In Monday’s episode of HBO’s His Dark Materials, we meet two beloved characters from Philip Pullman’s trilogy of novels: Lee Scoresby, a Texan aeronaut, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjorn, or armored bear. In The Golden Compass, the first of the trilogy, Pullman has Scoresby mention that he knows Byrnison, a bit, from “the Tunguska campaign.” “Bears are difficult critters no matter what, but he’s a problem, and no mistake,” he adds.
But the HBO series suggests a much closer bond between the two. “That bear saved our lives,” Lee reminds his daemon Hester early in the episode, and it’s clear that Lee is coming to the northern port of Trollesund to help his friend, whose armor has been stolen and who’s being held in indentured servitude. How do Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison know each other?
The answer to that question lies in a slim spin-off novel Pullman published in 2008, Once Upon a Time in the North, a rousing yarn set 35 years before the events of His Dark Materials. If you’ve never read it, you should, because it’s great—but also because it tells the story of the first time Lee and Iorek meet, and how Iorek saved Lee’s life.
Once Upon a Time takes place just a few months after Lee Scoresby acquires his hot-air balloon in a poker game, when he’s still learning the ins and outs of flying—aided by a tattered book called The Elements of Aerial Navigation, but only the first half, because it’s been torn in two and he doesn’t have the rest of it. Lee crash-lands in the oil-boom town of Novy Odense, in Muscovy, and, “assuming the nonchalance proper to a prince of the air,” saunters into town in search of work. There he attends a political rally, briefly woos a very dumb young lady, meets a killer from his past, helps a librarian with her love life, and battles corporate thugs on behalf of a drunken ship’s captain. And he meets Iorek, then a young bear, who hasn’t yet made his armor and only wears a battered iron helmet in battle.
For those familiar with the laconic, older Lee of the books (or the 2007 movie, where he was played by silver-haired Sam Elliott), it’s a delight to meet this younger Lee, only 24, hard up for cash, ready to jump into a fight, and completely full of beans. In one scene Lee and Iorek are scheming how to convince the harbormaster to let them into a warehouse and Lee tells Iorek (whose name he persistently mispronounces), “I’m going to be spinning a yarn, York Byrnison, so my attention will be kind of occupied, and I’d be obliged if you’d keep an eye out for any trouble.” Lee then declares himself an attorney and bluffs the harbormaster with made-up statutes and legal gobbledygook—a moment the show’s screenwriter, Jack Thorne, borrowed for this episode in Lee’s face-off with the town official Mr. Sysselman.
Indeed, as Miranda mentioned in a live Q&A after a screening of this episode last week in New York City, the Lee Scoresby of the HBO series owes a lot to the Lee of Once Upon a Time in the North, resembling him much more closely than he does the Lee of The Golden Compass. That Lee is nearing 60 and has been carefully saving for a nice quiet retirement on a ranch in Texas; this Lee is younger, spryer, willing to provoke a bar brawl just to prove a point (and swipe a few wallets). It’s a fun choice for the series to make, and it owes its existence to this delightful, 96-page adventure.
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