My copy of The Golden Compass reads, “A Major Motion Picture Holiday 2007,” so I can only assume it was around 2007 when I first read Pullman’s Dark Materials. Much like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the adaptation lead me to the novel. 2013 marks my first reread of The Golden Compass, and I’m not sure why. I wish I had reread it sooner.
The novel follows Lyra Belacqua, a preadolescent girl who can be best described as stubborn and practical, on a long and mysterious journey to the north. In a book such as this, long and mysterious journeys are to be expected, as are stubborn and practical characters. She reminds me of Aria Stark, though less violent and less imaginative, but she embodies that kind of archetype well. I like her.
But more than Lyra, I like the world Pullman has created, and I respect the way he introduces readers to his world. The novel starts off with Lyra in Oxford England, a real place, though not set in a real time. We are then introduced to Pan, Lyra’s Deamon, a kind of magical familiar that follows her around and acts as a physical embodiment to her soul. As the book continues on, this world with a real Oxford becomes even less real: there are symbol readers, people fly around in zeppelins, witches exist, and there are talking polar bears. Lyra’s Earth winds up being very fantastical and utterly fictional, but I never felt that way until near the end when I started to reflect on the story as a whole.
The Golden Compass is a blending of genres, being half mystery and half adventure. The novel’s main plot revolves around what is happening in the north, for children are being stolen and carried there, and what is Dust, a newly found elementary particle that doesn’t interact with the world like protons, neutrons, or electrons. However, the novel’s story revolves around Lyra as she moves from one place to another and falls into ever escalating kinds of danger, one after another. The north and Dust are always near, but they aren’t always important.
This never felt like an issue, but this is my second time going through the book. Mysteries are much less mysterious the second time through.
But before I continue, let me address the giant elephant in the room: The Golden Compass was written as a direct rebuttal to C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and its subsequent sequels all act as Christian allegory, where Narnia is a heaven substitute and Aslan is a Jesus substitute. Pullman went the opposing route for His Dark Materials; The Golden Compass is not a religious-friendly novel.
I greatly enjoy the works of C.S. Lewis, and I greatly enjoy Pullman’s Dark Materials; both series can firmly rest in the Literary lexicon, but to some readers, a specific religious agenda—be it positive or negative—can be a turn off. In the case of Lewis, the Narnia novels were allegory, at least until the last two, meaning the religious aspects and imagery were hidden in the background. Pullman isn’t so subtle, and so the main antagonists in The Golden Compass are all members of the Catholic Church or are working for the Catholic Church.
This never bothered me until very late in the book where Lord Asriel had a lengthy bout of exposition about the Catholic Church and the Bible, painting both in a very negative light. But it wasn’t the content of this exposition that I had a problem with; it was the way it was delivered. This conversation was very heavy-handed and blunt, a sort of “this is what this book means.” I’d have preferred a more subtle, and by proxy a less antagonistic, method of delivery.
The issue is: without this strong antagonism towards religion, The Golden Compass simply wouldn’t be what it is. So much of this novel’s subtext reviles in the issues of the Church and how the Church controls the characters and the world Pullman has created. Much of what makes this book Literary stems from its rebuttal towards religion.
That’s not to say the novel cannot live without its heavy reliance on religion. Even if you strip away the religious allegory and antagonism, The Golden Compass still thrives off of the world it embodies. The idea of a place where no one is ever alone is so interesting and worth thinking about, and I’ve found myself constantly puzzling over the Earth Lyra inhabits ever since I’ve picked up her story again. These people with their deamons! This is a world with a new set of rules, social norms, and hierarchy.
In that respect, The Golden Compass reminds me of the Harry Potter saga; it’s fun to scrutinize the world and ask “why” and “how,” but these questions are never about plot holes or continuity errors; they are simply mind games set in an environment that is both familiar yet completely bizarre.
Unlike the Harry Potter saga, The Golden Compass is less about characters and more about plot, and this is a prime example of a “plot driven novel.” The story itself moves by at a ridiculously fast pace, though there are just enough details and moments of rest to keep the story from feeling sparse or lacking. It’s the kind of novel where halfway through you can look back and go “Wow, chapter one feels like it happened years ago.” However, this fast pacing hinders characterization, and Lyra is left as the only character with any real depth. All of the others feel like they are playing prescribed parts, and though they play these parts well, they feel wooden.
What really sets this book apart from the others of its kind is the tone. The Golden Compass is dark. People die, children get kidnapped, and many of the near misses feel quite frightening. Pullman isn’t afraid to be bleak, and even though his world is very fantastical, it’s still very realistic. To save Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the group of kids needed to destroy a white witch; once that was done, Narnia was ready to be ruled and enjoyed. In the Golden Compass, Lyra has multiple people and factions working against her, and when all is said and done, you realize she’s simply a child who has undertaken an impossibly large task. It makes her successes pack a larger punch, but it also gives her journey a sorrowful feeling.
My only real complaint with The Golden Compass is this barely-mentioned prophecy surrounding Lyra. She’s a special girl who will save the world in some way, and she won’t even know she’s doing it! That’s all the prophecy we get, and despite the fact that most of the characters know about the prophecy, this idea of fate is only really used to keep Lyra important to those around her. It comes into play in the future novels, but in this one, it’s just barely there and feels lazy. Prophecy is hard to handle, and I don’t recall this series ever handling it well.
The Golden Compass is a good book; in fact, I’d even call it a great book. Its focus on plot and message over character might be a turn off to some, but Pullman handles his story and his message well, only getting heavy handed near the end. And though his is a message not everyone will agree with, it’s one he feels strongly about, and you can tell he put thought and care into its delivery vessel. Lyra’s world is fun and interesting, and it’s worth spending a few hours in. There’s so much to think about, and any book that makes the reader think is a book worth reading.