Fiction: “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman

Okay. I’ve been staring at this blank entry form for about an hour (in between catching up on Glee, because how did Jeremy the TiVo end up at 81% again? The hell?), and I realized that trying to explain this book would be really hard. And I’m not sure I’m up for it.

Lyra Belacqua is a young girl living at Jordan College. Her guardian, Lord Asriel(*), comes to visit her and give a meeting at the College, and that’s where she first learns about Dust. See? Already, I’m having to back up. The universe that this story is set in is ultra-religious, and everyone is trying to figure out what the Dust is, and whether it’s bad or good. Also, there’s this group of people called Gobblers, and they steal children. Also also, and probably, I should have led with this: a person’s soul is anthropomorphized (god I hope I spelled that right) as an animal, called a daemon. Before the child enters puberty, the daemon has the ability to change shapes. Once they become adults, however, the daemon maintains its shape. These all become important the further into the story one gets.

Lyra’s journey begins when Mrs. Coulter arrives at Jordan and ‘adopts’ Lyra, promising that she will take the child to the North, where her guardian, Lord Asriel, is currently doing research. When Lyra learns that Mrs. Coulter is in charge of the Gobblers, she escapes and runs to the gyptians (I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be gypsies, or Egyptians. Possibly both), who have been hardest hit by the Gobblers. They vow revenge and travel up to the North, to do multiple things: mainly to rescue the children, also to stop what Mrs. Coulter and the Gobblers are doing, and also to rescue Lord Asriel, who has been captured by the panserbjorne, which is North-Speak for Polar Bear That Can Talk.

But, this book is so much more than that. I find it hard to talk about it coherently because it’s so dense. I mean, it’s about how adults treat children; it’s about the state of one’s soul; it’s about bravery and choices and science and religion and discovery and talking bears. I can say without spoiling anything that Lyra is an amazing little heroine. She’s full of spunk (Lou Grant would hate her), and she has little to no fear. Along with Alice Liddel and Hermione Granger, she’s an excellent role model for little girls.

Oh, I should explain the title. Lyra is given an aletheiometer from one of the Masters at Jordan before she goes with Mrs. Coulter to London. Through chance, Lyra learns she can read the aletheiometer, which looks like a compass with different needles and symbols, but what it really does is act as a … well, truth-teller, for lack of a better descriptor. Lyra can ask it questions and it answers them. Not really soothsaying or seeing the future, it’s much more precise than that.

Here’s a metaphor I just thought of. No, seriously, go with me on this. The Golden Compass — or, as it’s known in Britain, Northern Lights, and no, I don’t know why they changed the title in America (aside from American publishers tend to be idiots when it comes to that stuff: see Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Sorcerer’s Stone) — is the first book in a trilogy. Using Star Wars as an example, The Golden Compass is not A New Hope. From my standpoint, The Golden Compass is almost The Empire Strikes Back in tone and ending. In order to get the complete story, I have to read the other two books.

And I will. Just not right now.

(*): In 2007, The Golden Compass was made into a movie. Nicole Kidman played Mrs. Coulter, and Lord Asriel was played by … my Pretend Boyfriend #1, Daniel Craig. Yes, this is on my Netflix queue. Why do you ask?

Grade for The Golden Compass: 3 stars


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