Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

Philip Pullman's The Golden CompassThe Golden Compass is the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. This book is set in a parallel world so like Earth, an Earth where the notions of a medieval Church exist side by side with Victorian mores and 21st century science. In this world, humans are paired with creatures called daemons, and these daemons are thought to be like one flesh with their human partners.

The trilogy itself is said to be the modern response to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and to C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The title His Dark Materials is taken from a line of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a verse of which is quoted in The Golden Compass.

The main characters are:

  • Lyra Belacqua – a young girl who grew up in Jordan College, who is prophesied to be the second Eve, and who is fated to fulfill a destiny without knowing that her actions are leading her to that destiny. Should she be guided or directed as to what she should do, she would fail.
  • Lord Asriel – the man Lyra thought to be her uncle but who is actually her father. A cold and cruel man who seeks a way to the other worlds in search of the source of the Dust, thought to be proof of the original sin as said in the Genesis.
  • Marisa Coulter – the leader of the Oblation Board, a group that seeks to experiment on ways to prevent the Dust from settling on children once they attain puberty. A beautiful and charming, yet cunning and deceitful woman. She is also Lyra’s mother, who bore her through an extramarital affair with Lord Asriel.

The story begins with Lyra sneaking into the Retiring Room of the Scholars of Jordan College in Oxford out of curiosity. While in hiding in the room, she becomes witness to an attempt by the Master of Jordan College to poison Lord Asriel, whom Lyra knew then as her uncle. The poisoning is thwarted, and Lord Asriel commands her to be his eyes in that meeting with the Scholars. In so doing, Lyra first learns of the Dust, which interests her greatly. Lord Asriel had come to the College to ask the Scholars for funding for his study of the Dust.

Long after Lord Asriel’s meeting with the Scholars and after the events of that night have transpired, Lyra starts hearing stories about Gobblers, people who snatch children and take them to the far North. What exactly these Gobblers are, Lyra was not to discover for herself until much later. However, her best friend Roger from the College is also taken by the Gobblers; on the same day that Roger was found missing, Lyra was sent to live with a Mrs. Coulter. Before she left the College, the Master entrusted to her care a device called the altheiometer, and was instructed not to let Mrs. Coulter know that it is in her possession.

While at Mrs. Coulter’s, Lyra was pampered and trained to be a sort of personal assistant to Mrs. Coulter. It was at a party that Lyra learns that Mrs. Coulter is actually one of the people behind the Gobblers, and so she runs away, to be found by the gyptians. From the gyptians, Lyra learns her true identity, that she is the child of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter.

With the aid of the gyptians, Lyra travels to the far North herself in search of her father, whom she heard was imprisoned by the armored bears. In her journey, Lyra learns to read the altheiometer. She also meets Iorek Byrnison, an exiled prince among armored bears and whom Lyra helps to regain his rightful throne. Through a misadventure, Lyra also finds her way through the facility of the Gobblers where they severe the link between children and their daemons, where she also finds her friend Roger. And then she finds her father, only to commit the one betrayal that the Master of Jordan College had foreseen Lyra would do, a betrayal that only Lyra was destined to do.

The Golden Compass is a magnificent, thought-provoking book, worthy of the epithets it has earned. I am at a total loss for words on how to describe how I feel after reading this book. To compare it to other fantasy books that are popular at this time, like the Harry Potter books, is travesty. One cannot help but admire Lyra for her pluck and courage, for the way she just follows her emotions without heed. But she is a child, and it is her courage and innocence that makes the final betrayal in this book so heartbreaking.

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Anna Sibal-Gonzaga is a freelance writer based in the Philippines. She likes reading books and watching movies and TV shows in the sci-fi, fantasy and historical genres. She is also a casual gamer and an all-around nerd.

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  1. NeoAuteur

    Nice review! If only the book is equally as good.

  2. Anna

    Thanks. Just curious though: what made you think the book isn’t that good?

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