The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Goodreads: The Golden Compass
Series: His Dark Materials #1
Source: Purchased

Goodreads Summary: Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title. All around her children are disappearing—victims of so-called “Gobblers”—and being used as subjects in terrible experiments that separate humans from their daemons, creatures that reflect each person’s inner being. And somehow, both Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are involved.

ReviewThe Golden Compass is undoubtedly an exciting, complex, and subtle work of literature.  Its strengths lie in Pullman’s incredible imagination and his obvious love of science.  Alternate universes are cool on their own, but they became even more fascinating once one learns more about the scientific theories that inspired Pullman’s world-building. And he was genius enough to make a book that is in many ways strong science fiction read like almost pure fantasy.

The plot is another huge draw.  Pullman knows how to bring readers on a wild ride, convincing them they have a good idea of what is happening, and then pulling everything out from under them.  He hints just enough that readers can see some of the clues in retrospect, but even then one cannot claim it was “obvious” the entire time.  These are true mind-blowing twists.

Unfortunately, as one of my English professors likes to say, “No one rereads for plot.”  Though I have reread this book, once before I saw the movie and once again for the read-along, it simply is not the same.  I know what is coming.  The surprise is gone.  And in a way that leaves the plot a little bare.  Of course there are schemes and fights and all the great things that should keep a reader enthralled, but something is missing.  I personally think that it is heart.

Bottom line: These books are anti-Christian and anti organized religion.  That is fine.  Yet Pullman needs to find something to stand for in his writing, not just to stand against.  There is no true sense of right and wrong here, or of anything worth fighting for beyond friendship and at times what might qualify as common decency.  There may be something said for the pursuit of knowledge and for the pursuit of one’s personal pleasure.  Yet personally I cannot connect very strongly with a book which presents mainly two values: loyalty and honor.  These are good, of course, but they are not enough.

The Golden Compass ranks strongly in terms of plot and construction.  It is well-written, carefully planned, and brilliantly woven together.  But I will never be able to call it a favorite book if it fails to do more than bring me on a fun ride.

Published: 1995

The Golden Compass Discussion Post 1

As part of the His Dark Materials Read-Along, Andrea at The Overstuffed Bookcase has posted some discussion questions for part 1 (Chapters 1-9) of The Golden Compass.  My thoughts on them are somewhat rambling, but hopefully are at least a little interesting!

1.  In Lyra’s world, humans have dæmons, little creatures that take animal forms, who are connected to the humans in certain ways.  The dæmons are kind of like an extension of the human.  They can detect each other’s feelings, and when one gets hurt, the other feels it as well.  Do you think that these creatures serve a purpose in this world, other than companionship?  And would you want a dæmon of your own?  The dæmons apparently stay in one form once their human is past a certain age.  What form do you think your dæmon would take once you became of age?

2.  There is a lot of controversy surrounding the His Dark Materials series.  Have you seen any kind of controversial subjects thus far in the book?  If so, what are they?

3.  In Part One of The Golden Compass, we learn so much about this world and the plot of the novel, and yet somehow there are already several plot twists.  Did you anticipate any of the plot twists?  Or did they all take you by complete surprise?

1.  [Minor spoiler (as in, some other people may have already understood this from the first nine chapters)]

I last read this series several years ago, so I am uncertain how clear my impressions of it still are.  I think, however, that daemons are externally manifested souls.  So basically the interesting questions are: Why does Pullman want souls to be visible in this world? And is this better or worse than an internal soul?

Companionship is probably a great part of the daemon’s existence. Daemons have enough of their own personalities to be interesting company, but are tied enough to their humans’ thoughts and emotions to be pleasant company.  Their presence must be altogether comforting.

Daemons also can help connect humans.  Their forms should reveal something on sight about the person’s personality and soul, though it is hard to tell from the text whether the people in Lyra’s world have clearly defined categories of people based on daemons.  Are all people with snakes sneaky, for instance? Or does “snake” have multiple layers of meaning?  So far in the book, there are more questions than answers.

I would want a daemon of my own insofar that its existence implied that I do have a soul, though I like not having a daemon just fine.  An “internal” daemon seems to make one less vulnerable, which I think is the trade-off for not having the company of one.  So far I’ve had more luck thinking of animals I would not want mine to be.

2.  I think the series is very essentially and very obviously anti-religion, though it becomes clearer as the books progress.  This is not really surprising, however, as Pullman is an outspoken atheist.

At this point, we see that the characters who appear to be the bad guys are closely associated with the Church (you know, the ones kidnapping children and performing horrendous experiments on them).  This is not exactly complimentary.  There is also some scattered disdain—from the narrative voice and from characters like Lord Asriel—for the clergy, though it is minor.

So is this about Catholicism in particular?  I think so.  First, the hierarchical structure of the Church, with the pope, priests, etc. is very Catholic.  Next, there is a reference to the Inquisition—a Catholic event.  But most tellingly, the evil characters are a group called the Magisterium.  In our world, the Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.  That’s a pretty obvious parallel.

Personally, I think Pullman is entitled to his opinion about religion.  His treatment of Christian beliefs can be harsh and dismissive, and it makes sense if some Christians prefer to avoid his books.  Why read something you know you’re going to find insulting?  But I think it equally fine if Christians do want to read them.  If you believe Pullman is wrong and that God exists and organized religion is good, then reading His Dark Materials is not going to turn you into an atheist.  (Essentially I am saying I don’t think there is much “danger” here, though parents may want to discuss the books with young children, particularly The Amber Spyglass.)

3.  I wasn’t surprised this time around!  The first time I read the series, however, there were certainly a lot of unexpected twists.  The one including Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel stands out.  I think the series continues to offer a number of unexpected occurrences, which is one of its greatest achievements.