Posted by: Nathan | January 2, 2008

The Golden Compass Underwhelms

Seeing all the previews for The Golden Compass (the movie), I decided to read the original and see what the hype was all about. J said we had a copy from a class she took at Bethel, so I dived into Pullman’s fantasy world that looked so interesting. Unfortunately, I was severely disappointed with the whole work.

golden_compass.jpgI’m going to attempt to avoid a thrashing of this book; it has its strong points. I don’t remember if I began Compass before I knew of Pullman’s atheist persuasion or not, but there will be no anti-athiest rant here and certainly no mandate to boycott the book: “Test everything. Hold onto the good” (1 Thess 5:21). I will give the usual word to my brothers and sisters in the Lord: don’t fear anything, especially not a book, and remember that all non-believers are observing what you say and do. If you angrily oppose reading a juvenile literature book, how will that attract anyone to the faith?* So we’re going to look at this novel as a book.

Compass is a book of interesting ideas and boring action. Pullman introduces the mystery of the book early on (Dust, the parallel universe, etc.) and proceeds to ignore it for 350 pages. In those pages, we follow the (mis)adventures of Lyra, a snotty kid from Oxford for whom, despite her various irritating qualities (including pride, rudeness, and poor grammar), we are supposed to care. I imagine this section of the book appeals to younger readers—it is a book aimed at teens—but there’s nothing that appeals to me as an adult beyond the mystery part. Thus, for the majority of the book, I was bored.

Now I come to what was good in this work. Pullman’s ability to weave a deeper mystery is pretty good, and many of the events and items that relate to this part of the book are enjoyable. The althiometer** (the compass) is a device that reveals the truth via symbols to a select few who can read it. Of course, Lyra is one of these folks, but the idea is well-conceived. Also well done are the city in the Aurora, the idea of Dust, and the exploration of the connection between body and soul that we witness in the phenomenon of “daemons”—small animals representing a person’s inner state (not interstate).

Not much else was notable. I begin the list of charges with the poor construction of Pullman’s fantasy universe. Firstly, the author drops his readers into said universe without any explanation of where they are; this is especially troubling because it’s a world with some carryover from ours, e.g. London, Oxford, and Texas exist, but in different forms. So the reader encounters multiple familiar concepts coexisting with strange ones. All this would be easier if Pullman had bothered to make a map of his world, but he didn’t. So I never knew where the story was geographically. It starts in London and goes north, then more north, and then still more north. Wow, that’s helpful.

Perhaps I would’ve cast aside the poor imagining of this universe if the book jacket hadn’t favorably compared Pullman to Carroll, Lewis and Tolkien. I don’t know what this reviewer was thinking; maybe squi forgot the brightness and depth of Narnia and the unthinkable, beautiful completeness of Middle Earth. I hope so. Lewis’ world is 5x the place that Pullman’s book presents; Tolkien’s, 10x. Pullman is out of his league here and it shows on every page.

Second, other reviewers praised Pullman’s prose, when in fact it is horrendous. Again, maybe the reviewers had been reading garbage and Compass was a pleasant surprise; otherwise, the accolades are preposterous. The prose here is unfocused, poorly executed, and inconsistent. There are indeed parts wherein I could delve into the words without a distraction from the diction, but they were always short-lived. There are horrific sections, like the bewilderingly terrible epic similes during the polar bear fight. Yes, I see that you want us to feel how big these collisions are, Mr. Pullman, but leave the epic similes for your man Milton. Yours are noisome. The dialog is also dreadful at times, e.g. when Lyra confronts a character with the fact that she knows he’s her father; his response: “So what?” SO WHAT?!? What is he, 12? Blegh. There are more disgusting plot events, but I don’t like to give away too much about a book, even a bad one.

I’ll try to sum up the rest of my critiques briefly. We spend the entirety of the novel with Lyra, but she’s constantly annoying and I never cared about what happened to her; that’s a problem. Many of the events of the plot are either cliché, absurd, or both. Escaping an orphanage by pulling a fire alarm? Really? Also, and perhaps most heinous, Wells Fargo Bank exists in this parallel universe. I think some of my breakfast came up at that point.

Honestly, dear reader, you’ll probably think The Golden Compass is fine and slightly amusing, but don’t settle for that. The more I thought about this book, the less I liked it. There were many days when I didn’t want to open its pages but did so because that’s all I had to read on the train. It’s not worth your time, and it’s certainly unworthy of the shower of ovations it has received. D+, 4/10. I don’t want to read it again, and I will not finish the trilogy.

If Pullman wrote this to rival Narnia, he has failed and failed terribly. This is probably because there is nothing at the center of this book, while Narnia has everything behind its construction.

*For further discussion of how a Christian relates to literature, cf. Areopagitica, John Milton.

**The althiometer is neat, but Lyra doesn’t use it in the way that any of the rest of us would. I would ask, “What is Dust and is it good?” This, of course, would make for a very short read but a better one. Strange that an atheist, who must believe in the complete relativity of truth (otherwise he’s on the path to a religion) would have a compass that gives only objective truths.


  1. I gave up on the book while Lyra was still at Oxford, so I can’t disagree or agree with your assessments. But I loved this review. It probably helps that the book upset you, as negative reviews are usually more fun to read than positive ones. A high point of my day at the office so far.

    I also appreciated your “usual word to [your] brothers and sisters in the Lord”. It’s unfortunate that they need to be so often repeated, but you’ve done so with an efficiency and gentleness that I mistakenly would have neglected had I tried.

    Great review!

  2. “Also, and perhaps most heinous, Wells Fargo Bank exists in this parallel universe. I think some of my breakfast came up at that point.”

    I almost lost my lunch laughing. As Jason said, an excellent review.

  3. I also enjoyed your review! Pullman’s writing certainly didn’t live up to the hype. Lyra was annoying (although I found her less so in the next two books, whether that was because the action picks up after the painful Oxford children interaction, Lyra matured, or I grew desensitized, I don’t know).

    I often wished Lyra would ask the alethiometer more pertinent questions. As you stated, good questions would ruin the plot, but that’s the problem with the creation, as cool as it sounded.

    As far as the religious aspect goes, I would agree that Pullman’s beliefs don’t merit boycotting the trilogy. On the other hand, I think his anti-Christian push (mainly in the last book, although in the second as well) is a significant flaw in the writing. There’s a difference between writing from an atheistic perspective and writing as an attack on a particular religion, and parts of the trilogy read as poor propaganda.

    Douglas Adams, for example, presents atheism organically. By the time I finished The Hitchhiker’s Guide “trilogy”, I could see the universe without design or purpose, where everything comes down to possibility and probability. Pullman’s attacks felt gratuitous, like the author had an axe to grind and subverts the story to do so. This may not be a reason to boycott the books, but I still found it distasteful.

  4. Way to bring up Douglas Adams, JL! I’ve only read the first two books of the 5.1 part series, but I still know exactly what you mean and agree wholeheartedly.

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