A Review of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass cover image

Recently I was reminded of a core truth: teachers don’t read much in the fall. Nor do we blog, as you have seen. Come to think of it, my blogging life began within days of my resignation from full-time teaching in 2012., and I don’t think that was a coincidence. The kind of thinking that goes into reading and writing seriously about the books I read is not entirely compatible with my current lifestyle of simultaneously grading three sets of quizzes, negotiating foursquare disputes, wondering how the sixth graders know so much about cockfights, trying to figure out where the broom is, and explaining to a ten year-old how it’s possible to survive with only one kidney. Not much is compatible with that lifestyle, honestly. I am 42 years old and have been teaching in some capacity or other for twenty years, but I am living the first-year teacher experience all over again. It is maddening and humbling and wonderful.

So at the moment Jill and I are in the room where it happened – specifically, the Panera in Vacaville, CA where we launched Postcards from Purgatory in 2012 – trying to resuscitate this blog before it dies for good. Airway, breathing, circulation. Two rescue breaths. Soon we will be interviewing current and former U.S. senators who might be interested in performing some chest compressions.

I’ve been interested in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series for at least a decade, ever since I learned it was based on Paradise Lost, but for some reason the first few pages always pushed me away when I tried to read it. Now that I’ve read the whole thing (plus all of the first sequel and most of the second), I can’t quite imagine what put me off. I mean, Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen has about everything a first sentence is supposed to have: introduction of protagonist, mysterious element (the “daemon”), and a clear action that is also symbolic of the plot of the book as a whole, a plot that involves sneaking and being on the run in all kinds of situations that can be described as “darkening.” But whatever. Mulling over why this book didn’t engage me much in the past will take precious time away from explaining why it did draw me in this time, and precious time is not something I have in large quantities any more.

So in Lyra’s world, a daemon is a person’s soul, and it takes animal form. Children’s daemons can change form based on their emotions or on the needs of the moment; for example, a daemon that is afraid and wants to hide can become a mouse and hide in its person’s clothing, while a daemon that is aggressive and wants to fight can become a tiger or eagle. Adults’ daemons take a fixed form, and in this world, the settling of a daemon into one form is an important sign of the end of childhood – and the end of childhood is of great importance in this trilogy that is, among other things, about original sin. Lyra’s daemon’s name is Pantalaimon, and in the opening scene he is a moth.

In the opening scene, Lyra, who is ten years old and lives a semi-orphaned existence at an Oxford that differs in some important ways from the real-world institution that bears the same name. I was fascinated with the process of trying to piece together the weirdnesses of this world. In some ways, the novel seems to be set in the Reformation – which is consistent with the fact that this series was inspired by Paradise Lost – but not all details support this hypothesis. The Oxford of this novel is decidedly low-tech in most ways, though there is something called “anbaric power” that seems to exist in place of electricity (we learn more about it in The Subtle Knife), and in the opening scene a guest arrives bearing startling news from the far north, documented by what seems to be some very advanced forms of photography. Because I’ve read the sequels, I now know what Pullman’s overall vision is and how this Oxford fits into it, but I’ll hold off until it’s time to review the sequels.

In the opening scene, Lyra and Pantalaimon hide in a wardrobe (Narnia allusion, I wondered? Figuratively speaking, this moment does eventually lead Lyra to an alternate universe) in an Oxford study in which they were snooping when some college officials unexpectedly arrived. The officials are awaiting a guest named Lord Asriel, whom they are planning to serve some poisoned wine. Lyra is able to warn Lord Asriel – her uncle – about the plot, and he spills the wine instead of drinking it. Lord Asriel is the one who brings the sophisticated photographs – photographs of people whose bodies are surrounded by a substance called “Dust.” The Oxford dons are intimidated by Dust, and it is this discovery of Lord Asriel’s that made them want to kill him.

So let’s flash forward. One of Lyra’s friends – a servant in the Oxford kitchens named Roger, sort of a human house elf – is kidnapped by “Gobblers,” a band of semi-legendary criminals known for snatching children, and to find him Lyra enlists the help of some “gyptians,” a gypsy-like group of wanderers who live in riverboats. Then Lyra is called into the study of one of the dons, told that she needs to go live with a mysteriously seductive woman named Mrs. Coulter and also given a device called an alethiometer. The alethiometer tells its bearer the true answer to any question, but it does so in a language of symbols that most people can’t understand. Lyra, however, has a mysterious ability to understand the symbols intuitively. Eventually Lyra overhears conversations that lead her to believe that Mrs. Coulter and her associates are the Gobblers, so she runs away and takes refuge with some gyptians, who are headed off to the far north to retrieve Roger, who is being held captive there.

Because it’s been a while (about two months) since I read this book, I am not entirely sure that I’ve gotten these details in the right order. I’m going to hold off on more plot summary except to tell you that we learn more and more interesting things about daemons, and there are witches and hot-air balloons and talking bears. We also learn that in Lyra’s world John Calvin was once pope (what???), and it becomes clear, at least a little, what Pullman is saying about Reformation theology. I enjoyed the novel – and the series – a lot, though I can’t fathom what its intended audience – ten year-olds(!) – would make of it (and I have a high opinion of ten year-olds, in general). But since I have a captive audience of ten year-olds (and 11-14 year-olds too) at my disposal five days a week, sometime soon (probably next year) I am going to try to find out.

More soon on the rest of the trilogy. Happy Saturday, everyone!

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