The Bizarre Saga of the Golden Compass

Unlike many of the books we review here, the Golden Compass is better known. Many of the readers of the school newspaper may have heard of it, if only because it is the eighth most banned book on the planet. In fact, in researching for this article, this reporter was prevented from even looking at the cover of the book by the GRPS browsing restrictions. So, before we begin, it should be said that the school newspaper neither approves nor disapproves of this book in particular. However, as a newspaper, we do believe in freedom of ideas and we do believe that people should be able to read and decide for themselves. That having been said, here is our review of the Golden Compass. If you find what we say interesting read the book and decide what you think for yourself, whether you are given permission to do so or not.

The Book

First it should be clarified that the original name of this book is Northern Lights, but we will refer to it here as The Golden Compass because that is what most people know it by.

In a country like England, in 1995, zeppelins and airships travel between Oxford and London, some ferrying supplies and soldiers for the Magisterium, others making sure no one contemplates illegal ideas. Looking down, the aeronauts might see a world the reader recognizes, with towns, cities, universities, and all the other things one might expect of modern England. There is just one difference. In this world everyone has a Daemon, a literal soul animal, a sentient creature that can never be separated from its person. Daemons share the thoughts and feelings of their people and are never more than a few feet from them. Hurt the Daemon and the person is wounded. Kill the person and the Daemon dies. If the two are forced more than a few feet apart, both die. Adults’ Daemons can only ever take one form, but children’s Daemons can shape-shift to any form. As children grow up, their Daemons slowly lose the ability to change until they eventually settle into a single form.

Of all the places harboring ‘dangerous’ ideas, the Magisterium fears Jordan College the most. An ancient institution that resists dictatorships as much as it resists change, Jordan College is the home of cloistered elderly men. None of them are particularly skilled at raising a baby girl, but with several dozen parenting together the childhood of foundling Lyra Belacqua’s is pretty happy. In fact, from her perspective, having parents who are too elderly to chase her and her Daemon, Pantalaimon, over the rooftops or down into the crypts is a gift. If she feels any sense of loneliness, isolated from the world within the college walls, it is assuaged by the daring tales of her explorer uncle, Lord Asriel. Lord Asriel, however, explores places and ideas forbidden by the Magisterium. On a mission to investigate the northern aurora he finds something dangerous that nearly gets him killed. Suddenly Lyra is forced to leave the safety of Jordan College and travel to the North, where the General Oblation Board of the Magisterium has been taking children. She carries the Alethiometer, the so-called “golden compass”, an instrument that is somehow key to the shadow war brewing within the Magisterium.The Golden Compass is one of those rare children’s books that you can enjoy at any age. Early in the book one of the characters explains that Lyra has a great destiny ahead of her, but she must never know about the prophecy. Indeed, Lyra spends the whole of The Golden Compass almost entirely in the dark about what is really going on. Vast, world-changing struggles are playing out all around her and she has no idea. Lyra is about 11 years old in the first book and if the reader is about the same age they do not understand what is going on either. The fascinating thing is that you can read The Golden Compass without understanding the real nature of events, including the thinly disguised but powerful metaphors for Nazism and the theme of a powerful government forcibly taking children from their families, which is perhaps more poignant today than it was nearly 25 years ago. The story from Lyra’s limited perspective and the bigger picture are independently complete but deeply interconnected narratives, giving the reader the feeling that this one book is two in one. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that The Golden Compass is also the book with two cinematic adaptations, one, we hope, for each of those distinct perspectives.

Two Movies

The original Golden Compass movie came out in 2007 but was received with almost universal dislike, earning 6.1/10 on IMDB and a “rotten” 42% on Rotten Tomatoes. Part of the reason the movie was so disliked was because it completely buried or even removed the more complex parts of the story, leaving only the empty shell described by Lyra’s understanding of events. It is as though the frame of cinema could only handle one of the two intertwined stories in this book, and the director picked the simple children’s version. It should also be said that our perspective on The Golden Compass movie is significantly abridged. For an idea of just how much fans of the book hated this “flaccid compromise” read this article in The Guardian. Also problematic is the fact that The Golden Compass is only the first book in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Unfortunately, the movie did not make nearly enough money to warrant a sequel and so the other two volumes remained unfilmed. In the present, HBO intends to fix that with a brand new television series that promises to fix the mistakes of the movie.

Yes, you are reading that right. Despite the utter failure of the movie, the BBC, HBO, and England in general still believes there is money to be made from this so they bought the rights to the original book out from under New Line Cinema to remake it. The same story, inspired by the same book, but better this time, we hope. On November 4th fans will get the chance to see an entirely different take on this epic story of Lyra Belacqua and her team of misfit heroes as they journey to the frozen north, this time as a full season show. If all goes well, HBO may even approve more seasons for His Dark Materials, in which case this seemingly doomed adaptation might finally get some cinematic resolution.



Former Editor in Chief of The City Voice, finally graduated City High Middle School as part of the Class of 2022.