The Golden Compass by Philip Pullmanis a fantasy, steampunk novel in a theocratic society. Each person is accompanied by an animal companion called a daemon, which is essentially a physical representation of the person’s soul. These animals talk and eventually take a permanent shape. The story follows Lyra, a 12-year-old orphan who has grown up at Oxford College. Children all over England have begun to disappear. Lyra ends up going on an epic journey to find these children, befriends an armored polar bear, and becomes the wielder of the Golden Compass.
I tried reading this book several times as a middle schooler but could never get past the first chapter. Ironically, this book was written for middle and teenage readers, but I found it much more engaging as an adult. I enjoyed it a lot. The book had some great fantastical elements: the daemons, the bears, the incorporation of Europe into the world, and some great mysteries. While I found the middle section to drag in pace, the story takes some unexpected twists and turns.
I also appreciate that Pullman relies on the intelligence of the readers. He gives enough information for us to infer and form pictures but does not clearly spell out the workings of his world. Things simply are. This style works well through the majority of the novel, but I found it a bit confusing at the end when we learn a lot of information without clear explanation. I suppose its expounded upon though in the sequels and its meant to leave us with questions.
The characterization of Lyra was interesting. She’s at the precipice of childhood and adulthood: still rather fanciful but forced to grow up by the situations she encounters. She’s also a pathological liar, which sometimes works to her advantage and sometimes gets her into trouble. It was a character trait I hadn’t seen before and found it amusing.
Now to address the controversy of the novel, Pullman has made it clear that The Golden Compass is the antithesis to C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and a homage to Paradise Lost. He’s been pretty open about his atheistic views. The theocracy of the story is clearly based upon the Catholic church and I likened it to criticism of Catholic history, such as the Inquisition. I will say though that I think you can enjoy this book regardless of your faith. I found the re-interpretation of biblical stories exciting, and while critical of Catholicism, I did not find it to be anti-religion. The book is just as questioning of authority, politics, and science.
And if it is meant to be atheistic in nature, it’s a bit ironic then that Pullman uses so many dues ex machina and so many “higher powers” to explain things such as the Dust and the Golden Compass.
Honestly, if you’re a concerned parent, the only thing that would hesitate me to recommend this book to you would be the lack of positive figures throughout the novel. While I’m all for free thinking, most of the adult characters are conniving, selfish, deceptive, and portrayed as villains while at times the child protagonists are rebellious, dishonest, and manipulative. There is little focus on the virtues of the characters, which are subtler, but it could open a thought-provoking discussion amongst readers, adult and youth alike.
Now as for the film adaptation, I can’t say that I recommend it. I enjoyed the polar bear fight and the performance of Nicole Kidman but that was about it. It’s unfortunate because the film had all the elements to succeed. A great cast, a good story, decent effects, a brilliant composer. I’m going to boil it down to the editing. The editing was choppy. Everything was rushed and confusing. It seemed like they were given so much screen time and they just tried to cram everything in. My husband, who hasn’t read the book, had no idea what was going on. So if you’re are going to watch it, read the book first and don’t expect much.