Have Moral Compass, Will Travel?

Goodreads | The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1) by Philip Pullman

Pullman, P. (1996). The golden compass. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 9780679879244

The Golden Compass is the first of Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. Before the story begins, Pullman says The Golden Compass takes place in universe like ours, the second book is set in our universe, and the third one shifts between these universes.

Eleven year old orphan Lyra Belacqua has lived at Jordan College, Oxford, in a world similar to that of the reader but not exactly the same. Adventurous and precocious, Lyra and her dæmon (a small creature peculiar to a human in this alternate universe), Pantalaimon, are normally left to their own devices. She and the children of servants at Jordan College can do as they please. While spying from a wardrobe upon return of Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asrael, from the Far North, Lyra and Pantalaimon save Lord Asrael’s life. Lord Asrael has remarkably found something in Far North that he refers to as Dust, an element drawn only to adults. With Oxford’s support, Lord Asrael can do more field research of Dust in the Far North, and Lord Asrael is on his way.

After Lord Asrael’s departure, Lyra notices numerous disappearances of children in Oxford at the hands of an enchantress and the Gobblers. When her best friend, Roger, vanishes, Lyra becomes frantic. However, she is distracted by the enchanting Mrs. Coulter and her dæmon’s, a golden monkey, appearance at Jordan. Shortly, Lyra is the apprentice of the charming Mrs. Coulter and they move to London. Before she leaves, though, the Jordan College Master gives her an alethiometer, a golden compass, which detects truth. The Master warns her not to show it to anyone and tells Lyra she must learn to use it herself. Being lavished with luxury and attention by Mrs. Coulter, Lyra begins to ease into her new life. However, upon hearing of a connection between Mrs. Coulter and the Gobblers, Lyra escapes and strives to rescue the kidnapped children from the Gobblers in the Far North.

Numerous elements within The Golden Compass secure this book’s place in the fantasy genre. The dæmon is a distinctive part of the story. Each dæmon represents its human owner. A child’s dæmon can take all sorts of shapes while one of an adult is fixed into one form. Throughout the first story, Pantalaimon morphs into all sorts of creatures – from an ermine to a moth to a dragon. However, Lord Asrael’s dæmon remains a snow leopard and Mrs. Coulter’s never shifts from the form of a golden monkey.

Speaking of Mrs. Coulter, she certainly has number of ways to enchant children into doing as she wishes. Lord Asrael also seems to be able to manipulate things to his liking. Lyra is regarded as someone to be well treated and often “gets by with a little help from her friends.” To some extent, they are all characters that the other characters like to some degree.

As previously mentioned, The Golden Compass is set in a different place. The time seemed reminiscent of the Victorian Era and additional literature about this trilogy draws parallels between His Dark Materials and The Chronicles of Narnia. Also, The Golden Compass seemed slow to start due a lot of plot thickening and explanation of this world.

To place The Golden Compass within a subgenre is much trickier. Like high fantasy, The Golden Compass alternates between parallel worlds. Additionally, there are humans, dæmons, and talking bears with opposable thumbs. Later on, Lyra goes on a quest to save kidnapped children from the diabolical hands of the Gobblers. When the reader finds the depravity of Mrs. Coulter’s soul, the narrative becomes very dark. Magical animals such as the dæmons and the aforementioned bears are pivotal in The Golden Compass.

I chose The Golden Compass for this assignment for a multitude of reasons. What sparked my interest was that a movie based on the novel is about to come out in theaters. Due to the movie, a nay saying forward regarding The Golden Compass has made it to my inbox a number of times. This forward says the book is inappropriate for children and gives them bad information about organized Christianity. As both a Christian and a children’s library employee, I felt compelled to find out for myself. Personally, I did not find the first book offensive nor did I feel that it was inappropriate for young adults. When I discovered it was Pullman’s version of Paradise Lost, I found no objections. The bottom line is that it is fiction.

Personally, I had difficulty reading the book because the pace in the beginning was slow. If the reader, regardless of age, has the patience to read it, then I do not see any problems in recommending The Golden Compass. Someone who enjoys a somewhat dark twist on fiction, science fiction, and a struggle between good and evil would probably like The Golden Compass.

Three and a half out of Five Pearls

For more on The Golden Compass, check out the following links:


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