Author: Philip Pullman Publisher: Laurel-Leaf Publishing Date: 1996 Number of Pages: 351 Genre: Science Fiction, High Fantasy Fiction, Bildungsroman
Lyra Belacqua is content to run wild among the scholars in Jordan College, her daemon familiar always by her side. But the moment she hears hushed talk of Dust, an extraordinary particle, she’s drawn to the heart of a terrible struggle – a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. And as she hurtles toward danger in the cold, far North, young Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: her destiny must be fulfilled not in this world, but far beyond.
It is without a doubt that I am a young kid at heart. In spite of the numerous serious subjects that I have encountered across hundreds of books, I always look forward to immersing into the world of the fantastical and the supernatural. One trilogy that I have fervently hoped would provide me some respite is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy which I first came across while doing must-read list challenges. I barely had an iota on what the trilogy is about although I have seen glimpses of the first book’s movie adaptation. Luckily, I was able to purchase a complete set of the trilogy through an online book seller.
As part of my August Young Adult Fiction Month, I included the entire trilogy in my reading list, starting with The Golden Compass which was originally published as Northern Lights in the United Kingdom. North American publication used the former as the book’s title. My expectations for the book were off-the-charts because of the numerous accolades it has earned over the years. At the same time, I am a little apprehensive because this is the first time I am embarking on a journey into the literary works of Philip Pullman. Here are my thoughts about the book.
“That’s the duty of the old to be anxious on the behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old.” ~ Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
The Golden Compass relates the start to the adventures of eleven-year-old Lyra Bellacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon, or “Pan” for short. Abandoned by her parents when she was still a baby, Lyra was raised by the nuns and the Master in the cloistered halls of Jordan College, Oxford. One day, she while incognito, she saw the Master drop poison into the cup of wine intended for her uncle, Lord Asriel. Lyra was able to save her uncle but only after overhearing the discussion about the “Dust”. Lord Asriel proposed to the scholars of the college a plan to conduct research on the parallel universe observed amidst the concentration of dust in the Northern Lights.
Meanwhile, outside the walls of the College, children, including Lyra’s best friend Roger, started to mysteriously disappear. These disappearances were attributed to the “Gobblers”. Lyra was then adopted by the socialite Mrs. Coulter but that was before the Master of the College bequeathed in secrecy to Lyra a mysterious truth-telling machine, the alethiometer. While living with Mrs. Coulter, Lyra learnt of her secrets, causing her to flee into the safety of the Gyptians, canal-faring nomads. And thus begins Lyra’s adventures into the North Pole where they encounter giant talking bears, warring witch tribes and, ultimately the truth behind the disappearing children of Oxford.
For a book that is tagged as children’s fiction, The Golden Compass is a lot of things that is not, in a strict sense, children-ly. First off, it is a very complex read. However, it wasn’t the complexity that was overwhelming but rather the dark themes and subjects which are the centrifugal points of the narrative. Some of the subjects the book, and the trilogy for that matter, has highlighted are surrounded with so much taboo that the books earned the ire of the Catholic church. The trilogy was banned in numerous libraries ad was even called by the Catholic Herald as “stuff of nightmare” that is “worthy of bonfire”.
“Human beings can’t see anything without wanting to destroy it. That’s original sin. And I’m going to destroy it. Death is going to die.” ~ Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
However, these perceived anti-theological themes were not as prevalent in the first book as it is on the remainder of the trilogy. Although, of course, there are allusions to it such as the presence of witches, the long-perceived servants of the devil. Hello Harry Potter series one can’t help but put these two series together because of the widespread anathema that they have been afforded to by devout Catholic believers. But despite of this malediction, both literary works have been widely patronized.
Whereas Harry Potter contains a lightness that is built around darkness, The Golden Compass in stark contrast possesses a heaviness that hovered above the narrative from the onset. It was one of the book’s numerous facets that I have immediately perceived. There are numerous elements that contributed to this “heaviness” such as the plot itself, the way the book was printed, or the story’s overall diction.
The heaviness and the pall combined to give the story an overall startlingly different complexion. Unsurprisingly, Pullman consistently carried these elements into the second and third books (which will be reviewed separately). Another aspect that stood out in the narrative is Pullman’s graphic storytelling, especially in the depiction of scenes marred with violence. This, I guess, also greatly contributed to the heaviness and darkness that the narrative is wrapped in.
The Golden Compass is, however, more than just another fantastic novel. Interspersed in the narrative are aspects of physics and science fiction. The research on the “Dust” is, in itself, a huge allusion to the world of physics. (Which is, I guess, another thing that infuriated the Church; the Sciences are amongst the Church’s biggest detractors after all). The novel is a bildungsroman as well as Lyra matured as the story progressed. However, I found the way she matured a bit too contrived. It was a bit too fast, not giving the reader enough time to gain perspective.
“The idea hovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and she dared not even look at it directly in case it burst. But she was familiar with the way of ideas, and she let it shimmer, looking away, thinking about something else.” ~ Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
Overall, I was impressed with the different machinations that Pullman mustered to come up with his epic work. Reading The Golden Compass aroused in me a plethora of emotions. I am still, however, very reserved about the book because although it has piqued my interest, I found it a little too dark and heavy. There are aspects that I have enjoyed and elements that have entertained me such as friendship and loyalty. The start of Lyra’s adventure has nevertheless gained enough of my interest to keep on navigating further into the series. Now, off to the second book, The Amber Spyglass.
Recommended for avid fans of children’s and young adult fiction, readers who like to be locked up in fantasy or drawn into another world, readers who like adventure novels and bildungsroman, and fans of the Harry Potter series.
Not recommended for readers who are appalled by dark and graphic violence, for the devoutly religious, for readers who want a more pleasurable read, and readers who don’t like dark and complex subjects and themes.
About the Author
(Photo by www.philip-pullman.com) Philip Pullman was born on October 19, 1946 in Norwich, Norfolk, England.
During his early years, he attended several schools such as Taverham Hall and Eaton House. While staying with his grandfather, a clergyman, he discovered John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It became a major influence in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman attended Exeter College, Oxford, receiving a Third class Bachelor of Arts in 1968. Before becoming a successful writer, he first taught at Bishop Kirk Middle School in Summertown, North Oxford.
In 1972, his first published work, The Haunted Storm won the New English Library’s Young Writer’s Award. He followed it up with Galatea (1978), Count Karlstein (1982) and The Ruby in the Smoke (1986). While writing children’s stories, he taught part-time at Westminster College, Oxford. Pullman’s biggest success came with the publication of Northern Lights (1995, published as The Golden Compass in the U.S., 1996). It is the first book in his hugely successful His Dark Materials Trilogy. His latest work is The Book of Dust (2017), a companion book to the aforementioned trilogy.
Pullman has received a host of awards and accolades, including the Carnegie Medal (The Golden Compass), a Parent’s Choice Gold Award (The Subtle Knife), and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award (The Amber Spyglass). Pullman also won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s biggest children’s literary prize.
Philip Pullman lives in Oxford, England.