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The Golden Compass Trilogy | Book Reviews

Religion is a cornerstone of our lives and for most children it takes shape as they grow up and see how important it is to their parents, or not. It is also such a personal aspect of everyone’s life that commenting on any religion always carries a lot of inherent risk. However, most people agree that the purpose of having a religion is to aspire for better things in life, to look up and forward and do good in the world as you pass through it in this life. Whether there is an afterlife or not, if this life is filled with good deeds and thoughts then whatever comes after has to be equally good….

But, the format or structure of a religion is also product of the time of its conception and it would be only true that some of humanities most barbarous crimes are committed in names of religions. The three conjoined religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity and Islam came out of the deserted lands of Asia and they all share some parts of the book – Bible.

Now, most of you would know the story of Adam and Eve as it is told in the Bible. How they were happy in the garden of Eden, how the serpent tempted Eve to taste the forbidden fruit of knowledge and how the world began in sin. It is this idea that all human lives begin in sin and carry on through it as such, that Phillip Pullman is defying in his ambitious trilogy called “His Dark Materials“. The idea comes from John Milton’s work “Paradise Lost”, where he says:

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.

— Paradise Lost, Book 2, lines 910–920

The trilogy consists of three books: Northern Lights (Published in America as The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. In American continent, it was mostly published as The Golden Compass and also turned into a movie by the same name. The Golden Compass is also once again derived from a reference in Paradise Lost, where God uses his circle drawing instrument to create life and set its boundaries:

Then staid the fervid wheels, and in his hand
He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God’s eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centered, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure

— Paradise Lost, Book 7, lines 224–229

When you are taking on work that aims at redefining something so life encompassing, it obviously needs a very big canvass…and here that canvass is a “Multiverse”, where worlds teeming with intelligent creatures are living and breathing overlapped on one another with no clue about how life is flowing through them. Another very important idea you must get used to is that the human life force is divided amongst three forms here: The body, The demon and The spirit.

To break down the concept and tell the story, Phillip Pullman first introduces us to a girl called Lyra Belacqua living in Jordan college, Oxford, in UK and with her we travel through the first book:

Northern Lights (The Golden Compass)

Book Title : Northern Lights (The Golden Compass)
Author :
Publishers : Scholastic India Published: (1 January 1995)
# of Pages : 420 (Paperback)

In this world, every human has a demon. A demon is the physical manifestation of a part of human spirit. It is tied to every human by an unbreakable bond, it is part of their soul, so to speak. To rest of the world, it appears in form of an animal. Throughout the childhood, the demons can change their shapes, i.e., they can turn from cat to dog to beetle to hawk in a moment. This indicates how each child has so much potential and how much transient a child’s nature is. However, once they reach puberty, their demons settle into one shape for rest of their lives, essentially reflecting their inner nature.

So, when we meet Lyra and Pentaliman (they are inseparable, it is always “we” for them, not I), they are as usual making mischief, hiding in a closet and witnessing an attempt to murder her uncle Lord Asriel. From here, they go on to spy onto a secret meeting and learn about “Dust” – a mysterious entity that has captured the attention of everyone in the scientific community. Lord Asriel is heading the experiments in North (icy North Pole) regarding this. On other hand, in UK, children are being kidnapped and taken away by Gobblers. When Lyra’s friend Roger is taken away, she decides to go and get him back.
Meanwhile, she meets Mrs Coulter, who takes her away from Jordan College to London, with a promise to teach her and take her as her apprentice to her expeditions to the North. Before she leaves, the Master at Jordan College, gives her an instrument – A Golden Compass – to take to her father in the North.

The Golden Compass is an Alethiometer – the Truth meter – and is very rare as it is one of the few ever created. It takes people lifelong study and help of many reference books to use it – but ask it any question and it will give you an answer. And so, Lyra’s journey starts with the Golden Compass.

She goes to live with Mrs. Coulter, but the initial enchantment wear off soon, and when she discovers that she is head of the General Oblation Board or the Gobblers who kidnap children, she runs away from her and finds refuge with The Gyptians on their riverboats. They are travelling North to rescue their children and Lyra travels with them. On the way she befriends witches, especially Seraphina and makes another dearest friend for life with an armoured polar bear of the name Iorek Byrnison. They also have Lee Crossby on their increasing multi-talented team. Lee is an astronaut from Texas and flies a hot air balloon.

The story becomes more and more fantastic as the humans, the witches and the polar bears come together in friendship and in war. We learn that Lyra is the child that witches have prophesied about, she is to go on and perform great things, but she must do it all without the knowledge of the prophesy. She must do it by choice.

Ignorant of the great fate waiting for her, Lyra’s sole aim is to free her friend Roger and in doing so, she frees a lot of other children. Then she travels to Lord Asriel to deliver her Golden Compass, only to discover that she has led her dearest friend into the trap and there is no other door open for her but that through the Aurora, away from her world and into the Unknown. And so she steps forward through the Northern Lights.

The Subtle Knife

Book Title : The Subtle Knife (The Golden Compass)
Author :
Publishers : Scholastic India Published: (28 August 2007)
# of Pages : 348 (Paperback)

And now welcome to Will Perry‘s world. Will is almost Lyra‘s age and he lives in a world that is very similar to ours. Will’s father John Perry was an explorer and went away on a mission before Will was born. He never returned. Will’s mother is schizophrenic and now there are people coming to the house every day in search of his father’s letters.
Will has no option left, but to leave his mother with an old friend and go in search of his father. But when he goes home to retrieve the values letters from his father, he is ambushed by the thugs and ends up murdering one of them by accident. He runs away.

Accidentally, he discovers a window to another world and arrives to Cittagazze, a city that appears entirely unpopulated. While looking for shelter for the night, Will runs into Lyra and Pentalaimon. Slowly, the tow children trust each other and promise to help each other. They find other children in this world, who tell them about the soul-eating spectres. For some reason, the spectres attack only adults.

Lyra goes with Will to his world to meet a Physicist – Mary Malone, who is researching ‘Shadows’ or what they call Dust in Lyra’s world. While the children are trying to make some sense of their lives, they are being watched and a Lord from Lyra’s world steals her alethiometer. In return for the Alethiometer, he wants the Subtle Knife. This mysterious knife was created in Cittagazze 300 years ago and it can cut through anything – wheter metal or subatomic particles, including the barrier between worlds.

In despair, the children return to Cittagazze, and try to find the knife. In the struggle to get the knife, Will ends up losing his two fingers – the mark of the knife bearer. He now has no choice but to go on with the quest. They get the Alethiometer back and journey back to Cittagazze, where they are attacked by the locals, but rescued by the witches. The Alethiometer instructs Lyra to find Will’s father, and so once again fate is working together bringing them all into one place.

Will’s father journeyed through to this world by accident in his explorations, and assumed a name of Stanislaus Grumman when he could not find the way back. He is now a shaman and waiting in the far land of China for Lee Crossby to bring him back to where Lyra and Will are.

On one dark night, Will finally meets him, but before they recognize each other, John is killed. Will comes back to their camp to find that Lyra is kidnapped.

The Amber Spyglass

Book Title : The Amber Spy Glass (The Golden Compass)
Author :
Publishers : Scholastic UK Published: (28 August 2007)
# of Pages : 540 (Paperback)

The war is imminent now and everyone is involved, humans, witches, polar bears, Lord Asriel and his associates from many worlds, the angels and the Clouded Mountain – the home of the Authority (The God or his office). But, it all hinges on those two little children.

Lyra was kidnapped by Mrs Coulter, who also happens to be her mother and is now being kept in a cave in the Himalayas under perpetual sleep. When Will starts his journey from the world of Cittagazze to find her, he is helped by two angels: Balthamos and Baruch. The angels request Will to travel with them to Lord Asriel, as the Subtle Knife is the only weapon that will work in his battle against the Authority.

But, all Will cares about is Lyra, so they split and Balthamos travels with Will while Baruch takes a message to Lord Asriel. On the way, Will meets Iorek Byrnison who is taking his bears to the mountains to try and survive the changes in the worlds that have destroyed their habitat in the North.

Will find Lyra and frees her with help of Balthamos and the Gallivespian spies Chevalier Tialys and Lady Salmakia, who are sent by Lord Asriel. But, while encountering Mrs Coulter, Will breaks the Subtle Knife. Iorek mends the knife but warns Will about its power and intentions.

While they are all expected to join Lord Asriel in the battle, Lyra has different path in mind. She wants to journey to the Land of Dead.

So, if Will and Lyra go to the Land of Dead, will they ever come back? The prophesy of the witches has a name for Lyra, its Eve. She is destined to find the temptation and give into it, but will she live long enough to satisfy the prophesy?

Will Mary be the serpent? Will she every find the link between consciousness, shadows, dust and subatomic intelligence?

Will Lord Asriel success in his mission, which is to create the ‘Republic of Heaven’ instead of the Kingdom of Heaven, where every life is sacred and celebrate rather than condemned in sin?

And after all these characters have made friends across the multiverse, can they live together, or must they return to their own worlds?

Views and Reviews

The series have been critically acclaimed and achieved the third place in most read books in English language in all time. Mr Phillip Pullman has explained to media how he was heavily inspired by the works of William Blake and the third book is filled with quotations at the start of each chapter from the works of William Blake and Emily Dickinson.

The book celebrates the human intelligence and human achievement and rejects the idea that we were all created in Sin and live as such. A human life should be epitome of beauty and love and creativity and celebrated as such.

Even though the publishers classified the book as Young adults and marketed it as such, it is just as delightful and deep reading for adults. Like most magic books, the witches and the magic and the polar bears and truth meter – they are all tools, the aids, but the story is of human resolution and spirit in face of all adversity as embodied in form of the two children – Lyra and Will.

We listened to, rather than read these books, as they are available as excellent audiobooks narrated by the writer Phillip Pullman himself and the supporting cast portraying all other characters.

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