I’ve read this book before, but it was long ago. When I was in elementary school, I was just beginning to develop a lot for fantasy. Harry Potter was fairly new, with only the first couple of books having been released. I had consumed those, and A Wrinkle in Time, and the majority of the Redwall books that had been published. But my favorite series was The Chronicles of Narnia. I loved the Christian allegory, as I had come to my faith quite young. When I picked up The Golden Compass, I enjoyed it almost as much, even though I found the concept of dæmons both fascinating and disconcerting. However, a well-meaning teacher informed me that His Dark Materials was known as the anti-Narnia, and proceeded to spoil some plot points of the next book in order to discourage me from continuing the series. I was appalled at the thought of a series that was so vehemently opposed to my faith, so I steered clear of it and let myself forget about how enjoyable I found the first book.
“We are all subject to the fates. But we must act as if we are not, or die of despair.”
I’m an adult now. I’ve read things that are greatly opposed to my faith and I’ve found that these works encourage me to question in a healthy way, and my faith is stronger for it. So why was I still so hesitant to approach this trilogy again? My best guess is that opinions developed during childhood are difficult to overcome. But I decided it was time, since my favorite books still tend to be the classics of children’s fantasy, and I’m endeavoring to read my way through those I missed in my childhood. My expectations were pretty high for this opening installment, as I remembered it being addictive and engrossing. I wasn’t wrong, and The Golden Compass met and exceeded those expectations.
“Men and women are moved by tides much fiercer than you can imagine, and they sweep us all up into the current.”
This is honestly not set up as a children’s book as much as it is a fantasy featuring a pre-adolescent main character. The writing is wonderfully engaging, and has a maturity that lends itself well to adult consumption. There is never a sense of omniscient narration; instead, we only learn important information, be that new revelations or background information as our the knowledge is revealed to our child protagonist. Said child protagonist is a marvel, though, and is surely why so many children have come to adore this series in the twenty-five years since The Golden Compass was first published. Lyra is the scrappiest heroine I’ve ever come across. More recent heroines, like Nona from Book of the Ancestor or even Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, surely were inspired at least in small part by her. She is tough as boot leather, and too fierce to let anything or anyone stop her from accomplishing her goals. I adore her and am both excited and nervous to see what the rest of the series holds for her.
“You cannot change what you are, only what you do.”
There’s a good bit of philosophy present here, including a great conversation late in the novel about free will. I have yet to run across anything as vehemently anti-Christian as I was led to believe would be present here, though there has been some critiques of the Church. But I found those critiques fair, to be honest. And because Lyra’s world is not exactly ours, but more of a funhouse mirror version, I felt no discomfort at all over the critiques. One of the elements I find the most fascinating that is certainly at the core of the religious and philosophical elements I’ve encountered thus far are the presence and mystery of dæmons. I don’t want to discuss them too much, as I think certain revelations about them are important to the plot, but the entire concept of them is incredibly intriguing. I can see where the concept of dæmons could make some uncomfortable, but I think they raise some great questions about what makes us who we are at our core.
“You speak of destiny as if it was fixed.”
I very much enjoyed revisiting this book, and wholeheartedly agree with the respect and love it inspires in the fantasy community. Will I feel that way about the series in its entirety? I have absolutely no idea. But I’m very interested to see what I think about the remaining two novels, as well as the newer, spinoff installments. Pullman has quite the way with a story, and I’m eager to see what happens next.
You can purchase a boxed set of the entire series here, with free shipping worldwide!