Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Golden Compass

Philip Pullman The Golden Compass (1995)
I sometimes have the feeling that as of about a week ago I was the last person on the planet who hadn't actually read this. Even the woman working the till in Nine Lives Books was raving about it, promising me I would love every syllable. She wasn't the first, which is possibly one reason why it's taken me so long. Quite aside from having been promoted as fantasy fiction - something to which I am not automatically well disposed due to an allergy to anything involving dwarves, quests, or magic swords - there was a point at which everyone I knew seemed to have read this thing and was telling me I should give it a go, and this is just your sort of thing often has the opposite of the intended effect with me. I say everyone I knew, although I suppose actually I mean Carl and Eddy, both of whom I love as brothers from other mothers, but it hadn't even been a year since they had both - quite independent of one another - urged me to read Harry Potter, and frankly I wouldn't touch that one with yours, mate. The nail in the coffin was probably Marian, my girlfriend of the time, telling me that I needed to read Philip Pullman. She was very good at giving me things to read, great at telling me what I needed to do, and shit at taking even the remotest interest in anything I myself had read or considered worthwhile, plus her previous recommendation had been Yann Martel's Life of Pi and I'd had to give that one up as a complete waste of time after about twenty pages.

Anyway, time has passed and there it was, so what the fuck I thought; and wow - I can, at long last, see that at least some of the fuss was justified; and by the way - I saw the film, but I couldn't remember the first fucking thing about it, and reading The Golden Compass failed to even jog my memory on that score, so I suppose it must have been fairly shit.

In the event of my not being the last person on the planet to have read this, The Golden Compass is set in its own entirely unique version of our world, technologically and culturally at a tangent to 1920 or thereabouts, except everyone understands quantum theory, world history has obviously taken a quite different course, and everyone has their own daemon - or companion spirit animal for the sake of argument. Talking bears have their own civilisation, and witches fly around on something which may as well be a broomstick. Despite this, it doesn't quite feel like fantasy fiction in so much as it lacks the traditionally sappy quality I associate with most of the genre. This is almost certainly down to the pants-wetting excellence of Pullman's narrative, his rich imagery, elegant, descriptive prose, and perfect sense of timing. It's been a while since I derived quite this much pleasure, or at least this kind of pleasure from the simple process of following words across a series of pages. Such is the power of Pullman's writing that one may not actually notice that this is, technically speaking, children's literature - major clues being witches and talking bears I suppose, even if you hadn't spotted the significance of the main character being a twelve-year old girl; but, like any decent children's literature, it doesn't pander or condescend, and the main themes are such as to render it adult-compatible. Additionally, such is the power of Pullman's writing that I didn't actually notice the story being hung upon a naughty child fleeing from authority, going on a quest, and ending with a massive scrap - normally the sort of stuff that bores me shitless, but The Golden Compass invests such well-trodden paths with fresh verdure, clearly demonstrating that the substance of the tale is in the telling more than the mechanics of plot, on which so many crappier writers tend to fixate.

As for what it's about, I'll probably save that until I've read the other two. Rooting around on the internet, I find that the trilogy as a whole is in some sense an inversion of Milton's Paradise Lost, of which I am generally ignorant, although I recognised certain themes which I assume are expanded in the second and third part. Additionally, I've been dimly aware of His Dark Materials being on the receiving end of criticism as an atheist diatribe, with the term atheism seemingly used in the sense of that stuff which corrupts our kids and makes them listen to devil music, and so on and so forth. I don't yet know what occurs later - maybe Lyra listens to a Slayer album and then injects some marijuanas or something - but it sounds like a hysterical accusation, at least based on this first part of the story. Whilst the forces of evil appear represented here by the Catholic church, or something fairly similar, I had a strong sense of Pullman criticising dogmatic bureaucracy and political power structures in general rather than too many specific articles of faith, and what specific articles of faith are discussed must surely be considered suitable subject for debate, otherwise the critics simply prove Pullman's point about dogma. Anyway, the Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to think His Dark Materials was all right, so there you go...

A book living up to its own hype is a rare thing, but this one does just that; and anyone approaching The Golden Compass whilst mindful of terms like atheist propaganda is probably too stupid to be reading in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. I think the battle between the two bears is the best fight sequence I've even seen in a book. I usually tend to skim over fighting but it was magnificent. I was really looking forward to the film just to see that but they completely buggered it up because the bears just didn't look solid or heavy enough. Such a wasted opportunity...