the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Must Read :: The Golden Compass

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My taste in books when younger leaned heavily toward the literal. In grade school Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw, a story of a boy coping with his parents’ divorce, was my favorite. In middle school I couldn’t get enough of S.E. Hinton’s wayward characters. In high school I read books about The Grateful Dead, which then led me to Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Tom Wolfe. In my 20s it was Richard Wright, Douglas Coupland, and Irvine Welsh. It’s only now that I’m exploring the realm of make-believe and tracking down the archetypes of the genre, the pioneers who have withstood time’s test. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is one of those books and, although published in 1995, has the feel of a classic.

The Golden Compass, what the Guardian calls “a children’s adventure story,” is the first book in Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. The accidental adventurer is 11-year-old Lyra Belacqua, a precocious girl living at, but not enrolled in, Jordan College, a prestigious boarding school in Oxford, England. True to the classic hero’s journey, Lyra is an orphan—told that her parents died when she was young. Now under the care of the school’s Master and her uncle, Lord Asriel, a murky and imposing figure, she roams the grounds in a neglected, semi-unrestrained fashion.

The story begins with Lyra hiding in the Retiring Room, a room at the school where no woman is allowed, not even the maid. Only scholars and their guests are permitted and on that day the Prime Minister’s Advisory Board is holding a secret meeting. Missing an opportunity to leave unnoticed, Lyra hides in a cabinet. Initially afraid she’d fall asleep, she soon finds she had no reason to worry. Her uncle’s slideshow of his expedition to the North, a location near Russia where the Tartars are a threat, is holding her with rapt attention. She’s mesmerized by the photos of frozen landscapes, talk of severed children, and vague mentions of a mysterious Dust.

Not long after Lyra overhears the private conversation, news spreads to Oxford of missing children. The Gobblers, as the kidnappers are nicknamed, soon take on mythic proportions. Lyra’s concern grows when neighborhood children start to disappear and reaches fever pitch when she believes her best friend to be among them. Desperate to save him, she vows to head North where the culprits are believed to reside.

In tow is Pantalaimon, her faithful daemon whose ability to shapeshift into different animals is a handy tool when it comes to Lyra’s needs. One minute he’s an ermine, the next an eagle, then a lion, then a mouse. Described in reviews, although never in the book, daemons are a sort of visible soul, reflecting the true being of their human counterpart. Every human has one but as the person ages the daemon is no longer able to change shape, a feature that gives way to a lesson in self-acceptance.

At one point on Lyra’s trip up North she travels by boat. While passing a school of dolphins, Pantalaimon shapeshifts so he can swim with them. Lyra, able to feel his excitement, starts to worry. Because a human and its daemon can’t be separated from each other for any great distance, if Pantalaimon decides he wants to be a dolphin as his final form, Lyra would be bound to a boat for life. Sensing her anxiety, her adult companion imparts his wisdom on her, and on an astute reader as well:

“Why do daemons have to settle?” Lyra said. “I want Pantalaimon to be able to change forever. So does he.”
“Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That’s part of growing up. There’ll come a time when you’ll be tired of his changing about, and you’ll want a settled kind of form for him. . . . Anyway, there’s compensations for a settled form.”
“What are they?”
“. . . when your daemon settles, you’ll know the sort of person you are.”
“But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don’t like?”
“Well, then, you’re discontented, en’t you? . . . Waste of feeling, that is.”

Aside from the special effects fantasy calls for—the daemon, for instance—Lyra is, as Pullman said of her, “very ordinary.” Lyra is everygirl and in turn any girl can aspire to be as strong-willed and fearless as she.Lyra is guided by her discerning nature. Unlike many children, due to conventional wisdom, she denies adults equal consideration, never obeying them blindly. Throughout the book she relies on her instincts to evaluate, and reevaluate, her loyalty. The Literary Review pointed out the biblical parallels, calling her a “latter-day child-eve”. Metaphorically, Lyra defies the laws of Eden, tests what is forbidden, and refuses to submit to the control of an authority figure.

It’s important to note that in the Jewish tradition, as opposed to the Christian interpretation, Adam and Eve’s exit from Eden was their entrance into adulthood. They were no longer innocent, protected children. When the Guardian pointed to this in an interview with Pullman, saying he took “the Jewish view of Eve. Namely, that what happened in the Garden of Eden was the beginning of the world as we know it” the author responded, “exactly right.”

It’s hard to imagine, in the face of this religious inference, seemingly innocuous, that Pullman comes under close scrutiny for his atheism, of which he is open and unapologetic. The issue features prominently in nearly all his interviews and often threatens to drown out other topics. Arguably, the media has legitimate grounds since he writes for children; to be fair, C.S. Lewis was asked about his born again Christianity. While reading The Golden Compass, I found Pullman to be more of a tame doubter than a rabid Richard Dawkins type.

In another interview conducted with the Guardian, Pullman answers a 13 year-old boy regarding the importance of reading in one’s youth using the word “soul”. He says that reading is “part of what makes us fully human. Some people manage to get through life without reading; but I know that if I’d had to do that, an enormous part of my mind,” he then concedes, “or, my soul if you like, would be missing. No one should be without the chance to let their soul grow.” Dawkins on the other hand, says in his book The God Delusion, that an atheist is a “philosophical naturalist . . . somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles”.

Through a conversation between an unwitting hot air balloon operator and a witch, Pullman wades into the philosophical conundrum of free will.

“You speak of destiny,” he said, “as if it was fixed. And I ain’t sure I like that any more than a war I’m enlisted in without knowing about it. Where’s my free will, if you please? And this child seems to me to have more free will than anyone I ever met. Are you telling me that she’s just some kind of clockwork toy wound up and set going on a course she can’t change?”
“We are all subject to the fates. But we must all act as if we are not, “ said the witch, “or die of despair.”

Most striking about this brief exchange is the trust Pullman has in his young readers. He believes in their ability to comprehend, or at least glean something from, these difficult questions. No one can accuse him of naivety either, having been a middle school teacher for 18 years prior to his success as an author. He knows his audience well and obviously thinks highly of them.

Lyra’s journey, as with Eve’s, is ultimately one from adolescence to adulthood. Throughout her quest she navigates mature situations—the dark lessons of death, conspiracy, violation, and betrayal, but also the value of true friendship and dedication to those you love.

With these life lessons subtly peppered throughout, it should come as no surprise that the Guardian, when comparing JK Rowlings and Pullman, said that “Pullman’s stories are seen as intellectually sounder, the more heavyweight read in a world where children’s fiction is read by adults.” When read at the age long past that of the intended audience, you’ll wish the trilogy had existed when you were a teen. But there’s no need to fret, if read side by side with a young adult you’ll have a great guidebook to help them navigate that bumpy adolescent terrain.

::[links]::
The Golden Compass
Guardian Interview with young fans

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Written by Gabrielle

May 5, 2011 at 4:45 am

2 Responses

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  1. Gabby:

    Can’t begin to tell you that we are so proud of you. You are one hell of publisher and an excellent writer. Uncle Mark and I are so so proud of you. Congrats!

    Uncle Mark & Aunt Josie

    May 6, 2011 at 7:47 am


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