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Phillip Pullman

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The Golden Compass 

Pullman, Philip. 1995. THE GOLDEN COMPASS. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN: 0679879242.


The Golden Compass is the first book in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy.  Pullman has created an intriguing and fascinating world of magic, witches, daemons, gyptians, and armored bears.  The setting of the story begins at Jordan College in Oxford where the young protagonist Lyra Belacqua and her daemon, Pantalaimon, are introduced.    


Lyra is an orphan that leads a carefree life and lives among the elderly scholars at the College.  Through Lyra, Pullman has created a very strong, independent, and complex character.  He describes her in great detail allowing the reader to identify with her character.


 “ In many ways Lyra was a barbarian. What she liked the best was clambering over the College roofs with Roger, the kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum stones on the heads of passing Scholars or to hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on, or racing through the narrow streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war. Just as she was unaware of the hidden currents of politics running below the surface of College affairs, so the Scholars, for their part, would have been unable to see the rich seething stew of alliances and enmities and feuds and treaties which was a child’s life in Oxford. Children playing to­gether: how pleasant to see! What could be more innocent and charming?” (P. 35)


Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon is a constant companion in animal form that represents a manifestation of the soul.  Only humans have these daemons, and these daemons have the ability to change forms when their humans are young, before they reach puberty. 


The story begins in the secretive Retiring Room in which only the Scholars and their guests were allowed in, and never females.  Lyra and Pantalaimon hid in the retiring room only to see the Master put poison in the wine intended for her uncle, Lord Asriel.  After hiding in the wardrobe, Lyra prevents her uncle from drinking the wine and she overhears a conversation about a secret and mysterious item, “Dust.”


Mysteriously, street urchins and servants’ children begin disappearing all over Europe (in the parallel world in which the action takes place). The “Gobblers” have stolen them, and are performing terrible experiments on them way up in the Arctic Circle.  This mysterious substance called “Dust” seems to be involved, but the Church has forbidden any discussion of it, for it falls in the realm of philosophical speculation rather than theological research.  Lyra’s friend, Roger is taken by the “Gobblers” thus making her very determined to help him.  Lyra is ready to begin her search for Roger, but before she goes, the Master introduces her to Mrs. Coulter.  Mrs. Coulter was beautiful and young and her daemon was a golden monkey. Lyra travels to London with Mrs. Coulter as her assistant to help her in her next expedition to the North Atlantic, but before she leaves the Master of the College secretly gives her an alethiometer or golden compass.  The alethiometer is one of only six in the world and is used to “tell you the truth.” 


Lyra goes to London with Mrs. Coulter, but soon discover’s that she is not the wonderful and kind person that she thought her to be.  Mrs. Coulter is a part of the Oblation Board or the “Gobbler’s” that is responsible for the disappearing children.  She learns that the children are being taken to Bolvangar where a terrible procedure is being performed on them resulting in the removal of their daemons.  Lyra and Pantalaimon frantically escape and are taken in by gyptians.  As the plot continues, Lyra sets out on a journey to the Far North to save Lord Asriel, who is being held captive, her friend Roger, and the other children.  Publisher’s Weekly states, “As always Pullman is master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension.”     


Aided by gyptians, witches, an armored bear, and the alethiometer, the fantasy and adventure continue for Lyra.  She is unaware that the fate of the universe lies in her hands.  With memorable characters, settings, and scenes Pullman has created a traditional sense-of-wonder. Readers will find themselves stimulated both intellectually and emotionally as they follow Lyra's quest into the frozen north, accompanied by her ever-faithful daemon and Iorek Byrnison, the armor-plated, intelligent polar bear.  Booklist states, “It becomes evident that the future of the world and its inhabitants is in the hands of the ever-more-resilient and dedicated Lyra.  A totally involving, intricately plotted fantasy that will leave readers clamoring for the sequels.”


Pullman has created a fantasy novel rich in creative details and symbolism.  It has all of the elements necessary for a spell-binding fantasy.  “Stunningly original, beautifully crafted, and thrillingly told, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is a masterwork of fantasy and storytelling that heralds the arrival of a classic. (Book Jacket) 


Annette Curtis Klause   


This website was created as an assignment for LS 5623 at Texas Woman's University.