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Top 100 Children’s Novels #28: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

#28 The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (1995)
61 points

It’s refreshing when children’s literature tackles grand themes and trusts that the reader can handle them. Such is the case with Philip Pullman’s landmark 1995 fantasy. What’s more grand than a meditation on the human soul? But maybe Pullman’s greatest feat was to craft a story that is exceptional for all, full of bear kings, cowboy aeronauts, and animal “daemons”, it’s a mind-expanding trip. – Travis Jonker

Glorious. And what an ending — simply operatic. – Emily Myhr

For the first time I need to make a titular decision. Do I stay with the Yankee moniker “The Golden Compass” and list the book that way, or do I reach back to the book’s original British roots and call it “Northern Lights”, as was originally intended? Since I didn’t decide to list Pippi Longstocking as Boken Om Pippi Langstrump, I’ll continue to name the books here under their Americanized names. I am, after all, a Yankee.

The synopsis from the publisher reads, “The action follows 11-year-old protagonist Lyra Belacqua, accompanied by her daemon, from her home at Oxford University to the frozen wastes of the North, on a quest to save kidnapped children from the evil ‘Gobblers,’ who are using them as part of a sinister experiment. Lyra also must rescue her father from the Panserbjorne, a race of talking, armored, mercenary polar bears holding him captive. Joining Lyra are a vagabond troop of gyptians (gypsies), witches, an outcast bear, and a Texan in a hot air balloon.”

I may have come to the adult world of children’s literature thanks to Harry Potter, but it was Pullman who pulled me in the rest of the way.  Living in Portland, Oregon shortly after graduating college (a lovely town to live in, but not ideal for the penniless post-student) I spent a lot of time in Powell’s Bookstore.  One day I read an article in the paper that was accompanied by an image of a large cat boxing with Harry Potter and winning.  The gist of the piece was that Harry was all well and good, but if you wanted some serious children’s literature you wanted to get your hands on the His Dark Materials books.  That’s how they sold Pullman’s series at the start.  Reviewers would contemptuously pooh-pooh the Harry Potter phenomenon in light of Pullman’s sophistication.  You weren’t supposed to like them both.  Many did.  And in the coffee shop portion of Powell’s I devoured all three books and found them gripping, each and every one.

The term “embarrassment of riches” comes to mind when searching for information about this book.  Particularly in terms of literary scholarship.  So the question becomes less, “what is there to say?” and more “what should I not bother to say?”  Let us begin at the very beginning then.

In a conversation with Leonard Marcus (found in the book The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy), Pullman describes the “lonely” process of writing the first two books, his dinner with Tolkien, and whether or not he had a plan in mind for the three books from the start. “Not a plan. But I knew what the story was going to be and where it was going to go and when it was going to end, and roughly how long it was going to be. I didn’t intend to write three books. I intended to write a long story. But it very quickly became evident that it would have to be published as three books because otherwise it would just sit on the shelves. It probably wouldn’t have gotten published. Who would publish a thirteen-hundred-page-long book for children?”

This statement actually helps better put into context this critique by Charles de Lint in the January 1997 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction:

“… for all its positive aspects, The Golden Compass falls prey to the same problem besetting too many fantasy novels that have appeared since Tolkien inadvertently invented the fantasy genre in the fifties: There is no closure because the book is only the first part of a trilogy. After four hundred pages, the plot simply peters out and the author expects readers to wait at least two more years to have the whole story in hand. Fantasy and sf are the only genres that charge their readers three times the cover price of a regular book to give them a compete story because. . .well, that’s how Tolkien did it, the irony being that The Lord of the Rings wasn’t written as a trilogy, but arbitrarily broken up into three books by its publisher. There’s nothing wrong with a series, or with continuing a theme from one book to another, but the author should at least play fair with his readers. The Golden Compass doesn’t do so, continuing the unfortunate trend.”

Generally speaking, if you write a book in which the church is made up of crazed fanatics, even if it’s in an alternative world you’re going to find yourself at the receiving end of a bit of anger.  And he didn’t even kill off God in this one!  Yet as of September 2009, The Guardian reported that Philip Pullman was ranked second in the top ten books that people have tried to ban in America.

In the November 2007 issue of Kliatt, Marissa Elliot had a different idea of why folks may object to the books. “For many adults, the idea of introducing their children to an ambiguous world, even in literature, is disconcerting. It is easier to keep life simple, to save the questions for another day. Pullman’s writing has received some criticism and spurred concern from parents because, it is said, of the novel’s religious implications. But perhaps the fear is more basic in nature. Fantasy is generally predictable with a safe, triumphant conclusion and characters easily categorized as ‘villain’ or ‘hero.’ Not so with Pullman. Readers will find good people making horrendous mistakes and bad people making justifiable choices.”

You may recall how pleased I was earlier on this list with artist Leighton Johns’ pulp horror cover of The Witches. Well he did one for The Golden Compass as well, and as I see it, it’s pretty swell.

This is also amusing.  A luxury item that completely misses the very point of what the golden compass even is.

Publishers Weekly said of it, “As always, Pullman is a master at combining impeccable characterizations and seamless plotting, maintaining a crackling pace to create scene upon scene of almost unbearable tension. This glittering gem will leave readers of all ages eagerly awaiting the next installment of Lyra’s adventures.”

Said Kirkus , “Lyra may suffer from excessive spunk, but she is thorough, intelligent, and charming. The author’s care in recreating Victorian speech affectations never hinders the action; copious amounts of gore will not dissuade the squeamish, for resonating at the story’s center is the twinkling image of a celestial city. This first fantastic installment of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy propels readers along with horror and high adventure, a shattering tale that begins with a promise and delivers an entire universe.”

Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books thought, “Treachery, tricks, Gypsies, polar bears, witches, and photography all play a part in the ambitious story, and Pullman is particularly inventive in the way he blends not-quite science with not-quite magic. Although the book sometimes seems overly cerebral–Lyra seems more a pawn to the plot than a personality, for example–the faithful (and sometimes nasty, depending on their humans) damons give it some heart.”

Booklist said it was, “A totally involving, intricately plotted fantasy that will leave readers clamoring for the sequels.”

Horn Book said, “Touching, exciting, and mysterious by turns, this is a splendid work.”

And as School Library Journal put it, “There is some fine descriptive writing, filled with the kind of details that encourage suspension of disbelief. The story line moves along at a rapid clip, but flags when it delves into philosophical matters.”

The different covers abound.  This first one here will always be my favorite.

And has a fantastic array of foreign covers for the book as well.

A film was made of it as well.  Perhaps you heard of it.  Didn’t do particularly well commercially, I’m afraid, but at least the bear fight was stellar.

A little less well known was the stage play. It played in London and combined the three books into a single (long) show. You can see some of the effects from it here.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Below is a link about how the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films led to the impossibility of Golden Compass sequels.

    In short LoTR and Golden Compass were both financed the same way (pre-selling intl distribution rights of a trilogy to finance the first installment). But when parent company Warner Bros. absorbed New Line, WB did not want to make the Dark Materials sequels because they contractually would not be able to distributed them themselves overseas (where the first film made $300 million [it did do poorly here in the US though]) because the intl distribution rights were already held by a variety of local distributors across Europe and Asia.

  2. Jennifer in GA says

    I tried to get through the book and I was just…bored. I don’t get the love for it at all.

  3. I was fine with it until the last five pages, then that was it. You don’t kill children. Never had any urge to read the others, especially with the bogus theology. Pthagh.

  4. I was waiting for this series to show up…am so glad it’s this high on the list. Brilliant, magical writing.

  5. This is one that I just don’t get. I only read Golden Compass, and didn’t bother with the others because I found GC to be quite boring. Maybe one day I’ll go back and re-read, but at this point I’m not in any hurry.

  6. I also only read the first one and didn’t have any desire to read the others. I also still don’t believe that this is a children’s book. As far as I’m concerned it’s strictly in the YA camp.

  7. I was amused by this detail: Many voted for The Golden Compass. Many voted for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I didn’t notice anyone vote for both! (Though I may have missed some who voted in the form.) I’m firmly team LION myself, though I did find this book impressive. Not exactly lovable, though.

    (I find this amusing because I believe Philip Pullman talked about writing this book as an atheist’s response to C. S. Lewis.)

    And the whole issue of alternate worlds? To me that goes against the very point of Story. If there are infinitely many other worlds where Lyra is making other choices, well, then why the heck tell us about this one?

    You do have to give him that he’s mighty good at world-building.

  8. I loved this book so much when I first read it (I think I was 14), but I did not like the other two. I thought the second one was boring, and the third one just infuriating.

  9. Mary Ann Armstrong says

    I was very impressed with the Golden Compass which I read as an adult. I read it to my daughter who also listened to the tapes (BBC i think) and she loved it. The next two became progressively less enchanting, duller and meaner. We are Catholics and by the end the nasty portrayal of anyone who was religious was really offensive and stupid.