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Who is Iorek Byrnison?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated Feb 02, 2024
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Iorek Byrnison is a character in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy novels. He is an armored bear, and becomes a friend of the protagonist, Lyra. Ultimately he fights on the side of Lord Asriel against the Authority and the Kingdom of Heaven.

Iorek Byrnison is a panserbjørne, one of the great armored bears of Lyra’s world. These are like enormous polar bears, but have opposable thumbs and are intelligent and capable of speech. They are mighty warriors and metalsmiths, and forge their own suits of armor, which far surpass anything made by men. Their armor acts as a sort of soul for them, in much the same way a daemon acts for humans in Lyra’s world. The panserbjørne have very strict ideas of honor and correct behavior, which at times differ drastically from that of humans.

The panserbjørne also appear generally incapable of being fooled. As a result, they neither lie nor are able to be lied to. This seems to be the case except when a panserbjørne has adopted human customs so much that he becomes susceptible to lies himself.

Iorek Byrnison was once the heir to the throne of the panserbjørne in Svalbard. In his youth, however, he got into a fight with another bear over a female. Unbeknownst to Iorek Byrnison, the other bear had been drugged by Iorek’s rival Iofur Raknison, and so was not able to think clearly. So it was that he refused to yield to Iorek Byrnison, and in the fury of battle, Iorek killed the other bear, something not allowed within panserbjørne society. For this reason he was exiled, and dishonored, with his armor taken from him.

Iorek Byrnison went on to become a warrior for hire, and in his travels fought side by side with the human Lee Scoresby in the Tunguska Campaign. Lee saved Iorek’s life during this campaign, and Iorek saved Lee’s life, creating a bond that would last the rest of their lives. Sometime during his mercenary life, Iorek finds metal from a fallen meteor, Sky Iron, and uses it to recreate his armor.

Iorek eventually made his way to the human settlement of Trollesund in Lapland, where he began to drink heavily. The manipulative humans of Trollesund stole Iorek Byrnison’s armor while he slept in a drunken stupor, and when he awoke he destroyed a great deal of property in his fury. The humans then pressed him into service, ostensibly to pay for the damages he had caused, and kept him drunk most of the time.

When Lyra eventually arrived in Trollesund, she helped Iorek Byrnison recover his armor and gain his freedom from the humans. Iorek pledged his fealty to Lyra until the end of her campaign. Over the course of their travels, Lyra arranged for a battle between Iorek Byrnison and the usurper of the throne of Svalbard, Iofur Raknison. In arranging the battle, Lyra additionally shows that unlike most panserbjørne, Iofur Raknison is capable to being fooled. So Iorek takes advantage of this fact, and defeats him in single combat, becoming king of panserbjørne.

In later books, Iorek Byrnison continues to assist Lyra in her quest. After the hole between worlds is opened, he takes his people to the Himalayas, in search of ice that is not melting. Ultimately, the Himalayas prove to be unsuitable for them to live, and Iorek returns with his people. While there, however, he assists Will in reforging the subtle knife, in the process warning both Will and Lyra that the knife has its own purposes.

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