The Golden Compass opens as Lyra Belacqua, a young girl, and Pantalaimon, her daemon, attempt to spy on the house Master in Jordan College, a school at Oxford University. Pantalaimon is the external expression of Lyra’s soul. Because Lyra is still young, Pantalaimon can change shapes. While sneaking around in the Retiring Room, Lyra and Pantalaimon are forced to hide in a closet. They see the Master come in and pour poison into some wine that he plans to give to Lord Asriel, Lyra’s formidable uncle. Lyra warns Lord Asriel about the wine in time, saving his life. From the closet, she listens to a strange lecture that Lord Asriel gives scholars about something called “Dust.” Lyra becomes insatiably curious about what Dust is and why people care about it. After the scholars agree to give him money, Lord Asriel goes back north. He refuses to let Lyra accompany him.
Lyra’s best friend is a boy named Roger Parslow, whose family works in the college. Together, the two of them plan adventures and battles. At this time, a rumor is going around Oxford that children are being stolen by a mysterious group called “the Gobblers.”
Soon after, the Gobblers steal Roger. Lyra is desperate to get him back until she meets a beautiful young woman named Mrs. Coulter, who comes to Oxford to meet Lyra and bring her to London. Though Mrs. Coulter is all charm and grace, her daemon, a nasty little golden monkey, reveals that there is something sinister about her. Still, Lyra agrees to go with Mrs. Coulter to London and temporarily forgets all about Roger. Before Lyra leaves Oxford, the Master pulls her aside and gives her something called an alethiometer, which looks like a golden compass but has very different markings on the inside.
At first, Lyra greatly enjoys living with Mrs. Coulter, who buys her beautiful clothes and tells her all about expeditions to the north. Soon, though, Lyra discovers that Mrs. Coulter is not as charming as she pretends to be. Lyra also begins to suspect that Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey is spying on herself and Pantalaimon, perhaps in search of the alethiometer. At a party that Mrs. Coulter gives for her society friends, Lyra overhears guests talking about Dust and something called the General Oblation Board (which Lyra figures out is the same thing as the Gobblers). Lyra escapes from Mrs. Coulter’s house and runs into the city.
Although at first it seems somewhat familiar—the furnishings, the college setting—Lyra’s world is not the same as our own. The existence of Pantalaimon, Lyra’s daemon, quickly makes this clear. Throughout the His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman plays with similarities between Lyra’s world and the world we’re familiar with. The introduction of Jordan College is a good example of this. There is an Oxford University in our world as well, but at that Oxford there is no Jordan College. Some things in Lyra’s world are the same, like language, customs, and climate, but some things are radically different. This becomes evident when Lyra meets Will Parry, a boy from our world, and more evident still when they meet creatures from different worlds altogether.
The wardrobe in which Lyra and her daemon hide recalls the classic children’s fantasy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. In talks and articles, Pullman has often pitted his own books, with their anti-Church themes, against Lewis’s, which are Christian allegories. The fact that both books begin with a grave transformation that occurs after trespassing in a wardrobe is likely meant to highlight the similarities and differences between Pullman’s work and Lewis’s.
One of the most original elements of Pullman’s trilogy is the daemons. In Lyra’s world, every human has a daemon—a visible version of the soul that takes on an animal form. In creating the daemon, Pullman draws on medieval traditions in which witches and wizards have animal “familiars,” creatures animated with some unearthly spirit who can carry messages from the witch or wizard to the world beyond.
In Pullman’s fiction, not only does everyone in Lyra’s world have a daemon, but also everyone has a ghost that emerges when he or she dies. The existence of these three parts of one being mirrors Catholic theology, which posits that people consist of a body, a soul, and a spirit, all of which are linked but distinct from one another. The relationship between humans, daemons, and ghosts is similar. A person dies when his or her daemon dies, and a daemon dies when its person dies, but the third part of the person continues to exist and becomes a ghost.
One’s daemon reflects one’s lot in life. Servants have daemons that take the form of dogs, which are willing, friendly, and obedient animals, just as servants are expected to be. Sailors’ daemons are often seabirds. A daemon can also reveal something about the state of one’s soul. Mrs. Coulter, for all her outward charms, can’t hide her essential nastiness and thus her daemon is a cruel golden monkey.
Daemons don’t take their final shape when their owners are still children. With this conceit, Pullman points out the malleability of childhood. At the age of eleven, Lyra’s character is not yet fixed. She can try out different personalities and ways of being, all of which are reflected in the different shapes of her daemon. When a person’s daemon settles, it means that the person’s character has formed. Lord Asriel gets at this idea when he shows his slides of the aurora borealis and the special projections of Dust. These slides reveal that Dust is more attracted to adults than to children. We don’t yet know what Dust is, but we know that it has something to do with the difference between innocence and experience, the difference between age and youth, and the process by which a person’s daemon becomes fixed in one shape.
After escaping from Mrs. Coulter’s house, Lyra and Pantalaimon wander through London. By the wharves, they are almost caught by a band of slavers, but Tony Costa, a Gyptian, rescues them. Tony brings Lyra with him to the houseboat on which he lives with his mother, Ma Costa. The Gobblers have stolen Tony’s brother, Billy. The Costas bring Lyra with them to a meeting of all the Gyptians, who are under the control of Lord John Faa. As they travel, Lyra and Tony discuss what the General Oblation Board is doing with the kids they steal. Though they know where the kids are taken, nobody can figure out what happens to them.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter and the General Oblation Board have police scouring England for Lyra, but the Gyptians keep her hidden. At the meeting of Gyptians, which is called a Roping, Lord Faa rallies his people to send a band of men north to rescue the kidnapped children. After the meeting, Lyra goes to meet with John Faa. She also meets Farder Coram, a wise and kindly old Gyptian man. John Faa tells Lyra that she is really the illegitimate daughter of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter and that Ma Costa nursed her as a baby.
Not long after the Roping, an injured Gyptian spy returns from a reconnaissance mission. He tells Farder Coram that a man named Lord Boreal is involved in the Gobblers’ work and that the children have been taken to the Arctic region known as Lapland. With Farder Coram’s help, Lyra learns how to use the alethiometer, with which she can predict the future and learn information about anything in the past or present. The Gyptians decide to take Lyra north with them. Their first stop is at the home of the representative of the Lapland witches, Dr. Lanselius. He tests Lyra to see if she can find something belonging to a witch named Serafina Pekkala, who once knew Farder Coram. Dr. Lanselius tells Farder Coram that Lyra has a major part to play in the destiny of their world. Dr. Lanselius also mentions an armored bear in town named Iorek Byrnison.
Lyra helps Iorek find his armor, and Iorek agrees to join the party of Gyptians. In the meantime, the Gyptians have hired an aeronaut from Texas named Lee Scoresby, who owns a balloon. Together, they head for Bolvanger, where the Gobblers work.
With the help of Iorek Byrnison, Lyra goes ahead of the Gyptians to a village, where she finds Tony Makarios and learns that the Gobblers are cutting children’s daemons away from them. She brings Tony back to the camp, but he dies. Tartars attack the Gyptians, steal Lyra, and bring her to Bolvanger, where the other children are being kept. Scientists there weigh and measure Lyra and Pantalaimon and study the effect of Dust on humans and their daemons. Lyra finds Roger and begins to plan their escape. With the help of Tony Costa, Lyra and Roger find the severed daemons. Serafina Pekkala’s daemon, Kaisa, rescues the severed daemons and tells Lyra that the Gyptians are on their way.
Mrs. Coulter arrives. Lyra, eavesdropping, hears about how the scientists cut daemons from children. She also hears that Lord Asriel is being held captive by the armored bears. Lyra is caught, and the men try to cut Pantalaimon away from her. Mrs. Coulter intervenes and rescues Lyra. She tells Lyra that the cutting, also called intercision, is a good thing.
Lyra leads the other children to freedom. They run from the building just as the Gyptians and Iorek Byrnison arrive, and a battle between the wards of Bolvanger and the Gyptians ensues.
While traveling north to rescue Roger, Lyra meets a number of interesting characters. John Faa is the Lord of the Gyptians, a group that bears some similarity to gypsies in our world. In fact, the name John Faa comes from a fifteenth-century English song about a gypsy prince. Lyra also meets Iorek Byrnison, an armored bear. Iorek is fundamentally different from the humans in the story, as evidenced by the fact that he has no daemon, which means he has no soul. Iorek and all of his people may not have souls, but they have intelligence—and opposable thumbs. Many scientists point to the development of the opposable thumb as the step that allows beasts to evolve into humans, so the armored bears’ opposable thumbs may mean that their evolution is not yet complete.
Because Pullman’s work is anti-Church in nature, his heroic figures are often those outside of the purview of Christianity. The Gyptians, for example, are a nomadic and irreligious society. They live on the outskirts of society and are often shunned and mistreated, but they are heroes nevertheless. They are kind to Lyra and to other children. They decide to rescue all the children, not just their own, from the Gobblers, even though the “landlopers,” as they call non-Gyptians, have often been cruel to them. In order to highlight the inherent fallibility of religion, Pullman inverts expectations and stereotypes. The witches, who have traditionally symbolized darkness and evil, are transformed here into religious symbols of freedom and power.
Lyra’s encounter with Dr. Lanselius proves that there is something special about Lyra. Lanselius says that Lyra must fulfill an important task without knowing what she’s doing. This means that Lyra must remain innocent until after she has accomplished what she is meant to do. Lanselius’s gift of the alethiometer is a powerful one. Alethia means “truth” in Greek, and meter means “measure.” These meanings suggest that the alethiometer is a tool for measuring the truth. When Lyra learns how to use the alethiometer, she discovers that it will tell her what has happened, what is going on now, and—sometimes—what will happen in the future. She reads its messages by going into a sort of trance that resembles religious meditation. In doing so, she appears to be connecting with some power outside of herself. Although Pullman questions organized religion, he does not believe that humans are the most powerful beings in existence. As Lyra’s meditations prove, he believes that humanity is subject to powerful nonhuman forces.
Lyra’s discovery of Tony Makarios helps her to understand that the Gobblers are cutting children’s daemons away from them in a procedure they call Intercision. Intercision is like castration, in which a young boy’s testicles are cut off so that he never reaches male maturity. Intercision also recalls female circumcision, in which a girl’s clitoris is removed so that she cannot experience the full intensity of sexual pleasure. Both castration and female circumcision are religious in origin. Both practices respond to a religious demand that some natural part of a person be removed in order to prevent sexual pleasure. Intercision is also religious and anti-sexual. It is performed by the General Oblation Board, which is a branch of the Church in Lyra’s world, and it is intended to prevent the onset of “upsetting emotions” and allow children to grow up without ever feeling passion. Lyra knows Intercision is wrong, although she isn’t exactly sure why it’s wrong. For Pullman, sexual experience is an essential part of becoming a full-grown human, despite the confusion and pain it can cause.
Just as it seems that Lyra and the children have escaped, Mrs. Coulter arrives and tries to seize her. Roger and Lyra fight her off, and Lee Scoresby rescues the two children and Iorek Byrnison in his balloon. Lyra finally meets Serafina Pekkala, a beautiful witch queen. With the help of her clan, Serafina guides the balloon toward Svalbard, where the armored bears are holding Lord Asriel prisoner. Lyra learns that Iorek is the rightful king of the bears but has been exiled for killing another bear. The king of the bears is now Iofur Raknison.
Suddenly, cliff ghasts attack Lee’s balloon and the witch clan. Lyra is thrown out of the balloon and discovered by armored bears, who bring her to Svalbard, where she is put in a dungeon. Lyra wants to force Iofur to fight Iorek, since only by fighting and killing Iofur can Iorek reclaim his kingdom. But Iofur won’t fight Iorek because it would be undignified for the king to fight an exile. But in the dungeon, Lyra remembers that at Jordan College she heard that Iofur Raknison is desirous of a daemon. Lyra convinces Iofur that she, Lyra, is Iorek’s daemon and that if Iofur fights Iorek and wins, Lyra will become Iofur’s daemon. Iofur and Iorek fight, and Iorek tricks Iofur and kills him. Iorek is restored as the king of the bears.
Roger, Iorek, and Lyra go to the fortress where Lord Asriel is being held captive. While captive, Lord Asriel has been doing experiments with Dust. When they arrive, Lord Asriel panics until he sees Roger. Lyra tells Lord Asriel she knows he is her father. Lord Asriel tells Lyra that Dust is what makes the alethiometer work. He says that a man named Rusakov noticed that Dust clustered around adults, and not around children. He tells her the story of Adam and Eve and explains that Dust is another word for original sin, or Adam and Eve’s knowledge of themselves. Mrs. Coulter thought that cutting children’s daemons away might keep children free from sin. When daemons are cut away, enough energy is released to create a door to another world. Lyra tries to give Lord Asriel the alethiometer, but he refuses it. After Lyra goes to bed, Lord Asriel kidnaps Roger. Lyra realizes Lord Asriel is going to cut Roger’s daemon away in order to harness the loose energy and open a door to another universe.
Iorek brings Lyra to the frozen mountaintop where Lord Asriel has taken Roger, and Lyra battles Lord Asriel for her friend. She and Roger struggle free, but Lord Asriel still manages to sever Roger from his daemon. The sky is torn open and Lyra can see into another world. Mrs. Coulter appears and Lord Asriel asks her to come to the new world with him. He tells her that he’s going to find the source of Dust and destroy it. Mrs. Coulter refuses to come. Lord Asriel walks away into the other world. Lyra decides that if Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter hate Dust, then it must be a good thing. She and Pantalaimon decide to go and look for the source of Dust. They leave Roger’s body in the snow on the mountaintop and walk into the sunny new world.
When Iorek and Lyra are first getting to know each other, Iorek tells Lyra that armored bears can’t be tricked, but that Iofur is different. Because Iofur is so intent on being human instead of bear, he can be tricked. For this reason, Lyra succeeds in her ploy to get Iofur to fight Iorek, and Iorek succeeds in tricking Iofur during the fight and killing him.
Iofur thinks that being human means having a daemon and being admitted into Mrs. Coulter’s social circles, but in fact being human means acquiring vices and flaws. In Pullman’s books, it is precisely these flaws and vices that make human life interesting and valuable. Iofur’s quest to attain human status is understandable, even if it leads to his downfall.
Almost as soon as Lyra arrives at Bolvanger, Lord Asriel tells her the story of Adam and Eve. For the Church, this story is the tragedy that explains all evil and sorrow in the world. For Lord Asriel, the story of Adam and Eve is the story of the beginning of human experience. Just as Adam and Eve ate from the fruit and gained knowledge, children make the transition from innocence to experience in order to become fully developed human beings. If Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the fruit, the human race would be like the nurses at Bolvanger: bland, boring, incurious, and utterly complacent. Lyra is the opposite of the people at Bolvanger who have undergone Intercision. She is vivacious, disobedient, and exciting.
Lord Asriel also explains Dust to Lyra. Dust is consciousness, or awareness of the world around you and all of its possibilities. Children do not attract Dust because they are still innocent and are thought to have trouble understanding the world. Adults, because of the knowledge they have gained through maturation, do attract Dust. Once you become an adult, a fully conscious being, you are capable of sinning, or doing bad things knowingly. The Church authorities in Lyra’s world equate Dust with original sin. They would like to eliminate Dust, thereby eliminating the human capacity to sin. But Pullman suggests that the capacity to sin (and the ability to choose not to sin) is essential to the very idea of humanity. Without that capacity, humans would be zombies.
Lord Asriel explains the many worlds theory, which posits that an infinite number of worlds exist. All of the worlds in the universe stem from the same core, but at every instant, millions of worlds are splintering apart. If, for example, an apple hanging loosely from a branch in our world did not fall, our world might remain the same. But in another world, the loosely hanging apple might fall, causing our world and that world to diverge in subtle ways. Every time two outcomes exist, a new world is created. Lord Asriel wants to break down the barriers between the worlds, which he accomplishes by killing Roger. When Lord Asriel leaves, he walks into another world that may or may not resemble our own. When Lyra follows him, she takes the same risk. Lyra’s conversation with her father echoes John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. In Paradise Lost, Milton tells the story of Satan, an angel who led other angels in a rebellion against God. Satan and his fellow rebels wanted freedom and power. They were defeated and cast out of Heaven. In Milton’s poem, Satan, bent on revenge, plots to destroy God’s perfect world, Eden, which Adam and Eve blissfully inhabit. He plans to trick Adam and Eve into disobeying God and eating from the tree of knowledge. Milton was a deeply religious man, but many readers have noticed that Satan is, at least initially, a seductively interesting and passionate character. In his trilogy, Pullman draws on Milton’s Satan for inspiration. Both Milton’s Satan and Pullman’s Lord Asriel are gentlemanly, powerful, and suave. But while Milton bemoans the fall from grace caused by Satan, Pullman hails it as the moment when humans gained freedom.