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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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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