By Elly Murray.
Philip Pullman is most well known for his trilogy, His Dark Materials. The first book of the series, The Golden Compass, came out in 1995, quickly followed by a sequel, The Subtle Knife, in 1997, and a final book, The Amber Spyglass, in 2000. The series was reworked as a movie in 2007 and a TV show in 2019.
After its release, The Golden Compass was all the rage. When it came out in 1995, it won the Carnegie Medal for Children’s Literature in the UK. In 2007, it went on to be voted the best Carnegie Medal winner in the seventy-year history of the award. Time Magazine has included it on their list, The 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time, and the trilogy as a whole has garnered Pullman quite a few other awards and recognition. Even now, 25 years after the release of the first novel in the series, when it comes up in conversation it’s usually with a fond remembrance: “Oh yeah, The Golden Compass! Man, that was a good book.”
For some reason I never read it until a few months ago. I passed by it on a library shelf, remembered how much my fellow book nerds had loved it, and thought, “Well, I suppose it’s about time I got to it.” And I’d have to say, it holds up fairly well, even after over two decades.
The story centers around Lyra Belacqua, an adventurous young girl who bounds across the rooftops of Jordan College with her best friend, Roger, and her shape-changing daemon, Pantalaimon. When her mysterious uncle, Lord Asriel, comes to visit the college on a strange quest, Lyra learns of a cosmic particle called ‘Dust’ and the Gobblers who will stop at nothing to reverse its effects on adults, including kidnapping and experimenting on children. When Roger is taken by Gobblers, Lyra is forced to leave Jordan College and embark on an exciting and dangerous adventure, full of armored bears, balloon aeronauts, and revelations about her past. She has a much bigger part to play in the fate of her world and others than she can ever know.
I felt that the best part of the book was experiencing Lyra as a character. She’s headstrong in a way that is both refreshing and to be expected of a young child. She’s not afraid to take charge of her life, which I feel is a good message for young readers, and she shows a lot of maturity for her age.
The children in the book were the most interesting and approachable characters to me. Pullman really makes you feel their emotions, especially their terror. What specifically comes to my mind is the scene where Lyra encounters a boy, Tony Makarios, in a village. For some reason, the entire village is afraid to go anywhere near him, and when she goes to investigate, she discovers why; his daemon has been cut away. When Lyra realizes this, it reads “Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out; something unnatural and uncanny...So Lyra clung to Pantalaimon and her head swam and her gorge rose, and cold as the night was, a sickly sweat moistened her flesh with something colder still” (p. 214). The scene continues like this, with Lyra showing compassion while trying to help the boy, even though she’s absolutely horrified. The description of her emotions in this scene, as well as others throughout the book, really helped to pull me into the story and see the events happening through her eyes.
There’s also just an incredible amount of vivid detail that really sticks in your memory, like when Lyra and Farder Coram seek out Iorek Byrnison, the bear:
“Dim yellow light through the rear window of the bar showed a vast pale form crouching upright and gnawing at a haunch of meat which it held in both hands. Lyra had an impression of a bloodstained muzzle and face, small malevolent black eyes, and an immensity of dirty matted yellowish fur. As it gnawed, hideous growling, crunching, sucking noises came from it” (p. 179).
The detail here is so strong that I could hear the sounds Iorek was making in my head. I love reading books like this, because almost every description throughout is this visual and striking, and you can clearly picture in your mind what is happening in the story.
However, I felt that the motivations, inner thoughts, and emotions of the adult characters aren’t fleshed out well. I was expecting to be able to interact with them the same way we did with Lyra and the other children: being privy to their emotions and thoughts. I think Pullman may have done this intentionally because adults don’t often share what they’re thinking or feeling with children. However, the result for me was that the adult characters didn’t feel as strong or as developed as the children.
I will also say that the pacing of the book was a bit slow. I spent most of the book waiting around for something significant to happen, but then the last third of the book was action-packed.
One of the most interesting things about the book was the underlying religious discussion. Pullman is well known for his criticisms of organized religion, Christianity in particular. In a Washington Post interview, when asked about being compared to other fantasy authors like Tolkien & C. S. Lewis, he was quoted as saying, “I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.”
What’s peculiar, however, is that in this book the Church is really more of a stagnant background influence. It doesn’t support the work of the Oblation Board (the Gobblers who are, essentially, torturing children for research), but it would also like to keep the rest of the world in the dark about the nature of Dust and the possibility of a parallel world. One of the main themes of this book is Lyra going against that traditional authority to discover secrets that no one is supposed to know.
Another intriguing detail is that in this book, children haven’t been impacted by Original Sin yet. Some of the adults spend the entire book doing back flips to reclaim that innocence and freedom from sin for themselves, and end up becoming even darker as a result of their actions. It really made me pause and think about our society. Some people try to “better'' themselves through religion, but end up becoming even worse and more hateful. I believe that religion isn’t supposed to be about bettering yourself. It’s supposed to be about giving up your own desires to serve God and others, which is essentially what Lyra does. She gives up the life she knows, and the comfortable existence she could have had with Mrs. Coulter, to find out the truth and save the other kids. At the end of the book, she even gives up the certainty of her world to go explore the parallel world, and put a stop to Lord Asriel’s nefarious plans.
Overall, The Golden Compass was a wonderful read. I fully intend to read the next two books in the series, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. We have the entire trilogy here in the store, and you can order them online as well.
I enjoyed reading this book so much that I immediately went out and found the graphic novel version to read--which, incidentally, was very beautifully illustrated. You can find your own copy of the graphic novel on our online store.
Mary Ruthless: Owner & Ruthless Reader