The Golden Compass

by Philip Pullman

Cover image

Series: His Dark Materials #1
Publisher: Del Ray
Copyright: 1995
Printing: May 1997
ISBN: 0-345-41335-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 351

Buy at Powell's Books

The Golden Compass (published as The Northern Lights in the UK) is the first volume of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The series is marketed as young adult fiction and has the corresponding young heroine and lack of sexual content, but it has a sophistication and dark edge that's uncommon in the genre. That same sophistication makes it even more enjoyable for adults than the average well-written young adult series.

Pullman is famously not a fan of some of the classics of children's fantasy literature, expressing disgust with The Chronicles of Narnia in particular. His own series is therefore somewhat unconvential for the genre. He avoids the standard trappings of mentors, trustworthy adults, praise of virtues such as honesty, and respect for authority of any kind (even supposedly benign authority). That variation from the standard tropes can put the reader on edge, calling into question some of the foundations that one normally takes for granted when reading children's fantasy and making apparent truth feel disturbingly unreliable. It's an edge that's occasionally disconcerting, but it makes for a more engrossing reading experience. For example, I enjoyed reading a book where adults, even well-meaning adults, regularly lie to children, and not even with narrator warning.

Lyra is a half-wild tomboy, living in Oxford in an alternate world with many changes from our own. Technology tends to be a hundred years older than that of our world, with air transport via zeppelin and electric and oil lights intermixed. The world is controlled almost completely by a united church that seems a mix of Catholicism and Calvinism, with much of the elements of Catholic central control kept in a modified form. Physics and religion are linked in a medieval way; the study of physics is called experimental theology. Every human's soul or conscience is manifest as a daemon: a creature of animal form they are never parted with and that can speak and that interacts with the world like they do. Children's daemons can take any animal form, but as a person becomes an adult, their daemon takes one fixed form indicative of their personality. The world also features some magic and a wider variety of creatures than ours (including some wonderful armored, intelligent bears).

At the beginning of the story, Lyra overhears a meeting of her uncle and powerful scholars of Oxford, and from that discovers that her uncle is investigating a phenomenon called Dust. The nature of Dust is very unclear, but it scares people, the church particularly, and her uncle's investigation is secret. At the same time, mysterious Gobblers are kidnapping children who are never seen again. Lyra shortly thereafter is sent away to live with a beautiful and mysterious woman, is given an artifact called an alethiometer, and gets involved in an adventure across the frozen north to free the kidnapped children, investigate what is being done to them, and find her father.

Lyra is an excellent protagonist. Most of the book is told from a tight third-person perspective focused on her, and she does a great job at being the reader's stand-in while still developing a forceful personality of her own. Lyra doesn't suddenly change personalities when she begins to learn about the world, nor does she rely on authority figures or mentors to guide her through the world. She either loses mentor-like figures along the way, is betrayed by them, or ends up guiding them. She also doesn't exhibit the typical virtues of a young adult hero: she lies inventively and routinely to adults who don't deserve truth, she doesn't respect people until they earn her respect, and she's canny in the way of a child with little adult attention who spent much of her young life in running mock battles between gangs of street kids. I found her one of the most refreshing protagonists I've read, not limited to young adult novels.

Pullman builds a deep, complex world that's a thrill to explore, but two ideas in particular stand out. First, the idea of the daemons, the animal-form embodiment of one's soul, is wonderful. It's explored at great depth and one begins to believe in the idea, agreeing with Lyra when she considers how horribly lonely it must be to have no daemon. Pullman does an excellent job writing her daemon, Pantalaimon, who is much like but not quite the same as Lyra. Just like one's innermost gut feelings, Lyra sometimes follows his advice and sometimes doesn't, and he isn't always right. The daemons are also skillfully used to give hints (sometimes misleading) on other people's emotions, natures, and reactions. I'd want to read the rest of the trilogy for no other reason than to see more of the daemons.

Second, the alethiometer (the golden compass of the title) is a skillful way of giving Lyra a power that no one else has without following the traditional path of hidden royalty or burgeoning magical powers. Lyra has a knack for understanding and reading its symbols, something that others do with long labor through extensive code books. From that she can get invaluable information about what's truly going on, but it only does one thing and Lyra otherwise has no special powers. She has to rely on her wits and her friends to get through the trouble she finds herself in, but the alethiometer and her skill with it still provides that sense of wonder that usually comes from the protagonist's growing magical abilities.

This is only the first book of a trilogy and has no definite ending. In fact, the ending provided is rather mystifying and confusing. This is a good series to read back to back, and I recommend having The Subtle Knife on-hand to start after finishing The Golden Compass. This is an engrossing adventure with excellent characters, and you'll be anxious to find out what happens next.

Followed by The Subtle Knife.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-10-27

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21