The Golden Compass
A book review for parents
This first science fiction/fantasy book in the "His Dark Materials" series by Philip Pullman is published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children's Books.
The Golden Compass is written for ages 14 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
The first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy introduces us to the series' heroine, a 12-year-old girl named Lyra. This precocious young orphan lives in the care of scholars at Jordan College in Oxford, England — albeit in an alternate universe. Lyra is headstrong and prone to getting into trouble, and she's accompanied always by her dæmon (pronounced demon) Pantalaimon, a shape-shifting animal spirit who embodies her soul. All humans in Lyra's world, we learn, have dæmons who eventually take on a single animal form when children reach adolescence.
The Golden Compass begins when Lyra clambers into a wardrobe to avoid detection . . . a choice that unwittingly launches her into a universe-altering adventure. Lurking in the wardrobe, she hears her uncle, an iconoclastic explorer named Lord Asriel, documenting the findings about a mysterious substance called Dust to a group of scholars.
Several events then occur almost simultaneously: Lyra is given a truth-telling device called an alethiometer (the golden compass) and told to keep it secret; she begins to hear rumors of children disappearing without a trace; and she's whisked into the care of a glamorous but ruthless agent of the Church named Mrs. Coulter. Lyra soon discovers that the Church is also desperate to learn about Dust — a substance they believe is somehow connected to original sin — and that Mrs. Coulter is spearheading chilling experiments on children in her pursuit of "truth." Specifically, she's separating children from their dæmons. One of the children she's kidnapped is Lyra's friend Roger. Lyra travels to the frozen North to rescue him, making friends with a wide variety of characters along the way. As The Golden Compass draws to a close, the forces of good (represented by the Church-rejecting Lord Asriel) have begun to array themselves against the forces of tyranny and wickedness (represented by Mrs. Coulter and churchmen).
Christian doctrine (or contradiction of it) doesn't get much direct mention in this opening volume of the Dark Materials trilogy. Readers begin to learn, however, that the Church is a feared organization, known also as the Magisterium (which is the name of the evil organization used in the movie adaptation), the Church is further divided into competing subgroups with names such as the College of Bishops, the Consistorial Court of Discipline and the General Oblation Board. At the center of the story is the Church's determination to discover the origins and significance of Dust. One of the few, clear theological statements in the book comes from a minor character who tells another, "The Holy Church teaches that there are two worlds: the world of everything we can hear and touch, and another world, the spiritual world of heaven and hell." The same characters comment on theologians who were considered heretical and silenced for their theory that alternate worlds exist.
Lord Asriel has contempt for the Church — he sides with those who believe that there are other worlds and that Dust is somehow connected to finding them. He also says of the "dust to dust" passage in Genesis 3, "Church scholars have always puzzled over the translation of that verse. Some say it should read not 'unto dust shalt thou return' but 'thou shalt be subject to dust,' and others say the whole verse is a kind of pun on the words 'ground' and 'dust,' and it really means that God's admitting his own nature to be partly sinful. No one agrees. No one can, because the text is corrupt. But it was too good a word to waste, and that's why the particles became known as Dust."
Mrs. Coulter is a cold-blooded, ruthless agent of the Church who is willing to torture children — cutting them apart from their dæmons, or souls, as this book understands it — in her quest for "truth."
Lyra is functionally an orphan as she is loosely reared by a group of scholars at Jordan College. One quickly gets the sense that she's her own authority, however, and that no one has much real influence or control over her. She has a brief encounter with Lord Asriel, who she initially believes is her uncle and later learns is actually her father. Lord Asriel is arrogant, cold and harsh toward her, and doesn't seem particularly interested in her well-being. Lyra is briefly in the custody of Mrs. Coulter, who pampers her but keeps her on a very short leash until she escapes. On the run from Mrs. Coulter, Lyra ends up in the care of the "gyptions," an outcast and rugged group of nomadic trader/wanderers whose leaders (Lord Faa, Farder Coram and Ma Costas) treat her well and care for her. They also exhibit bravery and honor in caring for their own, as well as joining Lyra on her quest to the North to rescue the children kidnapped by the Church. Lyra also comes under the protection of a noble armored bear named Iorek Byrnison. Similarly noble in character is a good witch named Serafina Pekkala.
Other Belief Systems
Lyra must master the alethiometer, a device that answers any question that she asks of it. To do so, she enters a trance-like state. While the alethiometer isn't magical, per se, it has magic-like power and the ability to divine the truth. Hence, it functionally is close to what the Old Testament would consider divination. The witches, who can fly on "cloud-pine branches" and cast a variety of spells, live to be 1,000 years old or more and believe in a female goddess named Yambe-Akka who comes for each witch at death. "She is the goddess of the dead," says Serafina Pekkala. "She comes to you smiling and kindly, and you know it is time to go." In contrast, Iorek Byrnison and his fellow bears do not believe in an afterlife. And it's implied that the Church is working to keep the lid on the "heretical" idea that there might be alternate universes. There is some discussion of the tension between the ideas of fate and free will. Because different groups of people have different beliefs about death and the afterlife, the story illustrates a polytheistic worldview when it comes to different religions and spiritual convictions.
One character in particular, Mr. Lee Scoresby, has a fondness for the word h---. Lyra takes God's name in vain at least once, and another sentence says, "and Lyra swore with every word she knew." Lord Asriel tells Lyra of a time when the Church used to castrate young boys in order for them to sing in the choir. Several combat scenes result in deaths that are frequently described similar to this scene: "Lyra stopped and turned to see a man lying on the snow, with a gray-feathered arrow in his back. He was writhing and twitching and coughing out blood."
Readers learn that Lyra is the result of an affair between Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel. A witch casually tells Lyra, "And there are men we take for lovers or husbands . . . men pass in front of our eyes like butterflies, creatures of a brief season. We love them; . . . they die almost at once."
Carnegie Medal winner in children's literature in the U.K., 1995; ALA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults, 1997; Whitbread Book of the Year, 2001 and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, among others.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
Philip Pullman told the UK's Daily Telegraph, "Atheism suggests a degree of certainty that I'm not quite willing to accede. I suppose technically, you'd have to put me down as an agnostic. But if there is a God, and he is as the Christians describe him, then he deserves to be put down and rebelled against. As you look back over the history of the Christian church, it's a record of terrible infamy and cruelty and persecution and tyranny. How they have the bloody nerve to go on Thought for the Day and tell us all to be good when, given the slightest chance, they'd be hanging the rest of us and flogging the homosexuals and persecuting the witches."
- How do you think Pullman's dislike for Christians and the Church begins to surface in this story?
Pullman's take on Church history isn't just biased, it's grossly inaccurate. Pick up a copy of a reputable overview of Church history and learn about times the Church has helped society and those few seasons such as the Spanish Inquisition where the Church has not treated people well.
Leviticus 19:26 warns, "Do not practice divination or sorcery." Divination includes any practice that tries to see the future or hidden knowledge through supernatural means. While Lyra's alethiometer (alethia means "truth" in Greek) is never actually called a divination device, that's exactly the function it serves.
- Why do you think the Bible forbids divination?
If we could know the future or secret knowledge through supernatural means, how might that influence our relationship with God?
For more on the "His Dark Materials" Series, read Plugged In's article, "Sympathy for the Devil."
Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and movie differ, compare the book review with Plugged In's movie review for The Golden Compass.
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.