Study Guide

The Golden Compass Power

By Philip Pullman


"Yes, here, man. And I shall need a screen and a projecting lantern, also here, also now."

The Butler could hardly prevent himself from opening his mouth in surprise, but managed to suppress the question, or the protest.

"Wren, you're forgetting your place," said Lord Asriel. "Don't question me; just do as I tell you." (1.94-96)

As we can tell from his treatment of the butler (and his snow leopard daemon), Lord Asriel is an authoritative man that people listen to. What is it about Lord Asriel that makes him so powerful?

Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church's power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The Papacy itself had been abolished after Calvin's death, and a tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium, had grown up in its place. These agencies were not always united; sometimes a bitter rivalry grew up between them. For a large part of the previous century, the most powerful had been the College of Bishops, but in recent years the Consistorial Court of Discipline had taken its place as the most active and the most feared of all the Church's bodies. (2.132)

The Church, too, has great power over the lives of the book's inhabitants. We get the picture from this passage that the Church maintains power by using force and fear. Is it possible to gain and maintain power in a more positive way?

On Lyra's other side Mrs. Coulter sat working through some papers, but she soon put them away and talked. Such brilliant talk! Lyra was intoxicated; not about the North this time, but about London, and the restaurants and the ballrooms, the soirées at embassies or ministries, the intrigues between White Hall and Westminster. Lyra was almost more fascinated by this than by the changing landscape below the airship. What Mrs. Coulter was saying seemed to be accompanied by a scent of grownupness, something disturbing but enticing at the same time: it was the smell of glamour. (4.90)

Mrs. Coulter's power is in her feminine charms, but that pretty face is simply a façade for a cruel nature.

"The Master was given a charge by Lord Asriel to look after you and keep you safe from your mother. And that was what he did, for ten years or more. Then Mrs. Coulter's friends in the Church helped her set up this Oblation Board, for what purpose we don't know, and there she was, as powerful in her way as Lord Asriel was in his. Your parents, both strong in the world, both ambitious, and the Master of Jordan holding you in the balance between them. (7.132)

This passage pits Lyra's mother and father against each other, with the Master of Jordan College in the middle. The triad suggests a power struggle between Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter. But over what? We also see, more clearly than ever, that both of Lyra's parents are very powerful. Did Lyra inherit any of their power?

Lyra wandered away on her own, and went to the reedy bank to sit and throw mud in the water. She knew one thing: she was not pleased or proud to be able to read the alethiometer – she was afraid. Whatever power was making that needle swing and stop, it knew things like an intelligent being. (9.62)

Lyra's power is being able to read the alethiometer. Notice her reaction to her power: she frightened of it. This shows she's quite different than her power-hungry parents. Phew!

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)

Lyra finds power in telling stories. When she realizes she can influence people with her inventions she uses this skill to her advantage.

The great bear was helpless. Lyra found her power over him almost intoxicating, and if Pantalaimon hadn't nipped her hand sharply to remind her of the danger they were all in, she might have lost all sense of proportion. (19.186)

Notice how power is something potentially dangerous as Lyra becomes "intoxicated" by it. She's so blinded by Mrs. Coulter's glamorous power, at first, that she doesn't notice that the woman uses her power to do bad things.

"You see, your mother's always been ambitious for power. At first she tried to get it in the normal way, through marriage, but that didn't work, as I think you've heard. So she had to turn to the Church. Naturally she couldn't take the route a man could have taken – priesthood and so on – it had to be unorthodox; she had to set up her own order, her own channels of influence, and work through that. It was a good move to specialize in Dust. Everyone was frightened of it; no one knew what to do; and when she offered to direct an investigation, the Magisterium was so relieved that they backed her with money and resources of all kinds." (21.127)

Lyra's mother has always been after power in the Church and finally found a route to pursue it.

For she remembered his words: <em>the energy that links body and daemon is immensely powerful; </em>and to bridge the gap between worlds needed a phenomenal <em>burst of energy.... </em>(22.10)

The strong link between humans and their daemons is another source of power in the book. It literally is a source of energy, just like gasoline or solar power, only stronger.

"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. <em>That's </em>original sin. And I'm going to destroy it. Death is going to die." (21.151)

In his final speech, Lord Asriel reveals his hunger for ultimate power. Sounds an awful lot like Mrs. Coulter, doesn't he? No wonder they were attracted to each other.

"They are stronger than anyone, Asriel! You don't know – "

"I don't know? I? No one in the world knows better than I how strong the Church is! But it isn't strong enough for this. The Dust will change everything, anyway. There's no stopping it now." (23.60)

In the end, does Lord Asriel see himself as more powerful than the Church? While it's nice that someone is challenging the authority of the corrupt Church, Lord Asriel isn't exactly a saint. We don't really trust that he'll use his power for good either, especially after what he did to Roger.