13. His Dark Materials I:The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Published in 1995. This Edition: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Winner of the Carnegie Medal, 1995.

Winner of the 70th Anniversary Carnegie of Carnegies (the UK’s favourite Carnegie Medal winning book of all time)

The Golden Compass is bone-chillingly good ( a statement that surely holds some water, when you consider that I read it in decidedly non-frosty tropical temperatures.) Still, I felt the cold—the unmistakable ice-kiss of fear and awe that assails you when, and where, you least expect it.

Lyra  Belacqua has been perfectly content to play at full tilt on and around the premises of Jordan College at Oxford, for the entirety of her eleven year-old existence. Brought up in a well-intentioned yet scatterbrained way by the college academics, Lyra has been accustomed to being orphaned, with no blood relations save her oft-absent uncle, Lord Asriel. Though she lacks parental guidance, Lyra is never alone. She basks in the constant company of her dæmon familiar, Pantalaimon. Both her helpmeet and her best friend, Pantalaimon is of Lyra herself: neither she nor he can fathom a reality in which they exist separately. This bond between human and dæmon exists between all humans—to not be thusly companioned would be beyond the realm of belief, and of decency.

Lyra has long dreamed of accompanying Lord Asriel on his mysterious expeditions to the North, but she cannot predict that she will journey there under the oft-terrifying, fantastical circumstances that do take her. The Golden Compass charts her journey to the bitter-cold roof of the world, where Lyra and Pan must confront an evil beyond imagining, from even the most unexpected of sources.

If you are wary of the magical, mythical, extra-terrestrial or para-normal, The Golden Compass (originally entitled Northern Lights, which I prefer) is not the book for you. If you cannot abide an iota of speculation or criticism concerning organized religion, or discomfiting questions about why we believe what we do, then I strongly urge you to read elsewhere. Still, if you’re even the slightest bit curious, and are not averse to the very real possibility of a paradigm shift, then yes… reading this book could well change your life.

Each of the characters of Pullman’s novel is exceptionally well-crafted, whether they be major or minor. We meet and are awed, cowed, wooed and enraged by a host of extraordinary creatures, including my personal favourite, a fallen bear-sovereign, deprived of his ennobling armour, who dulls his bitterness with drink and hard labour. We also encounter a kindly gypsy seer, and the proud, sorrowful witch with whom he shares a storied past. We scoff at the wizened academics of Jordan College; we weep at the tragedy of a young boy’s loss of innocence, and we marvel, open-mawed, at the depiction of one of literature’s best-drawn, ruthlessly ambitious power couples.

Yet for all their fantastical elements, there is no awkwardness about this cast, no barrier separating them from us. They, too, obsess and are filled with equal parts regret for that which they have done and that which they failed to do. They, too, fall prey to vanity. They, too, are hurt for love, and not one of their stories compels you to narrow your eyes in derision, declaring, “Hmph. Only in a fantasy book.”

Set in an age of invention, discovery and conquest, The Golden Compass is littered with marvellous machinery, with vivid descriptions of barges, airships, of hot-air balloons, of instruments hewn with wicked and wistful intent. The most remarkable of all the creations we discover in this novel, however, is the titular object itself, otherwise called the alethiometer. Entrusted to Lyra to give to her uncle, she is told only that it tells the truth, and that she must learn herself how to decipher it—and learn, she does. The descriptions of the alethiometer attest to its beauty, and Lyra’s interactions with it show us, and her, that parsing the truth is an intricate, highly subjective process.

The novel is written in prose that seems, at times, plucked from the pages of a bygone era’s texts, such are its curious lilts and cadences, the peculiar goodness with which something is said, that enriches the very description of it, elevating it from the commonplace. Pullman truly is a turner of phrases. He subjects language to his particular purpose: to charm and captivate us. By my reckoning, he succeeds at that.

I think there has been some sad compromise over the literature to which we expose children, and I wonder at that. Who says that books for young people must be patterned with every prettiness, every convenient lie, every smiling face and sunny sky we can conjure? Detractors will, of course, posit that there is nothing natural about The Golden Compass, but the heart of the novel is filled with every natural feeling in the world, from grim despair to raging passion to lonely, determined resilience. Lyra becomes a benchmark for ourselves, as we wonder, at all that we would or would not do, with our destinies plotted out against the unforgiving, glorious Northern Lights.

‘You speak of destiny,’ he said, ‘as if it was fixed. And I ain’t sure I like that any more than a war I’m enlisted in without knowing about it. Where’s my free will, if you please? And the child seems to me to have more free will than anyone I ever met. Are you telling me that she’s just some kind of clockwork toy wound up and set going on a course she can’t change?’

‘We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not,’ said the witch, ‘or die of despair.’

Enjoy another consideration of The Golden Compass by my dear book reviewing colleague, Jennifer of Books, Personally, which examines some issues and concerns that this review doesn’t directly address, here.

This is the first book I’ve read and reviewed on my personal reading list (which you can see here) for The Bookette’s British Book Challenge 2011.