His Dark Materials

A Spoiler-Free Guide to the 'His Dark Materials' Universe

From who's who to what the heck an alethiometer is, this is what you need to know before watching the HBO fantasy-epic

It's been 24 years since The Golden Compass, the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, was released. And it's been 12 years since the abysmal film of the same name flopped miserably in theaters, thus canceling future plans to adapt the two other books in the trilogy. But finally, fans of the young-adult fantasy series have the on-screen adaptation Pullman's work deserves in HBO and BBC's upcoming series (premiering Monday, Nov. 4).

With an all-star cast, a rich mythology, and a powerful political message, His Dark Materials presents a world so deep you'll want to immerse yourself in it completely. Following the journey of a young girl, Lyra, whose fate is entangled with a dangerous conspiracy and a mysterious substance known as Dust, His Dark Materials is a complex coming-of-age tale about the battles between authority and freedom and destiny and free will. But if you've never read the books or you did so long ago your memories have been lost in the sands of time, it might be a little tricky to keep all aspects of Pullman's stunning world straight.

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So whether you're a fan of the books in need a basic refresher or if you're coming in green and simply want a reference foundation going into the series premiere, enjoy our helpful primer on everything you need to know about the world of His Dark Materials.

His Dark Materials

A gathering of gyptian boats in Lyra's world



The Parallel World: His Dark Materials is set in a world that's very similar to ours but also very different. While the basic geographic landscape remains the same (all the familiar continents appear to exist) there are several tweaks to names of countries and regional divides. For example, Texas is its own country in this world and Lyra is from Brytain, not Britain. Lyra's world also includes countries that draw parallels from history, such as Tartary and Muscovy.

Oh, and did we mention there's magic? Lyra's world is a place where witches are real, every human comes with a dæmon (an animal embodiment of their soul), and prophecies are regarded with deadly seriousness. It's a fantastical place, which also means it's filled with a whole new set of dangers for viewers to discover.

And while Lyra's world features witches flying around on cloud-pine (their term for broomstick), it's also quite technologically antiquated compared to our own. Forget digital technology; these people use "projecting lanterns," aka slide projectors, to show people their "photograms," aka photos. And popular forms of travel include zeppelins, hot air balloons, and gyropters (or as you'd call them, helicopters).

The Magisterium: Lyra's world is ruled by the Magisterium, the all-powerful authority of the Holy Church. Anyone who goes against the Church's Christian teachings are labeled heretics and can be subjected to brutal punishments, including execution, by the Magisterium. The Magisterium will do anything to stay in control, which includes censoring any knowledge of discoveries that don't fall in line with the Church's teachings. Universities, such as Oxford's Jordan College, are supposedly able to research boundary-pushing topics thanks to "scholastic sanctuary," but the Magisterium's support of academic freedom is largely a ruse.

His Dark Materials

A member of the Magesterium


The North: A largely underdeveloped region that is home to dangerous creatures, including several ghostly species such as cliff-ghasts, that is central to the research into Dust. It also includes Svalbard, an archipelago that acts as the capital for the panserbjørn.

Panserbjørne: Otherwise known as armored bears, the panserbjørn are a species of polar bears with the ability to speak human languages. They are incredibly discerning and generally solitary creatures who often solve problems through combat. Using their dexterous paws (which include opposable thumbs), panserbjørn create their own armor from "sky-iron," which is incredibly difficult to break. For a panserbjørn, their armor is representative of their soul, much like a dæmon is for a human.

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Witches: Magically gifted humanoid beings who can live for over a thousand years. In Lyra's world, all witches are female and their dæmons always settle into the forms of birds. Witch society is divided into clans, each of which has its own ruler. Witches also take part in a coming-of-age ritual that results in them being allowed to separate from their dæmons over long distances.

Gyptians: A nomadic people in Lyra's world who live and travel on boats. The gyptians are a close-knit community who value family above all else. They are ruled by the Gyptians' Council, which consists of the heads of six large families that all western gyptians are divided into. Despite their generally noble nature, Gyptians are typically treated as outcasts by mainstream society and often are the focus of unfounded rumors and negative stereotypes.

​His Dark Materials

Lyra receiving her alethiometer



Dæmon: A physical manifestation of a human soul that takes the form of an animal with the gift of human speech. Since a human and their dæmon are two parts of one being, it's extremely painful for them to be too far away from each other, and the death of one half results in the death of the other.

During a human's childhood, their dæmon can shapeshift into any animal form, even an animal the human has never personally encountered. The change can be done for no particular reason beyond the dæmon's whim, in order to gain a skill (like shifting into a bird to fly), or can be the result of intense emotions (if a dæmon is feeling scared and small, it might shift into the form of a mouse). Once the human reaches puberty, their dæmon settles into its permanent form, which is reflective of their human's personality. Sometimes, the form a dæmon settles into can cause problems for their human, such as when a dæmon settles into a water animal, thus restricting where their human is able to go.

Dust: A mysterious particle that is exclusively attracted to adults and invisible to the human eye. It's the subject of Lord Asriel's research, which is considered heretical in the eyes of the Magisterium. Dust is also tied to the mysterious appearance of what seems to be a city visible within the Northern Lights, leading Asriel to believe in the possible existence of multiple worlds.

His Dark Materials

Asriel (James McAvoy) with his dæmon Stelmaria in the North


Alethiometer: A rare symbol-reader that can reveal truthful answers to the user's questions. Given the threat the truth can pose to the Magisterium, the creation or use of alethiometers outside their control is banned. However, Lyra is secretly gifted one. Being able to read the alethiometer, which involves interpreting a series of symbols and the movements of a suspended needle, typically involves years of training, but Lyra discovers she's able to do so intuitively.

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Gobblers: The name children gave whoever (or whatever) was abducting children from across Brytain. The victims of the Gobblers are disproportionately from lower- or working-class families, including many gyptians.

​Dafne Keen, His Dark Materials

Lyra (Dafne Keen) and her dæmon Pan



Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen): The heroine of His Dark Materials, Lyra is a young orphan who was raised at Jordan College after her uncle, Lord Asriel, left her there as an infant during the Great Flood. Lyra is incredibly courageous and independent, with an unruly and impulsive nature that can often get her into trouble. Although Lyra cares little for formal education, she's incredibly quick-witted; she just has a bad tendency to use her wit to tell extravagant lies. Her dæmon is Pantalaimon (Kit Connor), most often called Pan, and he tends to act as Lyra's voice of reason and conscience. At the time of the series' start, Pan hasn't settled into any form.

Lord Asriel (James McAvoy): An aristocratic explorer who works in experimental theology (aka physics), with a specific interest in Dust. His work, and the lengths he'll go for it, makes Asriel a threat to the Magisterium's authority. Asriel puts his work above all else, rarely considering how his actions affect other people. Although Asriel is Lyra's only known relative, he rarely visits his niece at Jordan College. His dæmon is Stelmaria (Helen McCrory), a snow leopard.

Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson): An influential, enigmatic woman who claims to be an explorer in need of an assistant. Lyra leaves Jordan College for London to fill this role, but the more time she spends with Mrs. Coulter, the more she comes to mistrust her controlling benefactor, who has close ties to the Magisterium. Mrs. Coulter's dæmon is a golden monkey who -- unlike other dæmons -- has no name and never speaks.

​Ruth Wilson, His Dark Materials

Ruth Wilson as Mrs. Coulter


Stanislaus Grumman (Andrew Scott): An explorer and scholar who disappeared while studying Dust in the North. The mystery surrounding Grumman and his disappearance involves revelations that are of particular interest to the Magisterium and Lord Asriel.

Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg): A panserbjørn who was tricked out of his armor by a group of humans who then exploited Iorek for free labor. Although Iorek is extremely proud and has no issue with violence, he is also very selfless, trustworthy, and sentimental (although he's likely never to admit this last part). Iorek is a good friend of Lee Scoresby's and becomes one of Lyra's most trusted allies.

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Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manual Miranda): A Texan aëronaut who travels with his arctic hare dæmon Hester (Cristela Alonzo) in his hot air balloon, Lee is always up for an adventure. Defined largely by his kindness and tenacity, Lee lives by a strict code of personal ethics and avoids violence unless absolutely necessary. He becomes an ally of Lyra and is a close friend of Iorek Byrnison.

​Lin-Manuel Miranda, His Dark Materials

Lin-Manuel Miranda as Lee Scoresby


Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd): A kitchen boy at Jordan College, Roger grew up with Lyra and is her closest friend. When Roger is kidnapped by the Gobblers, Lyra sets off to do whatever it takes to rescue him. His dæmon Salcilia (Eloise Little) hasn't settled into her permanent form at the time of the show's start.

John Faa (Lucian Msamati) and Farder Coram (James Cosmo): Two of the most prominent gyptians. John Faa, otherwise known as Lord Faa, is the ruler of the western gyptians. His dæmon is a crow. Farder Coram is second-in-command to John Faa and his dæmon is a cat, Sophonax. Together, John Faa and Farder Coram lead the gyptian initiative to rescue the stolen children from the Gobblers.

Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas): The queen of the Lake Enara witch clan, Serafina becomes a close ally of Lyra's on her quest. She was once romantically involved with Farder Coram and they had a son together who died from disease at an early age. Her dæmon is a snow goose named Kaisa (David Suchet).

His Dark Materials premieres Monday, Nov. 4 at 9/8c on HBO.