In the first series, we meet the panserbjørne: talking armoured bears of the Arctic. They might be characterised as possessing a quasi-feudal, patrilineal and patriarchal, martial/duelling, artisanal/metalworking society and laws. As such, panserbjørne are clearly inspired by saga-era medieval Scandinavia, notably with the focus on exile as the ultimate punishment. How does this get reflected in the costumes and settings of the TV show?
Medievalisms are found elsewhere in the alternate-reality of His Dark Materials. For the TV adaptation, versions of London and Oxford were created in detail. Whilst London is art deco, Jordan College Oxford incorporates many medievalist architectural and monumental dimensions, including a crypt. The portrayal of Gyptian open-air cremation I address elsewhere but we can also see this as an allusion to the pre-modern/pre-Christian medieval pasts interplaying with an alternate-reality version of Gypsy mortuary practices.
Here though, I wish to focus on the Svalbard palace of the panserbjørne. I suggest this fantastical design evokes the medieval world inspiring the ursine society. Yet in keeping with the aesthetic and context, the designers of the TV show have taken late 19th/early 20th-century medievalisms to heart rather than designs from the medieval past, very much appropriate to the alternate-reality Earth with its airships and daemons. We see the palace best as the setting of the duel between two panserbjørne: Iorek Byrnison and Iofur Raknison. Lyra and other bears look on during the fight in this ursine subterranean equivalent of a Viking or medieval great hall. Trophies line the walls: perhaps reflecting hunts and/or battles past against sea beasts: the ribs and skulls of whales are fitted with brackets to the sturdy pillars. Further whale-bones lie in a heap with flesh still on them: presumably evidence of ursine equivalents of medieval feasting? Running around the walls of the room, and the pillars, are gilded panels and these shall be my focus here.
The friezes depict human-bear interactions: as with the trophies it seems that the hall is the custodian of royal ursine social memory: are they metallic tapestries of heroic deeds? For a king who wants bears to be more human-like, perhaps Iofur Raknison is showing the ursine past in relation to an aspired future? While I’m not suggesting I’ve pinpointed a precise real-world inspiration, this effectively evokes early 20th-century metallic medievalisms upon civic architecture, including Stockholm City Hall and Oslo City Hall. Certainly the impression is of early 20th-century architectures of stone and metal rather than anything we have surviving from the medieval past.
The abstract interlace designs on the lowest panel are wonderful in themselves. As with the panserbjørne armour, they are gilt, dynamic, artisanal and angular rather than similar to anything one would find in early medieval interlace,vegetal or zoomorphic designs. In the context of the palace of the king of the panserbjørne, they evoke (correctly for the aesthetic) art noveau style, and to my eye the Celtic-revival themes of Archibald Knox. I’m also reminded of the interlace on Tadcaster war memorial, itself an overt attempt to re-envision the famous 10th-century Cumbrian Gosforth cross in an early 20th-century commemorative context. So, again I’m suggesting the aesthetic is of early 20th century medievalisms in broad terms, rather than anything medieval.
Here I get to my final point. Between the friezes and the interlace on the walls and pillars is a third dimension of ursine material medievalism: two lines of gilded runic text run around the pillars and walls below the friezes and above the interlace. Now, I’m not a runologist, and from the glimpses in the film I cannot comment in too much detail, but I would argue that some of the runic characters relate to the elder Futhark, whilst others are crude and/or runes that don’t exist, but resemble actual runes which are mirrored along the horizontal or vertical planes. We can clearly see a vertically mirrored sowilio rune, for example, and a horizontally mirrored laguz rune too. Others might be better regarded as Anglo-Saxon runes, or versions (mirror-written?) thereof.
In summary, the panserbjørne attempt to mimick and adapt the human world, with their king Iofur Raknison wearing regal clothes, a crown, and living in a palace, is propped up by material medievalisms. Moreover, these are rightly reflected as early 20th century reinterpretations of the medieval, fitting the aesthetic of Pullman’s alternate-reality Earth. Perhaps by intent, the folly of the delusional Iofur Raknison and his aspirations to acquire a daemon and be more like humans seem to be played out through the grandiose friezes, the interlace and the runic inscriptions that adorn his mock-medieval great hall. Raknison’s egotistical and misguided appropriation of the human world is a cold and cruel fantasy of a regal Middle Ages. Therefore, this becomes a parody of himself, contrasting with Lyra’s emotional interaction with Iofur’s solitary and exiled rival: Iorek Byrnison. To my mind, the interlace, runes and friezes are all about a medieval past that never was and never is (and following Iofur’s defeat, never will be), within an alternate reality.