Book Review: The Golden Compass

I like the genre of fantasy that touches upon myths and legends and not so much hardcore science fiction. I find The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman interesting because it does all of this as well as the tenets of science and theology in a way that does not make for heavy or tiresome reading.

The Golden Compass is the first book of the trilogy of a fantasy series, The Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass are the second and the third books in this series.

The Golden Compass begins in a Victorian, old world Oxford, with a 12 year old, spirited, tomboyish, sassy girl called Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon. It’s a world where all humans are deeply and closely connected to their souls, which take the form of animals, called daemons. Lyra spends much of her time recklessly, in carefree abandon, running atop the roofs of the Jordan College, until her curiosity lands her in the midst of a world of witches, armored polar bears and several parallel universes. She embarks on a dangerous quest to try and rescue her friend Roger from the clutches of the Gobblers, a gang that has been stealing children for strange and nefarious purposes. Lyra is aided by the magical Alethiometer, a golden, compass like instrument that tells the truth at all times. In this perilous journey, she is pursued by the beautiful and mysterious Marisa Coulter, whose daemon is a golden furred monkey.

I cannot honestly say that I loved reading the book, yet I did find myself hooked to it; enough to pick up the second of the series as soon as I finished the first. Though the Pullman series has none of the scale and grandeur of the trilogy by Tolkien; The Dark Materials certainly presents an interesting mix of genres where old world machines and computers, shamans and scientists, physics and the supernatural co-exist in a complex web of changing times. I found the book incredulous in parts and meaningful in others. I like the way Pullman makes all of this work together, flying witches clad in black rub shoulders with mercenary polar bears that can talk and build their own armor, a mix of the stereotypical with the unusual. Perhaps the reason why the book remains readable yet far fetched at times is exactly this.

I also find that I have not been able to connect with the protagonist, or feel with her. She is exasperatingly heroic in parts and human and vulnerable in others. In fact I think I like the character of Pantalaimon, her daemon much more. It would be interesting to see Dakota Fanning as Lyra in the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, because I think it is a role that could easily prove to be far too self righteous and cocky and so annoying. Pantalaimon, Lyra’s daemon is far more lovable. The daemons of children can change form, while those of the adults cannot, and Pantalaimon favors the form of a wild cat when threatened or anxious and that of a snow white ermine or a mouse on other occasions. He seems more accepting of Lyra and his faith in her makes him so much more vulnerable.

I like the idea of the daemons especially in this series. Daemons are more than your soul; they are also your lover, friend, parent, child, nature, instinct, conscience and alter ego. It is interesting that, although they are called daemons, in Lyra’s world, they are not creatures of evil, but one’s very own essence. The idea that one could look at one’s own soul, talk to it and touch it, nurture it and in turn be nurtured by it is so believable and done very well in this book.

The book it seems, has stirred quite a few controversies, with some calling it a work of atheism and of anti religious nature. There are debates whether children should be allowed to read the books at all. Though the audiences for the series are young adults, I am not sure if it subscribes to the genre of children’s fantasy.

The Catholic League's president, Bill Donohue, is urging Christians not to see The Golden Compass or to buy the trilogy for their children, saying that Mr. Pullman's "twin goals are to promote atheism and denigrate Christianity - to kids."

Mr. Pullman, in his online interview with Ms. Freitas, said parents "should read the book and trust the book and trust your children. If you brought them up decent, open-minded, wise, and clear-sighted, you don't need to worry about them turning into little monsters or little atheists or anything." Toledoblade.com, The Golden Compass Points To Controversy, by David Yonke, Article published Saturday, November 24, 2007.

Controversies apart, the book remains very readable. And I suggest that you keep the second close by at hand… on second thoughts, the third as well.