Here are my takeaways from reading the “Golden Compass” the first book in the “Dark Materials” trilogy by Phillip Pullman. It was a hell of a fun read, but you can bet I took plenty of notes and did my best to learn from it along the way.
1) Easing the Reader into a weird Fantasy World:
Lyra - the main character - lives in a fantasy world that is very much like our own world, but with subtle differences. The most striking difference that we learn about, right from the get-go, is that every human in this world is paired with a “Daemon.” A daemon is a sort of spirit animal which represents the inner character of the person. This one little shock is interesting and easy to deal with. The story begins in Oxford, England at a large and prestigious university. Other than the daemons, the world is at first no different from our own.
Before the book is over, we’ll meet talking bears and witches, and we’ll travel to other universes in the sky. But we don’t get hit with all that craziness right of the bat, we get gently eased into it.
2) The Hook:
The book starts off brilliantly. Lyra is sneaking around in the ancient, storied rooms of the university when suddenly she is forced to hide in a closet, and ends up witnessing a “secret” assassination attempt.
The first chapter is pretty long and it’s super exciting. The second chapter is boring, and full of backstory about Lyra’s life, about the university, and blah blah blah. But now the author has me hooked, I’m invested in the story because of the exciting first chapter, and I’m willing to suffer through some necessary explanations until the excitement of the story resumes.
3) The Hero’s Journey:
I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell and his ideas about “The Hero’s Journey.” I was immediately interested in Lyra, the protagonist of this book, to see how she would undergo the transformations of a hero. Here are just a few ways that I recognized and appreciated Lyra becoming a hero.
A) Lyra gets pulled out of her comfortable world and into a foreign one. This is par for the course for heroes of any kind. According to Cambell, there are a couple of ways that a hero can undertake a journey. They can either get pulled into it by outside forces, or they can undertake a journey of their own accord. In the case of the Golden Compass, both forces were at play. There were forces that pulled Lyra into her new journey, but it was also her strong will and personality that propelled her into those situations.
B) When heroes enter into a new world (think Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts or Katniss training for the Hunger Games with Haymitch), they almost always need a mentor. Lyra has a few major mentors along the way. The main one is Farder Coram, an elder gypsy man who takes her under his wing, encourages her development, and passes his knowledge along to her.
C) At some point along the hero’s journey, the mentors go away, or die, and the hero suddenly has no help. Now the real test begins. Can they be a hero on their own accord. Will they buckle or stand up to the immense pressure? Lyra reaches a point at the end of the novel when she has to go it alone. Check out this quote from the book:
“Little by little, as the storm of fear subsided, she came to a sense of herself again. She was Lyra, cold and frightened by all means, but herself. ‘I wish…’ she said, and stopped. There was nothing that could be gained by wishing for it. A final deep shaky breath, and she was ready to go on.”
D) All heroes move along a scale, beginning at “selfishness” and ending with “selflessness.” Lyra is no exception. In the beginning, her intentions are purely whimsical and selfish. She wants to adventure, to see “the north”, and to have a fun experience. By the end of the novel, Lyra is sacrificing her own well-being for the sake of humanity. Here is a passage from the end of the novel where Pullman highlights Lyra’s shift to a universal consciousness:
“The enormousness of the task silenced them. Lyra looked up at the blazing sky. She was aware of how small they were, she and her daemon, in comparison with the majesty and vastness of the universe; and of how little they knew, in comparison with the profound mysteries above them.”
To sum it all up - Lyra is a hero through and through. I can’t wait to read the next two books in the trilogy and see where her hero’s journey takes her.
4) Sometimes the Narrator Says Just a Little Too Much
I like the 3rd person narrator, but I think sometimes they overstep their bounds. As an example of what I mean, check out this passage from early on in the novel:
“She [Lyra] was eager to hear a great deal more about it in the months to come, and eventually she would know more about Dust than anyone in the world; but in the meantime, there was all the life of Jordan still being lived around her.”
I don’t know why, but passages like these tend to annoy me. I think because, I am reminded that there is an author who is writing the story. It’s like the director steps in front of the camera for a second. The veil is lifted. I was entranced in the story, but now I’m thinking about how the author knows everything and he’s just stringing me along.
When the third person narrator makes statements like this, it distracts from the story. And as a reader, I want to be immersed in the story. I want to be in the room with Lyra. I want to be in the middle of the battle scene. I don’t want to think about Phillip Pullman and the fact that he’s got this whole thing mapped out.
That's all, for now anyways. More on the Golden Compass Series coming up, as soon as I read the other two sequels. (Although right now I’m preoccupied with reading the self-published blockbuster, “The Martian” by Andy Weir…