Exploring symbolism in The Golden Compass

This month, we’re reading Philip Pullman’s YA fantasy novel The Golden Compass, the first in a series that’s known for being as popular among adults as it is for younger readers. It’s also been made into a movie and, recently, a stellar HBO show!

Today, let’s look at symbolism in the book. Since it’s still early in the month, we won’t be diving into spoiler territory just yet — let’s just explore what symbolism is using the actual golden compass as an example, which can help young readers new to symbolism understand what it’s all about too!

In The Golden Compass, Lyra uses a mysterious device called an alethiometer to decipher truths. It’s like a compass — but instead of pointing north, it points to truth itself.

Many people in the world of The Golden Compass believe that reading the alethiometer is a lost art, but Lyra has a rare ability to understand what it means when its needles point to specific images, set in a wheel around the edge of the compass. First, she asks a question by manually pointing the needles to three symbols, which she believes best represent what she’s asking. Next, the needles move on their own, pointing to images that answer her question.

The alethiometer is a perfect — and quite physical — example of symbolism and how it works! At first glance, the alethiometer is just a strange compass with needles and images around the edges. If you were to hold it in your hands and stare at the images, you wouldn’t be able to understand the truth it’s trying to tell you.

What would it mean if the needle pointed to a snake, a baby, and a sword, for example? If those are just images to you, then all you’re seeing is an object with pretty pictures on it.

Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities.

The only way to discern meaning from these images is to recognize that they are symbols, which means they represent ideas.

Now that we know these images are symbols, we can figure out what they represent. This is what Lyra does when she reads the alethiometer! For instance, the snake may represent deception; the baby might indicate innocence or rebirth; and the sword could be a battle or argument. If Lyra was asking what might happen to her friends, these symbols could mean that her friends will be tricked due to their innocence, and a fight might ensue.

This is just one possible interpretation of what these symbols mean — and that’s the fun part of symbolism! Sometimes meanings are open to debate, so you can draw your own conclusions. The trick is making sure that your ideas about what symbols represent are based on prior knowledge or facts you find elsewhere. For instance, you wouldn’t argue that a sword represents love just because you want it to; you would need to think about ideas related to swords, such as war, to come up with an idea that makes sense for that object.

“It lay heavily in her hands, the crystal face gleaming, the golden body exquisitely machined. It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with extraordinary precision, as if on ivory with the finest and slenderest sable brush. She turned the dial around to look at them all. There was an anchor; an hourglass surmounted by a skull; a chameleon, a bull, a beehive… Thirty-six altogether, and she couldn’t even guess what they meant.”

— from The Golden Compass

The alethiometer contains a total of 36 symbols. What would you say each one might represent?

  • Hourglass
  • Sun
  • Alpha and omega
  • Marionette
  • Serpent
  • Cauldron
  • Anchor
  • Angel
  • Helmet
  • Beehive
  • Moon
  • Madonna
  • Apple
  • Bird
  • Bread
  • Ant
  • Bull
  • Candle
  • Cornucopia
  • Chameleon
  • Thunderbolt
  • Dolphin
  • Walled Garden
  • Globe
  • Sword
  • Griffin
  • Horse
  • Camel
  • Elephant
  • Crocodile
  • Baby
  • Compass
  • Lute
  • Tree
  • Wild Man
  • Owl

Resource for Teachers

I’ve created a full lesson plan about symbolism in The Golden Compass to help students understanding and identify symbolism in the book. Through simple explanations and discussion/writing prompts, it encourages students to think critically about what things like dust, daemons, and the alethiometer symbolize. You can get the full lesson on Teachers Pay Teachers!

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