Lyra and her dæmon, Pantalaimon (Pan), live in Jordan College, the world’s preeminent college for practical theology, at Oxford. Although she is the niece of Lord Asriel, Lyra is described as a “barbarian” who spends her days clambering across the roofs of the college with street urchins, including her good friend Roger. She is a liar and is often caught up in mischief, but she is also brave. For example, when The Golden Compass begins, Lyra is snooping in a common room. She knows that Lord Asriel, whose dæmon is a snow leopard, is returning to the college after his latest trip to the North. However, after she sees the Master poison a decanter of wine, Lyra reveals herself to her uncle even though she knows that he may physically punish her.
In return for her warning about the poison, Lord Asriel allows Lyra to hide in a wardrobe during his presentation, even though she has no interest in secret politics, let alone her studies. He explains to the scholars of Jordan College that he has seen a city in the sky. It appears to be another world, which is remarkable because the church has decreed that only two worlds exist: the earth and heaven. This city does not appear to be heaven or even hell. Lord Asriel has also found a way to photograph Dust, and he shows how it has collected around a man. However, Dust does not appear to collect around children, even if they have not been “severed.” Lord Asriel receives funding for further exploration and he leaves with little fanfare and little time for Lyra. Afterward, Lyra overhears two of the scholars talking about her, one of them the Master. The Master explains that his “alethiometer” has foreseen that Lyra will travel to the North. He goes on to explain that his attempt to poison Lord Asriel, if successful, would have saved Lyra a little more time, safe at Oxford.
Lyra is unconcerned with alethiometers or Dust. However, she is worried about Gobblers. Many children around Oxford have recently disappeared, and people have come to refer to the mysterious kidnappers as Gobblers. Pullman describes the kidnapping of Tony Makarios. Tony and his dæmon, Ratter, are abducted by a beautiful woman with a golden monkey dæmon. They promise Tony “chocolatl” before leading him and Ratter off. His mother never sees him again.
The kidnappings have become so common that kids now play games in which the Gobblers are villains. Returning home from her games with Roger and her other friends one day, Lyra is taken away by the scholars to wash up. An important visitor has arrived at the college, one Mrs. Coulter. Mrs. Coulter is beautiful, with dark hair. Her dæmon is a golden colored monkey.
Lyra is immediately impressed with Mrs. Coulter, who seems worldly and powerful, especially for a female scholar (female scholars are looked down upon by the scholars of Jordan College). The Master of the college summons Lyra in private and, though he seems uneasy, offers to send her with Mrs. Coulter. He explains that she can offer a young girl a more comprehensive education. Lyra immediately agrees. Before she leaves, he gives her a strange device called an “alethiometer.” It looks like a golden compass, with many strange symbols. The Master explains that it will tell Lyra the truth, though she will have to figure out for herself how to read it. The Master cautions Lyra against letting Mrs. Coulter see the alethiometer.
Mrs. Coulter promises to train Lyra so that she can be her personal assistant during her explorations in the North. Lyra cannot wait to learn and to impress her new guardian. However, when they arrive in Mrs. Coulter’s home, Pan quickly warns Lyra that Mrs. Coulter is trying to tame them. It seems to be true: Mrs. Coulter has Lyra washing regularly, studying diligently, and dressing prettily. Lyra realizes that she misses running outdoors with her friends. When Lyra attempts to defy Mrs. Coulter’s authority, the latter’s golden monkey attacks and subdues Pan, hurting him (and by extension, Lyra) until Lyra promises to obey. Fortunately, Lyra is well practiced at lying.
Still, Mrs. Coulter needs Lyra to be on her best behavior since she is throwing a party. During her conversations with Mrs. Coulter’s many political acquaintances, Lyra begins to learn many things. It seems that Lord Asriel is at odds with Mrs. Coulter and her allies, and he is being held prisoner by the panserbjørne, or armored bears, of the North. Mrs. Coulter, meanwhile, is in charge of the Oblation Board, which is responsible for kidnapping children. It turns out that the official name of the board is the General Oblation Board, hence the nickname, “Gobblers.” However, Mrs. Coulter’s allies are confident that the Gobblers are actually a benign, helpful force that fights for good. Everyone is curious about Mrs. Coulter, especially about her personal life. However, Lyra simply lies at will whenever asked about her life and her relationship with Mrs. Coulter.
Before she can find out any more, Pan and Lyra realize that the golden monkey is not watching, so they have an opportunity to escape. They immediately take flight. Before Lyra can get far, she is captured by men with throwing nets. They are Turks, who kidnap children like the Gobblers do, but not for the Oblation Board. Just as she realizes she is caught, Lyra is rescued by gyptians, sea travelers that explain that the Gobblers have taken many of their own children. They offer to take care of Lyra while she makes her escape from Mrs. Coulter’s care.
Lyra is traveling with the gyptians, a nomadic people who travel by sea. Lyra meets their king, John Faa, as well as a wise man named Farder Coram. Lyra truthfully explains to them everything that has happened to her since she saw the Master of Jordan College attempt to poison Lord Asriel. She even shows them her alethiometer, and though Farder Coram is aware of the power of the device, he does not attempt to take it from Lyra.
They also explain the truth of Lyra’s upbringing. It turns out that Lyra is actually the daughter of Mrs. Coulter, who was married to Edward Coulter at the time. However, her father is Lord Asriel. They explain how Mrs. Coulter attempted to hide Lyra from her husband’s wrath, but Lord Asriel ultimately had to challenge him to a duel and kill him with his own pistol. Lyra also learns that Lord Asriel asked the scholars at Oxford to care for her and to protect her from her mother. However, when news arrived that Lord Asriel was being held captive in the North, Mrs. Coulter must have decided that she could collect Lyra. John Faa speculates that Mrs. Coulter must have had some power over the Master or that he must have felt that he was protecting Lyra somehow.
Lyra will be in danger if she is caught by Mrs. Coulter again, but the gyptians are determined to travel into danger anyway. In a public assembly, or “Roping,” the king explains that the gyptians should raise a levy of men and money to travel North and rescue the kidnapped children being held by the Gobblers. When Lyra volunteers to come along, John Faa forbids it. However, Lyra decides to attach herself to Farder Coram. Before long, she demonstrates her growing ability to read the alethiometer and when her predictions begin to come true, he convinces John Faa to allow Lyra to accompany them North.
Reading the alethiometer is tricky work. It communicates via symbols, and each symbol has multiple meanings. For example, an hourglass’s first meaning is time and its second meaning is death. Scholars and wise men study the alethiometer, but Lyra finds that she can intuit the compass’s meaning if she concentrates. One of her predictions is about her mother, but she fails to realize that it is a warning. She and Farder Coram discover that Mrs. Coulter has sent clockwork spy flies after them, which they are able to capture.
Lyra quickly finds her sea legs. She learns the names of everyone on the ship and is learning a great deal about life at sea. She also learns about dæmons. Pan can still change from one form to another, but as people get older, their dæmons settle on a permanent shape. Lyra and Pan agree that they prefer things as they are, but one of the sailors says that, in time, she will come to see things differently. Just as Lyra comes to feel that she could spend the rest of her life at sea, the gyptians arrive and land in Norroway.
Farder Coram says that he once saved the life of a witch whose alliance might be useful in their coming battle with the Gobblers. He and Lyra seek out the witches’ counsel, Dr. Martin Lanselius. Dr. Lanselius explains that the Gobblers have passed through his town on their way North but that the townspeople will not readily betray the Gobblers, who bring money into the town. Instead, he suggests that they attempt to gain the cooperation of Iorek Byrnison, an armored bear. Although the armored bears (or panserbjørne) are allied with the Gobblers, Iorek may be of help. However, when they approach the giant bear, he is drinking spirits. He explains that the townspeople stole his armor and now he works metal for them and drinks spirits. Iorek explains that Lyra would understand how he feels without his armor if she were separated from Pan.
Because they are unaware of the location of Iorek’s armor, John Faa and Farder Coram are resigned to finding other allies. Fortunately, they succeed. A grey goose arrives. It is Kaisa, the dæmon of the witch Serafina Pekkala. He explains that Serafina has become the queen of one clan of witches, who differ from humans due to their longevity and their ability to send their dæmons far away. The witches are divided amongst themselves and may not be able to help the gyptians. They also find Lee Scoresby, an “aeronaut” from Texas who once fought beside Iorek. Lee distracts the gyptians and has his dæmon, Hester, secretly tell Lyra and Pan to help Iorek. Lyra finds the location of the armor using the alethiometer; Iorek frees himself and allies himself with Lyra.
The gyptians’ stop in Norroway has been a great help to their cause. Not only do they find allies and supplies, but they also learn a great deal. The children are being held in Bolvanger. The Gobblers there are performing experiments related to “intercision.” They have allied themselves with the panserbjørne, who are keeping Lord Asriel captive so he cannot travel to other worlds. However, the true concern of the Gobblers is not traveling to other worlds; rather, they seek to learn more about Dust, though it remains unclear how the kidnapped children will help.
The gyptians are preparing for their attack and ask Lyra to use the alethiometer to see how the Gobblers are defending their lair. Lyra is able to find the answer, but the compass also tells her that there is a sort of ghost child in a nearby village. At first, John Faa does not see the significance of this information, but he allows Iorek to carry Lyra on his back to see what it is. Along the way they see many witches flying North, though they do not know anything else about them. In the village, Lyra discovers Tony Makarios, a boy who was kidnapped from Oxford. He is grasping a dead fish to his chest in the same way that Lyra holds Pan to her chest. She realizes that he has been separated—“severed”—from his dæmon. This...
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Lyra soon finds Roger, who is careful not to give away her true identity. Before long, Lyra has learned about hiding places and is planning to escape and to disrupt the Experimental Station. When a fire drill begins, Lyra and Pan discover Kaisa, who helps them to break into a locked room. Inside, they find cages filled with the severed dæmons of children like Tony. They set the dæmons free. It seems that not even Mrs. Coulter’s arrival can disrupt Lyra’s plans. That night, Lyra sneaks into the roof to spy on the adults. They are discussing the dæmon escape and Mrs. Coulter is adamant that security be tightened. She is also eager to supervise more intercision procedures. When she leaves the other two Gobblers, Lyra makes a...
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Serafina Pekkala is talking with Lee Scoresby. The Texan aeronaut is keen to learn how he will be financially compensated should his transport of Iorek into Svalbard be interpreted as an act of war. The witch queen explains that people are already at war and that both she and Lee are on Lyra’s side. She explains to Lyra that Iorek was a prince of the bears but that he wrongly killed a rival bear and was exiled. She goes on to explain that this was a scheme of Iofur Raknison, the current king of the bears. Lyra also declares that she intends to deliver the alethiometer to Lord Asriel and that she will rescue him. Then cliff ghasts attack Lyra and her companions before they arrive.
When Lyra comes to after the attack,...
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When Lyra, Roger, and Iorek Byrnison meet with Lord Asriel, they are surprised by his response. When he sees Lyra, he cries out that he did not send for her. However, when he sees Roger, he calms. Lyra, has thought that she was supposed to bring Lord Asriel the alethiometer but discovers that he does not need it. She declares her disappointment in Lord Asriel’s parenting, but he only states that he will not be lectured by an insolent child. After hearing the story of her travels, he explains to Lyra what he and Mrs. Coulter have been working toward.
Dust, which does not settle on children until they reach puberty, has been linked to Original Sin. The Magisterium has sought to control Dust, as has Mrs. Coulter through...
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