I finally finished The Golden Compass. This books features a couple of the most excellent female characters that I have ever read about. Lyra kicks ass. So does the witch queen, Serafina Pekkala.
About half way through the book, I posted on how all of the male characters were annoying me somewhat. Lyra was appearing to be too much of a Token Feisty for me, the lone female allowed to interact with several sexist groups: the Oxford scholars, the gyptians, and the bear community where the males are polygamists. Frustrated, I posted: Are there imaginary worlds where sexism doesn’t exist? Mrs. Coulter, the evil mother character, is powerful but she was also used to show how she was the exception to the other females in the story. It just irritates me that so often, when kids finally get to see a girl being brave, it’s woven into the narrative how she’s the exception of her gender.
But two things changed for me as a I read along to make me a die hard fan of The Golden Compass. The first is I absolutely fell in love Iorek Byrinson, the armored bear character. He’s male of course, but once he came on the scene, the book really came alive for me, and it kept getting better after that. Then came the witches. The witch clans are all female, magical, mysterious, and powerful.
While flying to the armored bear’s palace in a balloon through a starry, cold winter night guided by the witch queen, Lyra ask her: “Are there men witches, or only women?” Here is Serafina’s response:
There are men who serve us, like the consul at Trollesund. And there are men we take for lovers or husbands. You are so young, Lyra, too young to understand this, but I shall tell you anyway and you’ll understand later: men pass in front of our eyes like butterflies. creatures of a brief season. We love them; they are brave, powerful, beautiful, clever; and they die almost at once. They die so soon that our hearts are continually racked with pain. We bear their children who are witches if they are female, human if not; and then in a blink of an eye they are gone, felled, slain, lost. Our sons too. When a little boy is growing, he thinks he is immortal. His mother knows he isn’t. each time become more painful until finally your heart is broken. Perhaps that is when Yambe-Akka coems for you. She is older than the tundra. Perhaps for her, witches lives are as brief as men’s are to us.
Wow, how’s that for an alternate narrative? Clearly, Serafina Pekkala needs her own series. And I no longer mind polygamous bears when kids get to see females in power too.
As you read this book, the writing gets better and better until the end (not the movie ending, the book ending; they are different) which is so dazzling and stunning, it gave me chills.
Reel Girl rates The Golden Compass ***GGG***
You should read some other Phillip Pullmans. His heros are always tough girls and they’re brilliant books. Try ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’ series. Or there are some great ones for younger children such as ‘The Firework Makers Daughter’. I loved ‘His Dark Materials’ very much though, and named my horse ‘Pan’ after the character in there 😉
But can she be a Token Feisty when she is the protagonist? I thought part of the irritation about the TF is that she’s a sop thrown to us so we don’t make a fuss about the story being centred on a boy again.
Unlike others here, I liked the next two books just as much, and enjoyed the introduction of Mary and of the Harpies. Because most daemons are of the opposite sex to their humans, and some of them are drawn in much detail (Hester the hare for example), the overall texture created is more evenly balanced.
I see your point. Maybe we need a new term for when the female is a brave, heroic protagonist existing a in a world of males, woven into the narrative she is the exception of her sex: Mulan.
Katniss in Hunger Games would not be like this, half of the tributes are female and she is not portrayed as an exception.
The Mulan narrative has an important place. Sexism exists obviously and needs to be confronted in narratives, but I resent strong females being the exception.
Lyra and the Golden Compass do not fall into this category because of the Witches.
The Wizard of Oz/ Dorothy does not because of Glinda.
Alice in Wonderland may.
It goes back to the Magowan Test for sexism in animated movies for kids: must have 2 strong females who work together.
I think your test is great because it both does what the Bechdel test does, which is reveal how pitifully low we are forced to set the bar, and does something extra which the Bechdel test doesn’t, which is indicate whether a movie might be worth watching.
I wonder if Lyra’s exceptional status avoids being offensive because she is not so much an exception among girls, as an outright exception among human beings? Thus all kinds of noble forces rally behind her, rather the way they do in other stories in which a boy is The Chosen One.
Keep reading, you’re going to love Mary.
This series has been one of my favorites for years now. I just read Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles with my 8-year-old daughter, and we’re working through Igraine the Brave right now, but this is a candidate for the next thing we’ll read.
My 8 yr old daughter just read Igraine the Brave! She loved it, said her teacher read it to the class in first grade as well. Will check out Enchanted Forest.
I suspect that you would be delighted with the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and I’d love to read your thoughts on them.
I love this book, too. I think the other two in the trilogy are not as good, but you have to read them, I guess, to see what happens.
I concur. I am half way through the last one now and boy, the bloom has really worn off. The second two books are full of pretty standard gender cliches. I am sticking with it in the hope that there is an amazing conclusion. Pretty disappointed with Pullman though.
Yes, the first book is so magical that it is disappointing.
I’ve finished the trilogy now. I feel it lacked impact at the end but at least he didn’t give us a Hollywood ending!
Well, that’s true! I was disappointed that the movie of the first book didn’t have a big following, but when I read the other books, I figured it would be difficult to finish the trilogy and make two more movies that were as good. Did you see it? Very visually complex. Lots of steampunk.