(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The first part of this book is set in the city of Oxford, while the second and last parts of it are set in the far North of the planet. However, this Oxford is on an alternative earth, with humans whose souls are "familiars" in the form or animals that live outside the bodies of their human counterparts. Each individual's daemon is closely linked to his or her human and symbolizes something about their human's character. At the same time, humans carry on verbal and mental conversations, even arguments, with their daemons, which are usually of the opposite sex. A daemon continues to change from one animal to another until the humans pass through puberty. At this point in a person's life, the daemon becomes fixed. When the person dies, it seems to disappear.

The work follows the perspective of Lyra, first describing her unlikely home in an Oxford college where the rest of the residents are adult male scholars of various ages. Through her eyes, we first see a few rooms in Jordan College and then the rest of her childhood world in the city of Oxford. The author intended this Oxford to be contemporary with ours, but a parallel world where technology and society have taken a different turn. The city is late Victorian in feel, with few electric (they are called Anbaric) devices available to the general populace and no hint of motorized transport. Steam trains are mentioned but they do not figure in Lyra's travel, which is either by foot, boat, steamship, and dogsled. Lyra is something of an adventurer who has not been subject to the discipline of a family or a primary school. Her education is spotty, being conducted by whatever junior scholar of Jordan College is available to take her on. This also means that much of the time she is left to her own devices. We thus see the streets, alleys, buildings, and colleges from her perspective, but the wealth of detail makes them a rich background and her adventuresome spirit is the author's excuse for portraying the roofs, dungeons, burial crypts, riverbanks, and canals. To anyone who has been to Oxford, many of the descriptions are recognizable. What is missing are the railroad stations, modern buildings, including the modern shops and department stores of High and Broad streets, automobiles and all the bustle we associate with contemporary Britain. It is as if the city, and perhaps her whole world, is caught in some kind of time warp, caused by the dominance of a strictly Calvinist church with many and far-reaching political powers. For example, the explorers who inspire her and whom she joins later in the book use lighter-than-air balloons but not airplanes and certainly not jets. Then there is "magic," mostly in the form of daemons, ghosts, magical substances, and witches. Witches are able to fly sitting on a kind of pine-branch called cloud-pine. Quasi-mechanical spies are powered by daemons, and the Lyra uses the all-important Alitheometer to assess people's characters and forecast future events (The Golden Compass of the American title).

Soon after the novel begins, Lyra is taken from Oxford to London, to live with her newfound mother, the glamorous Mrs. Coulter. This...

(The entire section is 1279 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The third-person narrator in this novel is usually associated with Lyra's experiences, so that the lens of the story is her eye. From time to time, the narrator includes background information that is important if the reader is to understand the story. Pullman tries, however, to stick to Lyra's unreliable viewpoint and thus uses her series of adventures to bring the reader to a knowledge of her very different world.

The novel is separated into three sections named after the physical location of the majority of the action, but each also representing a broadening of Lyra's knowledge. Thus section one, Oxford, introduces us to this city and to Lyra's world as a child. Section Two, Bolvangar, gives Lyra and the reader more extensive knowledge of her world, introducing bears, witches, tartars and wild animals. The Svalbard of section three is a place where Lyra must learn and react to the most painful lessons and in fact is where she can no longer be sure of which actions to take. As she says, "We got it all wrong about Roger. We thought we were helping him." It is also the physical place where she discovers the existence of parallel worlds to her own and goes off into one of them. So the physical journey and the journey of increasing self-knowledge and self-determination form parallel plots.

Beginnings of novels are very important and the amount of information that Pullman puts into his first scene is a measure of his skill as an author. We are introduced to his major creation, Daemons, in the very first pages of the story. They will play an important role both at the level of character and of plot.

Daemons are as much a literary device, and are used in many symbolic ways throughout the story. At once endearing and distinctive, they symbolize key aspects of human nature as we know it while also letting us know that we are viewing a world and people very different from us. It is hard to conceive of a more useful narrative device for grabbing the reader's attention and emphasizing the alienness of a setting. Lyra and her daemon are our first introduction to the story and her close relationship with this creature that changes into several different animals within the first chapter of the book draws us to her and arouses our sympathy. Pantalaimon is known affectionately as Pan. He has enough free will to argue with Lyra about her intended actions, suggest alternatives to get her out of trouble and run interference for her when she is caught. One easily gets the impression that she is a mischievous, creative and troublesome child and that the scenario that opens the novel is also symbolic as an example of a very common occurrence in her personal history. In other words, while the scene is immediate and exciting, it is also very similar to what she has experienced before. And at the same time, it sets off many events that will change her life.

Additionally, by the end of the first chapter, we know many more things about daemons: that adult daemons are fixed in shape, that they represent the essential nature of their humans, that they make their humans at once more knowledgeable and more vulnerable. Their presence, both in life and death, serves to differentiate humans from other inhabitants of this alternative world. For example, on page six we are told about the Steward and his daemon. "He was a servant, so she was a dog; but...

(The entire section is 1373 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Pullman approaches the analysis of society primarily through the eyes of Lyra, and thus her observations and conclusions dominate the narrative. Since he also has a specific message about religion and other social institutions, namely that they foster corruption because individuals are given too much power, Lyra is put in many situations where she has to choose a path counter to that expected of her by the adults in her world. It is clear that the Master of Jordan College is largely indifferent to her until he learns that she has a destiny, as is her father, known only to her as Lord Asriel. We get the impression that her world is socially stratified, largely indifferent to the rights of individuals, and that its social, political and religious institutions serve the ambitions of a few individuals more than they do the good of the whole population. Pullman uses Lyra to constantly contrast the motives and actions of adults in positions of power with those of Lyra which seem to come from a "higher" morality. She is loyal to her college until it interferes with her friends. She accepts the "outsider" position of gyptians until she learns that they will help her rescue her friends, even though her upbringing does not seem to have included many lessons on moral and social responsibility. One comes away from this book with a sense that any personal virtues developed by a child or an adult are there in spite of the efforts of society. The message is relatively clear:...

(The entire section is 340 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. This novel describes many kinds of courage. Lyra leaves her safe and luxurious home with her newfound mother to save her friends. Gyptian men and women risk their lives for her and to save or rescue other children. How does Pullman define courage? Do you agree with him?

2. Lyra is an example of someone who is loyal to her friends, but has to make many choices between different loyalties. She must choose between The Master of Jordan College and her uncle, between her mother and her young friends and between the gyptians and the non-gyptians who were her "family." How did she make these choices? On what basis did she make them? Do you agree with her?

3. Morality is a basic concern in these novels. Lyra is a...

(The entire section is 912 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Metaphor and allegory are important in Pullman's story. The daemon is both a metaphorical figure and serves an allegorical function. Explore the daemons of at least four major characters, including Lyra, and look at the characteristics of their daemons as metaphors for the nature of the human they serve. What does the author tell you about their daemons, and what do you know about them as a result of descriptions of deamons? In addition to Lyra, select from these characters: Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter, John Faa, Serafina Pekkala, Iofur Raknison.

2. The entire story is a religious allegory about the fall from grace of human beings. Allegory is defined as a story in which people, things and happenings have another...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Pullman wrote The Golden Compass (published in England as His Dark Materials), as the first book in a series. This one focuses on Lyra, while the second book, The Subtle Knife, puts Lyra in contact with a young boy, Will, who she meets in one of their alternative earths. The third, The Amber Spyglass, appeared in 2000 and resolves the place of the Compass and the Knife in the universe.

Also of interest might be J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Book of Lost Tales, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Leaf by Niggle; Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone; and Diana Wynne Jones's Charmed Lives, The Lives of Christopher Chant, A...

(The entire section is 131 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Beavin, Kristi. Horn Book. (May 1999): 357. A short review of The Golden Compass.

De Lint, Charles. Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (January 1997): 19-20. A review of The Golden Compass.

Estes, Sally. Booklist. (February 1, 1984): 815-816. A review of The Golden Compass.

Flowers, Ann A. Horn Book. (July-August 1996): 464-65. A review of The Golden Compass.

"Philip Pullman." In Authors & Artists for Young Adults, Volume 15. Detroit: Gale, 1991. An illustrated essay describing Pullman's life and works.

"Philip Pullman." In Children's Literature Review, Volume 20. Detroit: Gale, 1990. A...

(The entire section is 174 words.)