The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Vol. I)
By Philip Pullman
(I am keeping it short because I've got house guests this week and don't want to appear as antisocial as I actually am. This blog post is intentionally incomplete in anticipation of the second and third in the series, in which I will flesh out some of the ideas I'm vomited onto this post).
So what is becoming of me? The self-professed fantasy hater goes right ahead and loves yet another fantasy novel? Oh noes!
For those (like me) who have either lived under or on a rock for past couple of decades, The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, depending on where you live) is the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. It is a series that has been pressed on me for a few years now and the weight of the recommendations finally crushed my will to resist. I'm glad I caved.
The novel follows the adventures of Lyra, a semi-feral child living on the Oxford campus in some sort of alternate reality version of Earth where everything is distinctly recognizable but fundamentally different in every way. The Christian Church, for example exists, but there doesn't seem to have been a schism and they are infinitely powerful. Lyra, like every other human on the planet has a daemon that is psychologically attached to her being. The daemon exists in the form of a shape-shifting animal for children until it settles into a single animal form when a child reaches puberty. Lyra's father, Asriel, is some sort of strange cross between a scientist and wizard who works with (or against) the Church in trying to uncover the secret behind some sort of mystical matter that falls from the sky, known as Dust. It may or may not have something to do with the aurora borealis. Oh, and there are baddies trying to severe daemons from children (causing them to die) and armored polar bears and some really interesting global politics that involve Tartars, witches and a powerful kingdom on the island of Svalbard.
OK, when I put it like that, it doesn't sound nearly as cool as it really is but if you haven't read the series you'll have to trust me that the above elements come together in a coherent and decidedly awesome way.
What struck me was how dark The Golden Compass is. I'm guessing that it was intended for younger readers but the themes are so philosophically heavy. In setting up the novel, Pullman makes the Christian theology far more tangible. The daemon is a physical representation of the soul. Dust is some sort of physical representation of God or the holy spirit or something infinite. It seems to be the catalyst for the infinite multiverse that Pullman concocts (and here, His Dark Materials reminded me somewhat of Diane Wynne Jones's novel The Homeward Bounders).
Medieval theologians obsessed over whether a human soul had mass. Hundreds of experiments were carried out in dimly lit 12th century churches whereby theologians and physicians tried to measure the weight of a man immediately before and immediately after death to determine the differential, which would, logically, be the soul. They failed. Every time. Had they succeeded and proven that there was corporeal evidence for the existence of the soul (and therefore the existence of the Christian God), history would have taken a far different path, I'm sure. Pullman supposes that something to that effect indeed happened sometime in the past. By making the intangible elements of Christianity absolutely tangible, Pullman is free to express their absolute purpose and experiment with what it would mean to alter the fundamental laws of his version of the Christian Church. Is God a omnipotent and omnipresent entity that is full of love for His creation, or is He a manifestation of some non-sentient but all-pervasive matter? Such ideas give the novel a decidedly anti-Christian bias (which I will certainly discuss as I make my way through the series but not yet as I don't feel like I've got a handle on Pullman's ideas just yet) but the fantasy elements mask the full effect. All this brings me to the best part of this novel.
Unlike so many young adult novels (and a good many adult novels) this book not only encourages a significant amount of critical thinking on the part of the reader, it practically necessitates it. While other fantasy novels that involve children as protagonists (and here I'm thinking specifically of Harry Potter, but most others apply) place them solidly within socially acceptable parameters i.e. they attend school, behave in a manner that is considered appropriate for their age and social status, Lyra is semi-feral, patchily educated (there is no mention of any sort of education system in Pullman's world) and unpredictable. The children in the series either run around in gangs and fight wars or else they have a job. In that sense The Golden Compass seems to break the mold in terms of how children are written into modern young adult fiction. Pullman does not coddle Lyra and doesn't ask the reader to feel any sympathy for her either. In fact, while Lyra and her daemon were indeed the central characters in the novel, I never found that I developed any significant feelings for or against them throughout. The story drove this novel rather than the characters, and that was fine. The story had the strength to endure the weak character study.
Anyway, I'm going to save the meat and potatoes of these talking points for books two and three and get back to attending to my houseguest, wife and daughter. But before I wrap up this admittedly inchoate blog post I'd like to make a formal statement:
I like fantasy.
There. I admit it. Never again will you see me write about how much I hate the genre. I've read far too much good fantasy over the past three years to say that with a straight face any longer.