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.