds out why his father has a dæmon. It turns out he entered Lyra's world near a spot that somehow repels dæmons, which is hinted to be used as a rite of passage by witches. It ripped his soul out of his body and gave his dæmon most of the same properties as a witch's, most notably the ability to be far away from him.
What Happened to the Mouse?: The series has a spectacular habit of writing in epic battles involving legions of bad ass combatants like talking polar bears with rocket launchers. And then forgetting about these battles completely. The battle between the bears/Gyptians and the Church is quietly forgotten after the first book. But the absolute worst offender is the third book: the war against the army of God himself is quietly swept under the rug after the author decides that Will & Lyra's romance deserves the spotlight. Sure, the Big Bad dies, but what about the legions of soldiers from an infinite amount of worlds?
This is done by design. The story is about Will and Lyra not the epic battles, and their romance is significantly more important to the multiverse than any of the other battles. It is outright stated that Asriel will fail because the people he has gathered together from various worlds will fade and die unless they return to their own.
Woman Scorned: The witch Juta Kamainen is furious that the shaman Stanislaus Grumman rejected her romantic advances, and swears that she will kill him. Which she does. In fact, Grumman is Will Parry's father and was being faithful to his wife in another world.Nice Job Breaking It, Hero, and she kills herself immediately afterwards when she realises how badly she's fucked things up for Will.
Yaoi Guys: Balthamos and Baruch; one an angel, the other a human uplifted to that status.
Well, angels are commonly portrayed as either genderless or as Hermaphrodites.
It was never stated they weren't of a different sex at some point in the past.
"Man" can refer to humankind, but it's getting a little silly after all these years to deny that Baruch was not a male when he was a human. There's also the implication that Metatron took issue with Baruch for his sexuality while they were both humans. Balthamos is a "nothing", Baruch was a male human.
To bolster the above, 'Baruch' is an explicitly gendered name in Hebrew — he's male.