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A literary alethiometer

The Golden Compass - Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials is the most recent, and highly successful, OB/MR buddy read. We've now finished the trilogy. I had delayed writing reviews of the books, but after finishing The Amber Spyglass last night, I shall delay no more.


The titular Golden Compass - or alethiometer - is a device which Lyra Belaqua, also known as Lyra Silvertongue, uses to find truth. In the movie, it was rendered thus:



In order to use it, Lyra places three controllable hands on three images to ask a question, using layers of meaning assigned to each symbol, and then the single black hand sweeps from symbol to symbol, answering the question.


When I was getting ready to write my review, it struck me that this book itself is a bit of a literary alethiometer, existing on several levels at once: the first level, in which it is simply a story - gorgeous, richly imagined, with fabulous imagery - to capture the interest of the reader. The second level, deeper, is one in which Pullman retells the Paradise Lost story, and the expulsion of humanity from the Garden of Eden after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. And, even, a third level, in which Pullman rejects the idea that Adam and Eve were wrong, and makes an argument that the temptation to eat the fruit is what makes us essentially human - not a sin for which we are being punished, but the act that created a consciousness and the ability to know ourselves.


Like The Lord of the Rings, this is a trilogy in name only and by publishing necessity. Truly, it is one long arc, beginning with The Golden Compass, continuing into The Subtle Knife and ending with The Amber Spyglass, which traces the adventures of Lyra Belaqua as she becomes embroiled in a cosmic battle between the Authority and humanity. The first book is the most accessible, I think, as it is a straight up good versus evil story with a rag tag band of heroes on a quest to save a group of children, led by Lyra.



Along the way, Lyra enlists the help of a band of men and women and bears: Iorek Byrneson, Serafina Pekkala, Lee Scoresby, Father Coram and John Faa. Existing within a parallel universe that looks very like our own, but with some delightful differences (talking armored bears and animal representations of souls for the win), the Magisterium is a stand-in for the Catholic church in all of its not-so-glorious inquisatorial brutality. Pullman does not pull his punches when it comes to the excesses of religions existing primarily for the glorification of men and their thirst for power.


There is so much to talk about here - her parents, the terrible Mrs. Coulter, who works for the Magisterium as an ambitious woman seeking whatever power she can attain in a largely male-dominated religious hierarchy. Her father, Lord Asriel, an apostate and mysterious adventurer building some-kind-of-thing in the North which terrifies the priests of the Magisterium. The Gobblers, child thieves, stealing children away to perform terrible experiments on them in an effort to save their innocent souls from the sinfulness which comes, naturally, with puberty.


And Dust, mysterious particles that no one in Lyra's world has either the tools or the knowledge to fully understand. Perceived as the physical embodiment of sin, it is Dust which the Magisterium is trying to conquer by severing the soul from the body. Even having read the entire trilogy, I still feel that I need an Amber Spyglass to see Dust in order to understand it - I see only through the glass, darkly. 


By the end of the book, there is loss and horror, and the way is opened for Lyra Silvertongue to fulfill the prophesy in which she re-enacts the temptation of Eve and, perhaps, along the way, saves humanity.