The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman
Lyra (pronounced LIE-RUH) Belacqua is the lead protagonist of the His Dark Materials trilogy and the main character of the series' first book, The Golden Compass. She is an 11-year-old girl who has a daemon named Pantalaimon and a best friend named Roger. She's courageous, curious, and has a knack for telling tall tales. As far as Lyra knows, her parents died in a zeppelin crash. She is now cared for her by her uncle, the dark and dangerous Lord Asriel, and the kindly scholars at Jordan College. When we first meet her, Lyra is living the life of a rowdy street kid in Oxford, but, as we will soon find out, this little ragamuffin is destined to play a HUGE role in the fate of humankind.
Lyra is a totally contradictory character, full of paradoxes. In chapter three we learn that Lyra is a "coarse and greedy little savage," but course her parents are nobility (3.9). She's "half-wild cat," yet she lives in the prestigious environs of Oxford (3.10). She's prone to massive exaggeration and storytelling, yet she is given a truth reader called an alethiometer. To say that she has some conflicting traits is to put it mildly.
Here's the kicker, though: Lyra's major paradox is that she's destined to play a huge part in the fate of mankind, but, as the Master tells us, she must choose her own path to get there. She has to live out her destiny without actually knowing that it's her destiny:
"Yes. Lyra has a part to play in all this, and a major one. The irony is that she must do it all without realizing what she's doing. She can be helped, though, and if my plan with the Tokay had succeeded, she would have been safe for a little longer. I would have liked to spare her a journey to the North. I wish above all things that I were able to explain it to her..." (2.140)
In other words, the Harry Potter-like prophecies about Lyra tell us that the fate of mankind rests on her shoulders and that it's up to her to save the day. Only guess what? She can't actually know that she's saving the day – no one can tell her. This puts the contradictory Lyra at the center of the novel's tug of war between fate and free will. Kind of makes your head hurt, doesn't it? In this, Lyra is a deeply complex and, therefore, human character.
Lyra, Lyra, Pants on Fire
Think it's a coincidence that Lyra's name kind of sounds like "Liar"? We think not. As we mentioned above, Lyra loves to tell tale tales – whether she's wowing the gyptian kids with spooky stories or telling boastful yarns about her father/uncle Lord Asriel. We all know we're not supposed to tell fibs, but instead of seeing Lyra's exaggerations as a character flaw, the book attempts to find the redeeming qualities in Lyra's falsehoods. They're part of her character arc. When Ma Costa tells Lyra that she is "deceptive," she tries to explain that it's not necessarily a bad thing:
What you're most like is marsh fire, that's the place you have in the gyptian scheme. You got witch oil in your soul. Deceptive, that's what you are child. (7.9)
Lyra doesn't completely understand Ma Costa. (How would you like it if someone called you "deceptive"?) Ma Costa's image of "marsh fire" gives us a clue, though, as to what she really means. Marsh fire is also known as "ignus fatuus," an eerie light hovering over marshes and swamps that's actually caused by the gasses of decaying swamp matter. The phenomenon is also known as "will-o-the-wisps" – it's an enchanting illusion.
Eventually Lyra learns the power of illusion. She learns to use her abilities of persuasion for good, not just to tell fibs and impress her friends. We see her coming into her own in the episode in Svalbard when she has to come up with a tale to trick the always-nasty Mrs. Coulter:
With every second that went past, with every sentence she spoke, she felt a little strength flowing back. And now that she was doing something difficult and familiar and never quite predictable, namely lying, she felt a sort of mastery again, the same sense of complexity and control that the alethiometer gave her. She had to be careful not to say anything obviously impossible; she had to be vague in some places and invent plausible details in others; she had to be an artist, in short. (17.16)
Note the comparison to an artist. Lyra creates beautiful illusions that serve a greater cause. We'll see another example of this a little later in the novel, when Lyra harnesses her yarn-spinning power to convince the bad bear king, Iofur Raknison, to fight Iorek for the throne. After helping her friend return to his rightful place in Svalbard, the bear dubs her Lyra "Silvertongue" (20.25).
From Innocence to Experience
As with most novels for tweens and teens, Lyra – who begins the novel at age 11 – is on the journey from childhood to adulthood, and she is very aware of this fact. From almost the very beginning of the novel, Lyra notices the changes happening all around her:
This was her world. She wanted it to stay the same forever and ever, but it was changing around her, for someone out there was stealing children. (3.274)
Lyra's journey to adulthood, with its loss of innocence, has biblical overtones. We might think of Adam and Eve, who lost their innocence when they ate some forbidden fruit, only to be kicked out the Garden of Eden. This moment is the Book of Genesis, is known as the "original sin." But notice that the force that infringes on Lyra's paradise is not her own sin but the presence of the General Oblation Board, a.k.a. the Gobblers.
The contrast between innocence and experience occurs repeatedly throughout the novel, mostly coming up in conversations about Dust and daemons. At the end of the novel, Lyra rethinks everything she's heard about Dust so far: she and Pan decide that Dust, which is connected with growing up, isn't bad after all. Lyra's shifting view offers a new way of seeing experience – not as a fall from grace, but rather as a kind of necessary part of growing up.
Lyra and the Wardrobe
Let's begin by pointing out a reference that's maybe not that obvious at first but that we think is pretty darn significant. The Golden Compass opens with a child, Lyra, hiding in a wardrobe:
Lyra darted to the oak wardrobe, opened it, and hid inside, pulling the door shut just as the Steward entered. (1.41)
Sound familiar? It should. C.S. Lewis' The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe uses a similar motif. As we discuss in "In a Nutshell," Philip Pullman has been very critical of C.S. Lewis' books – he's even been called the anti-Lewis" (source).
So what the heck is Pullman doing by starting his story in a wardrobe? Well, maybe he's rewriting and revising Lewis a little bit.
Lewis's book begins with a group of children who wander into a giant wardrobe, which magically transports them to a fantastic world with talking fauns, white witches, and magical lions. If you haven't read the book, you might want to check out Shmoop's quick-and-dirty summary.
The Golden Compass has got the wardrobe, sure enough, but that's where the similarities end. Instead of escaping through wardrobe into a magical fantasy world, Lyra's wardrobe doesn't lead anywhere at all. It's made of wood and serves a practical purpose. Lyra sneaks into it to hide from the Oxford scholars and watches Lord Asriel's presentation about the phenomenon of Dust.
What does all that mean? Well, the wardrobe in The Golden Compass offers Lyra a glimpse of truth about her own world rather than a fantastic escape from reality. While Lewis' characters remain in the Eden-like Narnia for years, Lyra cannot escape adulthood, Dust, or any of the scary things in her world. She is a very different kind of heroine from Lewis' children.