The Golden Compass

First, my thanks once again to dee for recommending this book!

Not having read The Golden Compass, or any of the other books in the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, I am not quite sure what to expect. I saw the film version with members of my extended family back in the day, but the other titles were never produced as films, for what reason (or reasons) I don't know. I have heard that the book is very well written.

The edition from which I quote passages was published by Dell Laurel-Leaf, an imprint of Random House. Although the copyright notice is for 1995 (I had no idea the books had been around for so long), I expect that this edition was printed much later. Interestingly, according to the page on the back of the title, The Golden Compass was originally published in Britain under the title His Dark Materials 1: Northern Lights. I should point out that I will be making reference to various events and personages in the work, and if you haven't read the book, you might want to do so before you read this marginal commentary.

The Golden Compass has made quite an impression on me. It is certainly a well-crafted book. In fact I want to focus on its excellences of style. This is largely because it would require too much work to try and parse out a theme - so well has Pullman woven them into the work - and develop it. I have been able to do that with the Harry Potter books because I have read them many times and have read some of the literature about them, whereas with The Golden Compass I read it for the first time (as I said) and, while I have heard snippets about it, I don't really know that much (for instance, one commentator has described the His Dark Materials trilogy as an anti-Divine Comedy; I believe it was Alan Jacobs, the author of a recent biography on C. S. Lewis).

First, a brief re-cap of the book. The Golden Compass tells the story of the adventures of Lyra Belacqua, the daughter of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter (although she does not know this at first). She ends up travelling to the uttermost north in search of her best friend, Roger, who has been kidnapped in order to be experimented upon by servitors of a mysterious organisation run by Mrs. Coulter. On her travels she befriends the gypsy-like people known as the 'gyptians', a sentient bear, Iorek, and others. Eventually she reaches the North and discovers some of the secrets of a mysterious particle called 'Dust'. Her father is determined to travel to other universes to find the origins of 'Dust'. All humans (some of whom have mysterious powers of their own) have what you might call 'external souls', called daemons (or, as they are spelled in the book, dæmons). Dæmons can act indepedently, but only to a certain extent; mostly they reflect the feelings, intentions and wills of the humans to whom they are connected. Lyra's dæmon is called Pantalaimon, or 'Pan' for short. Dæmons all have animal forms. Those of chidren can change shape, but once a person reaches puberty, his or her dæmon takes a permanent form, which reflects that person's personality. Dæmons also usually are the opposite sex of the person to whom they belong; thus, Pan is male, as is Mrs. Coulter's monkey, while Asriel's dæmon is female. (This is not universally the case, but nearly so.) This is to give you some idea, or remind you, of who is who and what they are up to.

First, a brief example of Pullman's skill at description:
But the main interest of the picture lay in the sky. Streams and veils of light hung like curtains, looped and festooned on invisible hooks hundreds of miles high or blowing out sideways in the stream of some unimaginable wind.
"What is that?" said the voice of the Sub-Rector?
"It's a picture of the Aurora." ...
"... Is it what they call the Northern Lights?"
"Yes. It has many names. It's composed of storms of charged particles and solar rays of intense and extraordinary strength - invisible in themelves, but causing this luminous radiation when they interact with the atmosphere. If there'd been time, I would have had this slide tinted to show you the colors: pale green and rose, for the most part, with a tinge of crimson along the lower edge of that curtain-like formation. ..." [pp. 20-1] Obviously the main interest of this segment lies in the first paragraph. In one sentence Pullman is able to skilfully form in the minds of readers an image of the Northern Lights, while at the same time impressing upon us a sense of their magnitude. If this passage is any indication, then, unlike some of the books I have read for The Marginal Virtues, Pullman is able to describe things, rather than simply state what they are and expect the reader to know how they look. Of course he does name the Northern Lights in the passage, but that follows the description which is at once economical, precise, and picturesque. Pullman is also clever to avoid showing them in all their brilliance so early in the book: the picture is (it would seem) in black-and-white, because Lord Asriel has not had time to have the slide tinted. Later in the novel, of course, we will see the Northern Lights in all their brilliance.
For comparison's sake, let us look at the passage when Lyra sees the Aurora Borealis for the first time:
She [Lyra] was dreaming of her great imprisoned father when suddenly, for no reason at all, she woke up. She had no idea what time it was. There was a faint light in the cabin that she took for moonlight, and it showed her new cold-weather furs that lay stiffly in the corner of the cabin. No sooner did she see them that she longeed to try them on again.
Once they were on, she had to go out on deck, and a minute later she opened the door at the top of the companionway and stepped out.
At once she saw that something strange was happening in the sky. She thought it was clouds, moving and trembling under a nervous agitation, but Pantalaimon whispered:
"The Aurora!"
Her wonder was so strong that she had to clutch the rail to keep from falling.
The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely, with more grace than the most skillful dancer. Lyra thought she could even hear them: a vast distant whispering swish. In the evanescent delicacy she felt something as profound as she'd felt close to the bear. She was moved by it; it was so beautiful it was almost holy; she felt tears prick her eyes, and the tears splintered the light even further into prismatic rainbows. [pp. 160-1] Pan calls out the name before it is described, but the effect is masterfully described. Notice how he recalls us to the initial description of the phenomenon so much earlier in the book, with the phrase 'great curtains of delicate light', and the colours 'pale green and rose-pink... and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson' are just as Asriel described them. I should mention that the first appearance of the Aurora has significance for the movement of the plot, but I won't get into it in much detail here. The words Pullman uses to describe the Aurora are, I think, carefully chosen to create in us the same emotional reaction that Lyra has. The Aurora possesses inconceivable 'immensity', yet it is 'delicate', it shimmers gracefully, the sound of it is a 'vast distant whispering swish' (the sound of the phrase is pleasant to the ear, and evocative of what the Aurora sounds like). It possesses an 'evanescent delicacy'. By the time Pullman records Lyra's response to the beauty of the Aurora, he has evoked it from us (although, of course, to a much lesser extent; I, for one, was not weeping, but I could feel a certain catch in my throat at the beauty of it all) as well. It is also clever on Pullman's part not to describe how Lyra responds to the Aurora until after he has described it so effectively. We who identify with Lyra will want to feel as she does, but it would be hard if we could not picture ourselves what she is seeing first. A lesser writer would have simply written something like, 'The beauty of the lights brought Lyra to tears', and nothing else. I should also mention that the benefit of Pan calling out the name of the phenomenon removes that mystery and allows us to concentrate on its beauty, instead of having to puzzle out what it is (although because Pullman's description recalls what we learned of it in the early part of the book, it wouldn't take long to remember what it is); in any case notice how Pullman does create a certain air of mystery, with such turns of phrase as: 'There was a faint light in the cabin that she took for moonlight' and 'At once she saw that something strange was happening in the sky'. In any case, Pullman makes good on the promise he showed early in the book during Lord Asriel's slide show with the first appearance of the Aurora at this point.
Another stylistic strength of Pullman's is that he is careful not to overload us with detail. If I may digress, highly detailed accounts of places, actions, and trades are, I understand, commonplace in the 19th-century novel, and, one hopes, appropriate there, but since The Golden Compass and its sequels are written as children's/teen's literature (arguably, however, the quality of the writing and of Pullman's treatment of his themes make the work more 'grown-up' than many if not most books for adults), it is appropriate that Pullman does not describe certain aspects of his invented world in too great detail.

[Jordan] College owned farms and estates all over England. It was said that you could walk from Oxford to Bristol in one direction and London in the other, and never leave Jordan land. In every part of the kingdom there were dye works and brick kilns, forests and atomcraft works that paid rent to Jordan, and every quarter-day the bursar and his clerks would tot it all up, announce the total to Concilium, and order a pair of swans for the feast. Some of the money was put by for reinvestment - Concilium had just approved the purchase of an office block in Manchester - and the rest was used to pay the Scholars' modest stipends and the wages of the servants (and the Parslows, and the other dozen or so families of craftsmen and traders who served the College), to keep the wine cellar richly filled, to buy books and anbarographs for the immense library that filled one side of the Melrose Quadrangle and extended, burrow-like, for several floors beneath the ground, and, not least, to buy the latest philosophical apparatus to equip the chapel.
It was important to keep the chapel up to date, because Jordan College had no rival... as a center of experimental theology. [pp. 30-1] In one paragraph, Pullman tells us of the wealth and prestige of Jordan College (a fictional college of the University of Oxford), while mentioning in passing unusual and intriguing technologies, such as the 'atomcraft works' or 'anbarographs'. Indeed, throughout the book Pullman refers to 'anbaric lighting', but never explains (at least in The Golden Compass) whatever it is that makes 'anbaric lights' light up ('anbarium'?). What most intrigued me about this passage (esp. on p. 31f.) is the reference to 'experimental theology', which is, I believe, what would today be called 'science' or which used to be referred to as 'natural philosophy'. Moreover, the physical order appears to function differently in the alternate universe in which The Golden Compass is set (consider the appearance of talking, rational bears and the dæmons - about which more later), so the term 'experimental theology' is more than just a synonym for science; the method and function of this subset of theology is different than that of the scientific endeavours of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In any case, it is, in my view, a strength of the work that Pullman so frequently includes suggestive and brief references to the way in which Lyra's universe is so different from ours, without going into too much detail.
Speaking of elliptical explanation, what is, in my view, the singularly most fascinating aspect of The Golden Compass is the fact that all humans possess a 'dæmon', which I referred to above as a kind of 'external soul'. From what I recall, Pullman includes two brief explanations of certain facts about dæmons, but otherwise allows us to work out their nature and significance as the plot moves forward. I will quote, therefore, the two explanations, and a couple of passages which provide data about the nature of dæmons but which occur necessarily as a result of the plot:
She [Lyra] could hardly take her eyes off Farder Coram's dæmon, who was the most beautiful dæmon she'd ever seen. When Pantalaimon was a cat, he was lean and ragged and harsh, but Sophonax, for that was her name, was golden-eyed and elegant beyond measure, fully twice as large as a real cat and richly furred. When the sunlight touched her, it lit up more shades of tawny-brown-leaf-hazel-corn-gold-autumn-mahogany than Lyra could name. She longed to touch that fur, to rub her cheeks against it, but of course she never did; for it was the grossest breach of etiquette imaginable to touch another person's dæmon. Dæmons might touch each other, of course, or fight; but the prohibition against human-dæmon contact went so deep that even in battle no warrior would touch an enemy's dæmon. It was utterly forbidden. Lyra couldn't remember having to be told that: she just knew it, as instinctively as she felt that nausea was bad and comfort good. So although she admired the fur of Sophonax and even speculated on what it might feel like, she never made the slightest move to touch her, and never would. [p. 126]
Their two dæmons were staring at each other, Pantalaimon as a wildcat, Annie's Kyrillion as a fox. They were quivering. Pantalaimon uttered the lowest, softest hiss and bared his teeth, and Kyrillion turned aside and began to groom himself unconcernedly.
"All right then," said Annie, resigned.
It was quite common for struggles between children to be settled by their dæmons in this way, with one accepting the dominance of the other. Their humans accepted the outcome without resentment, on the whole, so Lyra knew that Annie would do as she asked. [p. 235] As an aside, this was not the passage I thought I was looking for, but since, other than the explanation of the 'great taboo', above, I couldn't remember where to find other authorial explanations, it will have to do.
A wolf dæmon leaped at him [Iorek the bear]: he slashed at her [the wolf] in midair, and bright fire spilled out of her as she fell to the snow, where she hissed and howled before vanishing. Her human died at once. [p. 255] This is obviously the first of two plot-related discoveries I am citing; the second follows.
"Tell me one thing more. What did the Lady Coulter promise me when she was here?" [said Iofur Raknison, the usurper king of the armored bears.]
Once again Lyra went into the empty room and consulted the alethiometer [the 'golden compass' of the title, although in the book it is never referred to by that name; it is compared in appearance to a compass a handful of times, and its colour is described as golden] before returning with the answer.
"She promised you that she'd get the Magisterium in Geneva to agree that you could be baptized as a Christian, even though you hadn't got a dæmon then. Well, I'm afraid that she hasn't done that, Iofur Raknison, and quite honestly, I don't think they'd ever agree to that if you didn't have a dæmon. I think she knew that, and she wasn't telling you the truth. But in any case when you've got me as your dæmon, you could [italics original] be baptized if you wanted to, because no one could argue then. You could demand it and they wouldn't be able to turn you down." [pp. 299-300] My discussion of these passages will focus on more abstract stylistic concerns than the look at the description of the Northern Lights did; but then, that passage used a much more obviously elegant and elevated style than any of these do. So the first two of the four passages just quoted are, as I said, authorial explanations; the next two plot-related (in one case the narrative description of an event, in the other speech). Of course the two authorial explanations relate to the plot, but not as directly; it was not necessary for Pullman to explain the 'great taboo' (as he later calls it) of people touching other people's dæmons when Lyra longs to touch Farder Coram's dæmon Sophonax. Later (p. 188), when Lyra encounters Tony Makarios, a boy whose dæmon has been 'severed' (i.e., they no longer share the mental and emotional connection which humans naturally have with their dæmons), Pullman refers briefly to the 'great taboo' because Pan, Lyra's dæmon, longs to snuggle (or 'gentle', as Pullman puts it) poor Tony, but can't or won't, because of said taboo. At that point necessity calls for an explanation, but, aesthetically, it was better that Pullman explained it so much earlier, because to have had to have explained the taboo then would have dissipated much of the emotional power of the scene. We are heartbroken that Pan can't comfort Tony, and we know why; it would have been an aesthetic error for Pullman to introduce the 'great taboo' then, even though, from the perspective of the plot, it was a more necessary moment than Lyra's journey North with the gyptians. The passage describing Sophonax and introducing the 'great taboo' also includes several good direct stylistic elements, but I won't go into those here. As for the second explanatory passage, in which Pullman explains that the dæmons of children often settle their disputes for them, it is probably one of the few stylistic failings of the book, for Pullman could have introduced this aspect (as he did with the 'great taboo') earlier in the book, so as not to lessen the dramatic tension of the moment (of which there is a great deal, for when Lyra and Annie disagree about whether Annie is to accompany Lyra, she is about to climb into the ductwork at a secret experimental station - the place where children are severed from their dæmons - in the North to eavesdrop on Mrs. Coulter and some scientists). Alternatively, instead of explaining this phenomenon, Pullman could have displayed a few more examples of dæmons settling arguments in this way and let us try to figure it out ourselves. Then again, perhaps he has, and he felt it necessary to include the explanation when he did because people might not have grasped when it has already happened. I feel differently about his explanation of the 'great taboo', for it is hard to see how he could have demonstrated it without recourse to an explanation of some kind. So much for the authorial explanations; on to the plot-related passages. I should point out that there were lots of similar passages I could have quoted, but didn't (mainly for considerations of length), such as the significance that the psychic connection between humans and their dæmons means that when the one is hurt the other feels pain (as when Lyra is cowed by Mrs. Coulter when her dæmon, the golden monkey - whose name we don't learn, at least not in this book - grabs Pan and threatens to mutilate him), or that dæmons are, in effect, a physical extension of the wills of their humans, and so on. Anyway, in the first plot-related passage, the significance, which Pullman does not need to explain, but which is made clear, is that not only do dæmons die when their humans do, but humans also die when their dæmons do. Iorek, as a bear, does not seem to be subject to the same taboo as humans (we have already learnt that the bears don't have dæmons), for it was the dæmon of his enemy which attacked him first, something she never would have done were Iorek a man. It is quite probable, in my view, that the fact that people die when their dæmons are killed will come into play in the later volumes of the trilogy. As for the second plot-related passage, what it signifies is not likely to be acted upon in the next two books. What we learn is that the Church (in the alternate universe of The Golden Compass) only baptises those who have a dæmon - in other words, those who have 'external souls' (indeed, it may be said that the view is that only those who have dæmons can be said to have souls at all). Iofur is probably more interested in having a dæmon for the sake of having one than because he really wants to be baptised - it is more likely that he wants to be baptised because it is the sort of thing one does as a human (which is what Iofur wants to be, it seems; shades of the apes in The Jungle Book who want Mowgli to teach them how to make the 'red flower' so that they can be like men). The main significance of this datum is clear in the passage in which it is revealed; Lyra tells Iofur about it as a way of gaining his confidence. Otherwise it is mainly what you might call an aspect of the anthropology of Lyra's universe.
Much, much more could be said about dæmons, of course; but this should suffice. The main difference between the authorial explanations and the plot-related passages, with respect to the phenomenon of dæmons, is that, stylistically, the latter are necessary in the sense that they cannot help but be described due to the nature of the movement of the plot at that point in time. When the wolf dæmon attacks Iorek and he kills it, we learn of necessity that to kill a dæmon is to kill its human. We also learn of necessity that you have to have a dæmon to be baptised, because Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter promised Iofur Raknison that she would look into bending this rule for him, in order to gain the bear-king's confidence (as I said). The former are, one might say, gratuitous. Generally, gratuitous authorial explanations are stylistic failings (as in the case of the second explanation I quoted, when Pullman explains how dæmons sometimes settle disputes), because they are intrusive and spoil (to a greater or lesser extent) the tension and excitement otherwise created by the action of the plot. This is, as I said, the case with the second authorial explanation I quoted. The first authorial explanation (Pullman's discussion of the 'great taboo' with respect to Lyra's desire to touch Sophonax), however, demonstrates that this is not always the case. First, authorial explanations are sometimes necessary: that is, it is unlikely or impossible that the information they impart could be communicated more directly through the action of the plot. This is the case with the first authorial explanation quoted: given the nature of the 'great taboo', how could Pullman have introduced it otherwise without making some character talk about it in a bout of needless exposition? Second, where the explanation would have been necessary to introduce was when Lyra found Tony, but for Pullman to have introduced it there would have demonstrated a great lack of style, for the emotional and dramatic needs of the moment demand that there be as little authorial exposition as possible, so as to allow us to feel the sadness and horror of the moment most fully. Stylistically, then, it was better for Pullman to introduce the 'great taboo' by means of authorial explanation much earlier when there was less dramatic tension (as was the case at the point in the story when he explains it), so that we would be aware of it at times when knowledge of the 'great taboo' added to the poignancy of the moment (as when Pan desires to comfort Tony but can't, or when the dæmons severed from their children wish to cuddle Lyra, but can't). Pullman is also able to make his 'gratuitous' explanation appropriate by making Sophonax so desireable a dæmon; thanks to his able description of Sophonax, we with Lyra wish to be able to pet her.

It is not only about dæmons that much, much more could be said; I could go on for ever about Pullman's skillful use of style. But I think this is enough to be getting on with.


  1. It's funny, whenever I read Pullman, I think: C.S. Lewis rebuttal. I can't disentangle myself from the man as a person with what he's written!


    So, while I really enjoyed the ideas behind the trilogy (I'll be honest, I love the concepts) and the writing style, I find myself emotional distant from Pullman. I like Pullman's trilogy, but I am not emotionally attached to it in the same way as I am to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Some of that could me age - I came to Narnia at 5 or 6 with the BBC series and Lyra's world at 18. I don't know, I feel like the trilogy is trying too hard to supplant Narnia, but that it's not written for kids in a way that inspires them to love the books.

  2. I know what you mean about emotional connection, Alyson. I don't think, for all its literary brilliance, that Pullman's trilogy will ever be able to unseat C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.


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