Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Golden Compass, Pullman

The Golden Compass (USA)/Northern Lights (UK)
Philip Pullman

“There is a curious prophecy about this child: she is destined to bring about the end of destiny. But she must do so without knowing what she is doing, as if it were her nature and not her destiny to do it.”

I’ve been talking like a crazy person lately. Ever since I started reading The Golden Compass, the first in the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman (thanks for the recommendation Turner and Josh!). Apparently, it’s fine to talk about quidditch, or Edward and Jacob or whoever, as though they’re real things, but start talking about Dust and daemons, and people start to look at you funny. Which is not fair, because The Golden Compass is a really good book, and definitely up there with Harry Potter in terms of depth of subject matter, if not description.

I’ll admit I had a little trouble getting into this book at first. I guess it started too “en medias res” for me, too much in the middle of things, because I didn’t know what a daemon was, or what the Retiring Room was, or tokay, or any of it. But soon I figured it out, and my engrossment progressed quickly from there. Like Rowling, Pullman explores ideas that should be of importance to everyone, from a 14 year old to a 49 year old. But he does so in a way that’s more subtle than Rowling’s, and thus open to more ambiguity and complexity. Whereas Rowling uses the figure of Dumbledore to give Harry hints about meanings of everything, all of the adult characters in Pullman’s text are fraught with moral complications; none can be completely trusted. This may be a fight between the forces of good and evil, but what is good and what is evil here is a lot harder to figure out – and that is precisely the dilemma for the rough-and-tumble female heroine, Lyra. While Lyra has to go through serious physical trauma in the novel, the moral dilemmas prove to be more troubling. There is no Dumbledore to tell Lyra that she really must trust the Master of her college, in spite of seeing him try to poison someone – she has to decide all of that on her own.
One can’t really talk about the novel without reference to two things – daemons, and Dust. First, a daemon is kind of like a spirit animal. I don’t know about you but there was a period of time in college when my friends and I liked nothing better than to discuss what our spirit animals might be. For some, it was easy – mine would be a cat, my friend Pfeif’s, a squirrel. For others it was a lot harder; many animals worked and we could imagine it going a lot of ways. A daemon is kind of like a spirit animal, except that it’s an actual animal that goes with you everywhere, speaks, and basically acts as your emotional support for life. It can change its form until you reach  puberty, at which time it takes the shape in which it will remain for the rest of your life. In The Golden Compass every human has a daemon; they are so crucial to being human, in fact, that they are referred to several times (by Lyra, in her own thoughts, it seems worth pointing out) as humans’ ‘souls’. Whether or not a person can remain a person, if separated from his or her daemon, is one of the central questions of the text.

The second major issue involves something referred to as “Dust.” Dust is far more mysterious, in the world of The Golden Compass, than daemons, because it is a new phenomenon. Neither readers nor Lyra really has any idea what it might be until the final third of the book, when its discovery is explained. In a fitting echo of Blake, Pullman has Lord Asriel, a scientist, and Lyra’s father, call Dust “a physical proof that something happen[s] when innocence change[s] into experience.” Asriel compares Dust to “original sin,” or “greed,” and yet it’s still not really clear what it is. It’s a physical substance that can only be seen through a scientific process, but which makes it possible to see into other worlds. Lord Asriel wants to use it to build a bridge through the Northern Lights to the alternate universe he can see on the other side. Whether this is a good idea – whether or not the price of knowledge is too high – is a question we continue to ask ourselves, and which continues to harbor grave and exciting consequences to this day. Questioning the meaning of life via the effects and benefits of science, i.e. human’s changes to the “natural” order of things - it doesn’t get much deeper than that.

What I loved about this book was the way the author used physical (albeit magical or fantastical) objects –daemons, Dust – to talk about metaphysical questions – is this the only world that exists? What is a soul? And more. One thing I did not love, though, was the times when Pullman seemed to get a teensy bit lazy in his imaginings. If he took the trouble to come up with something as cool as panserbjørne, or armored bears, it seems like he could come up with something better than simply switching “gypsies” to “gyptians.” “Svalbard” is a real place in the North, but “Bolvanger” is made up. WHY, Philip Pullman? Why?

Other than that, though, great book. I’ll definitely be picking up the next one.

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