The Golden Compass Summary

Caution: This page contains several plot spoilers. If you have not read the text, please consider doing so now.

The Golden Compass is a fantasy novel published in 1995 by Philip Pullman, and is the first volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy. The unruly main character, Lyra Belacqua, has spent the majority of her life running amok at Jordan College alongside the embodiment of her spirit, a daemon named Pantalaimon. Children’s daemons can change form, but adult’s daemons stabilize as one animal. The plot truly begins when Lyra’s uncle and guardian, Lord Asriel, is almost poisoned by the Master of Jordan. The Master of Jordan has practically raised Lyra; therefore, it comes as a surprise that he would try to kill Lord Asriel (Lyra’s father, unbeknownst to her). Following this, Lord Asriel presents his research to the scholars at Jordan, which concerns the dust adults attract. Dust is a taboo topic, as it is banned by the evil governing body called the Magisterium (for more information about dust click here). Having escaped death, he heads to the north to pursue an investigation.

The Master of Jordan senses something is about to go awry, so he sends Lyra to live with Mrs. Coulter. He gives her a gift called an alethiometer, otherwise known as a golden compass. It is a truth telling device, but no one know how to read it. Lyra is instructed to keep it secret. It is not long before Lyra uncovers the frightening truth about her hostess, who is the head of the Gobblers. The Gobblers, otherwise known as the General Oblation Board, is a group that kidnaps children for the Magisterium and takes them to the north. Lyra’s friend Roger Parslow and a gyptian boy named Billy Costa were both taken just before Lyra left Jordan. Mrs. Coulter suspects that Lyra is in possession of the alethiometer, and Mrs. Coulter wants to steal it to aid the Magisterium’s agenda. Lyra escapes Mrs. Coulter, but she still needs to hide.

Luckily enough, Lyra meets Billy Costa’s family who allow her to live with them and keep her hidden. She is also introduced to John Faa, leader of the nomadic gyptian people, as well as Farder Coram who helps her learn to read the alethiometer. John Faa reveals that Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel are actually her parents, but their relationship failed due to their adultery and bad blood. Billy’s mother, Ma Costa, actually raised her. The gyptian people are not under the jurisdiction of the Magisterium. 

Lyra becomes quite good at reading the alethiometer and John Faa allows her to journey north. She is determined to help save her friend, Roger. They recruit Lee Scoresby to their team, as well as his convenient hot air balloon. Lyra also befriends an exiled armored bear named Iorek Byrnison. She helps him retrieve his armor which the townspeople stole from him. Armor for bears is like daemons (spirt guides) for humans, it keeps them alive and is apart of their soul.

As they continue north, Lyra and Iorek break off from the group to investigate what the Gobblers do with the stolen children. They find Tony Makarios separated from his daemon and he eventually passes. Here, Lyra is then captured by the Gobblers and taken to the GOB headquarters. She lies about her name and acts unintelligent. She is reunited with Roger and Billy, and they form an escape plan. Unfortunately, she is caught spying and taken to the silver guillotine to be separated from her daemon, Pantalaimon. Mrs. Coulter ends up rescuing her, as Lyra is the only one who knows how to read the alethiometer.

Lyra manages to get away from Mrs. Coulter by setting off the alarm system and rescues some of the children with the help of a witch named Serafina Pekkala. She rejoins the gyptians who are fighting the Magisterium. A team consisting of Lyra, Iorek, Lee Scoresby, and Serafina Pekkala head to Svalbard, the region inhabited by armored bears that have imprisoned Lord Asriel. In Svalbard, Iorek duels the king of the armored bears, Iofur Raknison, to earn back his title. Lyra helps deceive Iofur by pretending to be Iorek’s daemon and convincing him to battle. Iorek wins and assumes the throne, and Lyra and Roger locate Lord Asriel.

Lord Asriel has some pretty luxurious accommodations for a prisoner, which even includes a laboratory. He is angry to see Lyra, but oddly relieved that Roger is also there. Lyra speaks with her father, who explains the concept of dust. Dust, which powers the aliethometer, is a physical manifestation of the original sin. Lyra offers Lord Asriel the golden compass, but he refuses. Lyra is perplexed after this interaction with her father.

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Lyra is awoken to frightening news; Asriel has captured Roger and is separating him from his daemon. This will generate enough energy to open up the Northern Lights and create a bridge to another world. After escaping an attack from witches, Lyra and lorek reach them. Lyra tries to help, but Roger is sacrificed. Mrs. Coulter appears and Lord Asriel asks her to go to this parallel universe, but she declines his offer. Asriel continues his journey to collect dust.

Lyra is faced with a decision – does she stay or does she go? She decides to venture forth in order to stop Lord Asriel from getting his hands on dust. The story continues in the subsequent books in the His Dark Materials trilogy.


Source Cited:

Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass. Random House, 2002.

Shmoop Editorial Team. “The Golden Compass Theme of Religion.” Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008.