The Golden Compass (published first in the U.K. under the title Northern Lights) is the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, is an 11-year old girl being raised by the professors and staff of Oxford’s (fictional) Jordan College. She leads a fairly rough and tumble life, learning what the professors have the time to teach her, and the ability to teach, considering they are used to talking to college students and fellow professors, not children. She also learns the arts of lying, self-defense, and the value of loyalty in her life outdoors, running semi-wild with the Gyptian children who frequent Oxford.
Lyra has spent her first 11 years living at Oxford, but when she spies one of the professors trying to poison her uncle, Lord Asriel, she is pulled into a world of mystery and intrigue. Lord Asriel is involved in a struggle with the beautiful and charming Mrs. Coulter for the power connected to a mysterious material called Dust. After Lord Asriel leaves Oxford, having been saved by Lyra, he returns to the frozen north to continue his experiments involving Dust. Lyra becomes involved with Mrs. Coulter, going to live with her for a time as her assistant, and learns more about the Gobblers, a group of people who are stealing children and dooming them to who-knows-what fate. Eventually, Lyra has the opportunity to go North, on the duel mission of rescuing her friend Roger, who has been stolen by the Gobblers, and bringing a mysterious device called an alethiometer to her father. Along the way, she learns to read the alethiometer (which resembles a golden compass), which has the power to answer any question posed to it. She also befriends a rogue Polar Bear named Iorek Byrnison, whose plight she also takes into her hands, even as he attempts to help her save Roger and find Lord Asriel.
I really liked this book, and I’m looking forward to reading the next two in the series, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I really liked Lyra, she is a well developed and layered child, who reminds us of the truth that while children are not as simple and innocent as we wish them to be, nor are they as conniving as we suspect them of being at times. She has depth, honor, and bravery tied up in the body of a girl who enjoys a good fight, doesn’t have much imagination, and is determined to help those whom she loves.
I very much enjoyed the concept of the daemons, our animal familiars who are with us at all time, and are an outward manifestation of our soul. A child’s daemon can change at will, and its incarnation is very telling about the state of mind that the child is experiencing at the time. When Lyra is scared, her daemon, Pantalaimon will turn into a fierce wildcat, to protect her. Or into a mouse when she needs to hide. Because the daemon is so much more than a pet, but is indeed their soul manifested outside of their bodies, the characters in the book are very attached to their daemons, and cannot survive without them.
A human being with no daemon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of nightgasts, not to the waking world of sense.
There has been some controversy regarding this trilogy in that one of the main sources of evil is the Magisterium, the dogmatic source of religion and power in this alternate version of Earth. Not having read all three books as of yet, I am not sure how valid these criticisms might be, or whether those who are very religious might find offense in the stories. I would go so far as to say that nothing being done in the name of religion in the books is as bad as the crimes done in the name of religion in our own human history, and questioning these crimes is our best hope of preventing them from occuring over and over again. Not that we’ve been very successful at that thus far, mind you.
We’re planning on going to see the film while we’re in Oregon, and I’m looking forward to it. And after I read the next two books on my TBR list, I think I’ll pick up the second book in this trilogy, The Subtle Knife. I highly recommend these books, and hope that you will enjoy them as well.