Dark, dashing, and thirsty for power, Lord Asriel is The Golden Compass's anti-hero in chief.
Lord Asriel has some admirable qualities, to be sure: he's a cunning, highly intelligent man of politics. But he's also power-hungry in his quest to rid the universe of Dust. Check this out:
"Somewhere out there is the origin of all the Dust, all the death, the sin, the misery, the destructiveness in the world. Human beings can't see anything without wanting to destroy it, Lyra. That's original sin. And I'm going to destroy it. Death is going to die." (21.151)
Wow. This guy thinks he has it in him to save the entire world from sin – quite a mission for one mortal man. Since this book is, in many ways, Pullman's attempt to rewrite Paradise Lost, Lord Asriel is the character who would most closely line up with Satan. In Paradise Lost, Satan isn't a clear-cut super evil dude. He's actually the most interesting character. When reading Paradise Lost, you kind of find yourself wanting to be on Satan side, even though you know that his extreme pride and wild ambition are wrong. We guess you could say he's sort of seductive. Does that sound like Asriel to you?
It's not only Lord Asriel's ambitions that are a bit out of whack, though. He is also pretty sketchy when it comes to morality. Like the nasty Mrs. Coulter, he's willing to commit some really heinous acts – like killing Roger to build the bridge to the other world in Chapter 23. Though Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel have different goals, they're behavior makes them pretty similar.
Lord Asriel plays an incredibly important role in The Golden Compass in terms of his relationship with Lyra. When the novel opens, Lyra thinks Asriel is her uncle. Later she finds out that he's her father and Mrs. Coulter is her mother. That's rough. Lyra's connection to Lord Asriel will shape how she understands her own identity:
Lyra had to adjust to her new sense of her own story, and that couldn't be done in a day. To see Lord Asriel as her father was one thing, but to accept Mrs. Coulter as her mother was nowhere near so easy. (8.1)
Notice how quickly Lyra takes to the idea that the powerful Lord Asriel is her father. But by the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra has rejected him. Though he is darkly appealing and powerful, Lyra comes to see his character for what it is – basically Mrs. Coulter 2.0. She tells him:
"You en't human, Lord Asriel. You en't my father. My father wouldn't treat me like that. Fathers are supposed to love their daughters, en't they? You don't love me, and I don't love you, and that's a fact. I love Farder Coram, and I love Iorek Byrnison; I love an armored bear more'n I love my father. And I bet Iorek Byrnison loves me more'n you do." (21.75)
Take that, Asriel! A bear has taken his place as Lyra's main father-figure.
If you want to impress your English teacher, you can casually mention that Lord Asriel is a bit of a Byronic Hero. (Just make sure you pronounce it properly.) But before you drop the B-bomb, it's good to know what the term even means.
Byronic heroes are named for the 19th century poet Lord Byron, famous for his awesome writing and totally scandalous life. Many of Byron's male leads were kind of bad boys – you're not quite sure if you should love 'em or hate 'em. Here's our quick-and-dirty checklist for what makes a Byronic hero:
What do you think, does Lord Asriel fit the bill?
To help you out, here are a few other Byronic heroes from literature: