Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)

 I have read The Golden Compass at least four times, and maybe a few more.  This latest round, I listened to a full-cast streaming audio version - which I just found out was narrated by Philip Pullman himself.  It was a truly remarkable way to enjoy this well-written and completely engaging book.

Pullman has a sure hand at creating characters, deftly bringing to life both starring and supporting cast in his entire series, but The Golden Compass in particular.  Lyra and Pantalaimon are fully realized, and (I know at this point it's trite but...) truly come alive for the reader.  Pullman was able to write into being a perfectly formed 11 year old tomboyish, wild girl, so sure and unsure of herself and the world as puberty starts to tickle and trick her mind (as well so well remember).  Just the way she reacts and interacts with various situations and characters  - particularly adult characters, made me always think "He really understands the minds of the young and how they work."  She is a constant study of the duality of humanity - at one moment trusting, the next moment untrusting (as she herself is both trustworthy and untrustworthy, depending on the situation).

As for other characters, Lord Asriel is almost a stock character - we've seen his kind before, the rich aristocrat who wears entitlement like a glove - or a boxing glove.  The gyptians are almost stock as well, although his alternative history for them as transplanted Dutch is interesting. Lee Soresby and Serefina Pekkala are fantastically interesting characters - I always liked Lee's daemon hare (although she is probably a jack rabbit, right?).

 But we all know that, after Lyra herself, the story hinges on the creation of two of the very most memorable characters, two characters that live in dream - and nightmare:  Mrs. Coulter and Iorek Byrnison.  Mrs. Coulter is one of the greatest villainesses I think I've ever found in a book.  Her grace, poise, style and beauty are only matched by her sharp intellect (used for ill), her cunning, her hypnotic cobra personality.  And that golden monkey - my god.  It is her daemon that makes her so goddamn frightening.  Pullman's ability to write these two into spine-tingling authenticity; these two are the kinds of characters you don't encounter often enough in literature.  Cruella deVil - too campy (although deliciously evil in her own way).  Various stepmothers from Grimm come to mind, but they are flat compared to Mrs. Coulter.  Dolores Umbridge certainly could give Mrs. Coulter a run for her money; they went to the same boarding school.

If Mrs. Coulter is the ultimate in evil, then Iorek Byrnison is the ultimate good guy.  Iorek's story depends as much upon plot and characterization; his story is woven carefully into the story of Lyra's doom.  Iorek is even a more original creation than Mrs. Coulter - this entire idea of armored bears is a piece of brilliance, then Iorek rises from this mass of imagination like the sunrise, a brilliant and glorious character.

Pullman really has created a perfect book.  The plot and setting are both so unique, yet adroitly created; a true master writer and storyteller is clearly at work here.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1)The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read this book multiple times, and now listened to the fantastic, full-cast audio (with Philip Pullman himself narrating). I come away from this book each time I read it completely amazed that someone could create something so gripping, horrifying, fantastic, un-put-downable. There is a terrific cast of major and minor characters, and Pullman succeeds in creating not one, not two, but three of the most memorable in literature of all sorts: plucky, loyal, brave Lyra; cold, beautiful, stylish, power hungry and oh so evil Mrs. Coulter; and lionhearted, gruff and heroic Iorek Byrnison. Pullman's plot and setting are unique and unexampled. His dramatic tension is my favorite part; he knows how to create a great build up, with a several pay offs that are well worth ride. I've always thought, and continue to think this time, that this is a complicated and difficult work full of grand ideas. It deserves multiple re-readings just to catch everything! It's a thinker's book.

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Some quotes I liked:

But she moved a little closer, because she had to, and then she saw that Iofur was holding something on his knee, as a human might let a cat sit there—or a dæmon. It was a big stuffed doll, a manikin with a vacant stupid human face. It was dressed as Mrs. Coulter would dress, and it had a sort of rough resemblance to her. He was pretending he had a dæmon. Then she knew she was safe.

Pullman is always able to set a scene, perfectly – and write convincing and riveting drama and action.  This passage above is one of my favorite examples of that from the book; that last line “then she knew she was safe” is such perfect cap to the rising action that’s been happening for pages before this.  You, the reader, are definitely with Lyra on this journey.

“D’you want me to ask the symbol reader about it?” Lyra said. “Well, I dunno. There’s things I’d rather not know. Seems to me everything I heard of since the Gobblers come to Oxford, everything’s been bad. There en’t been nothing good more than about five minutes ahead. Like I can see now, this bath’s nice, and there’s a nice warm towel there, about five minutes away. And once I’m dry, maybe I’ll think of summing nice to eat, but no further ahead than that. And when I’ve eaten, maybe I’ll look forward to a kip in a comfortable bed. But after that, I dunno, Lyra. There’s been terrible things we seen, en’t there? And more a coming, more’n likely. So I think I’d rather not know what’s in the future. I’ll stick to the present.” “Yeah,” said Lyra wearily. “There’s times I feel like that too.”

I loved this passage.  It’s beautiful – and moving, and sad, knowing what you know will happen to Roger.

It was such a strange tormenting feeling when your dæmon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love. And she knew it was the same for him. Everyone tested it when they were growing up: seeing how far they could pull apart, coming back with intense relief.

He nestled in her arms, and she knew she would rather die than let them be parted and face that sadness again; it would send her mad with grief and terror. If she died, they’d still be together, like the Scholars in the crypt at Jordan. Then girl and dæmon looked up at the solitary bear. He had no dæmon. He was alone, always alone. She felt such a stir of pity and gentleness for him that she almost reached out to touch his matted pelt, and only a sense of courtesy toward those cold ferocious eyes prevented her.

I was always impressed by how Pullman made you care about what happens to the children in the north, because none of us have a daemon of our own (as much as we want one).  This re-read, I realized how he did that:  these passages, of tenderness and love, and how a bear without a daemon is lost and alone and to be pitied, is just a few pages before we find out what happens to the children. 

She turned and looked down into the shadowed quadrangle, where the black-gowned figures of the Scholars were already beginning to drift in ones and twos toward the buttery, their dæmons strutting or fluttering alongside or perching calmly on their shoulders. The lights were going on in the Hall; she could see the stained-glass windows gradually beginning to glow as a servant moved up the tables lighting the naphtha lamps. The Steward’s bell began to toll, announcing half an hour before dinner. This was her world. She wanted it to stay the same forever and ever, but it was changing around her, for someone out there was stealing children. She sat on the roof ridge, chin in hands.

This captures the thoughts of a young girl on the cusp of puberty; remember wanting the world to just stop, so you could be 11 forever?   

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