The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman
KOC Book Reviewer
You're never too old for a good book.
The Golden Compass is a beautiful book in every way. It is intelligent, gorgeously written, and
intensely creative. It also happens to be a book for young adults. I somehow went through my entire
childhood without stumbling across Philip Pullman's masterful trilogy and only later came across it
when I had a renewed interest in children's literature. People kept recommending The Golden Compass
to me, and finally, while studying abroad and desperate for a good English book, I had my father buy
it and send it across the big pond with a friend of mine.
I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. On the cover of the novel there was a
painting of a bear, looking just like the kind of book I used to read back in the fifth grade. While
I knew that The Golden Compass was written as a young adults' novel, I had somehow imagined that they
would hide that fact and package it like a classic, something that didn't look so young. Ignoring that
old saying about books and covers, I thought to myself that if I'd known what it was, I might have
reconsidered making it my one request from a bookstore full of things written in English.
But it's a good thing that I was stuck with The Golden Compass, because it turned out to be one of
the most worthwhile and unique books that I've read in many years. The novel, the first in Pullman's
"His Dark Materials" trilogy, tells the story of a young girl named Lyra Belacqua who, it turns out,
is destined to save the world. Lyra, like the heroes of many children's novels, grows up more or less
parentless, yet lives happily among the scholars of Jordan College in Oxford until her best friend
Roger is kidnapped. His disappearance, along with many other strange happenings, sets off a course
of events that leads her (with a band of water gypsies) into the coldest and darkest part of the earth,
Part of what makes young adult novels so special is that children have more active imaginations and,
as a result, writers are free to take many more liberties and chances than they can with adult novels.
Philip Pullman builds not just characters and places, but an entirely new universe, "like ours, but
different in many ways," as he says, and it is a fascinating place to explore. The book's varied
landscapes are the type of places you dream about when you fall asleep reading--mysterious and
unfamiliar and bright and alive. Simply picturing the look and feel of them is an exercise in
imagination that is good for all of us, especially after a few years of college textbooks. Reading
this book made me work hard, not in terms of analysis or vocabulary, but in terms of how deeply I
could imagine. The truth is that it felt good to exercise a piece of my brain that I'd been
neglecting for quite a while.
Of course, the greatest children's books aren't really children's books at all; they have enough
layers of meaning to fit any age. The ideas that fill The Golden Compass are complex and interesting
for any reader, and perhaps even especially so for a Jewish reader, because of Judaism's constant
preoccupation with the state of the soul, or neshamah. Essentially, The Golden Compass is an
exploration of the human soul that takes on an animal form as a "daemon" in Lyra's world and our
connection to it. How far can a person and his or her soul be separated? What happens to our souls
as we grow and change? How are our souls connected to our minds? These are some of the questions
woven through the tale and they are certainly worth exploring, both within the context of Pullman's
extraordinary universe and, afterwards, in the solitary confines of our own imaginations.
This semester, give yourself a break and take some time to read The Golden Compass. After all,
you're never too old for a good book.
Hannah is a junior at Tufts University. She spent last semester in Seville, Spain and will spending the spring
in Chile. She doesn't think she is too old to read childrens books.