Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Rating: WORTHY!

In my continuing effort to catch up with reviews of older novels I've read but never got around to reviewing, here goes! This is book one of the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, and it's one which I've read at least thrice, twice for myself and once for my kids as bedtime stories. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's brilliant!

I have to add, too, that the audio book which I review here is a treat. I think it's without doubt the best audio presentation to which I've ever listened. The whole thing is performed like a radio play, with a cast of some two dozen, including the author, Philip Pullman himself, narrating. All of them, including Pullman, do an exquisite job. Here's the cast list:

Sean Barrett............Lord Asriel/Iorek Byrnison
Andrew Branch...........Kaisa/Able Seaman Jerry
Douglas Blackwell.......John Faa/Iofur Raknison
Harriet Butler..........Bella
Anna Coghlan............Bridget McGinn
Rupert Degas............Pantalaimon
Alison Dowling..........Mrs. Coulter
David Graham............Jotham Santelia
Stephen Greif...........Martin Lanselius/Sysselman
Garrick Hagon...........Lee Scoresby
Andrew Lamont...........1st Gyptian Boy
Fiona Lamont............Martha
Alexander Mitchell......Hugh Lovat
Arthur Mitchell.........Charlie
Hayward Morse...........The Butler/The Chaplain
John O'Connor...........The Dean
Philip Pullman..........Narrator
Anne Rosenfeld..........Mrs. Lonsdale
Liza Ross...............Stelmaria/Billy
Suzan Sheridan..........Serafina Pekkala/Roger
Jill Shilling...........Ma Costa
Stephen Thorne..........The Master/Farder Coram
Rachel Wolf.............Annie
Joanna Wyatt............Lyra
Other parts were played by members of the cast

Because it's a book, this original novel can go into far more detail than the movie ever did, and every bit of the extra detail is well-worth the reading. It gives a much richer experience, and offers several important differences.

Lyra Belacqua is a girl on the cusp of her teens in an alternate reality where the world is very similar to ours in many regards, but very, very different in others. The most immediately evident of these is in the fact that each of the humans in Lyra's world has a dæmon - an animal companion which represents their soul, and which is inseparable from their human. Lyra's dæmon is named Pantalaimon, but she exclusively refers to him as 'Pan'. The daemon is nearly always of the opposite gender to their human and Pan is amazing, funny, and engaging.

Lyra's parents, we're told, are dead, and she was placed at Jordan college at the University of Oxford, by her uncle, Lord Asrael. She loves the college and is fiercely loyal to it, but is hardly the best student in the world, despite the fact that she is quite obviously precocious and quite smart. Instead she runs wild around the college grounds and in the city, "warring" with her Jordan friends against other colleges, and with other colleges against the townies, and with the townies against the Gyptian travelers who periodically come through the city on their barges.

Lyra loves to explore the college, and when the novel begins, she's in trouble in that she's in a part of the college where women are not allowed, much less children, but she cannot escape, and is reduced to hiding in a wardrobe. From there, she can spy on events through a crack in the door. She watches a meeting between some of the college faculty and Lord Asrael, where she learns about Dust - with a capital D. This isn't your pain to clean and polish kind of dust, but some species of elementary particle which Lord Asrael believes is entering their universe from a parallel world in a separate universe. He asks for and receives funds to go to the north to further investigate this. Why he must go north, I do not know - I guess it's because that's the only place where there's been evidence of this leak between worlds.

This is where we get a significant change from the novel. In the novel, it's the master of Jordan college who tries to poison Asrael by putting something in his favorite drink (Tokay, pronounced Toe-ky - rhymes with sky), whereas in the movie, it's the recognized bad guys, the magisterium - in effect the church authorities, who try to poison him. Lyra is the one who saves his life.

One of Lyra's fears, and the source of some of her games, is 'Gobblers'. These are mysterious shadowy people who are said to abduct children, and she learns that they've arrived in Oxford. In short order, one of her friends among the Gyptians, Billy Costa, and her close friend at Jordan, a servant boy named Roger Parslow both go missing and no one seems to care.

Lyra is indignant, but before she can get too far with her rage, she's rather distracted by the arrival of a woman who rapidly becomes her hero, Mrs Coulter. The latter is exotic, and traveled, and mysterious, and is a "friend" of Jordan college. Lyra is offered the opportunity to go and live with her and become an 'assistant' to her, so she can continue her education, but also learn the ways of women, with which the stodgy and almost exclusively male population of Jordan college cannot help her. Lyra leaps at the opportunity, but soon comes to regret it.

Before she leaves, the Master entrusts Lyra with 'the golden compass' a truth-divining device powered by Dust. It's golden in color, with cryptic symbols around the circumference, and four hands on its dial, three of which Lyra can set to point to the symbols, posing a cryptic question. The fourth then starts rotating and twitching between other symbols, thereby delivering an answer. No one seems to know how to operate this 'alethiometer' but Lyra, to her credit, slowly figures it out. The master tells her that it was a gift to the college from Asrael, and Lyra imagines that the Master wants her to return it to her uncle. He warns her sternly not to ever reveal its existence to Mrs Coulter.

Her time with Coulter is longer in the novel than in the movie, but the termination of it is very similar. She realizes, eventually, that the Gobblers is nothing more than a corruption of the acronym GOB (General Oblation Board) and she and Pan, having suffered somewhat at the hands of Coulter's evil golden monkey (Coulter's dæmon) sneak out one night when Coulter is holding a party. It's quite as precipitous and dramatic as the movie makes it look! They wander the strange streets of London, and end up down by the docks where they encounter some hostile locals, from whom they're rescued by the Gyptians, and they become guests on Ma Costa's barge as the Gyptians travel to East Anglia - the very place I spent several vacations when I was a child! Yes, I'm sure that's the reason they went there.

Lyra learns that she is much sought after by the police, so she lays low on the barge until they reach their destination, where she meets the king of the Gyptians, Lord Faa, and his side-kick, Farder Coram. She shows them the alethiometer. It turns out that the Gyptians are big friends of Asrael's because of his kindness to, and support of them, and they have been keeping an eye on Lyra on his behalf. Lyra also learns, much to her surprise and dismay, Lord Asrael and Mrs Coulter are her actual parents. The Gyptian council figures out, with Lyra's assistance, that the children who are being abducted are being taken to a place in the far frozen north called Bolvangar.

On the sailing boat northwards, and unlike in the movie, Lyra does not meet Serafina Pekkala, the witch lover of the younger Farder Coram, but instead meets her dæmon, which is a goose. Lyra is very impressed that the two can be so far apart. She also encounters two 'spyflies' - mechanical creatures which contain a sting with a sleeping potion in it. She and Farder Coram capture one and keep it in a tin for later destruction.

The novel tells a slightly different story to the movie when it comes to Lyra's recruitment of Iorek Byrnison and her meeting with Lee Scoresby. The movie does a better job. Soon the whole crew is heading out onto the ice and traveling the frozen forest.

At one point, Lyra discovers something truly weird in one of her alethiometer readings which precipitates a trip with the bear one night to a village some hours away, where a 'ghost' is supposed to be tormenting the villagers. It turns out that the ghost is actually Tony Makarios (not Billy Costa as the movie has it). He has undergone the 'intercision' process, meaning that he has been severed from his dæmon. The dæmon, "Ratter" is nowhere to be seen, and Tony has a piece of dried fish as a substitute.

He's pathetic and several stops past sad. Despite her fear and her repugnance over his 'condition", Lyra rescues him and returns him to the Gyptian party where he later dies. recalling an experience from her exploratory days at Jordan, and furious that the Gyptians had fed his dried fish "dæmon" to their dogs, Lyra takes one of her gold coins and carves Ratter's name onto it placing it in Tony's mouth before he is cremated.

Lyra smartly asks Iorek to employ his metal-crafting skills create for her a small tin, about the size of her alethiometer, so that she now has two - a real one, and fake one which contains the spyfly which they caught on the ship. Shortly after this, the party is attacked by Samoyeds, and Lyra is captured and delivered to Bolvangar, where she is sold. This part of the story is much more complex than the movie, which completely excludes the entire part covering the storage of severed dæmons, and Lyra's freeing of them with the aid of Serafina Pekkala's goose dæmon.

Knowing that aid is on its way, Lyra evolves an escape plan for the children, but she is caught spying on a meeting (hiding in the false ceiling, not under the table as in the movie), and the staff decides it's high time for her turn at the intercision process. She's rescued at the last minute (not quite as last minute as the movie depicts!) by Mrs Coulter of all people, who takes her back to her own room and comforts her, but Lyra is in no way fooled now by this woman. When Coulter asks for the alethiometer, Lyra lets her take the fake one, and Coulter is knocked-out by a sting from the spyfly. Lyra pulls the fire alarm, and the children flee into the frozen night.

After a melee, these children are finally linked-up with the Gyptians, and Lyra takes off with Lee Scoresby to continue her quest to find her father and deliver to him the alethiometer. Roger goes along with her, and Scoresby's balloon is towed by witches, which is where Lyra first meets Serafina Pekkala in person.

After more incidents, Lyra finally reaches Asrael, who is not interested in her compass, but in her companion. Lyra wakes up the next morning to discover that Asrael has left and taken Roger with him. She realizes that he intends to sever Roger from his dæmon in order to generate sufficient power to make a passageway to the other world which can be seen in the Northern Lights. Contrary to the movie, this is where Lyra crosses the crumbling snow bridge, but she arrives too late to save Roger.

Lyra has a breakdown at Roger's fate and her impotence to stop it, from which she is distracted by her observations of her father and mother reconciling. Asrael tries to talk her into crossing the bridge with him, promising to love her unconditionally if she does, but vowing to forget her completely if she does not. Coulter is sorely tempted, but in the end, she leaves, bound for England, whereas Asrael goes across the bridge he created and into the parallel world which is now opened up. Left alone, Lyra and Pan discuss their options. They decide to pursue Asrael and to try to find the source of the dust before he does so they can thwart any plans he has for it.

This is a brilliant novel, well-deserving of the accolades heaped upon it. I liked the move very much, but this is much more fulfilling and rewarding as are the other two novels in this Dark Materials trilogy. I fully commend then all.