Title: The Golden Compass
Author: Philip Pullman
Date of Publication: 1995
Series: His Dark Materials
Awards: Carnegie Medal in the UK in 1995
Age Appropriateness: This is a difficult call for this book. If you intend to have your child read it, I would not recommend younger than sixteen. Even at this age, though, the elements of rebellion against authority would feed into a sense of teenage angst and would probably not be advisable even then.
Language: hell (5), half-arsed, damn, God as an exclamation (4)
A girl remembers that an adult beat her twice. An adult twists a child's arm and threatens to break it. A woman strikes a man. A child's ears are boxed. An adult demon (please see below for the discussion of demons) attacks a child's demon, causing the child pain. A child is chased and captured by two adults in a net while their demons attack her demon, causing her pain. The two adults are almost immediately killed by arrows, and blood gets on the child. A child hears the story of how her mother's husband (not her biological father) tried to kill her and her father, but her father shoots and kills her mother's husband instead. A child's demon is attacked by possessed clockwork bugs, causing the child pain. An anthropomorphized bear is attacked by humans while recovering his property. The bear almost bites someone's head off, but is stopped by a child. A man threatens to shoot people if they touch the bear's property. A bear kills a seal. A company of men is attacked with arrows and several are killed or wounded. A child is kidnapped.
A child is caught spying and is attacked by three men. She bites one of them, but they grab her demon, causing her intense pain and roughly forcing her to come with them. A child is forced into a cage so that her demon can be cut away from her. A child is forcibly separated from her demon, causing her pain. A woman is attacked by a possessed clockwork bug. Children throw snow at soldiers to blind the soldiers and protect themselves. Witches shoot soldiers who are preparing to shoot children. A bear attacks these same soldiers. An adult's demon attacks a child's demon, causing the child pain. The child is struck and dragged in a kidnapping attempt. Two children are roughly tossed around in a kidnapping attempt. The kidnappers are torn apart by a bear. A child is thrown forcibly into a cell. Two bears battle each other in graphic detail. The fight ends when one bear tears off the jaw of the other bear.
The victorious bear tears the other bear apart and eats his heart while it's still warm. Witches attack a group of bears and a child. Soldiers in a zeppelin shoot at bear with machine-guns. Bears use a fire-hurler to shoot down the zepplin. A child's demon is caught by an adult demon, causing the child pain. Two children flee while pursued by an adult's demon. An adult deliberately electrocutes a child's demon, killing the child.
A child sees two adults flirting. A child hears about an illicit sexual affair between her two parents (her mother was married to someone else). A child sees two adults passionately embracing. The child sees the man kiss the woman in a manner that "seemed more like cruelty than love." The demons of the two adults play in a way that looks like it should cause pain, but causes pleasure. A witch talks about how she stayed with a man long enough to bear his child.
Disturbing or scary elements:
A child sees a man try to poison another man. A child knocks a glass out of a man's hand. The man twists her arm behind her back painfully. He threatens to break her arm, and later threatens to make her wish she was dead. A child hears a discussion about a "severed child." A man shows a group the head of a man that's been scalped, trepanned (hole drilled into the skull) and mutilated. An adult's demon threatens a child. A child is told that two heretics were silenced by the Church. There is a rumor about children being kidnapped. A child is enticed away and his alcoholic mother blames herself for the fact she never sees him again. Childen discuss the theoretic kidnappers, the "Gobblers." Two children play in a catacomb among coffins and skulls.
A child plays with the skulls. A child has a nightmare about headless bodies. The Gobblers start kidnapping children in Oxford. Children discuss what the Gobblers do to their victims and whether they are pirates or cannibals. A girl hears that her best friend has disappeared and can't get any adults to help her. A girl discusses with her demon what might happen to the kidnapped children. She thinks they might be cut in half, or be enslaved. A child mentions how her parents died in an aircraft accident. A woman makes another woman leave her party and threatens to make her lose her job. A girl hears that the kidnapped children become a kind of sacrifice. The girl learns her guardian is behind the kidnappings and that her uncle is being held prisoner. A girl is pursued by two adults intent on kidnapping her. A girl is told fairly grotesque ghost stories about what haunts the northern forests. A girl is forced to hide when the police are looking for her.
A reference is made to feuds between "gyptian clans" leading to occasional bodies floating ashore. A girl is told that information about her had been gathered and relayed to others since her birth. A promise is made to avenge the kidnapping and harm of their children. A girl sees an badly injured man who is in considerable pain. The man talks about the ambush and death of his comrades. A child and her companion here that one of their comrades has been shot. A child is very seasick. A man talks about how he saved a witch who was being attacked by a giant bird. There is a discussion of the process of "intercision" being used on children. A girl sees a bear chewing a bloody chunk of meat and is frightened by the bear's presence. A bear feints at a man and frightens him. There is a discussion about the experimental station called Bolvangar, meaning fields of evil, and how animals avoid it because of the evil aura. A girl hears how a bear went on a rampage and killed at least two men. A girl's demon pulls away from her, causing her pain. A bear attacks a priest's house to recover his property. A demon is uneasy when he sees what he thinks might be an enemy demon. There is a discussion about the defences of Bolvangar and the soldiers who guard them having wolf demons.
A girl finds a boy without a demon, which in their world is an abomination, "unnatural and uncanny." The girl discovers that the kidnapped childen are having their demons cut away, like this boy. The demonless boy dies. A girl mourns the dead boy, and gives him a coin to replace his lost demon. A bear tells a girl that he was banished for killing another bear. A bear lets a girl see his claws and teeth and talks about how powerful they are. A girl asks a man about trepanning (boring holes in the skull) and he explains why people do it. A girl hears how her protector was injured. A girl and her demon are afraid of being cut apart and say that they'll kill people before they let that happen.
A kidnapper sells a kidnapped child to the experimental station. Children speculate about what happens to them at the experimental station and whether they'll be killed because none of them have come back from being taken from the other children. A girl tells how one of her friends was taken away, and another girl knows she is talking about the demon-less boy who died. The boy was promised by an adult that no harm would come to him, that he was just going to go to sleep for an operation, a cut that wouldn't hurt. A girl is taken from her friends by an adult. A girl finds the demons of the severed children kept in cages. A girl sees an adult whom she fears. A group of chilren talk about the adult who kidnapped them. A child overhears a conversation between adults about a method of separating children from thier demons. A child overhears how her father is under sentence of death.
A child overhears how an adult is eager to watch the demons being cut away from the children. A girl hears how adults who have captured her are going to cut away her demon to keep her from repeating what she's overheard. A child confronts a woman about the demons being cut away and the adult lies about what happens. Childen escape a burning building. Children see guards with rifles and wolves about to attack them. An officer gives orders to his troops to fire upon the fleeing childen. A girl bullies other children to keep moving through the snow to keep them from giving up. Children hear how their recuers killed a number of adults. A girl is told about a bear killing another bear. A girl remembers how she was nearly severed from her demon. A balloon carrying passengers is out of control in harsh weather. Strange, ugly creatures attack the balloon and are fought off. A child falls out of a balloon and fears that she's stranded. A girl is captured by bears. A child is frightened to hear that she is not alone in her cell.
A girl discovers that her cell-mate is crazy but not violent. A girl hears how her friend will be killed if he tries to rescue her. A girl learns how a bear killed his own father. A bear demonstrates how sharp his claws are and how strong is paws are on the carcass of a walrus. Bears talk about what they'll do when they fight to the death. A girl is afraid for prisoners in a palace being torn down. A girl helps heal a wounded bear and gets blood on her clothes. A girl nearly dies of cold in her sleep and her eyelids are temporarily frozen shut.
A girl eats a raw seal kidney. A girl hears about how a bear was drugged. A bear talks about how another Bolvangar was planned for their land, but is now prevented. A girl hears about how her friends were attacked. A father is horrified to see his daughter, thinking that he will have to kill her to complete his experiment. Instead, he kills her friend. A girl hears about how her father has kidnapped her friend to finish his experiment. A girl crosses a treacherous bridge, which almost collapses beneath her. A girl cradles her friend's dead body.
Morally problematical content: I have divided this section into sections to more easily cover some of the general issues as opposed to some of the more prevalent issues.
Adults consume poppies as a mild stimulant (poppies are the source of opium, which can be refined to make heroin). Three children smoke a stolen cigarette. A boy is described as having an alcoholic mother who is usually too drunk to take care of him. Two children steal wine and become so drunk they throw up. One of the children insists she still likes to feel that way.
Lying/Dishonesty/Stealing/Other Objectionable Content:
A girl sneaks into a room she's forbidden to enter and hides. Children engage in non-lethal warfare with each other. A girl tells lies with impunity, even though the adult she is speaking to is well aware of her duplicity. A boy steals food. A woman promises to deliver messages to the parents of kidnapped children, but has no intention of doing so. A girl tells gruesome stories about her uncle to another child. A child disobeys a direct order from the adult responsible for her in order to run around looking for her friend. A child screams at an adult that she hates them for not being concerned about her friend. A child is attracted to and decieved by an adult's glamour. This adult teaches the child things like how to apply make-up and behave like an adult.
A child disobeys an adult and is punished. A girl tells an adult scary stories for attention. A child runs away from an adult when the child discovers that this adult kidnapped her friend. A child tells a stranger lies. A boy tells a younger girl frightening stories about what might be happening to the kidnapped children. Anthropomorphized bears are spoken of as pitiless mercenaries. An adult speculates as to whether the kidnapped children are killed or not.
A girl finds out the story she has been told about her parents' death is a lie. A girl is told that her father's land and property were confiscated because he killed the husband of her mother to protect the girl. The child was placed in the care of a convent but her father took her from there and left her in the care of Oxford scholars instead because her father hates the Church. A child finds out that her father's wishes concerning her care have been disregarded, probably because her father is a prisoner. A man suggests that a group give up a child to the authorities because there is a bounty on the child's head and the authorities won't leave the group alone til she is found. A man speaks of revenge for the kidnapping of their children.
A girl insists she be brought along on a dangerous mission and tells herself that the adults can't stop her from going. Frightening rumors are told about a child wanted by the authorities. A man tells a child how a clockwork bug is powered by an evil spirit. A group of men gamble with cards. A child's body is cremated after he dies to prevent the body from being eaten by wild animals. A man describes to a child the process of trepanning (drilling holes in the skull), which is done so "the gods can talk to them." A child lies to her captors to keep them from finding out who she is. A child is made to undress to take a shower. An adult lies to a child about whether or not she was kidnapped, telling her she fell asleep and had a nightmare. He denies that the party she was with was attacked, also a lie. Children talk fearfully about having their demons cut away. An adult lies to a child about what having a demon cut away is like.
A child blows up a building to allow other children to escape the experimental station. An adult helping the heroine asks one of her friends if he will be duly compensated for his efforts and asks if there is going to be any more trouble. A child lies to and flatters a mad man in order to get information. A girl lies to and tricks the king of the bears. A girl feels rejected by her father when he seems upset to see her. A verse from The Book of Genesis is quoted, but has clearly been tampered with by the author to distort the original meaning. An adult compares the cutting away of a child's demon to the Church's creation of castrati. An adult claims he can destroy original sin and death. A child believes an adult is crazy, but doubts her ability to judge him. A child wonders why "they" hate children so much and want to tear them apart. An adult says he wants to end the Church and "all those centuries of darkness." A man claims he cares about a woman, but if she leaves him, he won't give her another thought. A child decides to go seek out Dust (see below).
An alternate universe is visible in the Aurora Borealis, apparently revealing where Dust comes from. An alethiometer ("truth-reader") warns against an adult's research. A prophecy warns of a girl making a great betrayal. The alethiometer is placed into a child's care. Adults can only ask questions of and receive answers from it when they have years of study and many books. The child teaches herself to read the alethiometer with almost no effort at all. A group of adults bring this child on a dangerous mission because she can read it. It is said to answer questions like an intelligent being and its knowledge is flawless and omniscient. They are said to originate in Prague as the result of an experiment to create a compass to detect the planets.
Demons: Demons in the book are defined as a person's soul, but, in this alternate universe, are not only physically separate from a person's body as an animal, but are usually the opposite gender and often have a conflicting personality. For example, the heroine's demon often tries unsuccessfully to keep her from doing something naughty, scary or dangerous. A child's demon can change forms at will, but an adult's demon will be fixed in a form that says something about the person's personality. For example, servants have dog demons. A demon dissolves when an person is killed. There is a prohibition against touching another person's demon. Unwanted contact with a demon causes the demons owner nausea and severe pain. Such contact is considered unnatural.
It is said that it is better to die than to have one's demon cut away. A child who is separated from his demon looks for it til he dies. People are afraid of a person without a demon as they would be afraid of a ghost. Children talk about having their demons experimented on and are uncomfortable. Struggles between children are resolved by discovering who has the stronger demon. Demons can be cut away and still stay near their human, but then both the human and demon have no will of thier own and are just mindless slaves that do others bidding. Demons are said to be what makes people different from animals.
Witches: They are a race of females who mate with human males to produce offspring. They live for hundreds of years, stay young, and dress in "strips of black silk." They fly and can separate themselves from their demons for long distances. One of the heroine's friends saved a witch's life and had a son by the witch, so that witch clan agrees to help the heroine's friends. The witches also employ men as servants. The witches have prophecies from hearing "immortal whispers," especially one referring to a child who has a great destiny to fulfill. They believe in predestination and know about the proximity of thousands of other alternate universes. Different clans ally themselves with different groups, both good and evil. They fly to war in great numbers.
Witch demons can also perform magic, like unlocking doors with snow. Witches are also incredible archers and don't follow a concept of personal property. The cold doesn't harm them, so they can do without heavy clothes (bare arms are mentioned frequently in connection with them). A witch tells a child that "there are secrets even from the most high" in connection with destiny.
The Church: In this alternate universe, the Church (clearly Catholic Christianity), referred to as the Magisterium, retains many of its defining outward characteristics (priests, nuns, saints, oratories, etc.) but has a huge amount of secular authority. It is responsible for the actions of the Oblation Board (called after the medieval practice of oblates), which kidnaps children and tortures them by cutting away their demons. The Church's chief concern is "experimental theology": scientific research often conducted in violation of human rights.
The Church supports Mrs. Coulter, who originated the idea of cutting children's demons away. Mrs. Coulter is deliberately associated with the Madonna in imagery. The Church is also spoken of as reinstating the Inquisition. Experiments are referred to as "theological matters." The Church has the power to impose and execute a death sentence. The Church fears Dust and is trying to find a way to do without it. The Church says that dust is the physical manifestation of original sin.
Dust: For most of the book, this element is defined as an elementary particle with peculiar habits. It is attracted to humans, specifically adults. Dust does not appear to be attracted to children. Dust is apparently what powers the alethiometer. It is somehow connected with whether or not a person's demon can change and is partly what is being researched at the experimental station. The heroine is told by an (evil) adult that it is bad, wrong, evil, but that if children have their demons cut away, they won't ever have to worry about Dust. The heroine decides that if so many bad adults think that Dust is bad, Dust must be a good thing.
Armored Bears: A bear is incomplete without his armor. A bear is paid for his services with alcohol. The bear also allowed himself to become inebriated at a previous time, which led to his bondage among humans, when they stole his armor. His armor is apparently, like a human's demon, his soul. A bear, however, makes his own armor. A bear threatens to kill people if they stand between him and his armor. A bear can only be tricked when he is acting like a human (getting drunk, for example, is a human thing). Bears treat their prisoners well in case the prisoners can be useful to them later. The king of the bears wants to be human and wants to be baptized as a human. A bear names a child "silvertongue" when she succeeds in lying to another bear. A bear defeats another bear in battle by trickery.
The story itself is fairly well-paced, though it stutters along at times and some of the relationships between the characters don't have enough explanation. It must be said, however, that to use the excuse of a parallel universe to attack an existing institution with blantant untruths is puerile in the extreme. Also, there are clear elements of wish-fulfillment (for example, the witches who are very sensual and nearly ageless). The story also lacks a clear sense of right and wrong. The Golden Compass lacks the moral compass that make epic fiction memorable and applicable to reality.
This a complicated area for this book. Most of the traditional authority figures in the book are evil and intent on harming helpless children. Lyra, the heroine, though a thoroughly engaging waif, is, as her name might imply, a liar. She seeks to protect her friends, but unwittingly betrays one to his death. Lyra's parents are wicked and disfunctional in the extreme, and neither actually care for their child. Lyra's decision as the book ends is probably the closest one can come to an overall message: If all the authority figures think something is bad, then it must be good.
Buy it here: While I try to be as objective as possible in other areas of this review, here I must follow my conscience. I have deliberately neglected to provide a link for the purchase of this book from my site. I do not wish to be held responsible for anyone buying this book, even if it would profit me financially.
As a Christian parent, I would never allow my child to read this book, as I would not allow him to read anything I felt was detrimental to his moral well-being. The decisions he makes for himself in adulthood, of course, will be his own. I would hope, after seeing the contents of the book, other Christian parents would feel the same and NOT support the book nor the upcoming film.