Last night I finished The Golden Compass, Book 1 of Philip Pullman’s YA fantasy trilogy, “His Dark Materials.” I have to admit this one never would’ve made it onto my radar if not for the movie version (which I have not seen) getting promoted all over the TV.
There was much to-do made about the book’s anti-Christianity message, and Pullman, as I understand it, is an atheist and did indeed set out to write a “children’s book” that set itself directly opposite the pro-Christian symbolism in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. As someone not very much concerned with organized religion, I wouldn’t have given this aspect of the book a second thought had I not heard all the fuss about it. At the same time, I can’t in good faith (pun not intended) address the possibility of the book being offensive or troubling to someone with strong Christian beliefs.
I can describe the setting though. The Golden Compass takes place in a world parallel to ours. Land masses are the same, and many countries are familiar. Technology has advanced in a more steampunk sort of way, though scientists understand (mostly) the same elementary particles that scientists in our world do. At the same time it seems airplanes were never invented, and zeppelins still rule the skies. They don’t have electricity but they have “anbaric” energy (which seems to be electricity) and “naptha” (gas?) lamps.
The big difference is that every person has a “daemon” that takes the form of an animal and is intimately connected to the person. Essentially, these daemons are the souls of the humans in this other-world. These daemons remain in close proximity to their humans, and it is a huge taboo to touch another person’s daemon. It is unclear to me if this is what people of strongly Christian faith are bothered by — the idea of a soul external to the body — or if it was the fact that Pullman re-wrote brief passages from the Book of Genesis (adding daemons to the mix).
In any case, let’s talk about the story. Our protagonist is Lyra, a 12 year old girl who has been “adopted” by Jordan College at Oxford. Although she is of noble birth, she spends most of her time playing with the children of the servants of Jordan College, so when ‘commoner’ children start disappearing, including one of her friends, Lyra decides that she must do something to rescue them. Thus starts a whirlwind adventure taking her to “The North” where talking, armored polar bears rule (as far as we see, these polar bears are the only sentient animals in this world). Along the way Lyra starts to show certain abilities that may or may not be ‘magic’. She also learns much about the parents that she never knew.
It was an entertaining tale. As a YA book, I have to think it skews old. There are some fairly advanced concepts thrown around and the vocabulary is an adult one. For the most part it is “YA” only in the fact that the protagonist is a child, and that there is really just the one plot and one set of characters to worry about. There is violence, but no sex aside from one scene where we get a short voyeuristic glimpse at what happens between daemons when people become passionate.
Lyra is well portrayed; her ‘accent’ went a long way towards making her real in my imagination. The other characters don’t ‘pop’ so much, with the exception of her polar bear companion later in the book. Also about two-thirds of the way through, Lyra changed in a way that I found it hard to put my finger on. She started using “dear” a lot as a term of endearment, which felt odd. I suspect Pullman had put the novel aside for some length of time when he was writing it, and Lyra changed while he was gone. It’s a nit, but it has stayed with me and bothered me since I came to that change.
Take to heart that this is Book I in the trilogy, because it really doesn’t wrap up very well. It just kind of ends at a logical breaking point, but with many, many questions unanswered. At this point I’m not sure if I’d give the trilogy a thumbs up or not. If I had to rate The Golden Compass, I’d give it 3.5 stars out of 5. Good, not great.