His Dark Materials and The Golden Compass (es)


This is an excellent addition to my dragon’s-hoard of books, which I was very pleased to find today. Considering I have just finished re-reading His Dark Materials it was nice timing. This is the first omnibus edition of the trilogy from 2001. It has my favourite cover art featuring the Alethiometer.

I’ve been doing some more reading, namely the short stories Pullman released a few years ago, but I’ve also just read my long-neglected copy of The Magical Worlds of His Dark Materials by David Colbert. I’ve read most of the other books Colbert has written after various films have been released, namely his books on Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. These are actually written for younger readers, but to be frank I’m not one for in-depth literary criticism and something light with some interesting facts and parallels suits me well enough.

Now I’d always assumed the American title of The Golden Compass referred to the Alethiometer, namely because American publishers often think that children are not very bright and need titles of books changed so they can relate to them, and British English changed to suit them. As Colbert points out, the cover art for the British edition of Northern Lights (the correct title) featured the Alethiometer and the American edition features a polar bear.

After finishing Colbert’s book I’ve discovered the The Golden Compass does not actually refer to the Alethiometer at all. The working title for the first book was The Golden Compasses, before Pullman thought of His Dark Materials. The title is a nod to Milton and William Blake, both strong influences in His Dark Materials

He took the golden compasses, prepared
In God’s eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe, and all created things:
One foot he centered, and the other turned
Round through the vast profundity obscure;
And said, Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds,
This be thy just circumference, O World!
Thus God the Heaven created, thus the Earth,
Matter unformed and void: Darkness profound
Covered the abyss: but on the watery calm

(Paradise Lost Book VII)

Untitled, mainly referred to as "Ancient of Days" by William Blake, 1774
Untitled, mainly referred to as “Ancient of Days” by William Blake, 1774

Pullman believes that Ancient of Days has a “natural and immediate connection with the passage in Book VII of Paradise Lost”¬† and Colbert states that it pleases him to bring Milton and Blake together. **

While I’m also pleased the title The Golden Compasses actually refers to Milton, the poor old team at Knopf thought that Pullman had made an error and assumed it referred to the Alethiometer, removing the plural and renaming it The Golden Compass. Pullman obviously didn’t have enough clout to insist in his chosen title, Northern Lights, and the publisher was quite stuck on their version.

To be fair, Knopf are the publisher who didn’t understand the concept of the iconic philosopher’s stone in alchemy, and renamed the first Harry Potter book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This clearly made more sense to them, so we must assume they are not very bright.

There is a good list of further reading on Philiip Pullman’s website here, he recommends Colbert’s Magical Worlds of His Dark Materials (which is unfortunately out-of-print) and Laurie Frost’s The Elements of “His Dark Materials”: A Guide to Philip Pullman’s Trilogy.

If you’re brave enough to read Paradise Lost after you’ve finished he also recommends the annotated edition Paradise Lost (Longman Annotated English Poets). There is also an Oxford illustrated edition of Paradise Lost with an introduction by Pullman.


* *The Magical Worlds of His Dark Materials by David Colbert, page 23