Names from Books: The Golden Compass

December 13, 2016 Clare Green

By Clare Bristow

Now that winter is here, it’s a good time to look at names from the frozen north and beyond in the worlds created by Philip Pullman in his young-adult trilogy His Dark Materials.

If you’ve read or watched the first part, The Golden Compass (called Northern Lights in some countries), it’s hard to forget the heroine, a girl called Lyra, or the friends and foes she meets on her journey to the Arctic. She comes from a universe similar but different to ours: it’s a bit steampunk and contains colourful characters like witches and armoured polar bears.

In the following books, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, we follow Lyra beyond the north into other worlds, including our own, inhabited by all manner of people: humans, angels, harpies, and even stranger creatures. With this eclectic mix of characters and Pullman’s love of symbols and hidden meanings, you can bet they have some good names.

Here’s a look at some of the most interesting names from The Golden Compass and its sequels, from wintry northern names to modern-sounding surnames. Warning: if you haven’t read any of the books or seen the film, there may be a few giveaway details here.

Lyra is a name with many layers of meaning. It’s a musical instrument, a constellation, and it’s been connected with a medieval theologian and a poem by William Blake – but perhaps most relevantly for parents today, she’s a great character and the name has a pretty sound that puts it right on trend. Lyra has leapt up in popularity since the late 1990s when The Golden Compass was first published, and it entered the US top 1000 for the first time in 2015. It’s also the name of a character in the new Star Wars movie, which might help it rise further.

The hero of the books, Will, has a go-to everyboy name which also happens to be a word – and he does indeed need a lot of willpower. (His surname, Parry, is a word too.) Speaking of ordinary names, many of the children from Lyra’s world – her playmates and ones she rescues from a lab – have names that feel somewhat old-fashioned, like Roger, Tony, Bridget and Jessie. They match her world, which is more traditional and less high-tech than ours.

In the far north of the world, we meet characters with names from Scandinavian and neighbouring languages. For example, the witches who hail from northern and eastern Europe have names reflecting that, like Lena, Ruta, Ieva, Reina, Juta and Katya. The main witch in the story, Serafina Pekkala, has an angelic name that has risen in recent years. 134 girls were called Serafina in 2015 – only slightly less than the 213 called Seraphina. (Her surname, which sounds so exotic, is the Finnish equivalent of Peterson.)

Another Scandinavian name is Iorek, an armoured bear. It’s pronounced like Yorick, as in “Alas, poor,” and it’s likely to be a diminutive of Jorg or another name in the George family.

Moving on to names generally connected with the north, there’s Charles Boreal, a sinister character who divides his time between two worlds. Boreal is a Latin word for “northern” – as in the northern lights, the Aurora Borealis. I can’t find any evidence that it’s been used as a name, but it feels like it could be, for either gender.

Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut from Texas, takes his surname from the real arctic explorer William Scoresby, who also gave his name to Scoresby Sund, a fjord system in Greenland. This would make a great surname name, with the same cool ending as names like Colby and Rigby.

Speaking of surnames, there’s also Coulter (Marisa Coulter, Lyra’s mother), which sounds like popular surnames like Carter and Cooper, but is much less common. And there’s Malone (physicist Mary Malone, who befriends Lyra and Will), an Irish surname that’s part-Marlowe, part-Sloane. It’s been given rarely but almost equally to boys and girls in the last few years.

In a story in which religion plays a major part, it’s not surprising that some of Pullman’s characters have biblical names. Asriel (Lyra’s father) is a name found in the book of Numbers as the forefather of a tribe. It has a soft, ethereal sound, but it suffers from being a variant of Azrael, the name of the Angel of Death according to some traditions. Having said that, Azrael was given to four times as many children in 2015.

Other promising biblical character names include Jotham and Baruch, both of which are used rarely but steadily, and the more popular Enoch, which has been in the US top 1000 since 2010. Balthamos, an angel, has a name that certainly looks biblical, like a smoosh of Balthasar and Amos, but it’s not clear where Pullman got his inspiration from. Meanwhile, Xaphania, another angel name, seems to be a feminine version of Xaphan, a mysterious name belonging to a rebellious angel in a 19th-century text (and also a Marvel Comics character).

We move now from angels to dæmons. In Lyra’s world, every human has a dæmon (pronounced “demon”): an animal that’s part of them, representing their inner self. And every dæmon has a name – just imagine how much fun name nerds would have in that world, with twice as much name data to study!

Dæmons’ names are often more exotic than human names – though there are exceptions, like Hester, Lee Scoresby’s down-to-earth hare-dæmon. Lyra’s dæmon, Pantalaimon (“all-compassionate” in Greek) will probably never get many namesakes, but some names that might just work for humans are Kirjava (“multicolored” in Finnish), Kaisa, Karossa, Salcilia, and Stelmaria. The name Daemon itself has risen in use in the years since Pullman’s books were published. It’s given to about 50 boys each year – one hopes it’s said as “Damon” rather than “demon”.

Do any of these names appeal to you? Or are they better off in a parallel universe?

About the author

Clare Green

Clare Green writes Nameberry's weekly round-up of the latest baby name news, including celebrity announcements, unusual naming stories, and new statistics from around the world . Clare, who has been writing for Nameberry since 2015, lives in England, where she has worked in libraries and studies linguistics. You can follow her personally on Instagram and Twitter.

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