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What is the Golden Compass?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2016
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The Golden Compass is the American title, and now film of the first book in author Philip Pullman's fantasy series, His Dark Materials. Initially published in England, the book was titled Northern Lights and was retitled for American publication. The Golden Compass is the first book in a trilogy and was published in 1995.

The story of The Golden Compass surrounds the fate of two children, with the main character Lyra, an orphan, setting out on a journey to rescue her friend Roger. In Pullman’s work, souls are outwardly expressed by animal figures called daemons, and Lyra learns that a group called the Gobblers, led by Mrs. Coulter, is kidnapping children. The Gobblers are in truth an organization called the General Oblation Board that has been purposefully experimenting on children by stripping away their daemons.

Before Roger is kidnapped, Lyra is given the Golden Compass. This is not a directional device, but a device used to answer questions asked by the person using it. Lyra initially can’t figure out how to use it, but eventually becomes skilled at using it after she has realized Mrs. Coulter’s connection to the Gobblers and runs away with a group of people called the Gyptians.

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Lyra is unsuccessful in rescuing Roger, but his death opens up passageways to parallel worlds that form the basis for the next two stories. Much like the Narnia stories, The Golden Compass has a multiverse structure. Unlike C.S. Lewis’ books, Pullman’s work has been criticized as significantly anti-Christian and especially opposed to organized religion. In fact, the Golden Compass series represents a counterpoint argument against Narnia, with Lyra’s eventual goal to depose a God that is unjust, and destroy a world where politics and religion have become inextricably intertwined.

Pullman asserts that his book doesn’t have much to do with Christianity, and it is true that the children and many other characters act with the upright principles ascribed to Christianity. In fact, lovers of the book praise the forthrightness and goodness, as well as moral center of the children. There is significant argument in the book against theocracy, which Pullman makes no attempt to deny or hide. The Golden Compass and its sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass do spark controversy, with some religious groups opposing the books strongly and others suggesting that their moral tone is well in keeping with Christian beliefs.

The Golden Compass has received numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction. The film version released in 2007, though considered to have formidable special effects, was not as well received critically. It also carried a PG-13 rating, which meant many parents opted for their children not to view the film.

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