The Golden Compass

Posted by : atcampbell | On : September 1, 2000

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Nine people participated in this discussion, including two first-time attendees. The subject of this discussion, Pullman’s The Golden Compass, is the first of a planned trilogy called “His Dark Materials”. The setting of this book is a world vaguely like our world in the present day, with some notable exceptions. Politics have had different results over the past hundred years or so, air travel is done by zeppelin and hot air balloon, and there are secret societies of witches and intelligent warrior bears. Additionally, each human has a companion called a “daemon” that looks like an animal, talks only to its designated human, and houses the soul of its human. The story involves a young girl, Lyra, who has been raised as an orphan but discovers that her parents are still alive and on opposite sides of a power struggle among secret societies. Both sides want to kidnap Lyra for reasons she does not understand, so she travels all over Europe as a fugitive, trying to figure out what’s going on and how to keep herself and her friends safe. She carries with her a mysterious compass-shaped instrument, given to her by a kindly Oxford professor, that supposedly is very powerful if she can only figure out what it does or how to operate it.

We liked a lot about this book. Everyone thought the society of bears was cool. Lyra is fully developed and realistic, and we appreciated Pullman’s daring in making her neither nice nor likeable. The concept of the daemons and its development as a major plot thread led to a lot of philosophical discussions, which we found reminded us of the work of C. S. Lewis. The mythology of this world is rich and imaginative. We thought the concept of the “golden compass” was a neat idea.

We did find a few problems. None of the characters except Lyra is at all well developed or even logically consistent. Lyra supposedly develops close friendships with several characters during the book, especially one of the intelligent bears, but we couldn’t see why. It was almost as if the book’s outline said “Lyra befriends bear”, but the author didn’t devote sufficient effort to fleshing out this point. Lyra gets kidnapped several times during the story, which got tiresome and seemed like a lazy way for the author to get her from one place to another to advance the plot. The ending ties up little, basically just providing a “to be continued…” message. Even though this was a planned trilogy, we had expected more closure.

Due to its young protagonist and its marketing toward younger readers, The Golden Compass is getting a lot of comparison to the Harry Potter books. Since we’ve read the first volume in each series, we compared them. The Harry Potter books are aimed at a 10-year-old and up audience, which The Golden Compass is targeted toward older readers — at least mid-teens. The Potter books take place in familiar settings (modern-day England and a wizards’ school), while the world of The Golden Compass is more original and complicated, and much darker. The Potter books have a well-developed cast of sympathetic characters, while The Golden Compass has one bratty little girl and a bunch of two-dimensional players. Finally, each Potter book has a self-contained story, while The Golden Compass is clearly just part one of a larger whole. We found both series to be worthy of attention, but obviously different readers will prefer one or the other.

In general we thought The Golden Compass was an interesting but flawed book. Several of us were intrigued enough by Pullman’s concepts that we bought the sequel, The Subtle Knife.

–A. T. Campbell, III