I finished this piece I started… back in spring 2017, are you kidding me?? Jeez.
I wanted to create a cover-style piece with an unusual take. Northern Lights has had many, many beautiful covers, and many pick up on one of two pieces of imagery: Lyra and Iorek (usually the former riding the latter) or the alethiometer.
So many beautiful illustrations and designs now exist based on those ideas that I was interested in finding another way to evoke visually the appeal of the book.
I was thinking about my series of cover-style images that spring out of using one of the books locations, in stylised form, and in turn how that springs out of a strong place-i-ness I find important to children’s literature.
I was also thinking about how I tend to think book cover imagery should relate back to title. That it should not directly illustrate, but have an interesting tangential relationship with the meaning of the title. One should interact with the other to suggest something interesting, unique and with depths worth exploring.
As a title ‘Northern Lights’ most obviously refers to the common name of the aurora boreales, an image central to the novel. That would be the most literal thing to illustrate. So rather I wanted to find and depict another possible meaning of the phrase 'northern lights' that brings out something else from the books from the book. I think of the lights of the locations and civilisations of the North, and how sparse and surrounded by huge darkness they are.
I chose the ice-and-stone fortress of Svalbard to depict, incoorperating the title typography as narrow windows emitting ambiguous light.
As an illustration it’s not a very literal interpretation of the way the book’s bear palace at Svalbard is described - that is, a new building emulating Western human culture. I have included some touches of what might be Iofur’s pretensions: a glass dome, Germanic turrets. But I’ve mostly steered into something that feels rugged, imposing and unplaceable in time or place.
Finally, I also allowed myself to not worry as much as I would in a real cover about legibility. With a modern classic like Northern Lights, there’s slightly less imperative to shout the title and even author – a cover design can afford to play things a little coy and confidently, trusting its imagery and vibe to communicate and not really needing to catch passing trade in the way most books do. But all the same, I suspect this design would need revision for clarity at thumbnail before it could ever be book-cover ready.
It also lacks the series title, because, I suppose, while I like the whole trilogy a great deal, this is a celebration of this one book for me, which alone has a huge and important place in my heart.
The first episode of His Dark Materials went out last Sunday and both now-me and twelve-year-old me were enchanted. It’s not what either of us would have imagined in the most wonderful way; Northern Lights as a novel will always be available in its perfect self. It’s even had a wonderful and thoroughly faithful/literal adaptation in the form of the excellent full-cast audio. It’s very exciting to see storytellers with their own ideas and confidence telling a different version of Northern Lights so far.