In This Review of His Dark Materials, Part One
Envision Worlds, People and Happenings You Would Never Conceive on Your Own
Nobody writes like Philip Pullman. I realize the same may be said of every writer but I say this in the spirit of someone who loves reading books—who loves rereading books—often simply because they take me on a thrilling journey. I cannot recall how many times I have felt a powerful rush of gratitude for a writer who has shared that most limitless and unique of human expressions: the imagination.
What is so essentially captivating and satisfying about this story—borne of the author’s vivid and seemingly indefatigable imagination—is it stimulates my mind into the always welcome effort of envisioning worlds and people and happenings my own imagination would never have conceived. Even if I haven’t come close to visualizing what Mr. Pullman’s mind’s eye saw when he wrote it, he has led me to previously unexplored expressions of creativity. How can you not love that?
Each book in His Dark Materials introduces new and remarkable characters. Some of them delightful, some of them dreadful. Some dazzling, some deadly. Each character is unique and in some way integral to the story. The first chapter of the first book, The Golden Compass, promptly introduces us to two central characters. Young Lyra Belacqua, aged twelve, who lives at Jordan College in Oxford, and her uncle, Lord Asriel, a wealthy, powerful figure with anarchistic tendencies in both politics and religion, whose drive and charisma prompt him to a boldness of action most could not muster on their best days.
More significantly, we are introduced to the remarkable phenomenon that a person’s soul manifests in the form of what is called a dæmon (æ is pronounced like the a in “hat” or “actor”), which takes the shape of an animal, mammal, reptile, or arthropod, that functions in accord with and independently of their human. A dæmon accompanies their human at all times and wherever they go. Since the dæmon is the soul incarnate, this makes sense.
Lord Asriel’s dæmon is Stelmaria, a snow leopard, and Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon (Pan for short), has not settled on his true form yet because Lyra is still a child and a child’s daemon continuously changes form until the child reaches puberty, at which point it settles into what will be its final form. Pan flits from a moth, to an ermine, to a mouse, to a dragon, to a polecat, etc., depending on the circumstances.
Lyra spends her days dodging lessons and traversing the width and breadth of Jordan College, from its rooftops to its crypts. She and her friends are usually engaged in some form of childhood warfare with the various urchins and ragamuffins they play with.
We soon learn that Lyra is an unusual child. Not only in a manner foretold by legend, but in and of herself. She is an incorrigible tomboy you cannot help but like and admire, often with a Cheshire Cat-like grin. Lyra is smart, cunning, and quick on the uptake—as any self-respecting street urchin should be—but she is also a good person who is highly intuitive, brave, observant, capable of discretion, decisive, sensitive, and who exhibits the impressionable innocence of a female child growing up amongst scholarly males, most of whom are elderly.
In many ways Lyra was a barbarian. What she liked best was clambering over the College roofs with Roger, the kitchen boy who was her particular friend, to spit plum stones on the heads of passing Scholars or to hoot like owls outside a window where a tutorial was going on, or racing through the narrow streets, or stealing apples from the market, or waging war…
Dust and Alethiometers
As the story unfolds, we are introduced to the forbidden topic of “Dust” . . .
…he was bathed in light, and a fountain of glowing particles seemed to be streaming from his upraised hand.
“That light,” said the Chaplain, “is it going up or coming down?”
“It’s coming down,” said Lord Asriel, “but it isn’t light. It’s Dust.”
Something in the way he said it made Lyra imagine dust with a capital letter, as if this wasn’t ordinary dust. The reaction of the Scholars confirmed her feeling, because Lord Asriel’s words caused a sudden collective silence, followed by gasps of incredulity…
. . . and a rare, peculiar device called an alethiometer that functions partly through mechanics, partly through metaphysics, which is given to Lyra before she departs Jordan College.
…It was very like a clock, or a compass, for there were hands pointing to places around the dial, but instead of the hours or the points of the compass there were several little pictures, each of them painted with extraordinary precision….There were three little knurled winding wheels…and each of them turned one of the three shorter hands….The fourth hand was longer and more slender…Lyra couldn’t control its movement at all; it swung where it wanted to, like a compass needle, except that it didn’t settle…
We learn early on that children are going missing under sinister circumstances. Abducted by Gobblers, who Lyra’s young companions loftily inform her are “cannaboles” that eat children, but who are actually thugs associated with the Oblation Board—which is as ominous as it sounds—and Mrs. Coulter, the alluring, beautiful, rich, well-traveled, well-placed woman who entrances Lyra to the point that she agrees to leave Jordan College to go live with her as her Assistant.
Lyra went everywhere with Mrs. Coulter, almost as if she were a daemon herself. Mrs. Coulter knew a great many people…in the morning there might be a meeting of geographers at the Royal Arctic Institute…then Mrs. Coulter might meet a politician or a cleric for lunch in a smart restaurant…. And then in the afternoon there might be more shopping…. After that they would go to tea and meet some ladies…women so unlike female Scholars or gyptian boat mothers or college servants as almost to be a new sex altogether, one with dangerous powers and qualities such as elegance, charm, and grace.
However, we gradually begin to see the other side of Mrs. Coulter.
…Mrs. Coulter’s daemon sprang off the sofa in a blur of golden fur and pinned Pantalaimon to the carpet before he could move. Lyra cried out in alarm, and then in fear and pain, as Pantalaimon twisted this way and that, shrieking and snarling, unable to loosen the golden monkey’s grip…he took one of Pantalaimon’s ears in his other paw and pulled as if he intended to tear it off. Not angrily, either, but with a cold curious force that was horrifying to see and even worse to feel . . .
“Don’t! Please! Stop hurting us!”
Mrs. Coulter looked up from her flowers.
“Do as I tell you, then,” she said.
The gyptians, who live and travel on boats and regularly visit Oxford on a seasonal basis, alter the course of Lyra’s fate when they rescue her after she escapes from Mrs. Coulter and walks straight into the arms of abductors. There is Ma Costa, a dauntless boat mother uncharacteristically in a terror for her missing child, Lyra’s friend, Billy. John Faa, the lord of the western gyptians, who organizes a campaign to rescue the abducted children who have been taken north, and who lets Lyra join them when they go. Farder Coram, a wise old gyptian seer who has been following activities regarding Dust, gobblers, and to Lyra’s surprise, her life at Jordan College. By rescuing Lyra on the streets that night, the gyptians ensure she meets the greater fate that awaits her—and Farder Coram sets her more firmly on her destined path when he explains how the alethiometer works.
During a stopover on their journey, Farder Coram and Lyra approach Iorek Byrnison, a member of the panserbjørns, which means armored bears, to request his assistance in the impending conflict.
…Lyra had an impression of blood-stained muzzle and face, small malevolent black eyes, and an immensity of dirty matted yellowish fur…Lyra’s heart was thumping hard, because something in the bear’s presence made her feel close to coldness, danger, brutal power, but a power controlled by intelligence; and not a human intelligence, nothing like a human, because of course bears had no daemons…. Then he reared up massively, ten feet or more high, as if to show how mighty he was, to remind them how useless the gate would be as a barrier…
Iorek Byrnison works for Einarsson’s Bar mending broken machinery and articles of iron and lifting heavy objects. He is essentially being held captive because the men took his armor away and to a panserbjørn their armor is their soul just as a dæmon is to a human. Iorek Byrnison’s price to gain his help on their campaign is to get his armor back . . .
The Aeronaut and the Witches
As they journey farther north, John Faa meets up with a balloon aeronaut named Lee Scoresby and his dæmon Hester, who sign up for the gyptions’ campaign believing it to be a straightforward transportation contract. It turns out he is an old friend of Iorek Byrnison and he soon learns that he has joined up for something more hazardous and significantly more important than simply transporting passengers.
He was a tall, lean man with a thin black moustache and narrow blue eyes, and a perpetual expression of distant and sardonic amusement…. His dæmon was a shabby hare as thin and tough-looking as he was.
Witches join the campaign as well, of their own accord and for their own reasons, and demonstrate their unique and lethal battle skills during the fray. Sarafina Pekkala is a queen of one of the witch clans and her dæmon is a goose named Kaisa. The difference between a human’s dæmon and a witch’s dæmon is that a witch’s dæmon may travel great distances from their witch while a human’s must stay close. Lyra meets Kaisa first, which makes her feel “as though she were entertaining a ghost.” Lyra encounters Sarafina Pekkala for the first time when the witch saves her from Mrs. Coulter during the battle.
… And one of them, the archer who’d saved Lyra from Mrs. Coulter, flew directly alongside the basket, and Lyra saw her clearly for the first time…she was young—younger than Mrs. Coulter; and fair, with bright green eyes; and clad like all the witches in strips of black silk, but wearing no furs, no hood or mittens. She seemed to feel no cold at all. Around her brow was a simple chain of little red flowers. She sat on her cloud-pine branch as if it were a steed…
Only the Beginning
Together, this gathering of extraordinary characters confront the hidden horrors and armed forces of Bolvangar (“Fields of Evil”), where the stolen children have been secreted away, and from there Lyra seeks out Lord Asriel, only to encounter unbearable loss and betrayal.
Many other characters, young and old, good and bad, contribute to the first installment of this brilliantly woven story and together they take us through a world both like and unlike ours, where with each page you read the unbelievable is made believable. Yet this is only the beginning. When you reach the end and might feel tempted to believe that the author couldn’t possibly take the story presented in the first book into equally creative and fantastical realms, he accomplishes just that as the story continues in part two, The Subtle Knife.
~ Emmie Finch
Titles by Philip Pullman
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