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The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials Paperback – May 22, 2001
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Some books improve with age--the age of the reader, that is. Such is certainly the case with Philip Pullman's heroic, at times heart-wrenching novel, The Golden Compass, a story ostensibly for children but one perhaps even better appreciated by adults. The protagonist of this complex fantasy is young Lyra Belacqua, a precocious orphan growing up within the precincts of Oxford University. But it quickly becomes clear that Lyra's Oxford is not precisely like our own--nor is her world. For one thing, people there each have a personal daemon, the manifestation of their soul in animal form. For another, hers is a universe in which science, theology, and magic are closely allied:
As for what experimental theology was, Lyra had no more idea than the urchins. She had formed the notion that it was concerned with magic, with the movements of the stars and planets, with tiny particles of matter, but that was guesswork, really. Probably the stars had daemons just as humans did, and experimental theology involved talking to them.Not that Lyra spends much time worrying about it; what she likes best is "clambering over the College roofs with Roger the kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum stones on the heads of passing Scholars or to hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on, or racing through the narrow streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war." But Lyra's carefree existence changes forever when she and her daemon, Pantalaimon, first prevent an assassination attempt against her uncle, the powerful Lord Asriel, and then overhear a secret discussion about a mysterious entity known as Dust. Soon she and Pan are swept up in a dangerous game involving disappearing children, a beautiful woman with a golden monkey daemon, a trip to the far north, and a set of allies ranging from "gyptians" to witches to an armor-clad polar bear.
In The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman has written a masterpiece that transcends genre. It is a children's book that will appeal to adults, a fantasy novel that will charm even the most hardened realist. Best of all, the author doesn't speak down to his audience, nor does he pull his punches; there is genuine terror in this book, and heartbreak, betrayal, and loss. There is also love, loyalty, and an abiding morality that infuses the story but never overwhelms it. This is one of those rare novels that one wishes would never end. Fortunately, its sequel, The Subtle Knife, will help put off that inevitability for a while longer. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
If Pullman's imagination dazzled in the Victorian thrillers that culminated with The Tin Princess, in this first volume of a fantasy trilogy it is nothing short of breathtaking. Here Earth is one of only five planets in the solar system, every human has a daemon (the soul embodied as an animal familiar) and, in a time similar to our late 19th century, Oxford scholars and agents of the supreme Calvinist Church are in a race to unleash the power that will enable them to cross the bridge to a parallel universe. The story line has all the hallmarks of a myth: brought up ignorant of her true identity, 11-year-old Lyra goes on a quest from East Anglia to the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate Roger and her imprisoned uncle, Lord Asriel. Deceptions and treacheries threaten at every turn, and she is not yet certain how to read the mysterious truth-telling instrument that is her only guide. After escaping from the charming and sinister Mrs. Coulter, she joins a group of "gyptians" in search of their children, who, like Roger, have been spirited away by Mrs. Coulter's henchmen, the Gobblers. Along the way Lyra is guided by friendly witches and attacked by malevolent ones, aided by an armored polar bear and a Texan balloonist, and nearly made a victim of the Gobblers' cruel experiments. As always, Pullman is a master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension. This glittering gem will leave readers of all ages eagerly awaiting the next installment of Lyra's adventures. 100,000 first printing; $250,000 ad/promo. Ages 10-up.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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In reading this book, I felt reminiscent of the that sweet, nostalgic tone achieved by C.S. Lewis in “The Narnia Chronicles.” Perhaps this is simply due to the omniscient point of view in which the narrators guide one along in these comparable fantasy works. There is something comforting when you feel as if a story is being told you by a dear old friend while at the same time you’re being truly immersed in the narrative. That is a subtle art in which the author must carefully balance the use of the narrative voice so as not to feel intrusive or too expositional. I think there is something in the human psyche that responds to this mode of storytelling that harkens back to our ancient oral traditions.
The work is not particularly a “Christian” one, even though I am mentioning The Narnia Chronicles which are more overtly Christian in their telling. Pullman does draw on the dogma, practices, history and teachings of the Christian Religion to create his fantasy world and also to better illustrate what is happening and drive the plot along. However, unlike The Narnia Chronicles, the institutional nature of religion plays a much bigger and more nefarious role in The Golden Compass. That being said, this particular tale is not overly caught up with this theme. During some portions the religious aspect is missing altogether—though I admit that it does make up an important part of the book. So in essence, I am saying that however critical this book might be toward the institutional aspect of religion—it is not solely concerned with that point.
The world created by Pullman feels rather unique, even though it is a secondary world not unlike our own (in many ways). He devises a magical system utilizing a special dust-like substance; and souls that live outside the body in animal forms called daemons. This feels very authentic and manages to be quite delightful. Probably the strongest and most developed part of the book is the relationship Lyra has with her own daemon.
Other elements of the story come flying in as Lyra (the protagonist), takes up her quest to deliver a magical item to a far off and dangerous land. She meets interesting, fun and compelling characters all along the way. My only gripe is that at times, these non-player-character-types seem to drop on and off screen as needed. So too, does the adventure seem to proceed along one step at a time. The feel of this story is that as the protagonist progresses, the author foreshadows the next event, a challenge is overcome and the protagonist advances to the next level. A bit mechanical—not exactly contrived, but somewhat stilted. The writing is really great and the plot has a lot of fun and interesting elements that leave you anxious to see things through. There is just something a bit….in the background…missing... Perhaps it was the dropping away of secondary characters without a lot of follow through on their individual subplots? But, maybe that would have just slowed things down? I’m not sure.
All in all, I have no real problems with this book. It’s very well written, a great read and I’d definitely recommend it and am curious to read more. Mainly though, the author has a great voice for his story telling and that is what really pulls you in.
Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: "No Deodorant In Outer Space". The podcast is available on iTunes, Tune-In Radio, Stitcher, Google Play Music, YouTube or our website.
On the one hand, it's an introduction to an endearing twelve-year-old urchin, Lyra Belacqua, whose been raised by Oxford scholars in a familiar but parallel world. Her patron, Lord Asriel, flits in and out of her life, when not searching for the mysterious "dust," until he becomes imprisoned. When she learns he's her father and her young friends begin to disappear under strange circumstances, she launches into a quest to save them. On the way she discovers Gyptians, witches, armored bears and other strange characters, as well as the wicked Mrs. Coulter, one of the most intriguing villains in fiction.
This book can be read as a children's fantasy quest, but it's told on many levels. It also has the not-so-subtle axe-to-grind of Philip Pullman's well documented religious (or anti-religious) views. These views, while present, mostly do not detract from the fast paced story.
Of relatively minor note, I found the omniscient point of view a bit distressing as the author switches heads sometimes in mid-paragraph, and the writing, while imaginative and richly detailed can get occasionally sloppy.
I think of The Golden Compass as the simple start of a much more epic quest, almost like The Hobbit to the Lord of the Rings. Overall, this is a fascinating read and an original story in an age of too many clones. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.
Pullman seems to love his characters and lovingly describes them and what happens to them. That is why I find it puzzling to read of the actions of Lord Azriel and Mrs Coulter. No explanation is given for their differing names and objectives. Perhaps it is explained in later books.
Lyra moves from her artless naivete of an child running around the campus of an alternative Oxford University to bearing the burdens of an adult. Each episode causes her to grow and expand while maintaining her childlike innocence. At time the knowledge is almost too much for her to bear. She is helped by her demon Pantalaimon, whose courage makes it possible for Lyra to do what is necessary.
There is more to be found than can be done in two readings. Like other great stories this one requires many readings to uncover its true meaning.