Pullman’s trilogy— The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights in the U.K.), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass —resist categorisation. At first glance, they appear aimed at readers of Young Adult (YA) fantasy adventure stories, a group which has grown tremendously due to the Harry Potter books, although Pullman’s first two books predated this publishing phenomenon. And they can certainly be read that way. But there is much more going on here, and not just the slyly amusing character names that Rowling uses in the Harry Potter books to reward a well-read adult’s attention. No, Pullman draws on particle physics, theology, history, and literature from Milton to Tolkien to examine fundamental questions, not just of good and evil, but free will and predestination, democracy and totalitarianism, innocence and experience.
With a nod to the Narnia books, the story is set in motion when a girl hides in a wardrobe. From her hiding place, Lyra eavesdrops on a meeting of the scholars of Jordan College, the pre-eminent college in Oxford, as the mysterious and powerful Lord Asriel presents his findings from a mission to the Arctic and requests funds for a further mission. What he reveals to the startled scholars is proof of the existence of Dust, a mysterious substance that appears to accumulate on adults but not children, a substance whose properties are unknown and whose very existence is denied by the Magisterium, the organisation that runs this world.
Lyra’s world is similar to ours, but different in ways consistent with a slightly different history, a past where the battle between the Enlightenment and theocratic forces determined to suppress it turned out differently. In the first book, Lyra is presented with a simple quest: to rescue her friend Roger, who has been stolen by the Gobblers and carried into the North. She is pursued by the truly terrifying Mrs. Coulter, but finds comrades to help her: a great white bear, an aeronaut who travels by balloon, and the Gyptians, like Gypsies a nomad tribe living in narrowboats and led by their king, John Faa, a name which tickled me no end, obsessed as I have been with the tune to the ballad Johnny Faa as played by Laura Risk and Jacqueline Schwab (available from Dorian, DOR-90264).
The second book opens in our world, our Oxford, but these are not the only parallel worlds. Young Will, whose name and friend Mrs. Cooper refer to the wonderful Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper, stumbles into the world of Citta’gazze, apparently a crossroads between many worlds. There he meets Lyra and helps her regain her alethiometer, the golden compass of the first book, despite the machinations of Mrs. Coulter. In the third book, the two find and move between multiple worlds, seeking Will’s long-missing father and caught up in the war being waged by Lord Asriel against the Magisterium.
I’ve left out much which is fun about these books: daemons and zeppelins, witches and harpies. What I loved about Lyra in the beginning was what a brat she was: rude and untutored, leading gangs of children in glorious battles in the mudflats or devious pranks against the Gyptians. Manipulative, dishonest, and not particularly bright, she finds that she has an extraordinary talent for working the alethiometer. Unfortunately, Pullman allows this promising start to be overwhelmed by the adventure. As Michael Chabon noted in his essay on the books, the exigencies of plot and theme take precedence over character development, until it begins to feel as though the characters only exist to move the plot forward and illustrate the theme.
My other quibble with the books is that I found Pullman’s anti-church agenda as distracting as C.S. Lewis’s pro-church (or at least pro-Christianity) agenda in the Narnia books. While sympathetic to the preference for imagination and intelligence over obedience and orthodoxy, I thought the portrayal of the Magisterium could have been handled with a bit more subtlety.
However, these are very minor quibbles indeed. I enjoyed these books, gobbling them up in the course of just a few days, and highly recommend them. They sent me back to Paradise Lost, which I hadn’t read for many years, and set me thinking again about those big questions. Can’t ask for more than that.