Some books improve with age–the age of the reader, that is. Such is certainly the case with Philip Pullman’s heroic, at times heart-wrenching novel, The Golden Compass, a story ostensibly for children but one perhaps even better appreciated by adults. The protagonist of this complex fantasy is young Lyra Belacqua, a precocious orphan growing up within the precincts of Oxford University. But it quickly becomes clear that Lyra’s Oxford is not precisely like our own–nor is her world. For one thing, people there each have a personal dæmon, the manifestation of their soul in animal form. For another, hers is a universe in which science, theology, and magic are closely allied: As for what experimental theology was, Lyra had no more idea than the urchins. She had formed the notion that it was concerned with magic, with the movements of the stars and planets, with tiny particles of matter, but that was guesswork, really. Probably the stars had dæmons just as humans did, and experimental theology involved talking to them.
Not that Lyra spends much time worrying about it; what she likes best is “clambering over the College roofs with Roger the kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum stones on the heads of passing Scholars or to hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on, or racing through the narrow streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war.” But Lyra’s carefree existence changes forever when she and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, first prevent an assassination attempt against her uncle, the powerful Lord Asriel, and then overhear a secret discussion about a mysterious entity known as Dust. Soon she and Pan are swept up in a dangerous game involving disappearing children, a beautiful woman with a golden monkey dæmon, a trip to the far north, and a set of allies ranging from “gyptians” to witches to an armor-clad polar bear.
In The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman has written a masterpiece that transcends genre. It is a children’s book that will appeal to adults, a fantasy novel that will charm even the most hardened realist. Best of all, the author doesn’t speak down to his audience, nor does he pull his punches; there is
Lyra doesn’t live in our world. She lives in a parallel universe. According to Lord Asriel, all parallel universes coexist and are connected by the Dust in the Northern Lights (The Golden Compass‘s original title). And in Lyra’s world the totalitarian organization called the Magisterium rules with an iron fist, eradicating any “traitorous” thoughts.
The Alethiometer is a “truth measure” and operates on the mystical Dust. By asking a question in your mind and moving the three red needles to three corresponding images on the rim, the reader will receive an answer when the blue needle points to three other symbols. Very few people can read these Golden Compasses. Many of the Alethiometers have been destroyed by the Magisterium because they interfered with their rule. Lyra, however, is one of the remaining few who can read one.
In Lyra’s world, people have daemons: animals who represent human souls in an exterior form. Holding a person’s daemon affects the human and vice versa. A child’s daemon can shapeshift, but starting in puberty, it begins to “settle” into it’s adult form, from which it cannot change.
Philip Pullman creates an amazingly rich world populated with majestic creatures like “daemons” (animals who represent human souls in an exterior form) and “panserbjørn” (armored bears who wear their souls in the armor they make from Sky Iron) and minute details that bring Lyra’s world to life (e.g. a witch’s daemon can be separated by long distances from their person). The first few chapters are a little slow and read almost like a textbook that you would find at Lyra’s Jordan College, but the action begins very quickly–and once it does, you can’t put the book down.
I read this book at the insistent recommendation of my two older cousins. I read this a little before I read Harry Potter, and it is this book that actually holds the spot of first favorite fantasy book in my heart. Because of this, it is an all-time favorite of mine.