Northern Lights

I finished Philip Pullman’s wonderful The Golden Compass last night, and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy. It’s very well written and surprisingly thought provoking. A page turner, to be sure. Also hoping that the sequels will be filmed, even though mixed messages abound about that. I’ve read on the Net that the next movie is in the bag for 2009, and, that it won’t be filmed at all. The two major reasons given for not filming are the lack of box office success for the first movie and opposition from church groups.

The novel is set in parallel universe to our own, with many similarities, but some striking differences. The most striking being that humans have personal daemons — animals that remain with them at all times and are something like an external soul. These daemons have the ability to change into other animals, at least while their humans are children. Once the child becomes an adult, the daemon loses its protean powers and remains fixed. The Golden Compass only hints at possible reasons for this, and connects it to a further mystery, Dust. The idea is rich in symbolism and allegorical potential, but the answers must reside inside novels two or three.

The action takes place in England, primarily at Oxford initially, and then moves northward toward the Arctic. Lyra Belacqua is the heroine of the story, a brave young girl of eleven, possessing a destiny she knows nothing about but may sense in part. Her journey is set in motion by a series of kidnappings, including her best friend Roger. Children being kidnapped. One of the greatest fears for any child or their parents. As we read on, however, the fear of kidnapping itself is overwhelmed by something far more sinister.

Lyra is aided at first by a people called “gyptians,” similar to the Romani, who have lost children too. The kidnappers have earned the nickname “Gobblers” and are a mystery to most throughout the majority of the novel.

As with so many good stories, ancient mythic elements appear often here, such as Lyra’s discovery of her true parentage later in the novel, and the help she receives from otherworldly beings. Witches, in this case. Another folkloric element is key: talking animals who aid the hero. A giant polar bear named Lorek Byrnison is the prime example. Her protector and friend. Lyra also learns how to use the Alethiometer, a compass of sorts with the power to tell the truth and see into the future. This device combines elements from the legends of King Arthur and the myth of Perseus. A sword only one person can lift, and a gift from a deity that helps the hero overcome tremendous, deadly obstacles. There are also allusions to prophecies about a messiah. Lyra. Again, this is similar to Arthur and Cuchulain and various religious figures down through the ages. Though Pullman casts a slight bit of doubt about those prophecies. One witch speaks about them in an ambiguous tone, as if she were certain once, but has lost that certainty.

Issues of honor, loyalty and betrayal play a huge role in the book. Underdogs, the poor, the helpless and the oppressed, rally together to help each other and Lyra defeat more powerful foes. The gyptian and witch cultures appear to be largely oral and traditional, and this aids in the establishment of bonds and deepens loyalty. This, from a literary point of view, is effectively done, non-contrived, and increases natural sympathy and identification in those characters.

Toward the end of the book, Pullman takes some time out to discuss some of the philosophical and theological underpinnings of his alternate world, in the form of a dialogue between Lyra and Lord Asriel. Rather than slow the story down, this really just sets things up for the next book in the series, The Subtle Knife.

Will write about that shortly, and return to some elements in the first book as well.


Northern Lights
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