When I searched my electronic archives for the review of Ruth Park's Playing Beatie Bow, which I posted yesterday, I stumbled over several other old book reviews which I reread with interest from today's vantage point. This review of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass was written in 1998, when the second book in the trilogy had just appeared, and nobody really knew yet how big it would become. Besides, there was another set of books eclipsing everything else right then, books about a certain school for wizards. Anyway, this is what I wrote about Pullman twelve years ago. Tolkien fans, please bear with me.
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
It has been usual in old times for adult novels to enter the sphere of children's reading. Today we often witness the reverse: books published for children cross over and are read by adults. The most remarkable example is Sophie's World, a children's book that conquered the international book market as an adult novel. Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass has been marketed both in its land of origin, England, and in the US as a children's book, but in Sweden it has been published as an adult novel. However, the libraries classified it as a children's book anyway. I think (or rather hope) that the Swedish publisher's decision to bring out Pullman as an adult novel is not primarily based on the editors' skepticism toward young readers' capacity to understand it, but on their wish to offer adult readers a unique experience. The novel is truly "a book for all ages," since it deals with the basic phases of human existence: to be born, to live, to grow up, to age, to die. The fact that the novel has a child in its focal point does not automatically make it a children's book; on the contrary it adds to the universality since the innocent child becomes the symbol for a human being and still broader, human race.
It is hard to imagine any new variations on the old theme of struggle between good and evil in an alternative world where magic is part of the everyday. Therefore it is pointless to present any plot summary of Pullman's novel; it would seem hopelessly banal with its familiar components, such as a chosen child or a gate between worlds. I will instead merely point out some details which make the book unique. Imagine that the human soul is fully visible in an animal form, which reveals its bearer's true nature. A soul that is a friend and advisor, that hurts to part with, even just at a couple of feet distance. When the dark forces capture young children and severe the invisible link between children and their souls, it is not merely a horrid adventure, but in the first place an ethical dilemma, which has many parallels in modern world. For instance, female circumcision. Or forced sterilization.
This is, however, just one detail in the intricate games of the evil forces. In the end of the novel, we do not really know which of the many strange figures of the novel - witches, intelligent polar bears, mad scientists - represent which side. We do not even know whether the main character is on the right side. It is not so evident what is right and wrong.
The fact that the action takes place in a world that is similar to ours yet different in some respects enables the author to play with language, geography and history. In this world, Inquisition still exists in the 20th century, the Pope has his seat in Geneva, the Tartars roam over Moskovy, quantum physics is called "experimental theology," America is "New Denmark," and zeppelin is the fastest transportation means. All these details offer exciting mental exercises in the accidental nature of Fate. Heterotopia, the multitude of parallel worlds, is a concept which literary criticism has adopted from science. Pullman's foremost predecessor within the fantasy genre is Diana Wynne Jones.
The large portion of the action takes place in the far North, in Lappland and on Svalbard; apparently, these are very exotic, almost mythic settings for Pullman. However, he avoids using Norse mythology in this story, going back to more archaic, shamanistic ideas. I can trace subtle influence from Miss Smilla's Sense of Snow in this mythologizing of the polar areas. Peter Høeg's novel has become a great success in the English-speaking world.
Besides having won the four major British children's book awards, Pullman's novel has already become a cult book. It has all the premises to take over the palm of the most undisputed masterpiece of fantasy from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It is deeper and more engaging than Tolkien, it involves us more since it depicts threat against our own world. It exemplifies literature at its best: entertaining, full of suspense, but also of serious undertones. The second part of the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, came out in September 1997. It is set partly in our own world, and contains still more loose threads which will apparently be brought together in the last volume. I hope Pullman goes on being as intensive as he has been so far.
Opsis Kalopsis, 1998:1