The Golden Compass Page by Page
Chapter 1 - The Decanter of Tokay

Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening hall,
taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
(HDM 1, ch. 1, pg. 3, para. 1)


Stop right there.

This first sentence alone sold me on this entire universe and impressed the hell out of me both as a reader and a writer.

When I write fantasy or sci-fi type stories, one of the hardest things I have to deal with is how to introduce the reader to “exotic” aspects of my alternate universe in a way that doesn't distract from the characters and action or seem gimmicky.

And even when I do encounter challenges such as these, none of them are in any way as disruptive as Pullman’s dæmon concept.

This isn’t just a historical or technological divergence here, Pullman’s dæmons reinvent the very concept of the human being on a fundamental level.

It’s an interesting balancing act Pullman plays in the first few pages of The Golden Compass, because he very boldly begins the story from the first few words as though the reader already knows all about dæmons are and would  naturally expect Lyra to have a dæmon.

As a matter of fact, I could see the first mention of the dæmon as being almost intended to be overlooked, because the majority of the sentence focuses on the setting and the action.

I admire this personally because if I had ever come up with something as ingenious as Pullman’s dæmon concept, I fear I would flaunt it and make a sickening gimmick of it before the first page was through.

The still unnamed dæmon is not mentioned again until more than halfway through the page in the third paragraph when he gets his first bit of dialog, showing (and not telling) that this dæmon is capable of speech, and then in the following paragraph that he has a name, Pantalaimon.

At the top of Page 5 we see for the first time that the Butler also has a dæmon. I really don’t mean for this to be a play-by-play of each time a dæmon is mentioned, but it interests me to study how Pullman introduces this totally alien concept of a person as a dual-being so casually and believably.

We get a parenthetical note here that the Butler’s dæmon is a dog, and that all other servant's dæmons are dogs as well, an idea that I’ll probably get into discussing later on in this feature.
On this page the Butler mentions that he has decanted a bottle of 1898 Tokay for Lord Asriel. If I remember correctly this is the only direct mention of a date in the entire trilogy, and I don’t remember there being any hints that would allow me to deduce a year in which the story is set.

Based on what we learn in The Subtle Knife, I can guess that His Dark Materials is set between the years 1994 and 1998 in our universe, but they are no clues as to the date or year of Lyra’s world. The Tokay is as close a clue as Pullman gets, and since the supply of 98’ Tokay is said to be running low, 1898 likely passed a decade or more ago, though I know little about wine or how long its typically left to age.

The presence of the Master’s wardrobe being full of academic robes (which as far as I know are only for commencement ceremonies these days) began to plant the image of an old fashioned setting.

Lyra and Pan argue about whether or not they should be spying on scholars in the Retiring Room, and Lyra says,

“Everyone knows they get up to something secret.
 They have a ritual or something. And I just wanted to know what it is.”
(HDM 1, ch. 1, pg. 8, para. 10)

I can totally relate to this, because once back when I was twelve, I had my parents thinking I had school one day when it was actually a vacation day, and I “faked” going to school and was actually hiding in my closet spying on the goings on around me as best I could, though nothing interesting came of it this misadventure except an amusing story to tell at times like these.
Halfway down Page 9 we encounter the first of many of Pullman’s “esoteric renamings”, the mention of the nation of “Muscovy”, which in the context of it’s appearance (with some basic knowledge of Russian history) is easily understood to be analogous to our world’s Russia.

A bit further down in Paragraph 10, we get another esoteric renaming.

The common room and the library were lit by anbaric power,
but the Scholars preferred the older, softer naphtha lamps in the Retiring Room.
(HDM 1, ch. 1, pg. 9, para. 10)

I paused at this sentence on my first reading. I had to stop and wonder what “anbaric power” was. The first thing I noticed was that anbaric was not capitalized and therefore could not have been a proper noun. My next hint was its comparison to “naphtha”, which I know as the liquid fuel I fill my lighter with, so I figured this ment an oil lamp, so therefore the “anbaric power” light must be a more modern version of an oil lamp.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to imagine at first, because though the word “anbaric” is never mentioned in the script of the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, “anbaric engines” were depicted in the movie as gyroscopic armillary orbs pulsing with electricity, while in the source material “anbaric technology” is not depicted as anything more than normal electricity as it might have existed in the 1920s.

My personal image of anbaric technology would be something like a cross between electicity and gas, that it would travel through a small hose about the diameter of a dime rather than a thin insulated wire, and that it was somehow a bit more “alive” and “raw” as opposed to electicity in our world which is fairly tame and stable as applied in our homes. Come to think of it, this image was probably inspired by the video game Final Fantasy VII, in which home interiors were strewn with pipes that delivered “Mako energy” into electric appliances.

The universe depicted in The Golden Compass is often described as being “steampunk”. The exotification of electricity into “anbaric power” probably adds to the feel that this world’s technology is of a different age or nature than our own, but as far as I can remember the only mention of a steam engine of any kind is a steam train said to be waiting to take Lord Asriel to London, and all the road vehicles such as tractors are said to be powered by “gas” engines, which if you're American, I should specifies means an actual gas such as hydrogen rather than gasoline. Nuclear power and atomic weapons are even mentioned as existing in Lyra’s world.

Perhaps the most “steampunk” aspect of the universe as Pullman depicts it is the presence of airships as a common means of air travel. The world may have a somewhat unique technological feel, but I really don’t find that to be enough to categorize The Golden Compass as a steampunk work.

I’d also think now would be a good time to mention that the Lord Asriel in my head will always, indelibly be Daniel Craig with his Blue! eyes thanks to the film adaptation, and I don't mind that one bit.

Chapter 1 concludes as Lyra stops Lord Asriel from drinking the poisoned wine and nearly gets her arm broken as a reward. Lyra then and sits hunkered down in the wardrobe while Asriel strokes his dæmon (boy does that sound suggestive) and drinks coffee while his manservants wait on him and prepare his projector.

For some reason I got a kick out of Thorold filling the projector’s oil tank and asking Lord Asriel if he would like a “technician” to operate the projector for him. I don’t know why, its just a little detail I found appealing.

Now, I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss my admiration for the way Pullman opens this book and introduces and expresses the idea of dæmons.

The premise of a speculative fiction work can often be defined by a “What if?” question such as “What if the Mayflower sank?”, or “What if steam power dominated modern technology?” or “What if the Confederates won the Civil War?”.

If Earth was a car, these “what if” questions could be seen as ways to modify the car with different paint jobs, engines, wheels, and other parts and experiment with the results.

In The Golden Compass, Pullman asks (among other things), “What if the soul or psyches of human beings were physical creatures that served as mentors and companions rather than invisible metaphysical constructs?”

The “What if?” Pullman’s dæmons represent in The Golden Compass isn’t just the same car with a different engine, it’s like replacing the car with an airplane. As I said earlier, it reinvents the concept of the human being on a fundamental level.

The idea of people’s souls existing physical creatures is a fascinating, disruptive concept, and just hearing about this aspect of the story alone immediately sold me on His Dark Materials and had me wanting to read the books and see the movie before I knew anything else about them.

Dæmons themselves may be a cool idea, but its the subtle, natural, nonchalant way in which Pullman introduces them that make them a completely believable and authentic part of Lyra’s universe rather than a gimmick.

It doesn't just leave the reader wondering what having a physical dæmon might be like, it leads them into wondering about themselves as they are; about what enables their conscience and internal dialog and allows them to contemplate themselves.

As someone who has been having deliberate internal self-conversations since I was six years old, and someone who has been fascinated with alternate universes, human/creature bonds, familiar spirits and the like since I first started writing, it’s like I was tailor made to be a huge sucker for this book.

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