The Golden Compass

by Philip Pullman

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Setting

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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 is also a retrofitted London with a highly stratified social and economic system. Then she escapes from her mother because that same woman is a member of the Oblation Board, a religious institution that steals and harms children. Lyra teams up with the gyptians, whose children are most at risk and then we are treated to another slice of alternative Britain. Finally, she journeys to...

(This entire section contains 1279 words.)

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north to Lapland with the gyptians, hoping to rescue her friend Roger and Lord Asriel, whom she discovers is her father. This is the device used by Pullman to introduce us to the many other civilizations of this alternative universe whose inhabitants live either in the fens on their boats (the gyptians), in small towns which are reminiscent of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century, or in frozen huts in the arctic. Some of the arctic inhabitants are sentient bears whose "souls" are their metal armor made from meteorites. While the settings begin with the familiar alternative universe Oxford, close to home for Pullman and known to many of his readers as a new city with very old roots and traditions, they become more and more exotic. The canals and fens on which the boat-bound gyptians live are almost like those of central England today, but they are in heavier use because of the absence of most other modern forms of transport. While she is with the gyptians, Lyra is able to observe details surrounding their rituals of decision-making and leadership, obviously developed over long generations of the gyptians' outcast status, giving the story more historical depth and an even more exotic appeal. By the time Lyra travels North through country that is reminiscent of Finland and up to the North Pole inhabited by other creatures, the fantastic element has been firmly established through landscape which is no longer so easily recognizable as the real North Pole and the author has begun to suggest that some natural phenomena such as the Northern Lights, which we take for granted, could have a very fantastic origin.

Lyra's travels in the North are also filled with exotic details. She first travels by steamship to a Northernmost settlement, Trollesund, described as the main port of Lapland, and enjoys all the associate pleasures of unfettered shipboard life. After she and the gyptian men arrive in the port, she is able to wander around the town unhindered, as she did in Oxford, and therefore to solve one of their problems. She meets, then arranges to free the bear Iorek, who will become her guide and good friend. The descriptions of Trollesund evoke turn-of-the-century Alaskan gold rush settlements as much as they do recognizable Lapland villages of our own far north. One can almost smell the wet mud of the streets and steaming, damp bodies in the public buildings. That these locations, a frozen north Lapland where fish are the major source of food, and snow covers the landscape for much of the year, and wild Tartars roam around capturing children and killing other intruders, are also strange and frightening to Lyra only adds to the sense of adventure. Then, when she and her gyptians friends travel even further North to Bolvangar seeking the lost children, she is thrust into a familiar situation with a terrible haunting difference. Bolvangar is a remote settlement, boasting only an institution, which is a cross between a boarding school and a hospital. Pullman is able to meld the strangeness of the frozen landscape with the common experience readers have with this sort of concentrated collection of young humans. With an economy of words, he can evoke all the fear and frustrations, as well as the hopelessness that can attend to such settings. The group-bedrooms, the cafeteria, and the regimen of institutional life are all enriched by details of sight, sound, and smell. Before Lyra arrived we are to understand that the children, all of whom had been stolen from their homes in the south, apparently were content to follow orders while fearing their fate, a common phenomenon of institutional life. Finally, Lyra engineers their collective escape, but is herself captured by fierce Tartars and taken to the new snow-palace of the bear King, and to her father's lavish prison and observatory. It seems that only her additional knowledge of Mrs. Coulter, the mystery of "dust" and the Alethiometer and a sense of responsibility to her friends and her father set her apart and push her towards action, dangerous as it may appear.

Literary Qualities

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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 a superior servant, so a superior dog. In fact, she had the form of a red setter. The daemon seemed suspicious and cast around as if she'd sensed an intruder, but didn't make for the wardrobe, to Lyra's intense relief. Lyra was afraid of the Steward, who had twice beaten her." The wealth of detail in this description is amazing but also typical of the whole novel. As we read between the lines, this is some of what it means to us: There are servants. Servants have dogs for daemons, but different kinds of dogs according to their status. Daemons have more senses than their masters, but do not act without their masters' permission. Lyra is not protected by her status from discipline administered by servants and Lyra has been in trouble for her transgressive behavior at least twice, but probably many more times. One could take any number of passages in the novel and deconstruct how daemons operate on a symbolic and a narrative level. They are used to differentiate humans from other creatures. Lyra and her friends and family all have daemons but the bears, who nevertheless act like humans, do not. Witches have daemons but they and their daemons can travel further apart than humans can from their daemons. Thus the daemons of witches are more versatile on a realistic level and as plot devices. They can be spies, carry messages, and act independently for the benefit of humans, but still make their humans more vulnerable to physical attack. One person can kill another by killing their daemon as well as by killing them.

Daemons are used by the author to present many details about characters. By the second chapter, we know enough about daemons to decode the nature of the many adults who surround Lyra, and like her, to read their truthfulness and level of dependability from the action of their daemons. The most marked example of this use of daemons is Mrs. Coulter's monkey. This golden monkey is despicable from the earliest chapters of the story because he attacks other people's daemons at the request of Mrs. Coulter. His function in defining her character for the reader, and ultimately for Lyra, is very significant. He reflects her true feelings of disdain, anger, criticism and general nastiness while her face retains an impassive smile. He spies for her, burrowing into Lyra's things to find the Alitheometer for his mistress. Thus we know she is untrustworthy and is not above using even her own daughter to further her political ambitions.

Daemons also have a central function in plot of the story. After all, the story is about an elusive substance called "dust" which collects around adults with fixed daemons. The motivation the Oblation Board has for stealing children is to sever them from their daemons thus turning them into zombies, and even causing their death. When daemons are severed, the process itself releases some sort of energy that is craved both by the Oblation Board members and by Lyra's father. The Bear King's desire for a daemon and his attempts to become human help Lyra to defeat him. In fact, some factions of the institutionalized church seem almost to fear daemons and to want to "tame" them in order to achieve greater power over other individuals, thus adding to the motivation of the Oblation Board.

While daemons are central to Pullman's characterizations, he also skillfully uses language, appearance, social function, setting, and relationships to Lyra in creating his varied and interesting characters. Notice how Lyra's word choices and grammar change depending on whether she is talking to her young friends, the Scholars in Jordan College, her mother, the bears and witches, or the gyptians. Notice the attention the author pays to how she and others are dressed, which both tells us something about their social status and makes them more vivid. Of course, it is easiest to examine any of these ideas in relation to Lyra, whose mother immediately buys her new clothes when she takes her away from Jordan College and forces Lyra to think about her physical appearance more than the functionality of her clothing. When Lyra is in the North, she chooses clothes for their function, but we are still treated to an extensive description. Pullman is also lavish with details of the different settings in which Lyra finds herself, giving us vivid pictures of the exotic places as Lyra experiences them. The college, her mother's house (both on normal days and when she is having a party), the gyptian's boats, the fens where they live, the "hospital/school" at Bolvangar, and her father's prison, are each a rich visual pallet which engage a full range of our senses.

Social Sensitivity

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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: individual courage, intelligence, inventiveness and personal loyalty are always superior to and usually in conflict with social institutions. Lyra's adventures teach her to distrust her mother, her father, the people who raised her, and most adults who are members of normal society, instead trusting outsiders like the gyptians, witches, bears and children her own age. This novel is a pointed examination of most social organizations with which we are familiar and focuses especially on its treatment of children and outsiders who are under its power.

For Further Reference

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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 biographical essay with collected criticism on Pullman's writing.

"Philip Pullman." In Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume 17. Detroit: Gale, 1994, pp. 50-77. An autobiographical essay in which Pullman discusses his life and works.

"Pullman, Philip." In Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. A brief biography of Pullman with information about his writing.

"Philip Pullman." Scholastic's Authors and Books Homepage http://teacher.scholastic. com/authorsandbooks/. May 4, 2001. A brief biography of Pullman with commentary from the author.

ACHUKA Children's Books http://www. achuka.co.uk/ppint.htm. May 4, 2001. Interview with Pullman.

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