The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is about a girl named Lyra who undertakes a journey of self-discovery and knowledge. It explores the issue of choice and free will and the cost of enlightenment.
For me, Lyra is the main attraction of the novel because the world in which she lives is so much like the world of my childhood. I love Lyra because I lived as Lyra.
Pullman describes Lyra as a little barbarian, running wild through the streets of Oxford with her gang. In Lyra’s world, the gangs wage war with one another, harbor deep rivalries, and form shifting alliances. The alleys, the wharf, the rooftops, and the cellars all form the backdrop against which Lyra runs her “heedless ways in the sun born over and over.”
I also was a member of a gang when I was a child, the Miller/Murphy Private Recreation Club – MMPRC. Our territory was the streets and hills of our neighborhood in Durango, Colorado. Our warfare was carried out in the form of games – Monopoly, Sorry, Life, and “Kings in the Corner” when the snow kept us housebound and Badminton, Croquet, and “Froggy” when the weather was fine. It was a glorious life, which I relive every time I read The Golden Compass. During the summer, my brother, my sister, and I bolted out the door first thing in the morning, checking in briefly at lunch and at dinner so our mother could see that we were still alive.
If there is anything missing from the story, it is Lyra’s lack of intimacy with other girls. Perhaps this is because Philip Pullman did not experience the need girls have to be with their fellow goddesses. My sister and I were the only girls in MMPRC and, as much as we enjoyed being with the boys, also desired the exclusive company of other girls. We girls were each other’s muses – a source of inspiration and guidance into our creative selves.
In Lyra’s world, all gang rivalries were set aside whenever strangers came to town because the visitors were the new enemies. In our world, the arrival of a stranger meant a new alliance was formed if the newcomer was a girl. Thus nieces and granddaughters visiting their relatives in the neighborhood were instantly embraced as messengers bringing good news from a far country. It was deeply satisfying.
While other books tease and hint of those lovely childhood years, The Golden Compass pulls back the veil and displays their glories. Dylan Thomas wrote: “Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea.” The Golden Compass sings.
Lyra’s adventures in Oxford are only a small part of her journey. Although her travels take her to many other lands, where she forms new friendships, rivalries, and alliances, she retains the wonderful qualities that touched my heart and stirred my memories when I first met her in Oxford.