The title of this piece is a little misleading because I’m not going to discuss the film of this Philip Pullman novel, which starred (co-starred?) Nicole Kidman, I presume as Mrs. Coulter, the evil–whoops better not tag her here. It’s one of the book’s many surprises. I came by my reading of this book quite honestly–via my granddaughter, who lapped it up like a kitten at a milk puddle. It’s the second book this year Elizabeth has led me to (see my comments in Runemarks–Life and Death in the Underworld, March 9 ’08) this year, and she deserves my thanks.
Pullman may be striving for the epic proportions of Lord of the Rings and the popularity of Harry Potter with this first in a trilogy. Or he may be just enjoying writing fantasies for kids and hoping they sell. He falls short of the former–though The Golden Compass is no mean achievement as a piece of literature–but he’s certainly hit the latter mark with a high-selling book and a movie that will certainly be nominated for something come Oscar/Golden Globes time. I can say this despite having not seen the thing because I’ve seen the trailer, read the book, and know its blockbuster fantasy proportions. Also, there’s Kidman’s name. It’s what The Chronicles of Narnia was lacking last year. Despite good storytelling, a fine tale, and great special effects and monsters, there was no marquee name. Compass, on the other hand … but we aren’t discussing films.
Compass (Book One, the author informs us at the end of 351 adventurous pages) is the story of an orphaned girl who grows up with street kids around Oxford College because the resident scholars have no time, patience, or skill for raising children and leave her unattended most of the time. Lyra is spirited, willful, curious, a natural leader, and altogether perfect for the protagonist in a rousing story that takes us to the ends of the earth and beyond. She’s the product of a hidden past whose truth is revealed to her (and us) many times throughout the book, for nothing true is true in quite the way that it seems to be true. Pullman does a masterful job of setting her up to pursue goals that she achieves only to find out that the results are opposite of her intentions.
Everyone in the world of Compass has a “daemon” which is a flesh and blood outward expression of his/her inner self. The daemon is protean to a fault with children, then stabilizes as a person reaches adulthood. Thus, Lyra’s early benefactor, Mrs. Coulter, has a golden leopard for a daemon. Lyra’s daemon, on the other hand, changes from mouse to crow to eagle and on and on according to mood and circumstance. At the center of the book is a controversy about something called “dust”, which is somehow connected to the idea of original sin, and about which the church wants all knowledge and experimentation banned. We are in the early 20th century at times here (motorized zeppelins) and back to the middle ages at others (fears of the return of the inquisition). Pullman has not allowed himself to be chronologically tied down. He’s also invented a little soothsaying device for Lyra that operates like a complex, hand-sized ouija board combining “principles” of astrology, psychology, and “modern science”. That is, it’s your basic golden compass and will get you out of a bundle of tight spots if you happen to be a kid and happen to possess Lyra’s intuition and intelligence.
It turns out that Lyra is a chosen being who can save the human race if she does the right thing (whatever that is) and does it without realizing she’s the chosen one. Apparently, once she discovers that she has a chosen role and starts pursuing her wishes for reasons other than her pure desire to do good, she’ll have lost her innocence at least in that regard and we’re all in for another eviction from Eden.
Pullman keeps the story well-paced, and the whole concept holds together remarkably well for as complex as it is. There are wonderful humans-kids and adults–and wonderful creatures throughout. The black and white hats get passed around quite a lot, so you’re never quite sure who’s good and who’s evil, which is what life is like, so that’s the way I like it. I can’t say this is written on the Tolkein level, but it’s certainly captivating and colorful and well worth the read.