26 March 2011

Book Review: The Golden Compass

Title: The Golden Compass
Author: Philip Pullman
Publisher/Year: Alfred A. Knopf / 1995
Date Finished: 25 March 2011
Source/Format: Bought / Print

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges:TwentyEleven Challenge, 101 Fantasy Reading,

The Short and Sweet of It
The first in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass introduces readers to an alternate universe and the young girl who is unknowingly about to decide its fate.

A Bit of a Ramble
In this alternate universe, dimension, whatever, all humans have a constant companion in their daemon, a physical representation of the their soul which is attached to them from birth. The human and daemon cannot be far from each other, touching others daemons is strictly forbidden, and the two even share emotions. This relationship is at the center of the conflict in this book. To explain: kids' daemons change shape, but when maturity is reached, the daemon takes on a permanent form. And it is this point in a human's life which so concerns the antagonists in the book because it is at this point that a mysterious substance called Dust also begins to settle on the human.

While much is left a mystery in the first installment, readers can get a good notion of the series' conflict: the transition in humans from innocence to experience, purity to sin, childhood to adulthood. The Church - which plays an integral, powerful role in this dimension - wants to halt the transition, allowing humans to remain innocent forever. The way in which they hope to do this is horrifying, and it is clear quite quickly that we are fighting against the Church, aka the Magesterium.

This of course is rather upsetting to many people and Pullman's trilogy has been challenged and banned many, many times due to its negative representation of the church. I would argue, however, that the book is more geared towards promoting knowledge than it is towards denigrating religion.

Ignoring for a moment the serious themes in the text, the story itself is just downright entertaining. The world Pullman created fascinates me with its diverse population, political intrigues, and then there's the awesome possibilities opened up by the inclusion of multiple universes. This is my third time reading the series, and I must say that I am enjoying the nuances, the little details I missed before. I do so love a good re-read.

The Filmic Connection
I have seen the movie once, and as with so many adaptations, I was not thrilled by the exclusions. Particularly in this instance, the film version really tones down the central conflict, probably out of a fear of banning by fanatics. I still enjoyed the film as far as I can remember - it's been awhile - and I have it recorded on DVR right now, so I'm hoping to re-watch it soon.


  1. I wish I hadn't listened to this one because the girl who played Lyra did a craptastic job and made me really dislike the book. I'm not sure if I would have liked it anyway, but I definitely didn't by the audiobook!

  2. As I recall, I really liked this first book, and agree with your conclusion that in this book Pullman can be perceived as promoting knowledge more than denigrating the church. The books are good, but as the series progresses it seems more and more like Pullman is pushing an anti-church agenda, and that really ended up putting me off this series a bit in the end.

  3. I never knew what this was about but actually it sounds great! Thanks for the review - I think I should definitely read this one!

  4. Watch this as soon as you've rewatched the film. It's the original ending (as pieced together by a fan) the film was going to have well into post-production, before New Line panicked. I'm going to revisit this series soon, and I'm glad to see yours is starting off on the right food.

  5. I loved this trilogy but can't say I read them. I listened to a full cast, unabridged, BBC Radio adaptation that I thought was terrific. Until the movie came out, I had a good number of students read the entire series each year for classroom book clubs. They never picked up on the anti-church stuff as far as I could tell. After the movie, interest in the books died off. This year, they've had no takers.

  6. I would argue the exact same. I need to re-read this series - it's been much too long!

  7. OK, now : the movie was a HUGE disappointment.

    Couldn't even touch the series, which mesmerized all 3 of my boys.

    Seriosly, any moms out there with boys? This read is one that they looked forward to every night.

    Totally drawn in audience. And a child as a hero? What kid doesn't love that?

  8. I love this book! When I read it in middle school, I didn't pick up on a lot of the critical religious themes, but in looking back I think I agree with you -- it's more about knowledge than it is about any religion specifically.

  9. When he was writing the series, Mr. Pullman was apparently highly influenced by Kleist's 'On the Marionette Theatre', a really good little essay, that I think makes an interesting point. I think th ebooks are supposed to take a somewhat allegorical route as they progress (it's hard to tread the waters he treads without being a BIT allegorical, after all), and I really enjoyed them from that aspect.

  10. Sorry! eant to post the link to the essay in! http://www.southerncrossreview.org/9/kleist.htm

  11. I was just in a used bookstore with my daughter earlier today, and since she's going off to college next fall, she was asking me to buy her copies of books she has to have with her--this was one of them. "But not the second or third one," she said.

  12. This is one of the few books I've reread. The world fascinates me, too, and I love getting lost in it. For some reason, I disliked each successive book more, so that when I reread The Golden Compass, I didn't continue with the series. I should try them again; it's been at least ten years since I read the whole series.

  13. I haven't read this but have been interested - the way you talk about it here I think I need to :)


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