The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials
The Golden Compass
The modern fantasy classic that Entertainment Weekly named an “All-Time Greatest Novel” and Newsweek hailed as a “Top 100 Book of All Time.” Philip Pullman takes readers to a world where humans have animal familiars and where parallel universes are within reach.
Lyra is rushing to the cold, far North, where witch clans and armored bears rule. North, where the Gobblers take the children they steal–including her friend Roger. North, where her fearsome uncle Asriel is trying to build a bridge to a parallel world.
Can one small girl make a difference in such great and terrible endeavors? This is Lyra: a savage, a schemer, a liar, and as fierce and true a champion as Roger or Asriel could want.
But what Lyra doesn’t know is that to help on of them will be to betray the other…
A masterwork of storytelling and suspense, Philip Pullman’s award-winning The Golden Compass is the first in the His Dark Materials series, which continues with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
A #1 New York Times Bestseller
Winner of the Guardian Prize for Children’s Fiction
Published in 40 Countries
Whew! I just finished reading all three of Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” books in a little over a week (I couldn’t put them down!), and I’m still trying to absorb all of this. My initial reaction: this is going to be an all-time classic, and certainly not just of “young adult” or “fantasy” books (Phillip Pullman himself has stated many times that he can’t read “fantasy,” because it “doesn’t tell [him] anything interesting about being a human being.” While it is certainly different than the “Lord of the Rings,” it is NOT AT ALL ridiculous to place Pullman’s creation in the same pantheon as Tolkien’s, which is something I swear I never thought that I would say. Anyway, the bottom line is that this trilogy is an amazing, mind-blowing, fascinating, exciting, heartbreaking, work of transcendent brilliance, and it starts with the story of Lyra, somewhat inaccurately titled, “The Golden Compass” (I guess that sounds better than “The Alethiometer” or “Lyra vs. the Gobblers” or something, but I strongly prefer the British title, “Northern Lights”). Also, the marketing of this book is very strange – if you look at the cover you might think this was some warm, fuzzy children’s adventure story about a girl and her pet bear. Not!!! Instead, how about Phillip Pullman’s dark take on creation and extended riff on multiple themes raised in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and the Book of Genesis. The bottom line: if Phillip Pullman is mainly for children, than so are John Milton and the Bible! I don’t think so….
Anyway, “The Golden Compass”/”Northern Lights” tells the story of a plucky, wild, courageous, amazing 12-year old girl named Lyra Belacqua, her beloved daemon Pantalaimon, her alethiometer (and all that it helps her discover about “Dust” — and other things), her powerful, ambitious, complex, and dangerous parents (Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter), political intrigue in a world VERY much like our own in crucial ways, evil experiments on kidnapped children and their daemons, fascinating people called “gyptians” (water gypsies), theology and the Church, a window on a parallel universe (and the quest to find out what exists there), angels, witches, and an amazing bear named Iorek Byrnison. Is that enough material for you for one book? And how about put all that material into the hands of an author who is a great storyteller! The result, as I’ve said before: a CLASSIC!!
Just three other points. First, this trilogy inevitably is going to be compared to (and possibly overshadowed by) another “young adult” series out these days, which you might have heard of…I think it’s called, uh, “Harry Potter” or something like that. Anyway, not to disparage “Harry Potter” or anything, because that’s a pretty good series of books, but “Harry Potter” is merely a cute, whimsical, well-told tale of a boy and his adventures compared to Phllip Pullman’s very dark, amazing, even disturbing creation (especially if you have a closed mind towards explorations of God, religion, the Church and the nature of man – all the interesting and important things, in other words)!
Second, I absolutely love Pullman’s writing style (what a great storyteller!), as well as his use of words and names. He apparently has put a LOT of thought into this! For instance, take the main character, Lyra. I looked it up in the dictionary and found that “Lyra” is a constellation in the NORTHERN Hemisphere near Cygnus (“northern CROSS”) and Hercules (child of the highest Greek God, Zeus, and Alcmene, a hero of extraordinary strength who won immortality by performing the 12 labors demanded by Hera). Interesting… Also, the constellation “Lyra” is located near the Corona BOREALIS. Finally, “Lyra” sounds awfully much like “liar,” which is Lyra Belacqua’s main skill (besides reading the alethiometer), and one in which she takes great pride. Coincidence? Hmmmm…I don’t think so! Also, just to intrigue us further, Pullman names his Lyra’s father “Asriel,” which is similar to “Israel”, which according to my dictionary is the name given to Jacob by the angel with whom he wrestled; perhaps literally “God struggles”). Double hmmmmm! Finally, we’ve got Mrs. “Coulter,” and guess what that means? Well, according to my trusty dictionary again, a “coulter” is a BLADE or wheel on a plow for making VERTICAL CUTS in the sod (from Latin culter, KNIFE). Cool!
Third, maybe we all should read (or reread) Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (and the Book of Genesis) before/after we read “The Golden Compass”, because there’s no doubt that Phillip Pullman has borrowed freely from Milton’s all-time classic take on Creation, God, Satan, free will, the temptation in the Garden of Eden, and the “Fall” of man into “Sin” (among other things). Before the book even begins, we have an epigraph from “Paradise Lost,” specifically the scene where Satan surveys the unformed potential of the Creator. Given this, it should not be surprising to anyone familiar with “Paradise Lost” (or the Bible, for that matter) that “The Golden Compass” leads us ever northwards, since the rebel angel, Satan, repaired to the NORTHERN realms. Meanwhile, don’t forget that in “Paradise Lost” the angels (at God’s command) tilt the Earth’s axis so that man will have to endure extreme hot and cold seasons, instead of the constant temperate climate which existed before the Fall. Meanwhile, in “Paradise Lost,” Sin and Death construct – with God’s permission — a bridge (window?) for easy passageway between Hell and Earth, through which they promise to infect the Earth and to corrupt all living things with Death and Sin. Veeeerrrry interesting!!! In interviews, Phillip Pullman has confirmed that the biblical Creation story, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and “Paradise Lost” are major sources for “His Dark Materials” trilogy, and that the title itself comes from the following quote: “Unless the almighty maker them ordain / His dark materials to create more worlds.” Read “The Golden Compass” if you want a great story, if you want to be challenged, amazed, intrigued, and moved (as long as you’re not one of these strange, closed-minded, disturbing, Oblation Board types who I see here and there on this site criticizing Pullman for “bigotry” or “blasphemy” or some other ridiculous thing!). And OF COURSE read it if you’re curious to know more about “dust” — “our final rest and native home…”