The Golden Compass (Northern Lights outside the US) by Philip Pullman has been a favorite book of mine for literally twenty-seven years. I bought my copy from a book order in the third grade and I have read it… more than twenty-seven times! Something about this fantasy world where people have daemons and polar bears can talk caught my eight-year-old imagination and still hasn’t let go of it.
The trilogy His Dark Materials, of which The Golden Compass is the first novel, is now a series on HBO Max and is currently in its third season, so it felt like the right time to journey back to where it all began. Join me in part one of a three-part exploration of His Dark Materials.
[Warning: Spoilers from The Golden Compass are below!]
A fantastic adventure begins in The Golden Compass
In The Golden Compass, we meet Lyra. A young girl who has basically been raised wild at Jordan College in Oxford, England. A ward of the college, no one really watches over her and she lives like a heathen with the servant, town, and gypsy children as her only real influences.
This all changes when she saves her uncle, the powerful Lord Asriel from being poisoned. As a reward he allows her to secretly stay and overhear a presentation about his trip north and his discoveries about the mysterious substance, Dust, and a beautiful shining city in the northern sky.
After Lord Asriel leaves the college again things begin changing fast for Lyra. She meets the charismatic Mrs. Coulter and leaves Jordan College for the first time as her assistant for a supposed trip north. Before she leaves Jordan, the Master (think Dean) gives her a mysterious golden compass-like device that tells the truth. He tells her it belongs to her and that she should keep it secret and safe. As to how it works and what it actually does, she’ll have to work that out on her own.
A dark mystery in a dangerous world
At the same time that Lyra leaves with Mrs. Coulter, there is an outbreak of kidnappings in the town. Children are being stolen away by the “gobblers”, but no one knows who they are or why they want children. Lyra mostly treats it as a fairy tale until her best friend Roger is taken by them. She decides that she must find a way to save him and that is her main goal from then on.
In her attempts to find and save Roger, Lyra meets incredible allies like Lord Faa, Ma Costa, and the armored bear Iofur. She also comes to learn the depths that people can sink to in their own depraved quests for truth and power.
Lyra comes to learn painful truths about herself and those she loves and she grows stronger and wiser. She comes ever closer to a choice that will affect not just her but an untold number of universes.
But Lyra’s story doesn’t end in The Golden Compass. She goes on to discover more about the entirety of creation than maybe anyone else in The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass the second and third books of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.
A special protagonist in The Golden Compass
Lyra is a special kind of protagonist. She is rude and wild, bossy and stubborn. She doesn’t like adults telling her what to do and she doesn’t like them thinking she’s too young or stupid to understand what’s going on.
An adult coming to the series for the first time might see her differently but to a child, she is perfect. She has all the emotions that a child has, all the knee-jerk reactions to events. But she gets to actually do and say the things that children can’t because adults stop them. Lyra is everything a child wants to be. She is the Tom Sawyer of the modern age.
Up until this point I’ve really glossed over the other aspect that so endeared The Golden Compass to me as a child: daemons. Daemons, pronounced demons, are integral to Lyra’s world. They are little animal-shaped familiars that are paired, one to one, with humans.
All humans have daemons, they are born together and they die together and throughout their lives, they are never separated by more than a few feet. Daemons are a part of the person’s soul that they can see and talk to. I rather thought of it like that voice inside my head made real. But a daemon could be held and cuddled. They made the world a little less scary because it was never just you against the world, it was you and your daemon facing whatever came your way.
When a child is young their daemon can change shapes at will, often in response to the child’s emotional state. They can even take on the shape of mythical or extinct animals. They can also take on the forms of animals that the person has never seen in any context in real life, begging the question of collective consciousness.
As a person ages, their daemon settles into just one shape, usually around the age of puberty. A daemon’s final shape reflects its human’s personality and interactions between daemons often revealed people’s true feelings or intentions.
As a child, I wanted a daemon so badly and would often fantasize about what form my daemon would take. It was one aspect of Pullman’s world that really kept a hold on me, I still want a daemon I can see!
Daemons, their connection to humans and Dust, and the relationship between the three are some of the biggest concepts of His Dark Materials. It was a very simple way to get children thinking about souls and similar big concepts.
His Dark Materials and the church
It is no secret that one of Lyra’s biggest enemies is the church. In Lyra’s Oxford, the church runs pretty much everything and imprisons anyone who doesn’t conform. Their church is a ruthless dictator that controls all aspects of thinking, if not life. Free thinking is not encouraged, and anything that challenges the church is punishable.
As a child, I thought how awful it was that people would be punished for thinking differently. Imagine my shock as I grew older and learned that Lyra’s Oxford wasn’t all that imaginary.
Most people see Pullman’s work as a complete rebuke and condemnation of the church, and I do not deny that the church itself is bad in his story. But I think the true rebuke is against control, especially control of thoughts. Pullman shows us that everyone should be able to think freely and control their own choices.
When people are controlled too tightly they rebel and the results can swing too far in the opposite direction. This just causes a different kind of power struggle and imbalance. Only when people are given the freedom to learn, grow, make choices and make mistakes do things tend to turn out right and balance is maintained in the universe.
The Golden Compass is for all ages
From the heart of a little girl to the soul of a grown woman, this book speaks to all ages. I think anyone who is looking for a good adventure, a deep thinking exercise, or both, will really enjoy this book and what it has to offer.
You can stop at the end and just ruminate on what you’ve already enjoyed but The Golden Compass was really meant to be read as the first entry of a three-part adventure with The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass and I recommend that you read all three before sitting back and thinking about souls, good, evil, compassion, control, and free-will. Or just think about little girls, little boys, armored bears, daemons, gypsies, angels, and growing up. It’s a lot to take in but it’s a great ride.
My Rating: 10/10
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman is available now! Do you plan on reading it? Let us know over on Twitter or The Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our review on the season three premiere of His Dark Materials on HBO Max!
Review: His Dark Materials Season 3 Premiere