Lyra Belacqua is content to run wild among the scholars of Jodan College, with her daemon familiar always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle—a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. And as she hurtles toward danger in the cold far North, Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she alone is destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle.
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Once upon a time there was a general assumption that adults read Adult books and only picked up Children’s books at bedtime to entertain their offspring. This all came to an end when a certain young wizard arrived on the shelves and adults got their very own edition so that they could read on the bus or the train without admitting that they were reading *gasp* Children’s Literature. Coupled with the rising popularity of the new YA genre, it has become increasingly acceptable for grown-up readers to openly admit that they enjoy books from the non-Adult part of the collection. Of course I am over-simplifying, but I know that Harry Potter was something of a gateway novel for me: having progressed to Adult books at a young age I had never before thought of returning to the Junior Library for my reading material. Authors like Philip Pullman have convinced me that the age of the intended audience is no indication of the excellence or seriousness of a piece of writing.
The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it is called in the UK) begins in the labyrinthine halls of Jordan College, Oxford, as our orphaned heroine, Lyra, sneaks into the Master’s Retiring Room, which is forbidden for non-Scholars and all females. Although this all sounds ordinary enough, we are introduced to a world that is subtly different from our own. The technology has a steam-punk feel to it, opium poppies are widely used by the Scholars and the social structures are built around the Magisterium, a theocracy that strictly controls most areas of life. However, the most significant difference is that all the humans in this world exist in two distinct bodies: a person and their daemon.
A person’s daemon is an external embodiment of their inner being. They are almost always of the opposite gender to their human and share their person’s level of intelligence and ability to communicate. They can act independently and we certainly see Lyra arguing with her daemon, Pantalaimon, quite a lot as he tries to stop her taking risks. During childhood, a person’s daemon can change shape and size at will, so we see Pan in a variety of forms as the situation demands. Once puberty arrives this ability to change is lost as the daemon ‘settles’ into a final form which heavily reflects the inner character of the person. It is noted that servants usually have dog daemons because they are loyal and follow instructions, while more unique characters are accompanied by suitably magnificent, vicious or sneaky daemons. Given this duality, it can be tempting to treat the characters and their daemons in this universe as separate individuals; however, I will continue assuming that Lyra is the heroine of the story even though Pan is with her every step of the way.
The exact nature of daemons, and their link to humans, is something of a mystery to the people of this world but one that is fundamental to this particular story. Once she is trapped in the Retiring Room, Lyra witnesses a presentation on a strange substance called Dust, which can only be seen using special equipment. Dust falls continually from the sky but is attracted to adults whose daemons have ‘settled’ but not to pre-adolescent children. Later, we learn that the Magisterium believes that Dust is a manifestation of Original Sin and are seeking ways to protect children from it. In order to do this they are taking unaccompanied children from the streets, leading to whispers of the ‘Gobblers’ hunting the poor neighborhoods. When Lyra’s friend, Roger, disappears she believes that the Gobblers are responsible and sets off to rescue him. In doing so, she begins a journey that will lead her into the frozen wastes of the farthest North and into the company of water-roving Gyptians, tribes of ancient witches, an American balloonist and a drunken armored bear.
During her journey, Lyra displays a fierce courage and a stubborn determination to help her friend, with her actions creating ripples of consequence that change the entire world. She is revealed to have a Destiny that could affect the whole of creation, in this world and all the others, however, she is less than perfect. Her disregard for rules, personal hygiene and ethical behavior is a problem for those who try to raise her. She is particularly adept at deceit and can create the most spectacular lies when the need arises. Whilst this allows her to overcome some highly dangerous situations, it is hardly a character trait that you would want young readers to emulate. Fortunately, Pan is a much more cautious character and he usually counsels against her most reckless and impulsive behavior.
As a hero, Lyra displays a prodigious amount of good luck, but is otherwise fairly normal, making mistakes and suffering like any other person. The only super-human power that she displays is her uncanny ability to use the precious alethiometer, a compass-like device that the Master gives to her. It has a series of images around the edge that can be used to frame any possible question and provide a truthful answer, although it usually takes a lifetime to master the framing of questions and the interpretation of answers. Lyra has an instant understanding of how to use the alethiometer and uses it to make some crucial decisions during her journey although the source of her gift is unknown at the end of this first part of the His Dark Materials trilogy.
As a small and uninspiring physical specimen, Lyra relies on other characters to provide her with money, resources and muscle. Perhaps the most memorable of her comrades is the entirely alien panserbjorne, Iorek Byrnison. When we first meet Iorek he is an armored bear stripped of his armor and forced to do manual labor for a small town, resorting to alcoholism to deaden the pain of his humiliation. In return for finding his missing armor, Iorek agrees to accompany Lyra on her quest to rescue Roger and gradually becomes her staunchest ally. Whilst the idea of having a ‘tame’ armored polar bear is always going to be appealing, Iorek is a favorite character because he is so well-drawn and non-human. There is nothing remotely cuddly about him, even though he is very furry: shortly after he regains his armor he kills a seal so that he can use its blubber to lubricate the various pieces and remove the rust. Although Lyra introduces him to the concept of deception, he remains totally alien throughout the series in both his thought patterns and attitudes.
We encounter a second non-human society in the tribes of witches that agree to aid Lyra. Although appearing as young and fragile women, they live to be hundreds of years old and so have a detached attitude towards the humans who live such short lives in comparison. Although they often fall in love with human men and have children with them, this is a source of great pain because the men wither and grow old so quickly and any male children will inherit their father’s short life span. As with the panserbjorne, the witches view the world differently from us, able to ignore the intense cold even though they wear little clothing and flying on branches of Cloud-Pine. The otherness of these and other peoples in the series adds a rich depth to Pullman’s universe, making it feel real and fully realized.
As might be expected in a Children’s book, Lyra is an orphan and initially distrustful of most adults. However, she is taken in by the beauty and generosity of Mrs Coulter and is happy to be taken away from boring Oxford and introduced to the excitement of sophisticated London. Unfortunately, Mrs Coulter is not all she seems to be and her behavior becomes increasingly creepy and cruel when Lyra continues to be unruly. Her daemon is an unnamed golden monkey that reveals a much more violent and uncaring personality lurking beneath the beauty. It is later revealed that Mrs Coulter is actually Lyra’s mother, which makes some of her behavior even more unpalatable. Throughout the series she remains a fascinating character who probably shows the greatest development as her love for Lyra begins to overwhelm her ambitions and sense of self-preservation. In many ways she reminds me of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter universe: a character that we despise initially but whose motivations are slowly revealed to be less evil than they appear at first.
Whilst I love this series and would encourage anyone to read it, I need to add a warning about the controversial aspects of the world depicted. These are not heavily addressed in the first book, although we are told that the witches have a prophecy about Lyra and her destiny to be a second Eve. However, as the series progresses we see Lord Asriel creating an army to fight a rebellion against Heaven itself, which can be reached through a window between parallel universes. Philip Pullman is an atheist so his depiction of the Authority / God may be appalling to some, although he has many supporters within various denominations of Christianity. The series discusses ideas of free will and personal responsibility whilst railing against the dogma of oppressing people ‘for their own good’. This is most clearly seen in the experiments that the Gobblers are conducting on the stolen children: whilst their intentions are to prevent the children from being subject to the effects of Original Sin, their methods are barbaric and horrifying.
In summary, I would recommend this series if you want a jolly good read that will entertain you and also alter the way you think about the universe.