Prior to getting to Phillip Pullman‘s wonderful book, allow me to lay some ground rules. As this is the first of many book reviews, I thought it would be a good idea to clarify what I want to do here.
First and foremost, I’d like to present the book in its purest form; story for the story’s sake. I will refrain from interjecting any interpretation.
Second, I plan to explore the author’s background and their motives for writing what they did. Of course, one can never know exactly what an author planned, because many times, they do not know. Unless, of course, they say or write something that says, “I wrote this with an aim to…”.
Writing is an art form. A form that requires participation from both the writer and reader. Therefore, any interpretation of mine on the author’s part is entirely my opinion and pure conjecture.
Third and lastly, I will explore my reaction, as an atheist, to the text.
Book Review: The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman
Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wilde Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage; for no narrow frith
He had to cross.
— John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 910–92
The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights everywhere else in the world) is a story about a girl named Lyra Belacqua that earns the name Silvertongue.
Lyra’s story begins at Oxford’s Jordon College where she inadvertently witnesses what she thinks is a crime against her uncle, but turns out to be so much more. She is soon wading in the depths of a world-spanning mystery to help save kidnapped children, her estranged father, and ultimately the universe (in the next two books, I imagine).
Lyra’s world is familiar to ours, or rather, 19th century England, but fundamentally different. One of the most striking differences are dæmons. Dæmons are soul-like creatures. Every human has one, except those that have had their dæmons wretched from them. And that’s exactly why Lyra must save the kidnapped children. Because someone, someone unimaginably close to Lyra, is cutting children’s souls apart. On her journey to save those children, Lyra encounters natural wonders (the northern lights), witches, bears, and a betrayal so deep, it sends her to another world.
The story is told primarily from Lyra’s point of view. Through talks between herself and her dæmon, we learn to love and respect this spunky, intelligent girl as she discovers a world full of sin and politics. I recommend this book to every child who loves adventure, no matter their age. I wholeheartedly give this book five HUGE stars.
Phillip Pullman is a writer who happens to be a humanist. He has written over 20 books, primarily for children, though his works are enjoyed by all ages. His Dark Material trilogy, including The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, were printed in 1995, 1997, and 2000 (respectively).
Born in Norwich, he grew up in England, Zimbabwe, and Australia. He earned his teaching credentials at Exeter College, Oxford. He is an outspoken atheist. One of his latest book, titled The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate U.S.; 1 edition, May 4, 2010), re-tells the life of Jesus Christ with an interesting twist – they’re twin brothers.
This book is spectacularly written and crafted. Mr. Pullman is a master of imagery, easily evoking life at university, river bogs, London, palaces, sea travel, and a snow bound realm filled with an amazing race of bears and other dark creatures. Through all this, he expertly weaves Lyra’s story as she travels with the gyptians, her friend Iorek Byrnison, and then ultimately with only her dæmon. Mr. Pullman also delves head-first into some major topics: religion influencing politics, religion influencing free thinking, free will, choice, destiny, intentions, original sin, and the existence of a god itself.
But…but it en’t true, is it? Not true like chemistry or engineering, not that kind of true? There wasn’t really an Adam and Eve?”
Though Mr. Pullman takes pains on his own website and in interviews to downplay the power of this words, ultimately his prose and the ideas he explores and the conclusions his characters make, and, most importantly, the way the author chooses good over evil, it’s hard not to conclude that his books have a decidedly anti-religious and even an anti-god sentiment.
How refreshing to find in a children’s book! I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to read young Lyra utter the words quoted above. My. Pullman focuses the story on the human relationships, and how they are wrong or right; whether they are built upon fear and greed, or love and respect, and how those relationships shape the lives of his characters and ultimately the fate of the world. He leaves nothing to an old and dusty god.
I plan to read the entire trilogy, and will post my review of the entire set sometime in the future. Up next: Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth.
- Philip Pullman awarded for services to Humanism (humanism.org.uk)