Reading by Ear: The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
performed by a full cast

I was first introduced His Dark Materials in middle school. A teacher lent me a copy of The Golden Compass, which I read, but I think I only adventured into The Subtle Knife a little. Later, I bought myself a nice box set of the series, which is when I read The Amber Spyglass. I remember sitting up in bed and finishing it, because I didn’t want to take the copies to school with me. After finishing up my Harry Potter relisten, I was starting to feel nostalgic for the series I read as a child. Be thankful there aren’t Babysitter’s Club audiobooks. (…or are there?)

The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights in the UK) takes place in a world different from ours, the chief difference being that people’s souls live outside them as animal spirits known as dæmons. Lyra, a young orphan who has been essentially half-raised and half-neglected by Jordan College in Oxford, saves her uncle Lord Asriel’s life when the Master of Jordan College tries to poison him. With this act and her impending coming of age, Lyra is pulled into a world of intrigue, child kidnappers, vile experiments, armored bears, witches, and, last but not least, the “golden compass” itself, a rare instrument that only Lyra can use to discover the truth.

I first read The Golden Compass a very long time ago, but the ending has always stuck with me. It may, in fact, be the reason I love desperate chases across icy tundras to this day. Besides the ambiguous ending of The Giver, which I read in middle school, this was the first book I read as a kid that actually had a downer ending. But it was the bitterness that made it all the more real, and that’s something Pullman seems to very conscious about doing. Lyra might be a child, but this isn’t a world that revolves at her level. There’s a brilliant moment where Lyra is concocting an escape plan, and Pullman points out that a child with imagination would realize that their chances were utterly hopeless. While Lyra is an engaging character, it’s often sheer luck and clever talk that propels her on her journey to save Roger, her best friend, from the child snatching Gobblers. The world Lyra inhabits is a real world, with cursing, religion, children’s skewed priorities, the awkwardness of growing up, and death.

The fact that the worldbuilding holds up very well definitely helps. The only truly fantastical elements are dæmons, witches, and talking armored bears; the rest is alternate history with a dash of steampunk to account for the zeppelins. (While a date corresponding with our world is never given, it feels very 1920s to me.) I’ve always been charmed by New France, I’m not going to lie. Pullman maintains the laws and limitations of his world and plays with them—the connection between people and their dæmons is an integral part of this novel, and you buy into it so much so that when we meet a witch’s dæmon, who can travel without his human, it does feel unnatural and violent to the reader. Worldbuilding, especially in children’s literature, can sometimes feel wobbly, so it’s delightful to find Pullman writing with a sure hand.

I’ve never found His Dark Materials as a whole to be particularly anti-religious, but I think that’s a discussion best left for when I get to The Amber Spyglass. But I was more interested this time in the class inequality in Lyra’s world. While it’s part of the setting that I don’t recall is particularly dealt with, I was very interested by the fact that servants always have dog dæmons. Lyra, whose parents are part of the aristocracy, has a remarkably elastic notion of class, as she’s still a child; she adjusts to every situation she’s thrust into. I’ll keep an eye on this as the series progresses and we meet people from our twentieth century.

This was my first full cast audio recording; I’d actually heard some of it before in this fantastic cut of the film adaptation’s deleted ending, although I didn’t know where it was from. Pullman reads the narration and, occasionally, the aliethometer. It was quite a fascinating experience, to have the characterizations provided by a whole cast. Joanna Wyatt is a sly, clever Lyra who also carries the emotional moments well. While some of the children are voiced by adult women (I was surprised to discover the woman who played Serafina Pekkala also played Roger!), the production does a fine job of utilizing actual children to make the proceedings sound more authentic. I did think Mrs. Coulter sounded a little too young, especially against Stan Barrett’s particularly gruff Lord Asriel. I look forward to finishing off the series with this cast and seeking out full cast productions for other audiobooks.

Bottom line: The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights based on your location!) is a sure-handed and deftly executed children’s book set in a very real world. Recommended.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

6 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: The Golden Compass

  1. Great post! I love full-cast audio recordings (I have a tendency to still call them radio plays, although I guess a lot are direct-to-CD). You should check out the BBC Sherlock Holmes series with Clive Merrison and Michael Williams, the only Holmes and Watson actors to do all sixty stories. I may have to bump *His Dark Materials* up on my reading list.

  2. I don’t know that I’m totally on-board with Pullman’s hatred for religion and C. S. Lewis in particular, but I very much admire this series for how much it respects the ability of children to grapple with difficult, adult issues. This is very much the kind of children’s novel that I wish I could write.

  3. I have the three books on my shelves and although I have heard incredible things about all of them I haven’t even begun to get around to them. I might have to check out the audio.

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