Lyra Belaqua is content to run wild among the scholars of Jordan College, with her daemon familiar Pantalaimon always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle—a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. And as she hurtles toward danger in the cold, far North, young Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: She alone is destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle.
Philip Pullman’s dark fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, apparently written for children, is actually literature of a much higher order. The title of the trilogy comes from a powerful passage of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the great religious epic poem whose central story is the thematic basis for this trilogy.
Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
— Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 910–920
As a whole, His Dark Materials gets a lot of heat from the Christian community. Pullman himself has said that he wrote the series to challenge the religious beliefs of children. You can find many, many reviews online tearing into the book for the above reason and many others. I don’t agree with this sentiment myself and think it’s good for children and adults to have their beliefs challenged from time to time so they can weigh multiple possibilities themselves and make an educated choice based on their own thoughts, not others.
I originally read this book (and the rest of His Dark Materials) when I was fifteen years old. I remember reading it during my Latin classes not wanting it to ever end. It made a huge impression on me and I’m honestly very surprised it took me this long to read it again.
The novel tells the story of a young girl named Lyra Belacqua (and her daemon Pantalaimon) who is destined to save the world. Lyra grows up essentially parentless but lives among the scholars and staff of the Jordan College in Oxford. Her life is rather ordinary up until a visit from a woman named Mrs. Coulter. Her visit and the kidnapping of her childhood friend Roger leads to a series of strange occurrences that eventually lead Lyra to the coldest and darkest part of the earth, the North.
As I mentioned above, The Golden Compass is aimed at “young adults”. I would not let this deter you if you’re interested in reading the book. There is a lot to enjoy and think about for pretty much any age group. The plots may be less complex than A Game of Thrones or other “adult” fantasy, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the story at all.
Let’s touch on daemons. In Pullman’s universe, a human’s inner-self manifests itself as an animal-shaped “daemon” that has to always stick with its human counterpart. Daemons generally only talk to their own human and touching another’s daemon is “the grossest breach of etiquette imaginable”. Daemons and their relationship to their human counterpart ends up playing a significant role in the plot of The Golden Compass. Anyways, daemons are kind of awesome and it’d be pretty badass to have one myself.
A human being with no dæmon is like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense.
The characters Pullman has created for this trilogy I’ve found to be extremely likable. Plus, there are armored polar bears. Yes, bears wearing plate armor that live far in the North that are pretty much awesome all around. Iorek Byrnison is one of the armored bears who accompanies Lyra for part of her journey. Roger is one of Lyra’s friends from Jordan college who is kidnapped and is one of Lyra’s main motivations for traveling to the North. Lee Scoresby is a Texan aeronaut who flies balloons. You read right, a Texan Aeronaut. There are a few other significant characters in the series as well but I can’t really introduce them without some spoilers. So, while there aren’t a whole ton of characters in the first book, they all play an important role and I like them all.
On to the one thing I can find to nitpick about. Things are too convenient for Lyra. Any time she faces some challenge or roadblock, the person or thing she needs to get past it is suddenly there in front of her. It’s all just too nicely laid out for her at times. This isn’t all bad though as it keeps the story moving moving moving. Once The Golden Compass gets going it doesn’t slow down and it packs a lot of story in for a relatively short book.
Loved it as a child, loved it even more as an adult. Still a book I would recommend to anyone looking for something imaginitive and and unique to read.