Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Golden Compass Reviewed

I've made mention of the Golden Compass before. My story of not seeing the movie yet has been long and sad. I did just however finish the book and was very, very impressed.

I find myself surround with overly zealous and closed minded family and associates, all of which felt it necessary to warn me about the evils of this literary work. A few responded to my reply email by asking to what I thought of the book. Below is the review that will be going out the them today. I expect at least one reply telling me that I am on a steady course straight to hell - it won't be the first from this particular person... As long as they aren't there when I get there, I think I'll score it a win!!

When the Golden Compass was released as a movie last year, I received a number of emails from people warning me about the dangers of this movie and cautioning me to avoid it at all costs and especially to protect my children from it.

Things like this intrigue me, because it seemed that those initiating the email campaign had no idea what the book was about, but never-the-less felt obligated to warn the world about it. I had also seen the trailer for the movie and was very impressed with the animation and was planning on seeing it when it came out.

Ultimately I decided to investigate further and went and purchased the book. Not only did I buy The Golden Compass, but I bought the entire Trilogy by Pullman, entitled, His Dark Materials.

Before I begin this review, let me say that I highly recommend reading the book. It is incredibly well written, and while a work of fiction, I think it identifies many problems that society faces today. My review will likely reveal some of the plot, so if you plan on reading it, you probably don't want to read the rest of this.

It's hard to know where to start, but I think I'll go through the story briefly, explaining as I go and discussing what I took from the it.

The first book is based around a character called Lyra Belacqua and her daemon called Pantalaimon. This may be where most people freak out. Let me just state for your peace of mind that a daemon is not the same thing as a demon.

Lyra is not from our world. In her world, which is parallel with ours, a person's soul or spirit exists outside their bodies, and takes the form of an animal companion. I think the use of this by the author is incredible, because he is then able to provide a way to show how people interact at different levels in a conversation. For instance, at a point midway through the book, an older lady is trying to manipulate Lyra into giving her something. While on a person to person level the conversation comes across as cordial and caring, the interaction of Lyra's daemon and the daemon of the older lady allow us to observe the manipulation on a spiritual level.

Something else about the daemons is that in children, they are able to change form, while as a person approaches adulthood, their daemons settle into a constant form. Depending on the situation and how Lyra reacts to it, her daemon switches from a moth to a wild cat to a hawk and many other forms. I think this shows how a childs spirit has incredible potential and is very adaptable, but as we get older we settle into a belief system and hold to that for the rest of our lives.

As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Lyra has a mission to accomplish. Her mission has been prophesied for some time and is well know to those important positions around her. Interestingly enough, Lyra can not be told about her mission, she has to determine her life's course for herself.

At the beginning of her mission, Lyra is given an alethiometer. An alethiometer is a device for determining truth and resembles a golden compass, hence the name of the book and movie. Lyra learns how to use this device and it becomes invaluable to her in knowing what is going on around her. In our world where we are surrounded by people with hidden agenda's, evil intent, or other nefarious intentions, I think we have all been given an alethiometer of sorts to determine the truth. It might be called different things, but ultimately each of us can find the truth within ourselves.

Now lets look at the plot itself. At the time Lyra starts her mission, children are being abducted and rumor has it that they are being taken to the North, basically from England to what I think might be a northern European country, Greenland or somewhere else inside the Arctic Circle.

Meanwhile, there is a conflict developing between the Catholic Church and Scientists. The Church are attempting to control science and Scientists are starting to come out in open rebellion against the Church for hiding the truth. This seems to bear a lot of resemblances to what happened in the Dark Ages, but I think a lot of this goes on today as well. I'll spare you my thoughts on that though, as I don't want to detract from the book.

Through various events, Lyra finds herself headed North with a group of rescuers to find the abducted children. It turns out that the children where abducted by the General Oblations Board (The Gobblers), a council of the Church and that experiments are being conducted where the child's spiritual connections to their daemons are being severed and the results (death, often painful and extremely dramatic) are observed and studied. While it seems extreme, I think in many cases today, religions seek to exercise control over the individuals soul, rather than supporting the individual to discover their true potential and freedom of choice.

I personally feel that every human on earth has a divine potential greater than any of us currently realize. Our mission, as is Lyra's is to discover the truth and follow it. Our best tools to do this, lie within ourselves.

That is the essence of the story in a nutshell, as I finished the first book, I was tempted to go back and read it again. There are references made to Adam and Eve and the creation of the earth as it concluded, and I think there is a good deal more to those those comments that I initially understand when reading through them. However as I then started reading the second book, a whole new world emerged... literally and figuratively. I'm definitely going to be rereading the trilogy once I get done, but for now, I think I'm taking a straight shot through to the end.

Some side notes in conclusion of things that impressed me about the book and the author...

The author is an atheist. Atheist's are believed to be the religious group most discriminated against in the United States. I am not an atheist myself, but I know many who have chosen this path. They are good people, and just because I don't agree with them on some issues, does not mean I can't learn from them on others. Mr. Pullman used to be a high school teacher. He developed a habit of making outrageous comments to his students to get them to think outside the box, and not to accept what he told them without considering the truth and value of it. It would seem he has continued to do this in interviews about his book and the movie, and unfortunately these are the sound bites that closed minded zealots use to discredit an otherwise excellent book.

Witches play an important role in the story as well. There are various clans of witches, with different beliefs and cultures. At one point in the book, a witch is guiding Lyra and her party through a terrible snow storm, whilst wearing only a tattered silk dress. Lyra asks her about cold, and the witch responds that although she feels the cold, that it won't kill her. She doesn't enjoy being cold, but if she were to bundle up in furs and other warm clothing, she would miss out on the touch of starlight and other sensations on her skin. I think sometimes we protect ourselves against something to such an extent that not only is the offending element repelled, but many other wonderful and noteworthy things are missed as well.

I guess that sums this book up. There may be parts that you might not agree with, but you don't have to agree with them to enjoy the book. From what I understand of the author, he would consider himself a failure if people read the book and blindly accepted his view point. Rather I think he seeks to entertain his audience and more importantly to get them to think about the world around them.

I still haven't seen the movie but that's another long and sad story that I won't bore you with. I do however plan on purchasing it when it comes out on DVD and am planning on sharing both the movie and the book with my children as they get older.


  1. Glad you enjoyed the book, pity you haven't seen the movie, though it's not anywhere as good as the book. Tis the problem with movies I guess.
    Just one teeny, tiny nit to pick - "Atheist's are believed to be the religious group most discriminated against in the United States" - Atheists are not a religious group - the whole point is Atheists have no religion, no god (otherwise they wouldn't be atheists:))

  2. My most humble of apologies...

    I guess I've been listening to too much rhetoric in recent years. The right wing christian zealots over here, keep talking about the religeon of secularism and then lumping atheists in with that. Basically they are trying to instill this fear into the nation that anyone who doesn't believe in God is evil and seeking for our downfall.

    Personally I'd take a solid atheist or agnostic any day, based on the misguided creeps who claim to be christian.

    Thanks for setting me straight :-)

  3. Well, we may be evil and plotting the downfall of all theists but, we try to help & educate where we can ;)

  4. Excellent review! You really got it!