The Golden Compass Page by Page
Chapter 2 - The Idea of North

Chapter 2 might as well have been part of Chapter 1, as there is not the slightest pause in action between them, and these two chapters really together serve as a foundation for the world the story is set in and introduces just about every major idea of the story, from Dust, the Aurora (capitalized as a proper noun in the text), intercision, the Magisterium and so forth.

Chapters 1 and 2 to me seem almost like an “argument” as to why you should be taking this universe seriously and not be thinking of it as a “fantasy” world that entrances you with gimmicks but a real world just like yours that wants to genuinely involve you in it’s drama.

The author lets slip a lot of exotic terms and and ideas out through the dialog that are going to be totally alien to the reader, such as what “panserbjorne” are, but this only helps the reader identify with Lyra who doesn't know what the scholars are talking about either.

It’s easy for an author to use information that he or she knows but the reader doesn't to force a artificial “plot twist” or “surprise” that makes the reader feel stupid, but here Pullman plants a perfect array of clues that Iofur Raknison is a bear and not a human.

A person paying attention to everything that is there to learn so far about dæmons and carefully reading into the conversation may be able to piece it together, but whether they do or not, when this fact is revealed, its not something that will offend the reader and make them feel stupid, but instead excites the reader, making them smile and say “Ah-ha! it was there all along!”

This story’s understanding of the Aurora and the city in the sky is a perfect example of science fiction. It annoys me when science fiction is characterized as being about high technology, space travel, aliens and the like. Science fiction is a story dealing in fictional science, nothing more. The first two books in His Dark Materials to me have much more to do with science fiction than fantasy.

Also, Pullman is really into his esoteric renamings, especially the word “anbaric”, which means electric. Pullman really loves the word “anbaric” and I can’t blame him one tiny bit at all for that because its an ingenious and realistic reworking of the etymology of our word, “electricity”.

I recall Pullman having a little too much fun with his pet word for electricity in some parts of this book, seemingly using it at every opportunity where describing something as “electric” (or “anbaric” in this case) would fit in, whether it was the best word to use in that case or not, though it did help to re-enforce that anbaric power should be understood as being electricity and not some form of alchemy or something.

I say all that because Pullman mentions the instruments and equipment visible in one of the photograms Lord Asriel shows as reminding Lyra of the local “Anbaric Park”, which I didn’t understand until I read an online His Dark Materials lexicon that this “park” was an electric power station.

Pullman uses dialog in a realistic way to deliver information, but not in a way which explicitly spells out ideas and information to the reader as though they were reading a tutorial about the world. And the conversation amongst Asriel and the Scholars in the retiring room is an excellent example of this. Since the readers, like Lyra, are listening in on a conversation and only getting little bits of it, they have to piece together what we do hear to figure out what's going on as best they can.

Being obsessed with the Aurora Borealis for almost as long as I’ve been writing (thanks in large part to the film Frequency and the experiments of Nikola Tesla which produced artificial auroras), I was pretty much thinking “Oh my God I’ve got to see what this Dust and Aurora business is all about!” sort of like Lyra herself.

Strangely they essentially left out the entire Aurora angle of this story out of the film version of The Golden Compass, when I read the book a few weeks after seeing the film in theaters (twice) I instantly had a whole new reason and interest in the story as though everything I learned from the movie was rendered obsolete and I felt like “Okay, here I’m going to see what's really going on.”

Now, take a look at this,

“I thought that was the man’s dæmon.” Said the Enquirer.
“No. His dæmon was at the time curled around his neck in the form of a snake.”
(HDM 1, ch. 2, pg. 20, para. 3)

I thought this bit was interesting, because in Chapter 1 we are seeded with the notion that Pantalaimon’s moth form is temporary and that dæmons can change shape, and we see Pantalaimon change shape later on in this chapter from a moth to an ermine, but it’s not until Chapter 3 that it is explained that children’s dæmons can change shape but adult’s dæmons can’t.

In an interview with Pullman that was included with the deluxe edition of The Golden Compass film DVD (and other sources as well), Pullman mentions that when he first came up with dæmons he imagined that all people’s dæmons could change shape, but changed his mind and decided that only children’s dæmons should change shape to show the malleability of children compared to the set-in ways of adults. Pullman also explains in the interview that having everyone’s dæmons constantly changing shape would have been too distracting.

Lord Asriel’s description that the man in the photograph’s dæmon was “at the time” around his neck as a snake almost seems to suggest that his dæmon was capable of changing shape and just happened to be snake-formed at the time the picture was taken.

I take this wording as being a possible remnant of Pullman’s earlier abandoned notion that all people’s dæmons would be able to change shape. I find little bits like this in my own writing where I’ll accidentally leave in dialog which refers to obsolete plot points or narration that’s no longer consistent with details I added in later.

It’s interesting to see what may be one of these in a finished novel by an experienced author.

Stanislaus Grumman is mentioned a few times in passing here and as far as The Golden Compass is concerned Grumman is nothing but a deceased throwaway character used by Asriel as an excuse to receive funds for a polar expedition. I can only wonder how much of the second and third books Pullman had in mind when he dropped this name almost unimportantly in the beginning of The Golden Compass and as I remember never even mentions it again in this book.

I however, knowing what trepanning is, was baffled that the scholars seemed ignorant to the fact that trepanning was a ritualistic or spiritual thing rather than a form of scalping. I figured there had to be more to the story of Grumman than what Lord Asriel told the scholars, though of course I had no idea how important it was.

It’s amusing to note Pullman’s description of Asriel laughing mockingly as the scholars discuss and speculate on the fate of who they believe is Stanislaus Grumman.
Only what I would consider an expert reader (which I am not) would pick up on the possible significance of that, and I only realized after reading The Subtle Knife and then re-reading The Golden Compass that Lord Asriel was laughing because he knew that this severed had had absolutely nothing to do with Stanislaus Grumman.

I wonder now if Asriel is aware of Grumman’s whereabouts and how much of a relationship the two of them had prior to The Golden Compass, but thats a discussion for a different book.
I would also like to mention that Dust is absolutely brilliant from the very first mention of it. It doesn't matter at all what Dust is, what it does, or anything, all it does is have the reader wanting to know what it is. Its like a “What's in the box?” ploy that really plays on the readers curiosity and the nature of people to seek seemingly forbidden knowledge, which is, what we learn, what Dust is all about.

Even in the film version’s introduction, when Eva Green as narrator says “So many worlds, but connecting them all is Dust.” I was basically sold on the entire film at that point without being told even the slightest of what Dust was supposed to be.

The first two chapters made me care about Lyra and her world and want to learn about what the heck is going on. Pullman doesn't set up a world in which the reader is told “Look at this fantastic fantasy universe where all these exotic and wild things are commonplace.” It shows the reader a world in many ways no more unique that if someone were to visit a different country with different customs and technology and dress (If you could consider wearing your soul on the outside as a dæmon a form of dress.), but facing many of the same issues about life and the universe and as your own country.

After the Retiring Room scene, we get a quiet moment between the Master and the Librarian. Pullman tells us briefly in narration about how the power and prestige of the Church went unchallenged due to the lack of a Protestant Reformation, and of the Magisterium and its various agencies, including the Oblation Board. This explanation takes no more than a page and doesn't delay the action at all.

The alethiometer is mentioned once or twice in this conversation with not even the slightest clue as to what it is aside from it imparting knowledge of future events on the Master. The original edition of this book, which was titled “Northern Lights”, didn’t even feature the alethiometer on the cover (as far as I know), nor did Pullman feel the device important to have the book named after it.

It’s fun seeing all these things being mentioned and wondering quietly what they are and then learning about them later on when they really matter, its almost like digging up treasure.
I was never able to appreciate how nicely Chapter 2 ended until I listened to the audiobook version in preparation for writing this chapter commentary.

“That’s the duty of the old,” Said the Librarian, “to be anxious on behalf of the young.
And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old."

They sat for a while longer, and then parted, for it was late, and they were old and anxious.
(HDM 1, ch. 2, pg. 29, para. 5)


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