Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Golden Compass

In anticipation of the movie, “The Golden Compass” which will be showing in theatres this December ( can't wait!), I dusted off my old critique of the three books that make up Philip Pullman’s incredible “His Dark Materials” Trilogy, of which “The Golden Compass” is just the first. The three books include: “The Golden Compass”; “The Subtle Knife”; and “The Amber Spyglass”.

For people wishing an alternative – for whatever reason – to the insanely popular “Harry Potter” fantasies (to which Philip Pullman’s trilogy has been compared), Pullman’s tale offers a bracing change. Here’s why: even though it has very obvious fantasy elements such as magic and witches and talking bears, it doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a fantasy because it draws upon scientific knowledge and theory, which pushes it into SF. However, like other good fantasy, Pullman’s tale is also strongly interwoven in myth. Milton’s “Paradise Lost” forms the basis of Pullman’s overarching theme, woven by a rich fabric of setting and characters, each journeying toward their own sense of purpose and final destiny on this world. This is a book of great scope, unfolding, aptly, through the eyes of a child.

Wrongly (I think) categorized by many as just a YA (young adult) fantasy, this SF-fantasy slipstream should appeal to readers of all ages. It is, after all, a multi-layered tale of universal scope. Pullman, himself, de-emphasizes the fantasy elements of his tale, calling it “stark realism” because these elements (such as daemons) are used to embody phycological truths about human personality. Say’s Pullman, “I am trying to write a book about what it means to be human.” The coming-of-age of an intrepid girl and boy serves as an elegant metaphor to explore the story of everyman’s journey toward enlightenment and whose every step comes with it a price. It brings to mind a quote by Victor Frankl: “What is to give light must endure burning.” If you haven’t read the books, with the intention of watching the movie first, I should warn you that this critique contains what’s commonly referred to as “spoilers” (though they're small and insignificant, I think), so you may want to stop here and wait until the movie comes out. For the rest of you, read on...

Jordon College in Oxford is not an ordinary place for a girl; but then Lyra Belacqua is no ordinary girl, she can hear the hushed messages of truth uttered to her by the strange particles that animate her golden compass. Abandoned to the care of old scholars who know nothing about children, the little scamp runs wild through the streets of the university town, seeking adventure and not quite recognizing her yearning for “home” and love. She finds it – or it finds her – in the most unlikely place when she blunders into a vortex of danger, love, betrayal and intrigue. And it all begins with dust. Again, not just ordinary dust, but “magical” dust. Dust that provides a gateway to thousands of other worlds. . . .

As our intrepid heroine journeys through a rich tapestry of worlds, she meets and recruits the services of an amazing variety of strange creatures in her quest to uncover more of the mystery of dust and the shattering truth of its role in her own destiny. Lyra journeys first to the far reaches of the north, where strange experiments are being conducted and where she meets the formidable armored bears. As she continues on to a mysterious tropical land, Lyra meets Wil, a young boy looking for his lost father, and together they flee the soul-eating Spectors who stalk the streets. Neither is aware that their destinies lie on a collision course with the otherworldly struggle of good and evil and that their innocence will only be one of the casualties.

Pullman spins imaginative and metaphorical worlds both familiar yet unfamiliar – giving us a strange but titillating sense of déjà vu. This is surely what phasing into another universe may well feel like. Pullman pulls off (pardon the pun) what few fantasy writers are capable of doing: he marries arcane SF with the lyrical elements of fantasy – the epic adventure of good vs. evil. He does this by using scientific facts and logical premises and weaves his heroic tale around them. For instance, the idea of parallel universes is not only old but very much in vogue with physicists these days. Check out the May 2003 issue of Scientific American for a good summary on this topic. While Pullman borrows His Dark Materials title from Milton, he also takes the concept of dark matter from real science. Dark matter is some form of matter theorized to exist that cannot be observed by radio, infrared, optical, ultraviolet, x-ray or gamma-ray telescopes and is theorized to be MACHOS, WIMPS, or GAS (see for more info on this incredible particle).

I suppose I was spell-bound by Pullman’s imaginative worlds, his sensuous descriptions and his creatively bold use of scientific concepts but it was his complex and passionate characters who captured and still live in my heart. His main character, Lyra, has learned to spin the tallest tales to get by yet she possesses the most sincere and brave heart, and her interactions with her daemen (an alter-ego, part of her soul embodied in an animal bonded with her) are touching and humorous. It is her paradoxical combination of traits that makes her both charming and sweet: she is brave yet vulnerable; enveigling yet genuine; innocent yet crafty; naïve yet wise. She personifies the child in all of us, the child who must grow up and lose something to gain something else. So we laugh with her and we cry for her.

The ending of the third book, which is bitter-sweet but provides excellent closure, leaves the reader – as all good fiction should – fulfilled yet drained, and wondering about both our own personal destinies and how we fit in with the larger questions of our universe. This is a must read for those seeking compelling adventure that does not compromise intelligence for action, character and setting for pace, heart for thrill, depth for speed; and imagination for story.

Biography of Philip PullmanStories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn’t be human.”—Philip Pullman.

Philip Pullman was born in Norwich, England, in 1946. He spent the early part of his life travelling all over the world. He taught at Oxford before becoming a full-time writer and has lectured widely on various aspects of the relationship between text and images. His first book, Galatea, was published in 1979. “His Dark Materials” trilogy appeared on the New York Times bestselling list and received numerous honors, including the Carnagie Medal (England), Publishers Weekly best book of the year, and the Whitbread Book Award (“Amber Spyglass”, in 2002). He now lives in Oxford with his family and likes to write in a shed at the bottom of his garden.

His passionate appreciation for the power of the story is reflected in this quote from his autobiographical essay (see the Alfred A. Knopf website): “I was sure that I was going to write stories myself when I grew up. It’s important to put it like that: not ‘I am a writer’ but rather ‘I write stories’. If you put the emphasis on yourself rather than your work, you’re in danger of thinking that you’re the most important thing. But you’re not. The story is what matters and you’re only the servant, and your job is to get it out on time and in good order.”

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

An excellent summing of of this trilogy, Nina. With Nicole Kidman in it, I may be tempted to see it.

Incidentally, following your feature on Karen Mason, I have added her on my Facebook, and we are now friends there, as well as on Shelfari!

sfgirl said...

Cool, Jean-Luc! She's a neat person to know. Full of positive energy and a wonderful smile like yours.

sfgirl said...

I'm actually looking forward to seeing Eva Green as Serafina! I think she'll make a great witch! I thought I heard that she was afraid of heights, though...hmmm a witch who's afraid of heights...

C'BS ALife Allah said...

Incredible. Since it has been classified as 'young adult' literature it definitely slipped under my radar. I am going to dig into that series. That defining line between SF and Fantasy is a great area that I enjoy visiting when authors execute it correctly.

Your friend over at