Banned Books Week review of:
THE GOLDEN COMPASS (or, NORTHERN LIGHTS)
by Philip Pullman
Author’s Website: http://www.philip-pullman.com/
This is one of my favorite books. Ever. I’m just putting that out there before I do this review, because I don’t want anyone to get ridiculously high expectations about this book (only to be disappointed later). But I hope you’re not disappointed, because I think this is a truly spectacular piece of literature…
My first experience with this book was when I received it as a Christmas present from my aunt and uncle—I was twelve at the time. I had never heard of it, and was consequently a bit dubious about reading it. But several days after Christmas, when all of my other gifts had lost their novelty, I was bored. I wandered into my room and, seeing The Golden Compass lying on the floor just inside the door, sat down right then and there on the floor (in the doorway to my bedroom) and began to read. I wish I could say that I remembered more about that initial reading experience, but instead, I only seem to remember what I did after the first chapter—I walked into the dining room to eat dinner and gushed to my parents about this fascinating story of a girl who was sneaking around where she wasn’t supposed to with this shape-shifter called a “daymeon” (it’s “daemon”, and is pronounced like “demon”, but I didn’t know that at the time). It was completely and utterly unlike what I had expected, which turned out to basically be my experience of the entire book—it was never what I expected it to be, and every time I thought I had it pinned down, it took some twist or turn that made me completely reconsider what the story was actually about. I was hooked.
Eleven-year old Lyra Belacqua may be of noble birth and a resident of the prestigious Jordan College, but she is far happier running wild in the streets in the company of her daemon, Pantalaimon, tormenting scholars and waging war with the children of Oxford. But Lyra’s carefree life changes forever when she witnesses an assassination attempt against her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel, and in the process, overhears a discussion of something called “Dust”. Before they know it, Lyra and Pan are embroiled in an adventure beyond their wildest dreams, involving stolen children, benevolent witches, armored bears, and a rescue mission to the far north, all with the help of the Oxford gyptians and an alethiometer (a golden compass whose hands point not to north, but to truth itself). But the reality of what they face is far bigger than Lyra and Pan’s understanding of it, and the consequences far more devastating than they could ever imagine…
The Golden Compass has made the list of the top-ten most banned books in the US for several years now, due to its so-called “anti-religious” message, but it remains immensely popular nevertheless. While Philip Pullman has certainly declared himself an atheist and publicly stated his dislike of organized religion, those who criticize the books on these grounds obviously haven’t read them, or else read them looking for “anti-religious” stuff to point out. A quote from Pullman himself on the subject:
“I think what I would say to the people who criticise me for besmirching their religion and telling children that they should all go out and be Satanists is simply this: what qualities in human beings does the story celebrate and what qualities does it condemn? And an honest reading of the story would have to admit that the qualities that the story celebrates and praises are love, kindness, tolerance, courage, open-heartedness; and the qualities that the story condemns are cruelty, intolerance, zealotry, fanaticism. Well, who could quarrel with that?”
Yes, the Church in Pullman’s world is definitely a negative force, but a lot of people are missing the point that this is fiction. Does Philip Pullman actually believe that the modern Catholic Church is committing the kind of atrocities we read about in Lyra’s world? No, of course not. If you remain unconvinced, go here to read a very thoughtful review of the book (and the rest of the trilogy). There are some other specific religious “sticky points” mentioned by the book’s opponents, but I don’t really want to talk about them because a) they give away critical plot elements, and b) they take place later in the trilogy.
For my part, I completely, passionately, and unreservedly recommend this book. Pullman’s writing is graceful, but still occasionally surprising, and there are passages of text in this book that—as a writer—I find simply beautiful. Better yet, the plot and characters are fresh and gripping, and the settings, while fantastic, never lose the nitty-gritty realism that Pullman employs to keep us grounded. In spite of the protagonist’s age, this book is more than sophisticated enough to entertain a serious adult readership (and in fact, adults may even get more out of it than younger readers). Although there is some violence, none of it is particularly graphic, and language and sexual matters don’t really feature prominently. Generally, I would recommend this book for ages 10 and up. The trilogy as a whole is called, His Dark Materials (a quote from John Milton), and the other two books are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Pullman has also written two companion books to the series: Once Upon a Time in the North, and Lyra’s Oxford. The former fills in some backstory from the trilogy, and the latter is a bridge between the trilogy and the book he is currently working on, The Book of Dust.
Oh, and one final note: the audiobook versions of these books are WITHOUT DOUBT the best audiobooks I have ever heard. No joke. A full cast recording brings the characters to life, and Philip Pullman is a fabulous narrator—I can’t recommend it enough.
Last day of Banned Books week! I’ll have to get at least one more review in before it’s over…happy reading!
“Did you ever hear anyone say, ‘That work had better be banned because I might read it and it might be very damaging to me?'”
-Joseph Henry Jackson