The Golden Compass

by Philip Pullman

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Themes and Characters

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Pullman has been very articulate about his intentions for the three books as a whole. They are to be "A rewriting of Milton's Paradise Lost," for young adults, and the first novel is Lyra's story. In the second, he introduces another focal character and the third novel involves them both in an epic struggle. In this work, the good people, like Lyra and her friends, are on the side of the fallen angels and humans and against the established educational, governmental and religious institutions of her society. Indeed, Pullman has designated Lyra as "The New Eve," whose coming-to-knowledge is essential for the fulfilling, self-determined life of all humans.

When she sets out on her quest, Lyra is eleven years old and does not even reach the age of twelve by the end of book one. The whole story chronicles the transition from innocence to experience, or the fall from the unselfconscious grace of childhood into the self-conscious action of adulthood, but Lyra is still very much a child at the end of the first novel. At the same time, she has gone through several painful rites of passage, beginning with her confusion when the Master of Jordan College tries to poison her "uncle," Lord Asriel, then gives her a gift from this same man, the precious Alitheometer. She is confused when he insists that she hide it from Mrs. Coulter and does not tell her what it is or how to use it. Then she has to learn further distrust the glamorous Mrs. Coulter, her newfound mother, who has dazzled her with rich clothes and an elaborate social life, but intends to use her to capture children for the sinister "Oblation Board" to use in their experiments. She discovers that the gyptians, whom she had thought of as social outcasts, are really her friends and will help her with her father. She learns that the church, which she has always known as part of her social background, is evolving into an institution that abuses children for their own ends and seeks to keep the majority of people ignorant about the natural and social world so that they can be more easily controlled. She also rapidly learns to place much more trust in her own judgment at the same time as she comes to understand that it is not infallible.

One symbol of her unconscious grace, her "pre-fallen" state, is her ability to use the mysterious Alethiometer, a small, golden mechanical device that is covered with symbols. She learns quickly to sink into a meditative state in order to "work" the machine, a sort of compass covered with symbols and an arrow pointing to them. She quickly learns it can be used to advise her about other peoples' true character, suggest possible future results of current actions and reveal facts that might not be obvious to anyone, much less a young girl. Pullman also signifies her innocence by making it clear that Lyra does not understand the sexual innuendo among the adults around her, like Mrs. Coulter and her friends, and the witches and the gyptians. Lyra is still in a state of unconscious grace, but she is neither guileless nor ignorant. In fact, her ability to dissemble, to tell lies, and to bend conversations to her own ends is essential to her success at every stage of the adventure. Besides saving her own life, it gets her and her friends out of the hands of the Oblation Board and saves her friendly bear, Iorek Brynison. Lyra acts independently and creatively throughout the novel, impelled by a strong sense of...

(This entire section contains 1835 words.)

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loyalty and responsibility and is able to assess a number of ambiguous social and personal situations without hesitating about her place in the action. When she discovers that the Master is trying to poison her father, she stops it without asking which man is in the right and calls the Master's act an attempted murder. When she finds that her mother is involved with the Oblation Board, which has stolen her friend Roger and many other children away from their families, and that they "sever" the children from their daemons, she runs away from her mother and embarks on an expedition to stop this monstrosity, never questioning the wisdom of opposing established authorities. She tries to save a poor severed boy, helps Iorek the bear escape his servitude, opposes the authorities running the Bolvangar institution where severing is taking place, and tries to save her father. In each of these cases, she has had to reassess authority figures that should have governed her actions. This set of situations both endears her to young readers who often feel constrained by adult proscriptions and alerts adult readers to her special status, making us look for the underlying moral order which informs her actions.

The most powerful and attractive symbol in this novel is the daemon, followed closely by the bears of Lapland. Pullman describes the evolution of external souls that differentiate Lyra's world from our own from the outset of the novel. This defamiliarizing device did not come with the original idea for the novels, but once he had it, the versatility of such a literary invention, which can also be a symbol for many aspects of individual character and of collective strangeness, became clear. Their symbolic uses, in a technical sense, will be described below. Their thematic value is also interesting. They represent a certain degree of determinism, although Pullman resists this interpretation. When questioned, he associated the daemon with essential nature and inborn talent. He said:

The concept doesn't determine outcomes, it suggests a nature. But then that's just a picture of what we are like. We're not all gifted in the same way ... but the things we can do something about still remain within our path.

They also allow Pullman to work with subjectivity, symbolizing puzzling aspects of the human character, and allowing readers to look into aspects of human personality that do not seem to fit. Pullman's well-developed concept of maturation is embodied in daemons, but they are so engaging that one cannot contemplate adulthood in this society without extreme sadness. Book cover for The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

As one thinks through the functions of daemons, it is clear that their existence would create a totally different society at all levels. People would know more about themselves earlier in their lives. They would have at least one close friend and thus, in a paradoxical way, be more secure about themselves in their adolescence and at once more vulnerable to the manipulation of others who could instantly perceive key aspects of their character. Those around you would know when you had passed through puberty and, embarrassing as it seems to young teenagers, this knowledge would be a matter of course for each person. We would each have someone with whom to discuss our most difficult decisions and this would affect our need for external friendships. This is only a suggestion from a long list of possible differences, and Pullman himself has not developed them even in the course of the whole series. Within the context of his novels, daemons hover between a fantastic construct, which is also a beloved pet, and a mere symbol of the character assessments we all do of each other, sometimes at the subconscious level.

Daemons form an essential thread in the complicated plot. This is another significance to their appearance. While Lyra's innocent adventures in Oxford make for a good story, the author gradually builds up our knowledge of their importance. For example, we follow her lively adventures in the crypts of Jordan College through Chapter Three. We learn that daemons disappear when people die, but in the crypt she finds coins with pictures of daemons on them wedged into the skulls of deceased scholars. When she switches them around, she receives ghostly visitors demanding that she put the coins back in the right places. Thus she and the reader begins to suspect the daemons, and their humans, still have some connection to the living.

The daemon is such an intimate part of each person's life that Lyra is immediately and inconsolably horrified to find that the Oblation Board is severing some children from their daemons. Thus they become a plot element that impels her actions for the majority of the novel. This intimacy was predicted by the episode with the deceased scholars but is reinforced regularly within the story. For example, she meets a severed boy on the way to Bolvangar and notes that he has adopted a dead fish in exchange for his "ratter." She notices that the usurping Bear-King, Iofur Raknison, has a human shaped stuffed toy because he does not have a "real" daemon. To her, this means they she may be able to deceive him as she could not deceive more "natural" bears like her beloved Iorek.

Pullman's view on original sin is closely linked to this transition from innocence to experience he embodies in Lyra. It is not a simple transition and his message is clearly that many adults fall by the wayside, putting their own desires for power, status and wealth above that of moral responsibility to other humans. He sees original sin as the best thing that ever happened to us, the symbol of our becoming human, and the entire three-book story is an attack on the rise of fundamentalist religions which menace societies all over the world. As he says on the Scholastic Authors and Books Web site,

I think fundamentalist religion is one of the greatest dangers we have ever faced. And so if there is a source of wickedness in the book, you can place it there. But when institutional religion tells us what to believe, and punishes us for believing something different, then its time to ring the alarm bells.

Magic and science are also blended in this work. Lyra's mother and her mother's friends, the Master of Jordan College, Lord Asriel, the Oblation Board and other church institutions are all more concerned about understanding, and even more so, controlling "dust" than they are about their children. On the other hand, Lyra's curiosity about this mysterious substance, which spurs on her actions throughout all three books, never blinds her to the needs of the people around her. Again and again she discovers the monstrous actions of her elders only because she is trying to save friends and family. This curious display of loyalty to friends and family, singleness of purpose and courage in the face of overwhelming odds sets her against the many adults in her life who should know better and begs the equation of morality and innocence. Yet she goes through a maturation process which allows her to use her many talents in the service of "good" people like Farder Coram, John Faa, Ma Costa and her son Tony of the gyptians, Roger from the Jordan College kitchens, Iorek Byrnison and the many children stolen by the Oblation Board which she frees at Bolvangar.


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