The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman, takes us on a compelling journey into a fantastical world filled with talking bears, magical instruments and changing daemons. It is also a world that turns everything a child holds safe upside down—the idea that one’s parents will love and support you, that adults will act in the best interest of the child.
Pullman sets up Lyra’s story with a simple scene of her spying on an adult’s meeting, a very child-like action that reveals her curiosity and innocence, but also her tenacity. Here, we are given enough information to propel us though an otherwise dense and complex world of scholars, research and power dynamics. Lyra’s journey begins with a series of questions: what is dust? who are the Gobblers, and why are they hurting children? After Roger, her childhood friend, is taken by the Gobblers, we are given a more robust motive for her continued perseverance into dangerous lands. Lyra is a headstrong and curious girl, but it is this personal need to find Roger that makes her continued tenacity believable.
There are many gems in this book, while it did stretch my attention at times. Pullman’s elegant prose and world-building seamlessly transition from an omniscient point-of-view (helping us to understand the dynamics at Jordan College, for example) to a close third person view, helping us to feel Lyra’s terror as she learns more about the Obaltion Board. Written in a nineteenth century tone, the formality of this world helps to isolate Lyra enough to make the journey truly hers, which prepares her for the hard truths to come.
Another gem is the brilliant and playful use of the daemon concept, like a hybrid between a soul and a favorite stuffed animal (or, as my daughter calls them, “soft friends”). The idea of children having variability in their daemon’s form makes for both delightful “showing” in his storytelling, literally animating the needs or emotional state of the child. It is also a lovely metaphor for imagination and the capacity for growth present in children, compared to the limitations of adults. The flexible-form child’s daemon also seems to function differently from that of the fixed-adult daemon, changing to offer the child comfort and solace, rather than merely reflecting the status and identity of the adult.
Lyra has been deceived and manipulated by her own ego-bound parents, the cold and austere Lord Asriel and the power-hungry and conniving Mrs. Coulter. Her understanding of their betrayal is what ultimately what ratchets up the stakes as the story progresses. Condescension and lies soon give way to manipulation and terror, and Lyra is alone (with Pan) on her journey to fight for the truth. At the end of the book she vows to continue her quest, again showing us in her actions, how she has matured and changed.
As the central mystery of the story, dust is a simple yet compelling visual for something both ordinary and extraordinary, divine yet corrupted. The references to specific existing biblical passages and historic church practices, combined with Pullman’s sinister portrayal of the magisterial board prompted strong reactions once the book was published, complete with calls for it to be banned. For a story with an eleven year old protagonist, The Golden Compass prompts a very philosophical debate—questioning the heart of original sin, the realms of the universe, and ultimately, the role of children as a saving force from the failures of humanity.