The Golden Compass Introduction
In A Nutshell
No one really feels wishy-washy about Philip Pullman's controversial His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). Everyone's got an opinion about these fantasy novels written for tweens and teens. A really strong opinion.
Pullman's detractors call him the anti-Lewis, referring to C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame. While both authors can be found in the young adult section of bookstores, the messages of their books are as different as pizza and brussel sprouts. C.S. Lewis was a practicing Christian whose Narnia books were pretty obvious religious allegories. Pullman, on the other hand, is a professed atheist whose books for kids relentlessly question the power and authority of organized religion. Always up for a little controversy, Pullman has even called Lewis' children's books "profoundly immoral" (source). With fiery opinions like these, Pullman has sometimes been given the "anti-Christian" label in addition to the "anti-Lewis" one (source). The author has even been called "the most dangerous man in Britain" (source).
But not everyone has a problem with Pullman. His fantasy trilogy has legions of devoted fans, including big-cheese religious leaders like the Archbishop of Canterbury. These admirers see Pullman's books not necessarily as blasphemy, but as an exploration of spirituality and a critique of the abuse of power. In other words, Pullman isn't afraid to talk about what he thinks is wrong with organized religion, a conversation that many people – including religious folks – agree is worth having.
What does Pullman have to say about all the hubbub? He never pulls his punches, that's for sure, but he's quick to point out that he's more interested in dramatizing the way religion, power, and politics come together in the world today than in debating the existence of God. But let's hear it in his own words:
"Religion is at its best when it is furthest from political power […] The power to send armies to war, to rule every aspect of our lives, to tell us what to wear, what to think, what to read – when religion gets hold of that, watch out! Because trouble will ensue." (source)
(Psst. Want to read more? Check out Pullman's 2001 speech, "The Republic of Heaven.")
No matter what you think of Pullman's takedown of religion and power, almost everyone concedes that this guy is a master storyteller. Pullman-lovers point to his solid literary roots: the series is, after all, a retelling of Milton's epic Paradise Lost, you know, that famous 17th century poem about Satan and God and Adam and Eve and all that? With Milton as his inspiration, Pullman weaves together a fantastic yet profound story filled with talking polar bears, magic compasses, and shape-shifting daemons. It's his storytelling, rather than politics or religion, that Pullman emphasizes when asked about his writing:
"I'm not arguing a case. I'm not preaching a sermon. I'm not giving a lecture. I'm telling a story. Any position I take is that of a storyteller who says, Once upon a time, this happened." (source)
And what a story it is. In The Golden Compass we meet a headstrong young girl named Lyra, and her daemon Pantalaimon, as they journey from their home in Oxford to the mysterious North. (What's a daemon? Click here to find out.) Children have begun disappearing from Lyra's hometown, and it's up to her to figure out the mystery. Along the way she'll come to the rescue of a fierce armored bear, fly in the hot air balloon of a Texan aeronaut, and see firsthand the wonder of those dazzling northern lights. While there's plenty of adventure to be had on Lyra's quest, readers will also encounter a variety of challenging themes and heady topics, such as original sin, fate and free will, and the loss of innocence. That's a lot for one book, so it's a good thing that Lyra is the continuing heroine in two books: The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
The Golden Compass is such an exciting story that it was turned into a Hollywood movie in 2007. The problem is, the movie was no good. (Don't look at us like that. Even the film's director agrees with us.) One of the worst parts was that it completely changed the ending. Our advice to you: forget the movie and pick up the book. You won't regret it.
Why Should I Care?
Pullman's novel The Golden Compass is an Epic Fantasia of Awesomeness. No, that's not just some cool new genre we made up off the top of our head. Well, okay, it is. But the description really does capture quite nicely why you should care about this novel.
The Golden Compass is the first installment of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, three books that set out to rewrite John Milton's epic 17th century poem Paradise Lost. From this we know that we're not just dealing with the typical coming-of-age themes you'd find in your average novel for tweens and teens. Instead, The Golden Compass novel considers the same epic questions that our old buddy Milton did. Milton's poem is famous for dramatizing in poetry Satan's pride, the story of humans being booted out of the Garden of Eden, notions of original sin, and loss of innocence. Pullman rethinks these theological conundrums in his own way – with polar bears and witches. This makes the book an epic intellectual challenge. (Eggheads, rejoice!)
What? You're not a card-carrying member of the John Milton fan club? (Yeah, that group is pretty small…) Good thing that's not all there is to the book.
Technically, a fantasia is defined as a piece of music, but here we mean that the book takes place in the realm of fantasy. This isn't just another Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings knock-off, either. It's actually unlike any fantasy world we've ever seen before. Pullman creates a shadowy world that's similar to our own, but with tons of darkly magical flourishes. There are talking polar bears and witches that fly through the air. In addition, all of the humans wear their souls on the outside in the form of daemons – animals that eventually take the shape of your personality. The setting is both enchanting and eerie.
Okay, so this one is obvious, but allow us to spell it out for you: Pullman is a really, really good writer. This guy can hold his own against the greats. Reworking John Milton is pretty ballsy, but this guy makes it work. And his characters? Well, we dare you not to want a daemon of your own after reading this book. Pullman's His Dark Materials series aspires to the condition of great literature – and we believe it succeeds.