Monday, May 26, 2008

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Book 1) - a review

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series)

The Golden Compass is about Lyra Belaqua, a girl who embarks on a strange journey. Some bad people called the gobblers are stealing children from London. Her best friend gets stolen, and Lyra begins a journey to find him. With the help of a talking polar bear, a balloonist, and a group of river gypsies, she rescues him from a laboratory in the arctic where arcane experiments are being done.

Pullman's essay on the integrity of human individuality is a lovely reminder for us all, children and adults, that personhood is fragile and to be cherished. It's a complex book, with hints of allegory and odd philosophical juxtapositions.

The sweet thing about fantasy is the sense of perspective it gives you, the feeling that the world could be malleable in ways it really isn't. Setting often comes into play heavily in fantasy. Changing milieu is an easy way to provide a sense of dislocation from the everyday. Eschewing all traces of popular sword and sorcery fantasy tropes, Pullman chooses to set his morality fable in an odd pseudo Victorian framework.

Europe has trains and electric lights, but is still threatened by barbarians. The church is the dominant power, but the Pope has been replaced by numerous bureaucracies. The Tartars have themselves trepanned to let the voice of god into their heads more easily. These historical incongruities dust the story with a delicious alien tang.

It is the Victorian values and pseudo-Victorian language, however, that mark the important differences between the setting of The Golden Compass and our own world. Simple touches like calling plastic "coal silk", and electric lights "anbaric" lights, and the stressing of propriety over individuality really define a alternate social evolution, one in which the issues of identity that Pullman deals with are much more urgent than they are in our own western democracy, and thus easier to see the importance of.

The most important difference between Lyra's world and our own is that every human being has a kind of familiar called a Daemon, an animal that is sort of a literal embodiment of the character's nature. Servants' daemons are dogs, for example. The upper classes often have more flamboyant creatures as daemons, like ermines and golden monkeys. Daemons are constant companions from birth to death. People without them are regarded with horror, much as we might regard someone walking around with only half a head, or fresh burns all over their body.

Fantasy can be gentle or fierce, and the best is often both simultaneously. Lyra herself supplies the gentleness. Contoured by a child's perspective, Pullman's quasi-Victorian Europe looks less daunting, if only because children don't know how terrible the world can really be. Especially children who are protected by thick insulating love, like Lyra is. Our heroine isn't an orphan, but she's raised in a university by scholars and servants who don't know quite what to do with her. Still, they treasure her. She is special to them.

The fierceness doesn't come from standard fantastical monsters like dragons or the living dead. Much like children in our world, Lyra is savaged and threatened by human monsters. Tragically enough, they are sometimes her own parents. They show up at various places in the story, but their only real use for her is to further their own plans. And they don't care how she feels about it.

The central metaphor of the Daemon would seem to imply reverence for the human soul, but could just as easily represent whatever fragile quality in human beings makes us unique or differentiates us from others. That, and other issues, like the alien nature of the polar bear warrior that Lyra grows to love, and the witches that ally with her, make the theme of identity pervasive.

This serves to make the individual characters precious to the reader, even if they are a little four-color at times. It also underscores the brutality of the uses that individuals are put to.

The fact that children's daemon's can change their forms, and adult's daemons can't, presents a curious but obvious distinction between the nature of children and adults that underlies all the varied themes of the books. The juxtapositions of different kinds of personhood, and the threat of a unique part of yourself being stolen, underscore this.

The camps and labs are disturbing, and the monumental effort that goes unrewarded at the end of the book might lead some to believe there is no point in making that effort. But Lyra has seen enough of the world to know that there is no giving up, and I think she is a fine role model for children. She has heart. She cares even when, especially when, caring is inconvenient.

I knew what was going to happen at the end of the book. An inept reviewer let a spoiler into her review, so I was ready. But the ending of the book was still affecting, because I didn't trace the thematic "why" that supported the event until it was right upon me. And the little surprise of a coherent essay coming out of this otherwise straightforward fantasy made the book worthwhile for me.

The Golden Compass is about the unfortunate utility of people. In some ways it offers a frank but uncomfortable explanation for the question your child will ask you late at night - "But why, mummy, why are people so mean?"

People use each other to gratify their needs because people are useful to do that.

It's uncomfortable in places, and might be scary for children, but that simply highlights the fact that it's important to be good to others. The Golden Compass is a wonderful beginning to a broad theme, and I look forward to seeing how Pullman elaborates on it.


This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. It has been edited for clarity.

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