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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

June 2, 2018


The Golden Compass is the first of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy series. Though it’s often compared to Harry Potter, The Golden Compass has more symbolic depth. And though the main characters are children, it’s also pretty dark for young readers.

The story centers around Lyra Belacqua, a cunning orphan girl who is recruited to fight in a war between good and evil. Creatures called “gobblers” have been kidnapping children and taking them north where they are subjects of terrible experiments (in the same way Tolkien pulled much of the Lord of the Rings imagery from his experience in WWI, the forces of evil here seem clearly inspired by Nazi tactics). Lyra and her companions head toward the Arctic to rescue the children, along the way encountering all the things you’d expect from a fantasy novel that follows a fairly typical hero’s journey.

Still, the characters along the way and the mythology of this world are wholly engrossing and entertaining. Lyra’s quick wit (she’s also known as Lyra Silvertongue, as she can talk her way in or out of almost anything) is instantly likable, as are many of the other characters. But the show is stolen by memorable Iorek Byrnison, a panserbjørn, which is a species of giant, intelligent, armored polar bear warriors. When we meet Iorek, he is working for people who tricked him, stole his armor and now pay him in alcohol for manual labor. “I mend broken machinery and articles of iron. I lift heavy objects,” Iorek says, a terrible fate for a majestic creature. On top of that, we learn that Iorek is also a king in exile—another familiar fantasy trope.


Despite some of these familiar-feeling constructs, the world of The Golden Compass is enthralling. It has been called a response to C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis’s writing was heavily influenced by Christian theology. In The Golden Compass, the world is run by a theocracy attempting to root out heretics. Scientific inquiry is suppressed, hidden behind a curtain of dogma.

But throughout the novel, we’re introduced to a world that had its own supernatural mythology. All humans have dæmons—animal familiars that exist outside of their bodies and act as a kind of conscience, compulsion, intuition or guardian angel, depending on the circumstance. As a manifestation of the spirit, the dæmon is a vehicle for some poetic, if not subtle, symbolism.  The dæmons of children shape-shift depending on their mood or circumstance. But during adolescence, dæmons “settle” into a consistent animal, a fact that Lyra finds almost offensive. Still, the dæmon always has a mind of its own, and as Lyra experiences, it can be very painful when the dæmon pulls in a direction different from the person’s present course.

The Golden Compass is unique, inventive, fascinating. It’s about growing up, about the loss of innocence, but also about the nature of truth and the politics of power.

I’ve seen it on several “great novels” list, but not being a big fantasy reader was skeptical that I’d enjoy it as much as I did. I read it on the recommendation of David Plotz from the Slate Political Gabfest. Over the years, I’ve followed many of his recommendations and have rarely been led astray. Chalk up another one. I don’t know if I’ll read the whole series (I only read the first Harry Potter as well), but this book was great as a standalone novel.

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