This year, The Golden Compass, the first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, celebrates its 20th year in print. First published in the United Kingdom as The Northern Lights in 1995, the book and its sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass gained the kind of critical attention rarely afforded novels in the fantasy genre, particularly those ostensibly written for children.
In the decades since, the market for YA fantasy and science fiction has exploded thanks to enormous successes like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and despite an aborted movie franchise and heaps of critical praise, Pullman’s trilogy has flown somewhat under the radar, even as it remains as sharp and brilliant a coming of age fable as the day it was first published.
Thankfully, it might soon change again: This week, the BBC announced plans for an eight episode television series based on Pullman’s trilogy, an exciting prospect considering their recent, laudable adaptation of another daunting fantasy novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
In The Golden Compass, Pullman introduces us to Lyra Belacqua, a young girl who lives in a fantastic alternate world where souls exist as “dæmons,” separate entities that live outside the human body and take the shape of animals. A child’s dæmon can shapeshift at will, but once an individual reaches adulthood, their dæmon settles on a single form. Lyra’s world is ruled over by the Magisterium, a quasi-religious organization that holds a firm grasp on knowledge, and stamps out what it considers heresy.
The book opens with Lyra and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, hiding away in a closet at Jordan College (their equivalent of Oxford), where she hopes to listen in on a presentation her uncle Lord Asriel is about to give about “Dust,” mysterious airborne particles that seem to be attracted more towards adults than children, and a substance the Church considers heretical, akin to the concept of original sin. Lyra soon discovers that Asriel has unearthed a portal to other worlds at the top of the world, and the Church tries to poison him to silence his research, something Lyra is able to prevent. She’s soon sent to live with an icy, intimidating woman named Mrs. Coulter, and is given an Alethiometer, a device that can discern the truth when the right questions are asked.
Meanwhile, children have begun to vanish from around Jordan College, including Lyra’s friend Roger. Lyra slowly realizes that Coulter is the head of the General Oblation Board, a mysterious organization run by the Church that is responsible for the missing children. She escapes her custody and heads to the Arctic to find her friend, and meets odd new ones along the way, including Iorek Byrnison, an armored bear, and Lee Sorsky, an aeronaut.
Lyra’s quests turns out to be much more than a simple rescue: she learns of the terrible ramifications of the Church’s research into Dust, and discovers her world is but one among many. The Golden Compass kicks off an adventure that will span worlds and ultimately hold the fate of reality in a delicate balance. This isn’t a simple book about the conflict between good and evil; Pullman explores much more complicated questions, including morality, faith, coming-of-age, and culpability for one’s own actions.
The author’s opposition to organized religion is a major focus. He questions the relevancy of the Church, but also explores the balance between doctrine, changing times, and new exploration—discoveries that challenge long-held beliefs and attitudes. Its themes seem almost prescient: in the two decades since the book’s release, organized religions have faced greater scrutiny in our own rapidly-changing world.
In many ways, The Golden Compass is a novel that explores transitions and boundaries—those between Lyra’s world and ours, the saved and dammed, child and adult—and while YA literature often tackles complex issues, this is a trilogy with few equals in terms of thematic ambition. What struck me the most when I first read it in high school was how remarkably adult it feels, a stark contrast to children’s books that rely on an off-kilter sort of wimsey. I read Harry Potter around the same time, and while I enjoyed those books, Rowling never quite reached the lofty heights that Pullman explores.
By all accounts, His Dark Materials trilogy retains that lofty reputation, even as it has curiously remained under the radar, at least compared to similar YA sensations like Potter and Narnia. Its premise and complexity make it a harder sell as a movie franchise—the failure of the gorgeous, impeccably cast, but uninspired 2007 film can be partially attributed to a hesitance to grab onto the plot’s darker themes with both hands—and pending the outcome of the BBC’s planned adaptation, it appears it will be best remembered as a novel that continues to entrap readers, pulling them in through Lyra’s epic story. Hardly a cruel fate, that.
Looking back on The Golden Compass two decades later, the novel is as frightening, exhilarating and as crisp as ever. If anything, it’s a novel that’s become even more relevant with age, one that shows us how to navigate our lives through the boundaries and transitions that we erect for ourselves. It’s a book that I look forward to reading in another 20 years. I have no doubts it will be even better with age.