The Golden Compass
By Phillip Pullman
Yearling / Random House, 1995
My recent posts have focused more on the content of the books in question than the quality of the writing itself. I decided to write today about Pullman’s 23-year-old classic to explore why it is a good book.
Pullman is positioned as a “young adult” author, and indeed I originally purchased this book for my children, who turned out not to be interested. (Evidently I'm raising a brace of Philistines.) The Golden Compass sat unread on the shelf for years until I cracked the spine recently. I was not surprised to discover that although the book certainly will appeal to eleven- to seventeen-year-olds, it charms the adult reader, too.
It’s worth taking a moment to position Pullman in the chronology of classic young adult fantasy work. He comes well after J.R.R. Tolkien but preceded J.K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. His path was paved by C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, but unlike their works (and Tolkein's, for that matter), his book is not intended as parable (about, respectively, Christianity, Communism and Nazism). Rather, Pullman pursues a classic story of good versus evil. Any student of Joseph Campbell could map the book in a flash.
That’s part of why it’s a rewarding read. There’s a saying in Hollywood that the best screenplays are familiar but different. So it is with The Golden Compass. Instinctively, we recognize the tropes in the story, yet we are amused by the unique twists Pullman puts on them. As with the other authors I have mentioned, he creates a rich, complete, distinctive and evocative world, a world that is not simply a backdrop but a character (indeed, a suite of characters) within itself.
Pullman’s England and Scandinavia reverberate with a distinctively steampunk feel that I found delightful. His creation of daemons—animal forms that are attached to each human and function as an extension of the person, or sort of external soul—is both central to the book and an entrancing conceit. They are omnipresent in the story and quickly become second nature for the reader—as, indeed, they literally are for the characters.
All of these elements contribute to the effectiveness of Pullman’s book. Yet The Golden Compass would not succeed as literature unless Pullman could create credible characters to whom we become emotionally attached. This he does masterfully. His protagonist, the young Lyra Belacqua, is richly drawn. His tour de force in this regard comes about two-thirds of the way through text, when he creates a scene of such otherworldly revulsion it makes the reader’s skin crawl. He accomplishes this effect by writing about how the characters in the book react to something that has to do with daemons and which they find revolting. (Sorry to be opaque, but I don’t want to spoil the plot!) I marveled at Pullman’s ability to create such visceral empathy in his readers, particularly since we are reading about people so fundamentally different from us.
The book isn’t perfect. There are laborious stretches of back story explanation that come across as clumsy, for example, and some of the characterizations verge on caricatures, although they don’t cross over. You may pick it up for your kids. But don’t be surprised to find yourself engrossed.