Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Book Review - Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: 1995
Format: Hardcover, 399 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Lyra Belacqua has had the run of Jordan College in Oxford her whole young life. The poor scholars just don't know what do to with the unruly girl. With her daemon Pantalaimon by her side and her best friend Roger she has scaled the roofs, waged war on the Gyptians, and spent her life going where she pleased. Though she'd never made into the Retiring Room... the night she does is a momentous one. It's not just the success of a campaign she's long wagged, but her uncle Lord Asriel has arrived unexpectedly and within a short amount of time she saves his life and learns about something that is to become her obsession, Dust. She can feel the capital "D." But Lord Asriel leaves, alive, and life goes back to normal, that is until kids start disappearing all over England. The kidnappers are given the moniker of Gobblers and soon they aren't just in Oxford, but they've taken Roger! Lyra is determined to save him yet she is sidetracked by the lovely Mrs. Coulter. She arrives and whisks Lyra off her feet and to London, where she is to serve as her assistant. The coincidence of Mrs. Coulter's arrival and that of the Gobblers isn't noticed by Lyra until later. When she realizes that this mysterious woman is responsible and is bankrolled by the church she runs away to find Roger. Teaming up with the Gyptians they travel north. There Lyra will see the most amazing sights and also face the most horrific betrayal. But with Pantalaimon, an armoured bear, witches, an aeronaut, and the mysterious alethiometer, Lyra might just succeed and find out what this Dust is.

I first stumbled on His Dark Materials during a very turbulent time in my life. There was loss and chaos and somehow these books reflected that and made me realize things were going to be OK. I would even go so far as to say that they really helped inform my DNA and pushed me to read more, to escape into the magical worlds located innocuously between two covers but also to look outside myself, to forge new friendships and rebuild what had become of my life. These books even helped form one of my most lasting friendships. You know how finding someone who likes the same book as you is like a recommendation for that person? Well I recommended this series to my friend Jess early in our friendship and her embracing of them was like a gold star next to my name saying that I would make a good friend, which I hope I still am! But having our friendship founded on books, and I will add Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has lead to me finding more and more friends through the love of literature. I guess, as I write this, I never really grasped how much this one book changed me. The Golden Compass isn't my favorite book, but it is a formative book and all these years later I still enjoyed sinking back into Lyra's world.

Though this time I saw Lyra's world very differently. It's not that the book has changed in the least since I first picked it up or even since I re-read it before the movie came out, it's that I have changed and my world view has expanded. This of course not only makes sense but also is part and parcel of the book. The Golden Compass is all about growing up and becoming a part of the adult world. Learning about all the things, all the innuendo that slipped past you for years. Losing your innocence. It's like having the blinders taken off and what struck me forcibly this time was how much The Golden Compass is like an adult version of The Wizard of Oz. Now I'm not talking Wicked territory, though having read those books probably helped me to see this book more clearly. I mean all the elements are here, though slightly distorted. There's Lyra's daemon standing in for Toto, there's the Wicked Witch, Mrs. Coulter, there's bears and balloons and misunderstandings and and and... I just found it so interesting how the themes and the imagery from L. Frank Baum's book seemed to have so much influence here. Yet while it mirrors it it's not a carbon copy. While The Wizard of Oz is a classic, it's a flawed classic that's too saccharine and too condescending. Here we are given a new classic, it has all the elements there but is better. More adult, more adventure, and more, dare I insult a Tin Man and say heart?

The heart of this series is not our heroine Lyra, but the relationship between Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon. I had a daemon once. He was black and white and furry and was quite literally my soul. When I first read The Golden Compass I had just lost his brother and at the age of fourteen Spot became an indoor cat. Over the next eight years we became even more inseparable so when the inevitable separation came I was gutted. It has been almost nine years of feeling like I'm not all there. Feeling as if a part of me is gone. On my previous two readings Spot was alive and well and with me and our parting was a thing never to be contemplated. Yes, it would happen, but one didn't dare actually think about it. This time though he is no longer with me and therefore all the emotions that Lyra feels at the possible severing, of the intercision between her and Pantalaimon devised by Mrs. Coulter to stop Dust settling wasn't hypothetical to me, it was a reality. My soul has been split and I can well see why those who actually survive this horror become ghosts or zombies. The pain is almost unbearable. Yet to never have had the connection would be worse. Philip Pullman captures the connection between humans and animals so exquisitely that while I was hurting all over again the fact that someone else out there gets it. That someone else out there knows the power of that connection, a power to literally unlock worlds, is something of a comfort.

Yet there were also discomforting thoughts that this book brings up, questions about the Church. The school my mom was a librarian at actually banned these books when the movie came out because of Philip Pullman's beliefs. Though I think reading the books and having a discussion over the content would be far more productive than slamming a book because its author is an atheist. But the parent to lodge the initial complaint kind of has a point in that the church is depicted very badly. No that doesn't mean I'm in favor of banning any books, it just means that I am open enough to see that they have a point. The church, through the process of intercision, wants to maintain the innocence of children by not allowing dust to settle on them. And yes, they are willing to do this at the expense of their young lives. This brings about a lot of questions. Mainly, if their daemon is their soul and it is cut from them how exactly do they enter heaven? The soul is what is most important, not what happens here on earth and yet they are forfeiting their souls through this procedure. I just don't get the church's backward thinking. Of course I believe all this is addressed in the proceeding volumes, I haven't read them in awhile and this is something my mind kept coming back to while reading The Golden Compass. What's more just look to the church in our world, with all the molestation and sexual assaults. These scandals clearly show that the church itself is one of the greatest risks to children's innocence and yet in Lyra's world they are all about protecting it? Yes, these are heavy thoughts that perhaps need more time to be addressed than in this review...

Let's move onto other topics, how about worldbuilding? Philip Pullman has built this amazing and parallel world to ours with steampunk elements and animal familiars and then he ever so slightly slips up. There's the scholarly world of Oxford, the glamorous world of Mrs. Coulter, which I picture very 1920s, the rough and tumble like of the Gyptians, all fitting together into this very British world view and then there's the Bolvager facility. A facility that just doesn't fit into this written world. I'm not talking about what they do at the facility, that is very much of this imagined world, I'm talking about the building itself with it's tunnels under the snow and the ceiling tiles that can admit a girl who is rather small for her age into it's secrets. It's just too Michael Crichton. I felt like I was reading the description of the facility built at the bottom of the ocean in Sphere. Or like I was about to watch the episode of The X-Files "Ice" which was clearly an ode to Michael Crichton with it's alien parasite living in the frozen tundra. Yes, the book regains it's momentum after this bump in the road, but it's still a bump that could have been fixed! This one little section takes you out of the story and makes you feel like you're visiting your own doctor's office. Yes, facilities like this the world over are very similar, but did this facility a world away have to be? Couldn't it have had some of the vast imagination that fueled the rest of this book? Pretty please? Make the connection to itself NOT to us.


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