Summer Selections: Lyra and Lucy

by Melissa Saryazdi

Northern Lights (1995) is a young adult fantasy novel written by British author Philip Pullman, and the first novel of the bestselling His Dark Materials Trilogy.[i][ii] The story revolves around Lyra Belacqua’s journey to rescue children kidnapped by the Oblation Board. It has been described as a ‘recasting of Milton’s Paradise Lost’ and is also perceived as a critical response to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), another bestselling children’s fantasy novel that is the first book of its series, The Chronicles of Narnia.[iii],[iv] Similarly to Northern Lights, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe revolves around Lucy Pevensie and her siblings’ journey to save Narnia from the White Witch. While the novel has been accused of containing ‘thinly-veiled evangelism’, Northern Lights has been a source of controversy because of its so called negative depiction of organised religion.[v],[vi] Thus, the two novels have similar premises but opposite views on religion, and critics have argued that Northern Lights is ‘a self-described atheist’s answer to the overtly Christian fantasies of C.S. Lewis’.[vii] While Pullman has repeatedly expressed his dislike of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it is not reserved to its Christian undertones, as he notoriously described it as advocating that ‘boys are better than girls’, also stating that it is ‘"monumentally disparaging of girls and women"’.[viii],[ix] I will explore the ways in which Northern Lights reacts against The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s depiction of girls and women, arguing that Lyra challenges the patriarchal views of women conveyed through Lucy, by exploring her conformity to gender roles, her relationship with strangers, and her willingness to lie.

 Lucy Pevensie appears to conform to outdated female gender roles, partly because she does not partake in seemingly ‘unfeminine’ activities if men advise her against it.[x] For example, she expresses an interest in fighting alongside her siblings, but eventually listens to Father Christmas and abstains from it.[xi] Father Christmas clearly expresses his views on women fighting when he brings Lucy her Christmas presents, as he states:

there is a cordial made of the juice of one of the fire-flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun. If you or any of your friends is hurt, a few drops of this will restore them. And the dagger is to defend yourself at great need. For you are not to be in the battle.[xii]

The negation ‘not to be’ in the imperative sentence ‘For you are not to be in the battle’ conveys that Lucy has no choice in her actions, irrespectively of her wishes. The compound noun ‘fire-flowers’ in the declarative sentence ‘the juice of one of the fire-flowers’ is also significant because it could be a metaphor for Lucy, as Freud describes flowers as one of the symbols of women.[xiii] The simple sentence ‘a few drops of this will restore them’ implies that the juice of the fire-flowers possesses healing properties. If the flower represents Lucy, then it can be inferred that her role is not to fight, but to heal the ones who are injured. Father Christmas later makes this clear, as he states ‘“But battles are ugly when women fight.”’[xiv] Here, the adjective ‘ugly’ in the adverbial phrase ‘when women fight’ implies that it is unfeminine for women to fight, and therefore that Lucy cannot take part in battle, not because of her weaknesses but because of her gender. As a result, Lewis promotes the idea that the role of women is not to fight, but to act as helpers for the men who do. Sam McBride argues this is Lewis’ personal view on war and women, stating ‘While one should not confuse a fictional character's statements with the beliefs of that character's author, other evidence suggests C.S. Lewis's hierarchical understanding of gender, grounded in a medieval worldview, identifies war as a man's realm.’[xv] If, today, Lewis’ view on this topic is perceived as sexist, it was not uncommon during the time when he was writing, as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published five years after the end of World War Two. The war saw women mainly helping soldiers on the side lines, as many, for example, took part in the Women’s Voluntary Service, where they were in charge of ‘running emergency rest centres, feeding, first aid, and assisting with the evacuation and billeting of children.’[xvi] Lewis’ writing, then, may have been a reflection of the time he lived in, when women were still viewed as assistants to men, rather than strong on their own.

Lyra, on the contrary, does not conform to ‘feminine’ gender roles,  such as staying inside and playing with dolls.[xvii] For example, at the beginning of the novel, Lyra pretends to be involved in ‘deadly warfare’ with the children.[xviii] Pullman writes ‘That was Lyra’s world and her delight. She was a coarse and greedy little savage, for the most part.’[xix] The declarative sentence ‘That was Lyra’s world’ is critical in understanding Lyra’s personality, as the common noun ‘world’ infers that the warfare game she is playing is an integral part of who she is. It also implies that Lyra likes the idea of war even before she experiences it, which is further emphasised by the adjective ‘coarse’ and the common noun ‘savage’, as they connote a lack of refinement and calmness, qualities which are stereotypically expected of girls.[xx] As a result, Lyra appears to conform more to male gender roles, as studies have shown that boys ‘have a tendency to be more boisterous and to prefer rough and tumble play outside than quieter play in the home corner and the graphics table.’[xxi] The phrase ‘for the most part’, however, implies that she has other qualities that may be feminine, thus making her a character who does not strictly adhere to male or female stereotypes. This aspect of her personality makes her a stronger character, which is conveyed during the children’s battle with the Tartar guards and their daemons. Pullman writes:

It wasn’t like the battles in the Oxford Claybeds, hurling lumps of mud at the brick-burners’ children. […] Just as she’d done that afternoon, but in deadly earnest now, she scooped a handful [of snow] together and hurled it at the nearest soldier.[xxii]

The adverb ‘deadly’, juxtaposed with the adjective ‘earnest’ conveys that Lyra is determined in her actions, which is further reinforced by the dynamic verb ‘hurled’, as it connotes a forceful action and therefore, a lack of hesitation. Lyra’s eagerness to defend herself and her friends is also a feeling typically associated with men, which is suggested by Myriam Miedzian, a former philosophy professor, who writes ‘Women may have a monopoly on giving life, but men have a monopoly on defending it against the enemy.’[xxiii] Roberta Seelinger Trites, a post-structural feminist critique of literature, believes that masculine traits in female characters are a source of strength, as she writes ‘Successful feminist characters are those who adopt the best traits of both genders to strengthen themselves personally and within their communities.’[xxiv] By following Seelinger Trites’ theory, it is then possible to view Lyra as a feminist icon, whose mix of masculine and feminine qualities are what make her powerful. While Lewis wrote during a time of war and prominent misogyny, Pullman wrote during the Third Wave feminism and over ten years after influential feminist texts such as Margaret Atwood’s Life before Man (1979) and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979) were published.[xxv],[xxvi] By creating a heroine who is empowered by her masculine traits, Pullman may have reacted against Lewis’ patriarchal views of femininity, but also against the time that Lewis was writing in.

In addition to her obedience, Lucy seems to value politeness and truthfulness over vigilance, which makes her a rather defenceless heroine. For example, she is very trusting of the Faun from their first meeting. The Faun states ‘”Good evening, good evening. […] should I be right in thinking that you are a Daughter of Eve?’”, to which Lucy replies ‘”My name’s Lucy”’.[xxvii] By revealing her name to him, she is allowing him into her personal space and giving him the authorisation to enquire more about her, despite her knowing very little about him. Lewis also writes ‘And so Lucy found herself walking through the wood arm in arm with this strange creature as if they had known one another all their lives.’[xxviii] While the idiom ‘arm in arm’ conveys that they are physically holding each other, it also implies a mental connection between them, as if they had begun a friendship. This is reinforced by the adverbial phrase ‘all their lives’ because it infers that they understand each other, much like childhood friends. Lucy’s extreme innocence could be a result of her truthfulness, a quality which seems to be her defining trait, as Lewis writes that ‘Lucy was a very truthful girl’.[xxix] However, it could also be that Lewis was himself ignorant in regard to women, which impacted on his portrayal of Lucy. Michael Nelson provides an insight into Lewis’ treatment of women, writing that ‘Lewis, after all, spent nearly all of his life in a midcentury Oxbridge that was notoriously dismissive of women’.[xxx] Because of his education, it is possible that Lewis wrote Lucy as a naïve and innocent character because he believed that those traits were common or desirable for women.[xxxi] While Pullman also attended Oxford University, he did so over forty years later, when the environment for women may have been changing.[xxxii]

Unlike Lucy, Lyra appears to be extremely distrustful of strangers. Paralleling the passage where Lucy meets the Faun, Lyra meets a stranger in London while she buys a sandwich and coffee. Pullman writes ‘”Let me pay for this,” said the man in the top hat. Lyra thought, why not? I can run faster than him, and I might need all my money later.’ [xxxiii] The declarative sentence ‘I can run faster than him’ is significant because it implies that Lyra’s first instinct is to think he may try to harm her. The man later asks ‘”What’s your name?”, to which Lyra replies ‘”Alice.’”[xxxiv] Unlike Lucy, who willingly introduces herself to the Faun, Lyra gives the man a fake name, and by doing so, conveys that she follows her instincts and values safety over politeness. ‘Alice’ is also a minor sentence that is devoid of politeness or extra information, which implies that Lyra is not inclined to share information about herself or accept the man as her friend. Lyra’s lies and defensive instincts allow her to be a pro-active character, which is then emphasised by her escape. Pullman writes ‘The top-hat man glanced around, and Lyra set off towards the theatre crowd.’[xxxv] The prepositional phrase ‘towards the theatre crowd’ conveys that Lyra is distancing herself from the man, and the common noun ‘crowd’ denotes a place where many people are gathered, which would make Lyra hard to locate. This is very different from Lucy’s reaction when the Faun reveals his original intentions, as Lewis writes ‘”What do you mean?” cried Lucy, turning very white.’[xxxvi] While the phrasal verb ‘set off’ in Pullman’s passage implies that Lyra actively tries to protect herself, the verb ‘cried’ and the verb phrase ‘turning very white’ in Lewis’ passage imply that Lucy is submerged by her emotions and restricted by her fear. As a result, Lewis presents us with a weak, naïve girl whose safety rests on the intentions of others, while Pullman presents us with a smart heroine who is resourceful and confident enough to escape from a potentially harmful situation. The differences in Lucy and Lyra’s trust in strangers, however, could be due to the environment Lewis and Pullman lived in. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950, when only nine cases of child abduction were recorded in England and Wales.[xxxvii] Northern Lights, on the other hand, was published in 1995, when 355 cases of child abduction were recorded, compared to 56 in 1984.[xxxviii] By portraying Lyra as smart and untrusting, Pullman may have reacted against the naïve, trusting Lucy Pevensie, but also the alarming rise of recorded abducted children at his time of writing.

A significant difference between The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Northern Lights is that the former portrays lying and deception as traits of villains, while the latter portrays them as necessary means for Lyra to save people. For example, the alethiometer warns Lyra that Iorek Byrnison is planning to rescue her from the palace where she is held.[xxxix] Knowing Iorek would be killed on approaching the palace, Lyra decides to manipulate Iofur into fighting Iorek himself, telling him ‘”I can become your daemon […] but only if you defeat Iorek Byrnison in single combat.’[xl] By lying to Iofur and telling him that she can become his daemon, Lyra demonstrates an understanding of human weakness and manipulates it to her advantage. She knows that it is immoral, as she later tells Iorek ‘”Oh, Iorek! I’ve done a terrible thing!”’, but understands the necessity of her lies, as she states ‘I had to do that’.[xli],[xlii] Lyra appears to be a heroine whose good and bad side are not split, but working together. This significantly differs from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Lucy is defined by femininity and truthfulness. The only female character who attempts to lie for her own benefit is the White Witch, who manipulates Lucy’s brother, Edmund, into leading his siblings to her. She states ‘I want a nice boy whom I could bring up as a Prince and who would be the King of Narnia when I am gone […] he would wear a gold crown and eat Turkish Delight all day long’.[xliii] The White Witch appeals to Edmund’s greed with the noun phrases ‘King of Narnia’ and ‘a gold crown’, as they connote royalty and an elevated status in Narnia. She also appeals to his gluttony, as the verb phrase ‘eat Turkish Delight’ infers that Edmund could eat it if he accepted the White Witch’s proposition. Similarly to Lyra, the White Witch appeals to Edmund’s weaknesses in order to achieve her goal. However, she eventually fails, and Edmund’s brother, Peter, states at the end of the novel that her defeat was ‘all Edmund’s doing.’[xliv] The White Witch’s defeat being caused by Edmund is symbolic because it conveys that lying can only have negative consequences, which may have been Lewis' way of conveying the implications of women lying, and therefore, sinning. It is then unsurprising that Pullman created a character whose success arises from lying, as it infers that women can still be fundamentally good, even if they sin.

Northern Lights reacts against The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by portraying a female protagonist who goes against the patriarchal ideal of girls and women expressed by Lewis. Pullman stated that he does not deliver messages through his work because he is ‘not the post-office’.[xlv] Northern Lights, then, may not be a conscious attempt to undermine the values transmitted by Lewis, but the character of Lyra certainly fights the gender roles and stereotypes propagated by Lucy’s character. While it is true that Lucy could be perceived as a role model because of her virtue and kindness, Lyra appears to be a more realistic one. By using Lyra’s flaws as a means of empowerment, Pullman conveys that girls and women can achieve their goals, even if they are not considered feminine and use questionable means to succeed. As a result, Pullman invites his readers to question the values behind Lewis’ heroine, as well as the values of society in general. Liberal newspapers and magazines such as The Guardian and Bustle respectively listed Lyra Belacqua in their ‘Top 10 feminist heroes in fiction’ and ’13 Book Characters That Made Us Feminist’, demonstrating that Northern Lights is at least successful in reaching a more liberal and feminist audience.[xlvi],[xlvii]


[i] Danuta Kean, ‘Philip Pullman unveils epic fantasy trilogy The Book of Dust’. The Guardian., [accessed 3 April 2017].

[ii] ‘The Books’. Phillip Pullman., [accessed 28 March].

[iii] J’annine Jobling ‘Fantastic Spiritualities: Monsters, Heroes and the Contemporary Religious Imagination’. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010, p.147. Google Books., [accessed 28 March].

[iv] Michael Ward, ‘C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman’. Planet Narnia., [accessed 18 March].

[v] Lucinda Everett, ‘The 20 greatest children’s books ever’. The Telegraph., [accessed 18 March].

[vi] Alana M. Vincent, ‘Culture, Communion and Recovery: Tolkienian Fairy-Story and Inter-Religious Exchange’. United Kingdom, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012. P. 55. Google Books.,+communion+and+recovery+Alana+M.+Vincent*&hl=fr&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj31qa41efSAhWqAMAKHaDlBwMQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=Culture%2C%20communion%20and%20recovery%20Alana%20M.%20Vincent*&f=false, [accessed 18 March 2017].

[vii] C. A. Campbell, ‘Heroes and heroines: a feminist analysis of female child protagonists in the epic fantasies of George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, and Philip Pullman’. United States, University of British Columbia, 2009., [accessed 18 March 2017].

[viii] Robert MacSwain, Michael Ward, ‘The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis’. United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 2010, P. 174. Google Books. cw_nSAhWrDsAKHWHPDlkQ6AEIKzAC#v=onepage&q=philip%20pullman%20'boys%20are%20better%20than%20girls'&f=false, [accessed 28 March].

[ix] John Ezard, ‘Narnia books attacked as racist and sexist’. The Guardian., [accessed 18 March].

[x] Stephanie Spencer, ‘Gender, Work and Education in Britain in the 1950s’. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005., [accessed 25 March 2017].

[xi] C.S Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Collins Educational, 1983), p. 103.

[xii] C.S Lewis, p. 102.

[xiii] Hallie Tibbetts, ‘Sirens: Collected Papers 2009-2011’., 2012, p. 52. Google Books., [accessed 18 March].

[xiv] C.S Lewis, p. 102.

[xv] Sam McBride, ‘Battling the Woman Warrior: Females and Combat in Tolkien and Lewis.’ The Free Library., [accessed 18 March 2017].

[xvi] Bethan Bell, ‘Women's Voluntary Service: 'The army Hitler forgot'. BBC News., [accessed 25 March 2017].

[xvii] ‘Gender Identity Development in Children; hat's the Difference Between Gender and Sex?’ Healthy, [accessed 24 March 2017].

[xviii] Philip Pullman, Northern Lights (United Kingdom: Scholastic Ltd, 1998), p. 36.

[xix] Philip Pullman, p. 37.

[xx] Stacey Radin, ‘Brave Girls: Raising Young Women with Passion and Purpose to Become Powerful Leaders’. Simon and Schuster, 2016, p.115., [accessed 29 March 2017].

[xxi] Christine Brain, Penny Mukherji, ‘Understanding Child Psychology’. Nelson Thornes, 2005, p.15., [accessed 28 March 2017].

[xxii] Philip Pullman, pp. 290-291.

[xxiii] Myriam Miedzian, ‘Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence’. Lantern Books, 2002, p. 96., [accessed 25 March].

[xxiv] Roberta S. Trites, ‘Waking Sleeping Beauty: Feminist Voices in Children’s Novels’. United States, University of Iowa Press, 1997, p. 25., [accessed 18 March 2017].

[xxv] ‘Life Before Man’. Goodreads., [accessed 25 March 2017].

[xxvi] ‘The Bloody Chamber’. Goodreads., [accessed 25 March 2017].

[xxvii] C.S Lewis, p. 16.

[xxviii] C.S Lewis, p. 19.

[xxix] C.S Lewis, p. 30.

[xxx] Michael Nelson, ‘For the Love of Narnia.’ Chronicle of Higher Education 2, 2005, pp. 14-15. 

[xxxi] ‘Gender & Gender Identity’. Planned Parenthood., [accessed 18 March 2017].

[xxxii] April Peake, ‘The Cherwell Profile – Philip Pullman’. Cherwell., [accessed 25 March 2017].

[xxxiii] Philip Pullman, pp. 100-101.

[xxxiv] Philip Pullman, p. 101.

[xxxv] Philip Pullman, p. 102.

[xxxvi] C.S Lewis, p. 24.

[xxxvii] ‘A summary of recorded crime data from 1898 to 2001/02’., [accessed 28 March 2017].

[xxxviii] ‘A summary of recorded crime data from 1898 to 2001/02’., [accessed 28 March 2017].

[xxxix] Philip Pullman, p. 327.

[xl] Philip Pullman, p. 339.

[xli] Philip Pullman, p. 347.

[xlii] Philip Pullman, p. 348.

[xliii] C.S Lewis, p. 41.

[xliv] C.S Lewis, p. 164.

[xlv] Philip Pullman in conversation with Andrew Copson at the BHA Conference 2011. 19:28. Youtube., [accessed 29 March 2017].

[xlvi] Maria Turtschaninoff, ‘Top 10 feminist heroes in fiction’. The Guardian., [accessed 29 March 2017].

[xlvii] Sadie L. Trombetta, ’13 Book Characters That Made Us Feminists’. Bustle., [accessed 29 March]. 

Summer Selections is a FalWriting series bringing you a variety of writing produced this academic year by Falmouth students. It's a vibrant and diverse selection of work covering text forms from experimental poetry to forensic literary analysis, from gothic short stories to critical dissertations. This year the selection is guest edited by third year student Jess Hawes.