This is probably my fourth reading of The Golden Compass and this time I read it aloud to my nine year old daughter over the course of several months at bedtime. She’s already read The Chronicles of Narnia, started the Prydain Chronicles, and is three volumes into Harry Potter so now seemed like a good time to introduce her to the His Dark Materials trilogy. I love introducing books to my daughter and watching her devour them the way I have. Reading this book aloud make me wish I was better at British accents as often colloquial phrases didn’t sound right out loud, opposed to the way I “hear” them in my head.
The Golden Compass is a fantastic adventure story with a classic hero journey. Young Lyra Belacqua is our hero, a wild child growing up admist the grandeur of Jordan College. Lyra is headstrong, intelligent, and fiercely loyal. These qualities serve her well, if occasionally landing her in trouble. When children start disappearing, her inquisitive nature and sense of justice lead her on the path to danger and adventure. Together with her daemon Pantalaimon she refuses to accept the world the way it is, and when adults let her down, takes matters into her own hands. There is much to admire in Lyra and she is one reason I wanted my daughter to read this book.
As expected, my daughter loved the concept of daemons. To a child who loves animals, the idea of having a magic animal companion that is a part of you and bonded with you for your whole life, especially one that changes shape, was particularly appealing. I’ve always thought the daemons were a clever idea and neat way of giving the reader more information. What you learn about characters is often revealed through their daemons.
She was enthralled with the armored bear Iorek Byrnison and the idea that the bears’ armor is their soul. The bears serve as a sharp contrast to the humans. These aren’t just anthropomorphized bears for the sake of having talking bears in the world. Compared to the actions of some humans doing despicable things to no good purpose that Lyra can see, Iorek’s ferocity is understandable and the relationship between Lyra and Iorek is touching.
Perhaps Philip Pullman’s greatest creation in the writing of this book is the golden compass itself, the alethiometer. My daughter first compared it to a magic 8 ball, it reminds me of casting divination magic in role playing games, add those together with the symbology of tarot reading and you have something close to what the alethiometer does. A fascinating device that can give you amazing information if you only know how to ask the question and interpret the answer.
It has probably been close to ten years since my last reading and while I knew the series gets more and more religious as the books go on, I forgot about the religious concepts discussed in the first book, specifically “original sin”. While raised in religious households, my husband and I are not religious ourselves and our daughters only attend church occasionally when their grandmother is visiting. Having attended a religious preschool and some church, our daughters have a very basic religious background. Reading The Golden Compass led to the interesting conversation explaining the concept of original sin. My daughter is not a fan of the idea, believing her personal actions here and now are much more important than what someone else did before she was born. This sort of discussion will probably be happening more as she progresses through the series and the religion gets heavier.
Instead of jumping right away into The Subtle Knife, book two in the series, we are taking a break and headed back to Prydain. I tagged this book as both childrens and YA. I’m not entirely sure where to put it. For some kids this book could be too heavy and thematically complex. This is part of the book’s beauty as it is just as gripping for adults as it is for children and I recommend it for all ages of reader. It also means the potential for getting more out of it when re-reading later in life and that is the best type of book, imho. Having only ever read this book as an adult, and this being the fourth time, I did not get much out of this particular re-read, besides the joy of introducing my daughter to Lyra’s world but that is more than enough.