Back in 2009, I vaguely remember watching the first half-hour of the movie version of The Golden Compass. I obviously wasn’t all that impressed, since I didn’t keep watching it. I’m very glad that the movie didn’t turn me off the book, because the world Philip Pullman crafted is both familiar and strange in ways that are simply wonderful.
There’s something very interesting about the world in which Lyra Belacqua lives. She’s an orphan living with the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford, running amok in the streets and rarely seeing her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel. Everyone has a dæmon — a creature they are born with and stays with them throughout life. Children’s dæmons shift shapes at will. Lyra’s Pantalaimon is her constant companion, shifting to a shape that’s most useful to her at the time.
Science and religion in the His Dark Materials series are inextricably entwined. Church officials have their hands in almost everything at the frontiers of science, and scientific theories often contain theological ideas, concepts, and implications. I enjoyed the part of the book about Dust — some sort of elementary particle that is attracted to adults but not children — and how the idea of its existence at first made the Church persecute the man who discovered it. Once its existence was impossible to deny, however, they made their best attempt to fold it into their theology. Pullman does a good job of magnifying what actually goes on with religion and science today — science discovers and creates, religion denies and condemns, and then the two eventually come together. I thought it was an excellent concept to fold into a book whose target audience is children, since it’s a push and pull that shapes our current political, moral, and educational worlds.
The Golden Compass is well-paced and plotted. Pullman is able to manipulate the reader into seeing things from a more child-like perspective, creating an extra layer of surprise within Lyra and the reader’s shared dismay over events. The best of literature aims for a connection to the reader on an emotional level, and Pullman manages to do this extraordinarily well.
But the best part of The Golden Compass is Lyra herself. She’s the epitome of pluck — through changes in living arrangements, kidnappings, travel with an armored bear, and the appearance of a mysterious magical device, Lyra knows exactly what to do. She’s resourceful, strong, and (it’s going to sound weird to say this) an excellent liar. Her prevarications are almost always a better idea than telling the truth. More importantly, her less-than-honest ways are more believable than a perfect child. Lyra is not that, and will never be that. She is, however, a remarkable child. Remarkable is vastly superior to perfect, because perfect is boring. Lyra makes for an interesting read and an exciting story.
Pullman’s His Dark Materials series has two more books in it, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. They’re sitting on my shelf, and I’m thinking that I’ll be getting to them sooner rather than later. After all, there’s a scientific mystery to solve, theological questions to answer, and one girl’s story to follow up on.