Deep Dive: The Golden Compass

Now that our very first month of the Reading is Magic Book Club is a wrap, let’s discuss what we thought of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman!

After watching the 2007 adaptation of The Golden Compass, I’ll admit I wasn’t impressed by the movie’s quality — but I was intrigued about the story. It’s based on the first book in a series of young adult fantasy novels by Philip Pullman, known as His Dark Materials. Featuring a rebellious orphan named Lyra, it whisks you away to an icy world of mystical scientific research and bears who wear armor. Most interesting is how every human in this world has an animal companion, called a daemon, who represents their soul.

It took me a quite a few years — over a decade, in fact! — but when HBO decided to adapt His Dark Materials into a brand new TV show, I got sucked in. It helped that my husband loves the novels. If we were going to watch the show together, I had to start reading the books that inspired it. That’s why I was so excited when The Golden Compass was voted as our very first book of the month for the Reading is Magic Book Club!

Now that I’ve finished the novel, I feel just as interested in the world-building as I did watched the movie so long ago. The characters are intriguing and the story sufficiently mysterious to keep me reading. What I’m not so sure about is the writing style.

*SPOILER WARNING!*

Here are a few of my thoughts on the book, with a little of the TV and movie mixed in for comparison! I’d love to hear what everybody else thought of this book and the adaptations, too. 🙂

Daemons as Souls

The idea that everyone has a daemon, which takes an animal form, is the hook of His Dark Materials. It’s perhaps the most interesting facet of the world Pullman has built, and it has everyone reading (or watching) trying to guess what form their daemon would take!

In the book, it’s always interesting to see how a person’s daemon acts, for it offers so much insight into the person’s character. Lord Asriel’s daemon is a snow leopard, which perfectly represents his stoic self-reliance. John Faa, the strong and mysterious leader of the gyptians, has a crow for his daemon; meanwhile, the much more down-to-earth Farder Coram has an orange cat. As for primates, there’s always something a little off-putting about them — rambunctious, sometimes fearsome, and strangely humanlike — which makes Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey a perfect fit for her deceptive nature.

Children’s daemons can change forms at will, which adds a sense of fun and mischief to everything they do. Protagonist Lyra Belacqua’s daemon Pantalaimon (or Pan for short) often takes the form of an ermine, but throughout The Golden Compass he also transforms into a moth, an eagle, a wildcat, a dolphin, and a mouse, among other creatures! This ability to change form is a metaphor for how children don’t really know themselves yet. Once they hit puberty, their daemons settle on a single animal, indicating that they have figured themselves out.

Pan talking in HBO's His Dark Materials
Pantalaimon in HBO’s His Dark Materials (2019)

I also love the way daemons are almost like friends to their humans — yet they also go beyond that, as the connection is so strong it can actually be physical. This is partly why Lyra doesn’t want Pan to settle on a single form. She enjoys experiencing the world through him as he transforms into different creatures; there’s a brilliant example of Pan becoming a dolphin and Lyra feeling his intense pleasure as he speeds through the water.

But as a sailor explains to her, having your daemon settle has its rewards, too. “Take old Belisaria,” he says, referring to his own daemon. “She’s a seagull, and that means I’m a kind of seagull too. I’m not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I’m a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That’s worth knowing.”

In any case, daemons can’t stray too far from their humans, or vice versa. The book describes how children test their link with their daemons, pulling away from them as far as they can before bouncing back together in relief. Becoming too distanced from your daemon is “a strange tormenting feeling… part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love.”

This is why there’s such a sense of foreboding when Lyra notices that Mrs. Coulter’s daemon can show up very far away from her. It’s a metaphor for how Mrs. Coulter is able to distance herself from her soul — that there’s something not quite human about her, if our souls are what make us human. But just who is Mrs. Coulter?

Lyra’s Tense Relationship with Mrs. Coulter

One of the most intense relationships in the story is between Lyra and Marisa Coulter, the woman who takes Lyra in as her assistant for a short while. After a lifetime running across the rooftops of Jordan College and getting into trouble with her best friend Roger, moving in with Mrs. Coulter offers Lyra insight into a whole new side of life: womanhood. As Mrs. Coulter shares stories with Lyra on their journey from Jordan College to London, Lyra’s eyes are opened for the first time:

“What Mrs. Coulter was saying seemed to be accompanied by a scent of grownupness, something disturbing but enticing at the same time: it was the smell of glamour.”

Lyra is in awe of Mrs. Coulter’s feminine beauty, the way she dresses, and her elegant apartment. Yet Mrs. Coulter is not a traditional woman by any means; Lyra particularly admires how Mrs. Coulter is the only woman around who dines with scholars, based on her own achievements. Lyra is enraptured by Mrs. Coulter’s accounts of her trips to the North; and for much of Lyra’s stay, she’s preparing for a new journey there. Since Lyra’s uncle Asriel, whom she clearly adores, conducts research in the North, Lyra’s dream is to one day travel there herself. Mrs. Coulter provides a peek into what a life of adventure could be like there.

Mrs. Coulter in HBO's His Dark Materials
Ruth Wilson as Marisa Coulter in HBO’s His Dark Materials (2019)

Still, the relationship between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter always feels odd. Mrs. Coulter takes an instant interest in Lyra, as if she had her sights set on her from afar. Later, we learn that was exactly the case: Lyra is Mrs. Coulter’s daughter. But even before Lyra learns this, she sees another side to this woman she both admires and comes to fear.

Mrs. Coulter puts on a smiling face in her early days with Lyra, but her daemon, a golden monkey, sometimes gives away her underlying emotions. For instance, when Lyra expresses her interest in Dust — and what she already knows about it — Mrs. Coulter doesn’t seem to react much; but under the table, her daemon’s hair stands on end. As Lyra’s daemon recounts to her afterwards:

“You know when all the fur stood up on her daemon? Well, I was behind him, and she grabbed his fur so tight her knuckles went white… I thought he was going to leap at you.”

The facade of their friendly relationship starts to unravel at the seams later, when Mrs. Coulter unleashes her daemon to attack Pan. It seems to be an expression of anger as much as a warning to Lyra to keep herself in check. And it’s horrific. To see a woman who holds herself with such poise in public completely lose it in private — trying to control Lyra by instilling fear in her through physical pain — is terrifying.

Lyra runs away, later learning that Mrs. Coulter is her mother. And though she can never quite trust Mrs. Coulter again, they continue to share a strange bond. After all, it’s clear that Mrs. Coulter cares for her as her daughter. It’s why she saved Lyra from Jordan College, so she wouldn’t get snatched up by Gobblers like the other children in town. And it’s why, late in the book, she rescues Lyra from intercision, the process of cutting daemons away from their humans. It’s a process Mrs. Coulter has instigated and oversees, sacrificing other children for her research — yet she refuses to let her own daughter suffer for it.

Lyra in The Golden Compass movie
Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Belacqua in The Golden Compass film (2007)

With regards to the adaptations, I believe the movie presents a more polished version of their relationship, while the HBO show features a very raw depiction of the characters. I have to say that I loved Dakota Blue Richards in the role of Lyra in the 2007 film; meanwhile, Nicole Kidman was suitably elegant and controlled as Mrs. Coulter. In the HBO show, Ruth Wilson plays a much more emotionally intense version of Mrs. Coulter, which I really enjoyed; Dafne Keen, as Lyra, matches her in screams in a way that makes their performances perfect together. While I pictured Lyra’s personality in the book as more similar to Richards’ portrayal of her, overall I thought the HBO show was a darker look at these characters, which I liked better in the end.

Writing Style

As much as I enjoyed the characters in this book, the incredible world-building, and the overall story exploring Dust, I wasn’t sure about the prose itself. Two things stood out to me here: 1.) the dialogue is often written in dialect, which is something I usually love in books, and 2.) the prose feels about 100 years old (or older). Although The Golden Compass was just published in 1995, it feels like something that was written in J.R.R. Tolkein’s time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you enjoy classics, but I found the writing style to be stiff and overdone at times.

Iorek in HBO's His Dark Materials
Iorek Byrnison in HBO’s His Dark Materials (2019)

The same is true of the dialogue. A part of me appreciated hearing Lyra’s accent when she spoke; I enjoyed the cadence of each character, too. For example, the free-spirited Lee Scoresby speaks in a much different tone than the reserved John Faa or the majestic armored bear Iorek Byrnison.

Lyra in HBO's His Dark Materials
Dafne Keene as Lyra in HBO’s His Dark Materials (2019)

Yet there were also times when I wondered why I was reading a dialect. It didn’t always feel necessary. For example, I know the different accents of the United Kingdom, and so I probably could have guessed at how different characters sounded with just a few apostrophes thrown in to hint at the effect.

Overall, The Golden Compass reads like a much older novel than it is. While the storytelling made it worthwhile for me, I could see some young adult readers finding the wording too challenging or cumbersome to get through — it will just depend on the reader!

What did you think of The Golden Compass? Did you see the HBO show or the movie, and did you like them at all?

More about The Golden Compass

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