Book info

The Golden Compass (1996)

The Golden Compass (1996)
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3.9 of 5 Votes: 3
ISBN
0679879242 (ISBN13: 9780679879244)
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English
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publisher
knopf books for young readers
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The Golden Compass (1996)
The Golden Compass (1996)

About book: This is a largely ironic novel. I say ironic due to the way in which in aiming to parody another work of fiction, it falls victim to the same problems it accuses the other work of. By parody I mean the claim, verified in some sources by Philip Pullman, that due to the author's dislike of The Chronicles of Narnia, he aimed to write a more atheistically leaning version of those children's books. Which in itself is an acknowledgement that The Chronicles of Narnia are true classics of children's fiction, merely that Pullman refused to accept the Christian aspects within them.It was this fact that kept me from reading this novel for several years. I had intended to get around to it regardless, for I hold the belief that no book can influence you beyond what you yourself choose to believe and take from that book. It may not be beneficial to you if you were to read a particularly sadistic genre all the time, but it would not turn you into a sadist by the pure process of osmosis. The basic plot can be summed up as such: it follows a girl by the name of Lyra, who at the beginning of the novel hides in a wardrobe. Hiding in the wardrobe leads to her discovering a new mystery of science and adventure. This mystery leads her on a journey towards the Northern Lights, where some dark craft is occurring in regards to children. Of course it helps that Lyra has the aid of bears and witches along her journey.So, Pullman's novel is an ironic one. Ironic in that, despite his dislike of C.S. Lewis' work, which he claimed was full of such ideas as: "Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it."*You see, Pullman didn't just dislike the fictional land of Narnia. He hated it. But that is where the humorous irony comes in. He work, in trying to form a direct criticism and opponent of Narnia, takes on the same type of patronising and racist tone. Further, his work becomes the very kind of reactionary sneering he spies in Lewis' work. By which is meant that Pullman almost has to point out the ways in which his work is better at everything, than C.S. Lewis. Which is a shame, because aside from his dogmatic way of writing (I'll explain what I mean by that later) Pullman's novel has some half-decent fantasy ideas. Yet they are ideas coloured by the sense that he is trying to better a novel that remains a classic of previous generations. When I state that Pullman is patronising, I mean that he feels the need to spell everything out to his reader. One could argue that Lewis does the same, no doubt, yet Lewis has the tone of a gentle guiding storyteller, which helps pull the reader into the world and provides fascinating fatherly asides. Pullman does none of this, but rather directs his reader to what they should be looking at and for. As I've mentioned elsewhere, this is a failure of children's fiction authors in that they believe children incapable of concluding ideas and elements for themselves. Which is no wonder when authors feel the need to hide their ideologies in a way children cannot see them. Pullman has received plenty of criticism in regards to his representation of the church. It is clear that his one major representation of the church stems from Catholicism, which he represents as a giant company that quashes scientific progress and heresy without thought - censoring any unwanted ideas. This is an ignorant and dangerous view, ignoring centuries of theological history and change. Certainly Pullman is writing in a fictional world with different rules, but to represent the church globally in such a way is ignorant and self-serving. As for racism, well there are plenty of stereotypical references to the 'gyptians' - or Egyptians.The positives of the novel are found in the references to the idea of every individual in this world having a physical representation of their soul in animal form. This representation, called a daemon, is one of the more unique ideas I have seen in children's fiction. The inclusion of a moral compass as a physical idea in the alethiometer is likewise endearing. But aside from that there is less of the fantastic about this novel and more a sense of a set of copied ideas and beliefs. Hardly revolutionary fantasy.The novel is not only a response to The Chronicles of Narnia but also to Philip Pullman's favourite work of literature - Paradise Lost. In an introduction to this other work he affirmed that he believes that in the poem Satan is the hero. This has become a popular view, particularly for those who do not believe Christian theology in the slightest. My argument is that Satan is the central character, but not the hero, that Milton focuses on him in order to explore the tragedy of the rebellion against God and against his angelic nature. Yet, Pullman finds that it serves his interests to take elements of the poem and expand upon them for his own purposes (including the title of the series). And as any reader knows, taking any word or phrase out of context can prove deadly. Interestingly many of Pullman's character names are taken from mythology about angels and demons - or from Greek mythology - further symbolising how he attempts to write about Paradise Lost.If one still wants to argue that there is no criticism of religion within this novel, one only needs to note that the very end of the novel ends with a clear criticism. In many ways Pullman through his characters tries his own hand at heresy, aiming to question whether original sin or the results of original sin is in fact good. Yet, I would argue that this indeed shows the reader that Pullman merely wants to be able to stand and state that living as hedonistically or self-servingly as one wants should be seen as a good thing.There is the question whether this novel should even be labelled as children's fiction. No doubt the same objection is raised in regards to the Chronicles of Narnia which I admit a bias towards favouring. However, where Lewis is rather obvious and in the reader's face about what elements of religion and myth he includes (talk to most children aged seven to 12 who have read the books and they can generally pick out the references) Pullman is not. Pullman hides his agenda and makes it subtle, only apparent when you are looking for it. Should we allow children to read such hidden ideas without being able to choose whether they are truthful? This is why I say that Pullman is a dogmatic writer - because he doesn't draw out his ideology and present an argument as to why it might be correct. No, he presents it as a factual representation. Perhaps what is required is an adult on hand to explain, as with Narnia, that both books represent two sides of religious debate as it were. All in all, the story is interesting enough to keep one reading. But sadly, if we are to compare it as the antithesis of Narnia it fails as a fantasy work. It lacks the charm and magic of the other novel, replacing them with a sense of dull cynicism. Where it is clear that Lewis views the world with a greater sense of childish wonder, a view that is more appealing (though he held, regardless, racist sensibilities for our times, it is necessary to understand the time in which he was formed as an individual to understand that he was more liberal than some for his time). Take the authors and all intentions for these novels out of the way, however, and you still have two fine novels. Yet Northern Lights unfortunately feels like a re-writing of older and better texts and therefore falls flat in comparison. *The article with this is here

Although it's 3 physical books for publishing reasons, His Dark Materials (HDM)is one continuous story (well... see below), so I'm reviewing the whole set. It isn't useful to review one part alone.HDM is a decent read with many great elements. On Orson Scott Card's "MICE" scale--Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event--it's mostly a Milieu story, so expect a tour of the world(s), focusing on the strangeness therein and the history thereof. It's a great setting with many fabulous ideas underlying the various worlds, so enjoy it. Put it in the same space as The Phantom Tollbooth or Gulliver's Travels. In fact, it is a direct descendant of Gulliver. Whereas Swift used Gulliver to compare and lambaste political groups of his day, Pullman uses HDM to address questions of morality, responsibility, and sacrifice. He isn't as successful as Swift, but very few are.Structurally, HDM is three stories, but they're intertwined from the very beginning. The foreground (and best-known) story is a classic milieu-as-character setup. Our two pre-adolescent protagonists, Lyra and Will, travel across worlds and regions of the worlds meeting different kinds of people (including the requisite cast of disposable, self-sacrificing allies) and facing episodic dangers; it's an adventure tale in the "come back more mature" mold and it works passably. The character development is slight, but the maturation element--Lyra slowly falling in first love with Will--is handled with delicacy and grace. The adventure story is marred by some very strange author intrusion--one particularly jarring section explaining that Lyra's skill at inventing stories and telling them is lying and therefor unrelated to imagination, which she doesn't have--and a strange and unbelievable detachment from any sense of loss in the children when friends and family are taken from them. Neither character is particularly likable or sympathetic, either.The second, and more successful, story--the Character story in Card's taxonomy--is off-camera in the first book and comes more and more to the forefront as the story continues. This involves the tension between Lyra's estranged parents, their individual world-shattering goals, and their love (or lack thereof) for Lyra. It's a redemption story and the only real weakness is not showing us any changes in her father until the very end when we learn that they must have happened. This isn't as bad as it seems since her father is extremely taciturn and hides his plans and goals even from his closest allies. If the books had focused on this story entirely, they would have been far more effective but probably far less popular.The third story is the Idea story and fails almost completely. There are rarely more than three pages in a row of non-narrative explanation of the author's moral and ethical beliefs and they are often couched in the fantasy metaphors of the main stories, at least, but Pullman's judgments of the main characters--unsupported by the events in the story and invalidating the value of the story if true--would disrupt any enjoyment the books had if they weren't so easily dismissed. The book also sets up a variety of elements it never follows up on: the process of moving from childhood to adulthood is a major question underlying the magic of the story and often discussed but is never actually probed, the nature of the soul is a recurring question that drives all of the characters but is never discussed in interesting real detail, the distinction between soul and spirit is raised--even referencing Aquinas by name--but its relation to the story is dropped immediately, and the relationship between free will and sin (including a threat to free will itself) underlies the character story but that either dissolves into a question of sentience or disappears altogether.Major plot holes, lost plot elements, and gracelessly dropped storylines also mar the books. The single item driving the "ticking clock" of the adventure story is every faction's belief that Lyra has a crucial choice to make that will determine the fate of the multiverse. If she ever makes that choice, it is completely unclear. A prophesy of Lyra committing a "great betrayal" that will "hurt her greatly" is tossed away on a small sacrifice that is not clearly a betrayal, does not hurt her any more than her companions (who make the same sacrifice), and leads to greater power and freedom for her and her dearest friend. The highest tension plot thread--an assassin tailing Lyra across multiple worlds, coming closer and following her friends to reach her, is resolved with--literally--a deus ex machina producing a small redemption plot element but leaving the assassin story--if you'll pardon the pun--bloodless.On the plus side, the cast of characters is fabulous. The mother's daemon (her soul in an externalized form, much like a familiar--every human character from Lyra's world has one) is truly terrifying, and her mother and father are close behind. The random allies she meets--such a talking polar bear, a Texan aeronaut, a "gyptian" (sort of a gypsy) king(1) and the seer/scholar who attends him, and a pair of gay angels--are well-drawn and lovable characters with flaws and motives of their own, although a few--the queen of a witch clan and a scientist from our world--are less effective. The villains are deliciously evil, dripping in cold, fascist malice or driven by a hot and frightening hatred. The use of the daemons to show a person's character and mood is an excellent device. When a snake slithers out of one man's sleeve we know instantly that he is hiding things and is cold-blooded. The jackrabbit daemon of the Texan tells us that he is always aware and able to move instantly, despite his slow drawl and easy nature. And her father's regal snow leopard shows us his strength, his confidence, and his brutality. Not that we need the leopard to see that....So these are a fun enough read. Ignore the philosophizing; it doesn't go anywhere and it doesn't actually impact the other stories in the ways it seems like it should. In the end, none of the characters are as driven by faith, fear, or belief as they claim. Enjoy the adventurous tour of the multiverse with Lyra and her discovery of her burgeoning adolescence (really, that is very well handled). Watch the parents for their slow, secret changes and the real motivations behind their grandiose schemes; marvel at their audacity and confidence as well. Lament the dead, cheer in the bravery, and remember that this is a children's book above all; it should be larger-than-life and show decisions and consequences more clearly than they truly are.Fun read. Worth the time if you have it. But don't put down something else to read it first. The movie makes some interesting changes, btw, some of which are more successful that then book. See it for Sam Elliot, if nothing else.(1) Yes, we get the proverbial "King of the Gypsies." Only he's not lying about it.
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Reviews
Peter
The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, picks up where the Harry Potter series leaves off. As in Rowling's series, the hero of The Golden Compass--Lyra, a pre-teen girl in Oxford, England--is plucked from her mundane existence to become supremely important to the fate of the living world. However, unlike the Potter series, The Golden Compass, immerses us immediately in political, religious, and cultural conflict as well. While the central character is indeed a child, which lands this title in the children's section, the themes and conflicts in the novel are often very adult, the action sometimes gruesome, and characters' behaviors and motivations quite complex. The sophistication of the story will be lost over children's heads.Nonetheless, the action will sustain.For children, The Golden Compass is the story of Lyra Belacqua's adventure to the arctic to rescue her friend Roger, who has been kidnapped by adults who run experiments on children. The story is set loosely in our world and in the past, but in Pullman's revision, every human being has a "daemon" that is a physical manifestation of that person's soul in the form of an animal that is psychically, or perhaps spiritually, connected to the person. The experiments involve the investigation into and hideous manipulation of that connection. Along the way, Lyra meets talking bears, flying witches, and much, much more.For adults, the novel asks questions about the relationship between religion and science. It explores political coercion and subterfuge. It examines class differences. And, to a very real degree, I think, it focuses on adult obsession with innocence and experience--both in a religious context and in a childhood/adolescence/adulthood context.The result of all of this is a multi-layered novel. It's fun, but also thought-provoking--and potentially scandalous. Do I recommend it? Yes. Fun and thoughtful: a novel vision.Would I teach it? Hard to say. Likely not. It's a wonderful and intricate piece of writing--some of the passages are beautiful and the content generates many talking points--but much of it feels too overtly didactic.Lasting impression: This is another magnificently realized escapist fantasy like the Harry Potter series. And, from the very beginning it is laden with complex political and social intrigue the stuff of which appears in "grown-up" fiction.
Bright
the golden compass trilogy seems like a natural progression in christian literature. yes, it is christian literature, the same way the chronicles of narnia are. aslan is only a lion when the reader is about 10 or so in the united states. after a point, he unrepentantly becomes jesus. and the four children are like, the gospels or something. and the story is somewhat ruined then, because as an adult, you can't just shoehorn jesus into a lion outfit without snickering a little.pullman however, has solved this problem. i can't continue without utterly spoiling the story for everyone who hasn't read it, so consider yourselves warned...he made jesus into a little girl. even better, he made jesus into a little girl who doesn't even know she's jesus. now how's that for a new twist on the new testament? the part that's particularly brilliant about it, is that it actually worked. lyra is never really anything like christ... she just follows the path of his narrative. first, she has the absent father. lord asrael is desperately involved in his own ideas, so though he's not actually in heaven, he may as well be. wait a sec, isn't this just dogma again? sort of, except dogma is really more relevant to catholicism in particular, rather than scriptures. and instead of linda fiorentino who is kind of a mopey christ, we get a 10 year old girl. 10 year old girls are the best focal point for any story. i've been one for years.and this is a perfect choice, because she really never takes time to mope. she doesn't miss her faith or wrestle with it... she doesn't believe at all. and therein lies the genius of pullman's work, that has all the christians in a snit; she's also the antichrist.why would he do that?because the bible does. if you really take a look at the word antichrist, it does not mean "evil". khristos, from which christ is derived, means "anointed". so what does antichrist really mean? unanointed, or that which is against the anointed. there's a bunch of baggage on top of that meaning, which is how we got those omen movies, but at the heart of it, it just means smeared with fat. actually, it means recognized by the divine... but in ancient times, we did that by smearing the recognized thing with the fat of a sacrificed animal or person. and that, is why we celebrate the crucifixion. it was the point of christ's birth. as if it wasn't obvious enough, it's why he's referred to as the lamb.wow. so this is heavy... pullman has gone all the way back to the origins of the judeo-christian faith and said, this important guy, was just the carrier of this magical stuff that we're obsessed with, that we don't even use anymore. it's like we're infected or poisoned by this idea. we need an antidote. we need an antichrist, to show us how far we've wandered from the truth, which had nothing to do with trooping along after some guy.and this explains why christians are so antagonized by the books. they've been following the beast for years without recognizing it. the golden compass referred to in the book, is the bible we've all forgotten how to read. and in its stead, we've rallied around the church which claims to help us understand the symbols. but in reality, it is the beast referred to. the one which rose from rome, with many heads that change over time. so what really, is the golden compass about? it's about how to be human again. how to regain an understanding of the world, that doesn't rely on our fragile expectations for good and evil. all it requires, is that you give up everything, in order to discover what is important again. and i don't know how christians could have missed that primary message.
notgettingenough
Later....A friend said to me today that if you read this book properly, it should make you a better person. I'd just earlier in the day been thinking pretty much the same thing. When I asked S. in what way was he made better, he said he couldn't say, just that it had. Exactly. I think you have a sense as you read this book that Lyra's goodness has rubbed off on you, she's made you better in an entirely non-specific way.M. then said that she didn't think a book, to be special, necessarily had to have a moral impact, it could give you other terribly important things. For her to read the first Harry Potter was to be given back magic. And yes, an author, if he can return to you something you had lost and not even realised you had, has done something equally to be treasured.I have promised to read HP soon. I find it difficult to believe I'm going to get anything out of it, but, then, thus had I felt about Northern Lights.-------------------------------------------------9.30 last night. I’m lying in bed, I’ve been reading this for a couple of hours, thinking I’m going to get it finished before I fall asleep. SMS: ‘Won by 3, be at the pub in ten minutes.’ And I’m so torn. I even think about bringing the book with me. In the end I go to the pub, get drunk, maybe came close to lucky, oh, but imagine the morning...having to play bridge at 9am on a Sunday on account of the time difference between the US and Australia. I didn’t see how it would work. He’d snuggle up and start saying how great the third time we fucked was, and I’d be like – is this Dave? Or Biff? Surely if I’d shagged somebody called Biff last night the name would stick, wouldn’t it? I’m not going to guess, I routinely fail 50%ers, so – sorry, mate (an Australianism will do here) but if you could find your way out, I have to play bridge in ten minutes. What’s that? This is YOUR place? I open my eyes more and take a better look around. Bugger. I have to play bridge in ten minutes and I don’t even know where I am. So, I’m half way through my second vodka, completely drunk already, somebody’s saying I have a nice firm bosom – I don’t think it was Dave OR Biff – and I’m wishing, after all, I’d brought my book with me. I don’t really want to get lucky, I want to read my book.And even though I haven’t finished it, I wanted to get something about it down.I really didn’t want to read this. It’s fantasy, it has made-up words, it is a trilogy – WHY!!!!! Why can’t somebody write a fantasy book that stops at a decent time???? There is an explanation of how to pronounce ‘daemon’ before the book even starts and that’s enough to make my heart sink. So why am I reading it? Because I’ve been backed into a corner by a friend and I can’t figure out another way of getting out. Here it is then. A grumpy person reading a type of book they don’t want to read and are opening it up for all the wrong reasons.And then…straight away, within a page or two: what a heart-thumper, what a brilliant unputdownable ripsnorter. Impossible not to compare with Larsson’s books, and comes out so far ahead on all counts I don’t know if I’ll be able to read the last Girl-Tattoo book after all.This guy writes well, Larsson doesn’t. He has a plot that is worthy of the name for the entire book. When I wanted to stop reading the first Larsson after 140 pages and was told that it got good soon, well, honestly, I stuck with it and the advice was correct, but still. That’s a lot of wasted pages. Larsson’s female character is a pastiche of current fashion:(1)tAnti-social(2)tMetal in odd places(3)tPunk rocker(4)tShags girls, heterosexual male fantasy(5)tShags much old men, ditto(6)tBoob job(7)tComputer whizzLarsson gets away with this, even though this amalgam feels fake. Lyra needs nothing. She is just a girl with nothing special about her at all and she is fabulous. Already I’m wondering if this series is going to get spoiled by her growing up and sex coming into play. One of the things this book demonstrates is how utterly irrelevant and tedious the sex is in books like Larsson’s. It is just there to titillate, it has no intrinsic purpose whatsoever.I’m gobsmacked by how much more believable this book is than Larsson’s. Daemons, talking bears, witches, universes coming out of universes – I’m half expecting a string theorist to pop into the story, but as long as that doesn’t happen I can’t imagine anything could spoil the rest of it. I’m trying to picture who wouldn’t enjoy this, and I’m coming up with a complete prune of a person. If I enjoy this, honestly, anybody would. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m even going to give the rest of the series a go.--------------------Finished! The last forty pages or so, after the duel of the bears, lost me. Maybe because they weren't really about the story, they are about setting the scene for the next book...I don't know. But I have to say that after 350 pages where every sentence made my heart beat too fast, I feel rather churlish saying that.
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