The Golden Compass Characters
by Philip Pullman

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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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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 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...

(The entire section is 1,835 words.)