Theology, although a dominant presence, isn’t the best part of The Golden Compass. Instead, it’s the world with its inhabitants – armored polar bears, daemons, and witches – that make the book an excellent read.
Although it’s a fantastic world, Pullman doesn’t show things as being alien. Instead, he presented them plainly and part of life, ideas to be accepted if you will. Daemons were the most exciting, especially in how they’re an extension of the person’s soul. Pullman uses them to illustrate how children are more fluid and malleable than adults, with their daemons changing shape based on the situation. Adults are fixed, their personalities stable, their ideologies steadfast. Pullman handles daemons wonderfully. He doesn’t tell us how they work; he shows how they work and why they work.
The armored polar bears and witches are surprisingly humanized too. While there remains an air of mystery for both, they are used as metaphors to illustrate deeply political themes that warrant a much longer discussion. The bears are used to highlight a valuable moral lesson: embrace and be proud of who you are. Witches, meanwhile, are used to show the power of love and compassion. Immortality or long life isn’t that great apparently, and it’s shown in a very loving way.
This brings me to the leading players: Lyra, Mrs. Coulter, and Lord Asriel. Lyra wasn’t an instantly likable character. She came across as rude and deceptive, but slowly gained better footing, becoming a better person as the story progressed. She took on redeeming qualities alongside her manipulative ones. The other two offer surprises along the way, and saying more would be offering spoilers.
I was more intrigued by the world than the people who inhabit them. There’s a certain level of sadness in the world, which reflects ours in profound, meaningful ways. The Church plays a substantial role in shaping it, which is something Pullman emphasizes much later in the book to highlight his skepticism. It’s interesting how “philosophical” and “theological” understandings and instruments are more scientific than spiritual.
The locales are also quite fascinatingly done. Oxford is a lively place, filled with interesting characters with both high and low politics. London is dark and grimy as it should be. Svalbard and Asriel’s abode are also designed quite well, both displaying and accentuating their owners’ tastes. The Experimental Station was more typical, reminding me of countless other “evil” depictions of control, with the clear demarcation between children and adults playing a significant role.
It took me a while to get immersed in the book. The beginning is extremely slow, but with good measure, since there’s so much to set up. It’s a complex tapestry of characters and world-building that’s handled deftly by the author. Once the story finds its footing, though, it picks up brilliantly and takes you on a ride you’ll remember forever. Oh, and that ending: can’t wait to pick up the next in the series!
Cover image courtesy of Paul Meijering.