His Dark Materials: Northern Lights in Google Earth

Some ideas for cross-curricular teaching

This lesson idea combines the study of a classic modern children's book with an investigation in Google Earth as students find out about an extreme and fascinating land.
Note to readers from the USA: the book is published elsewhere as The Golden Compass.


Year 8 students at my school are reading Northern Lights, part of the amazing His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.
Northern Lights text

Svalbard, is a remote Norwegian island, and in the His Dark Materials parallel universe, home to armoured bears and the prison of the mysterious Lord Asriel. The arctic landscape is portrayed beautifully by the author. The heroine, Lyra, survives the crash-landing of her hot air balloon following an attack by cliff-ghasts. She is taken to the palace of the armoured bears, and later makes a sledge journey to Lord Asriel's prison. Intermittently, the intense flickering of the Aurora reveals a strange city new suspended in the sky.
The Aurora borealis, source Wikipedia

During the final scenes there is a dramatic chase across an icy plain and Lyra survives an attack by flying witches before the climactic events at the Bridge to the Stars.

The idea of the lesson is to get students to visualize the geography of Svalbard. Fortunately there are two areas of high resolution detail for the island. One of them doesn't appear to have any terrain data, the other, despite measuring just 18.5 km square contains sufficient landforms, including mountains, snowy plains and a beach, so that it could very well form the setting for the events of the book.
Svalbard in Google Earth
Svalbard in Google Earth click for large version
download google earth filedownload this placemark

The lesson idea

The lesson involves students reading the final part of the book and noting the major locations, for example the crash-landing, the armoured bears palace, and the location of the Bridge to the Stars.
Imagining themselves as location scouts for the film version of Northern Lights, they use Google Earth to examine the the terrain very carefully, matching the landscape features with the text. They create placemarks that represent their ideas for locations for a film shoot. The information balloon in the placemarks should describe the reasons for their choices. Less able students could be given some partially completed placemarks as a writing frame.
bear palace placemark

Example of a placemark

download google earth filedownload this placemark

The actual film (entitled The Golden Compass) will be released in December 2007. There is an excellent official site for the film.

Svalbard is a fascinating island to research. This photo from Wikipedia would make a good What / Where / Why - type introduction:
mystery image
source: Wikipedia

There is a superb, very atmospheric 360 panorama of the Northern Lights by Witek Kaszkin at the Worldwide Panorama site. Click "View in Full Screen" for the best effect.


Extension ideas

The opening scenes of the book are set in Oxford. Here is a picture reveal PowerPoint to see if students can recognise Oxford from a choice of 4 mystery images.
Although Jordan College is imaginary, students could use the excellent 3D panoramas of the city to complete a similar location-scouting exercise for the Oxford scenes.
Here is an interactive map that links to the 3D panoramas.
This panorama makes a good introduction for students who are unfamiliar with Oxford.
Could this be Jordan College?

Links and resources

There is a folder of example placemarks to download. These could be edited and used as a writing frame for less able students.
download google earth fileDownload file of example placemarks
The official site for the actual film The Golden Compass (to be released in December 2007)
Find out more about Svalbard at Wikipedia
Watch video of the Northern Lights at Google Video (More at You Tube) If both sites are filtered at your school, here is a video to download. (This is the source)