I’m a book rebel: any book with controversy attached deserves a reading. Of course, any bookworm, or any Average Joe, I suppose, knows that the fantasy genre attracts more naysayers and whiners than any other. I’ll never forget reading about teenage exorcists boycotting the Harry Potter series, or how there were people out there who believed this same innocent bunch of children’s adventures was seriously teaching children witchcraft. What some people don’t understand is that Harry Potter, or any other work of fantasy for that matter, is fiction—as in, a good chunk of the plot and character is based on imagined material—it’s not true. Which is why I won’t spend much longer talking about Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it’s known outside of North America) in terms of its controversy, because I think this is a fascinating little book.
In an alternate reality, every human being is accompanied by a physical manifestation of their soul, called a daemon. Lyra Belacqua and her daeman, Pantalaimon, live ordinary lives as wards of Jordan College at Oxford, until the day that Lyra’s rebellious uncle, Lord Asriel, arrives, with a proposition: to journey to the far north, and discover the source of a mysterious elementary particle called “Dust.” Lyra is intrigued, but isn’t pulled into the adventure until she is given an instrument called an alethiometer (the titular golden compass), which, when consulted and read correctly, can tell you the future. Soon after, children around England get kidnapped, including Lyra’s friend Roger. With the help of some mythical new friends, including witches, zeppelin-flying aeronauts, armored bears, and kind nomads, Lyra will journey to the north to not only rescue her friend, but perhaps the world in the process.
Let me be clear: I didn’t pick up this book solely because of its infamously bad movie adaptation, nor for the overarching theme of anti-Catholicism. I saw a wonderful adventure full of magic and mystery and danger, as well as an intriguing parallel. The book opens with a quote from John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which not only sets up the religious parallels in the story, but also paints an instant, epic picture of good versus evil. I’ve never read a book, much less a children’s book, that plays with Catholicism and the Church as here. Lyra’s world isn’t split into monarchies and democracies, but rather is a single theocracy, which seeks to destroy heresy of any kind. At one point, we see that the Bible itself has been rewritten to include daemons. To give Catholicism such a spin was fascinating to read, and was an impressive element of world building, although I can see why some people would be quick to offense. Maybe it’s because I’m relatively chill when it comes to making fun of and/or criticizing religion, but I saw it as merely one part of a story well told—a sort of scrim that is noticeable in the overall telling of the book, but not the most important part.
You see, Lyra’s character arc doesn’t hinge on destroying heresy, but to rescue her friend. She doesn’t learn the fundamentals about Dust or the overall dangers of her theocratic world until the end of the book, and that’s okay. This is a children’s fantasy, after all. Children are going to be engaged by the fantastical creatures, the relatable human characters, and the danger. And what a fantastical world this is. Witches fly on cloud-pine branches in flimsy silken scraps even in bitter cold; armored polar bears live in snow-laden kingdoms; zeppelins and balloons fly through the skies. There is a timeless feel to this world where you cannot tell if it is in the future or the past.
The characters, of course, are finely painted too. Lyra is a wonderful heroine: spunky, kind of vain, but altogether brave. But my favorite is her armored bear companion, Iorek Byrnison. He is an exile from his kingdom, where he has been stripped of his armor (which the armored bears claim is their soul), and left with little honor. Still, he is brave and strong, but mostly loyal, willing to stand by Lyra in her quest. After all, who doesn’t want to ride on a strong, cuddly polar bear in the snowy north (although, if one called Iorek cuddly, he probably wouldn’t take that so well…)?
I have one or two little criticisms, though they’re kind of insignificant to the overall book. It takes a chapter or two to establish what kind of world Lyra lives in, at the risk of wanting to continue reading. But probably more important, I didn’t really know what drew Lyra to abandon her comfortable life at Jordan to go after Roger. Although there are other factors that entice Lyra to take up her destined quest, I would have liked to see a larger connection between her and Roger, so that, when she mentions him, we could understand why exactly he’s so important to her.
I could continue to talk at length about the dastardly villains and individual friends Lyra finds on her quest, but one point I can make is this: The Golden Compass is a modern fantasy classic for a reason. It has flaws, certainly, but the world building and imagination given to this world are still pretty stellar, no pun intended.