Favorites February: The Golden Compass

Hello everybody, and welcome to the THIRD annual Favorites February! Huzzah!

What is Favorites February? I’m so glad you asked! Each winter I take a beloved book or series, give it a good re-read, and blog about my thoughts. This is one of my favorite bits on my blog each year, partly because it’s a good excuse to re-read several books, and partly because the posts are really fun to write.

The year I was inspired by the recent HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials to re-read the book series by Phillip Pullman. The adaptation was good, much better than the 2007 film, but it didn’t *quite* capture the tone of the books, for me. I feel like modern interpretations of this series tend to focus on the anti-religious themes, and forget that it was a book intended for children. So the series had me itching to have a go at the books again. So, here we are with book 1, The Golden Compass.


Here lives an orphaned ward named Lyra Belacqua, whose carefree life among the scholars at Oxford’s Jordan College is shattered by the arrival of two powerful visitors. First, her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, appears with evidence of mystery and danger in the far North, including photographs of a mysterious celestial phenomenon called Dust and the dim outline of a city suspended in the Aurora Borealis that he suspects is part of an alternate universe. He leaves Lyra in the care of Mrs. Coulter, an enigmatic scholar and explorer who offers to give Lyra the attention her uncle has long refused her. In this multilayered narrative, however, nothing is as it seems. Lyra sets out for the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate, Roger, bearing a rare truth-telling instrument, the compass of the title.

Why I Love this Book

  • I love the almost-Earth fantasy setting, and it was the first book like this I read.
  • Daemons! I want one!!!!!!
  • The tone of this book is so light and fun, without feeling fluffy or overly childish. Combined with the quick (but not lightning-fast) pacing, Pullman really nailed the middle-grade/YA fantasy.
  • All of the supporting characters are so cool! I especially love Lee Scoresby and Serefina Pekkela, though they play such small roles.
  • The Alethiometer is such a cool concept, and I love reading about Lyra discovering it.
  • The mystery of Dust throughout.
  • At the end, when Lyra says (and I’m paraphrasing) “If all the adults think it’s bad, it MUST be good!” YES!!

World Spotlight: Lyra’s Oxford

For those of you new to The Golden Compass, it’s loosely based on the multiple-universes theory. Basically, imagine you come to a cross-roads and have two choices: turn left, or turn right. In this universe you choose one, but a different you in a different universe chooses the other. And you make billions of decisions in your life, and from each of these off-chutes a parallel universe. There are countless of worlds out there! As the series goes on this theory becomes more prevalent and more worlds are featured, but this first book takes place in one world. Lyra’s world.

Similarities to our world:

  • Humans.
  • Basic geography. Europe, America, Africa, and so on.
  • Most of the animals seems to be similar. Dogs, cats, seagulls.
  • The Catholic Church formed, and based on what little doctrine we learn about it seems to have the same faith, text, and doctrine.
  • People do terrible things to each other.

Differences to our world:

  • Humans have a physical manifestation of their soul in the form of a daemon.
  • Geography is not exactly the same, and countries aren’t all in the same places or having the same alliances.
  • Allusions are made to a great flood in the past, and there seems to be more water throughout the country of Britain, allowing for a more boat-based society.
  • Technology didn’t progress to where it is for us, and they seem to be living with (mostly) 19th century tech. Plus zeppelins…
  • The church is running the show in Europe (much the way it did in the 1500s), but the Pope is gone and has been replaced by a committee of some sort. There are not kings or presidents, but instead a political entity called The Magisterium, which is closely aligned with the church, runs the show in Europe.
  • Witches. Armored polar bears. Cliff ghasts.
  • This world has found a way to interact with Dust, which (as the series goes on) appears to be the physical manifestation of God, or fate, or “the universe,” or whatever you want to call it.

Lyra’s Oxford is, hands down, my favorite world explored in this series, and one of the main reasons I fell in love with His Dark Materials. It’s such a cool, unique world, and I love how nearly like our own it is!

Discussion Questions

Questions taken from HERE (and I think they got it from somewhere else originally). Please feel free to play along in the comments! It’s a DISCUSSION, lol.

1. Which aspects of Lyra’s character did you warm to, and which didn’t you like? Why?

I think this is a great questions because *whispers* I don’t actually like Lyra that much. I know! I know! She’s bossy, she lies CONSTANTLY, and she makes herself more important that she aught to be. But as you read, you can’t help become fond of Lyra. I think it’s because even though she lies a lot to the other characters, her relationship with her daemon, Pan, and therefore the reader, is so honest. She has faults, many of them, which she openly admits to and then overcomes. I think her innocence is also endearing, and ends up being critical in books to come.

2. What do you think motivates Mrs Coulter? Why does she have such a powerful effect on everybody around her? What does her dæmon reveal about her character?

Mrs. Coulter remains a mystery to me. She’s a classic Slytherin, driven purely by her own ambition for power. Unable to achieve it through rank, she does so through academia and politics. But why is everyone so hypnotized by her? Children and adults alike hold her in thrall, and it’s still not clear to me why. Is it her beauty? Her ability to say just the right thing? Her sickly-sweet nature? She reminds me a lot of Umbridge, honestly.

I think the question-asker has found the key in the Golden Monkey. Everyone’s daemon says a lot about them, and the monkey is no exception. He is beautiful and gentle, but capable of great brutality and anger. His fingers are agile, yet strong. His face seems so innocent, until he bares his teeth. So, too, is Mrs. Coulter.

3. How did you feel about the way the Church was presented in [The Golden Compass]?

So there’s this big thing about how His Dark Materials is anti-religion and anti-God. Pullman is an outspoken atheist, and evidently wrote this series to be the antithesis to The Chronicles of Narnia. But for all that, this book (and the others in the series) don’t read as if Pullman knows all that much about the church. There is throughout a fundamental distaste for organized religion, and for the atrocities the church has committed in the past. But Pullman’s interpretation of the church is shallow, and actual faith and God are never actually addressed. Doctrine is limited to original sin, and Jesus is not mentioned once. I think it’s impossible to read this series without noticing Pullman’s feelings on the matter, but I don’t actually think they are particularly important to the overall story or message.

4. In what ways does Lyra move from innocence to experience during Northern Lights? How does her view of herself change?

Lyra does a lot of growing up in this book, but it doesn’t happen at all once, and you might not notice that much on a first read. One obvious difference is the nature of her “battles”. She starts out fighting with snow, mud, and water with the other children at Jordan College, and ends with an epic battle between machine guns and armored bears. She sees a lot of terrible things, which makes her fear of the scholars early in the book seem silly.

Another key moment was in the last few chapters as she and her best friend Roger get a bath. Pullman notes that Lyra insists on waiting outside the door as Roger takes his bath, though they had played naked together in the river plenty of times. This was different, Lyra said. The relationship between girls and boys is a big part of growing up in this trilogy, and this is a key moment in moving Lyra forward toward her daemon settling.

One thought on “Favorites February: The Golden Compass

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