In the seventeenth chapter of The Golden Compass, Lyra finally has a much-needed confrontation with Mrs. Coulter, the results of which send Bolvangar into chaos. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Golden Compass.
Over on Mark Watches, I’ve been using the word “convergence” often to explain how dual (and sometimes triple) plots come together over the span of a twenty-four minute episode. I’m going to bring that term here because this might be the most chaotic and suspenseful convergence I’ve come across in a long time. And I really think chaos is a good word for this, because so much happens at the exact same moment that it was almost hard to follow along.
god this chapter. this chapter.
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: THE WITCHES
Just…how awful is it that Mrs. Coulter is the one to save Lyra? I cannot get over how Lyra just faced the worst experience of her life and she is immediately dropped into something that could be so much worse. Lyra and Pantalaimon are both aware of this immediately, and while they both do their best to comfort one another after the horrific ordeal of nearly being separated permanently, they know that they cannot trust Mrs. Coulter at all.
What makes Mrs. Coulter so frightening before she even speaks a word (and even worse once she does) is that she is a woman who is consumed with lies. She uses her sickly sweet temperament in a way that preys on a person’s natural desire for affection, but at this point, we (and Lyra and Pantalaiamon) know the truth, and that makes her act all the more revolting.
As Mrs. Coulter prepares some sort of drink, Lyra starts her transformation back into that mischievous young girl in Jordan College, the bratty child who could concoct elaborate lies in order to get what she wanted, only the context now is abject survival.
Pantalaimon played the same game: fool them, fool them.
And that game is one that will keep them alive. Good lord, it it is one tense game at that, and it’s one where every line seems to drip with a hidden subtext from both parties. Mrs. Coulter starts it off with one hell of a lie, pretending that she doesn’t know why Lyra disappeared from her possession:
“Lyra, darling,” Mrs. Coulter murmured, stroking her hair. “I thought we’d lost you forever! What happened? Did you get lost? Did someone take you out of the flat?”
While I think that, chronologically, given that one of the spy-flies returned, I don’t think Mrs. Coulter knows the precise details of Lyra’s escape from London, this question is certainly not a genuine inquiry. She has to know that Lyra did this on purpose and I’d bet that her dæmon provided some of that information. But this is a delicate process: both parties know the other isn’t being entirely truthful.
Bless Lyra, though, who begins to fulfill the role of the bashful, frightened child, and she does it beautifully. She crafts a story of kidnap, and the fiction gives her a “strength,” as Pullman describes, that brings her back to her recent past, that gives her confidence she didn’t think she’d find. As she recounts this glorious tale, I didn’t know how much of this Mrs. Coulter would actually believe. A part of me, though, believed that she didn’t really care, but that all doesn’t matter because Lyra flat out surprises me: She breaks the story upon the point of reaching Bolvangar and directly tells Mrs. Coulter that she knows they cut dæmons away from children up here.
WHY. Could Lyra simply not resist the thought? Did she think it would help her story? I suppose that also doesn’t matter, either, because Lyra is fierce as hell. Even when Mrs. Coulter insists that this procedure will never happen to Lyra, she just can’t stop herself.
“But they do it to other children! Why?”
I get the sense that even if this fits Lyra’s plan of trying to fool Mrs. Coulter, this is both a way for her to get some accountability from her mother (GOD I HATE TYPING THAT) and to piss her off. It completely sets the woman at ease and she then can’t resist asking her if it’s related to Dust as well. Lyra YOU HAVE MY HEART.
And then Mrs. Coulter explains it and I am inclined to believe it and this is horrifying:
“But the doctors do it for the children’s own good, my love. Dust is something bad, something wrong, something evil and wicked. Grownups and their dæmons are infected with Dust so deeply that it’s too late for them. They can’t be helped..But a quick operation on children means they’re safe from it. Dust just won’t stick to them ever again.”
There must be a million things I want to say about this. Firstly, I think this is the first sign of the commentary that Pullman will use concerning the Church and while I won’t comment much of anything yet because I don’t know the full story, I will say that I am mostly ridiculously excited about this. In the meantime, though, this is a huge bit of dæmon/Dust mythology to drop in our laps. It’s the absolute confirmation of why the Oblation Board is so concerned with Dust: The Church’s official position is that Dust is evil and since dæmons are full of the stuff, then it is only logical for them to be cut away.
And then this chapter just skyrockets to intensity forever when Lyra thinks of poor Tony Makarios, which causes her to throw up, and she releases a vicious and gloriously snarky tirade at Mrs. Coulter:
“You don’t have to do that to us,” she said. “You could just leave us. I bet Lord Asriel wouldn’t let anyone do that if he knew what was going on. If he’s got Dust and you’ve got Dust, and the Master of Jordan and every other grownup’s got Dust, it must be all right. When I get out I’m going to tell all the kids in the world about this. Anyway, if it was so good, why’d you stop them doing it to me? If it was good, you should’ve let them do it. You should have been glad.”
It’s a sign of how much Lyra believes this that she says it without the slightest hesitation or indication of fear. It feels like it’s simply imperative that this comes out of her mouth, and of everything I feel towards this masterful statement, I just respect Lyra. That took unbelievable amounts of courage to say to someone as powerful as Mrs. Coulter.
And just when I feel good, Mrs. Coulter ruins this. Horribly.
“But it doesn’t mean your dæmon is taken away from you. He’s still there! Goodness me, a lot of the grownups here have had the operation. The nurses seem happy enough, don’t they?”
Lyra blinked. Suddenly she understood their strange blank incuriosity, the way their little trotting dæmons seemed to be sleepwalking.
WHAT THE FUCK!!!!!!! Oh my god they are like ZOMBIE DÆMONS.
hold me forever
“Darling, no one would ever dream of performing an operation on a child without testing it first.”
YOU ARE A DIRTY LIAR.
“And no one in a thousand years would take a child’s dæmon away altogether!”
YOU ARE LIVING IN A HOUSE CONSTRUCTED SOLELY OF LIES.
“All that happens is a little cut, and then everything’s peaceful. Forever!”
YOU ARE LIVING IN LYING COURT IN LIESVILLE IN THE COUNTRY OF DIRTYLIARSTON.
“You see, your dæmon’s a wonderful friend and companion when you’re young, but at the age we call puberty, the age you’re coming to very soon, darling, dæmons bring all sort of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in. A quick little operation before that, and you’re never troubled again. And your dæmon stays with you, only…just not connected. Like a…like a wonderful pet, if you like. The best pet in the world! Wouldn’t you like that?”
I would like you to not LIVE IN A GLASS CASE LIES.
How fascinating is this, though? Now we’re talking about a Church mandating what a child can and can not feel when they get older. We are getting to the real shit. But I still don’t quite understand what Dust is. I still feel I’m missing that last big piece that will make me go, “OOHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.”
oh god this book this book
“There’s no need to go back and share a dormitory with other girls, not now I’ve got my little assistant back. My favorite! The best assistant in the world.”
crawling in my skin
these words they will not heal
someone seriously just like hold my hand while I read this because from this point on….my god MY GOD. Pullman makes these pages drip with the sort of alarming plotting that gives me goosebumps and turn my stomachs. Now, it becomes Mrs. Coulter’s turn to take control of the conversation: She flat out asks Lyra for the alethiometer, trying to convince her that it’s not meant for her to have it, that it must absolutely stay out of Lord Asriel’s hands because “he’s got something dangerous and wicked in mind.” There’s that logic yet again: Lord Asriel is evil for pursing his idea of what Dust is and whatever his “plan” is for it and how it relates to that other world.
Lyra wondered how she had ever, ever, ever found this woman to be so fascinating and clever.
I mean RIGHT. RIGHT.
Mrs. Coulter proceeds to be SO CREEPY THAT I WANT TO JUST RUN AWAY FROM THIS BOOK. She actually has the gall to reach over and REMOVE THE BELT AND POUCH THAT SHE IS WEARING. Except…I’d forgotten a very small detail from a couple chapters ago. Lyra had hidden the alethiometer in the ceiling amongst her clothes. To my horror, Mrs. Coulter pulls out Iorek Byrnison’s tin, the one made to hide the very spy-fly that Coulter had sent for Lyra, and thinking she’s got exactly what she needs, she OPENS THE TIN.
Chaos. Welcome to The Golden Compass.
My brain goes to a few things: the opening of the arena in The Hunger Games. The Battle of Hogwarts is an even better example. Actually, I hesitate to compare this next section to that battle because that one is seven novels worth of emotional fury, but perhaps you get what I’m saying. When Mrs. Coulter releases her own spy-fly (OH THE IRONY), the narrative is relentless. Unforgiving. Lyra has to take her chance and she does and the escape plan, however flimsy it is at this point, must be acted out.
I mean…shit, how the hell do you recap this? It’s one thing after another, one rush and race to escape followed by bouts of terror and surprise, and after chapter sixteen, the threat of real, tangible harm rests on top of everything. And perhaps that is something that sets The Golden Compass apart so much for me, and why I am growing to adore it. Pullman is not sugarcoating this at all. He is not avoiding the difficulty Lyra will face in this journey. He is not avoiding the inherent violence of it all. He is not avoiding being uncomfortable. And as frustrating and difficult as this escape is to read, it’s simultaneously exhilarating. It’s thrilling. It’s just good storytelling.
I said it yesterday, but it bears repeating yet again: Even amidst trying to save herself, Lyra cannot resist doing what she can to save all of the imprisoned children. Yes, she came here to do that, but she did not anticipate the terror she’d face. Still, that is exactly what she enacts here, setting up the fire near the kitchen after hitting the fire alarm while still taking a moment to grab her alethiometer from the dormitory she was staying in. As explosions begin to destroy the building, the children from the Experimental Station rush out into the freezing air. Part of the fear in this scene rests on the fact that Pullman sets this all at the North Pole and now I wonder if he planned this long before he ever sat down to write this book. RIGHT. Like hey i should set a climactic battle in the FREEZING TUNDRA that shit would be cool. And it really, really is!
But a frozen tundra is not enough! Let’s throw some WOLF DÆMONS IN THE MIX. I didn’t comment on it before, but I suppose I didn’t realize it was a literal thing, but all of the Tartars only have wolf dæmons. How is that possible? Well, don’t answer that, but my guess is that it’s almost willing the dæmon into their final form based on who they are and what their culture is.
The wolf dæmons and then the Tartar guards present the first major adversary as the children try desperately to escape Bolvangar and I was genuinely surprised that none of the children were harmed by them, given how unfair the power differential is. But it’s also just perfect that a childish game that Lyra and other kids played is what provides them with the ability to shift the scales in the opposite direction, too, and that’s the magic of the story: it’s not dependent on age. I need to say it again, but LYRA IS ELEVEN YEARS OLD. Ok, I was eleven throughout 1994 and 1995. (LOL SOME OF YOU WHERE JUST BARELY TODDLERS oh my god). What was I doing? Listening to Nirvana and Black Flag and Quicksand and Green Day and discovering ska and being beat up in sixth grade by kids who thought my pants were too tight and being mostly concerned with how I was going to explain a new bruise to my mother or why my clothes were dirty that day. I WAS NOT RIDING POLAR BEARS AND FIGHTING THE OBLATION BOARD OR TRAVELING WITH GYPTIANS.
Someone get me a TARDIS, I need to do some time traveling shit and CORRECT MYSELF.
Well, wait. Before I commit to that, maybe I’d want to skip this particular battle. Remember how I said that Pullman didn’t ignore the harsh reality of this? Well, even after all of this, I did not expect the death that Pullman brings to this fight, and even reading this section again, I’m shocked that there are real, bloody, and violent deaths as the witches descend upon the Tartars at Bolvangar. Was this series intended for young children? I suppose I don’t care one way or another because this is so good, but that might have been deeply traumatizing to me. WAIT, what am I saying? I was reading Poe and Lovecraft at the time, and I read The Stand when I was ten and there was far more disturbing shit in those.
I learned another interesting fact here: If you kill a dæmon, the human dies too, apparently. The glorious Iorek Byrnison arrives just in time to bring his mighty power to the defense of the Bolvangar children:
A wolf dæmon leaped at him: he slashed at her in midair, and bright fire spilled out of her as she fell to the snow, where she hissed and howled before vanishing. Her human died at once.
Well, that just raised the stakes on everything, didn’t it? I only thought it was in one direction, but if a person can die if their dæmon does….well, I imagine Pullman has some shit in store for me. And yes, specifically for me. As in he clearly wrote this knowing I would read it in 2011.
It’s 11:15pm. I’m losing it.
There’s not much in the way of commentary to provide for how ridiculous this all is. (That’s a compliment.) The entrance of the witches and Iorek Byrnison just upped the Badass Quotient by at least 335% (pure science, btw), and the small, tiny sensation of hope has now morphed into comfort. Lyra’s going to be ok. Iorek is here. The witches are here. The children will escape.
BUT NOT IF YOU ARE PHILIP PULLMAN! No, this is surely not enough!!! Instead, after the children manage to run away from the lights of Bolvangar (which is actually a genuinely powerful image for me if you consider that “light” is supposed to mean goodness and running into the “darkness” is generally bad and this is literally the exact opposite of that), Pullman decides to let them SUFFER IN THE ARCTIC SNOW. And I really want to applaud how realistic this is: Lyra planned to get them out of the Experimental Station rather brilliantly, but now, in hindsight, she mentioned nothing about what they were supposed to do once they did escape. She was most likely planning to rely on the arrival of the gyptians, I suspect, but her escape had to come much earlier than she would have liked. So here those children sit, in the cold, having witnessed witches and an armored bear descend on Tartar guards, forced to face the reality that the people at that place where severing dæmons away from their owners, and now they’re trudging through the snow, poorly dressed, with absolutely no help in sight.
You are an evil man, Philip Pullman. Brilliant, but this is the stuff of nightmares.
Thankfully, despite that I initially believed Pullman had set this up so the children would face yet another foe, the group sees a set of lights coming towards them, and the gyptians surround them and everything feels right and my heart is warming with joy and–
MRS. COULTER IS BACK AND SHE BROUGHT TARTARS AND HER DÆMON IS ATTACKING PANTALAIMON AND EVERYTHING IS OVERWHELMING AND MY GOD THIS CHAPTER IS LIKE 4,000 PAGES LONG AND IT IS LIKE THE MOST EXHAUSTING JOURNEY INTO HELL EVER BUT OMG IOREK IS BACK I LOVE YOU IOREK AND OMG THE WITCHES ARE BACK AND THEN THIS
And the arrow sped in and halfway out at the back, and the man’s wolf dæmon vanished in midleap even before he hit the ground.
AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH THAT IS SO AMAZING TO ME.
But honestly, that’s what this feels like. I feel like shouting constantly while reading this and overreacting to everything and making ubiquitous cries of all-caps bliss. Has The Golden Compass turned me into this? I’m kind of ok with it, to be quite honest.
Safe in Lee Scoresby’s balloon with Roger and Iorek inside with her, Lyra is relieved that her friends had come to her defense and awe-inspired by the view that Lee’s balloon provides her of the land below her:
Above and ahead of them the Aurora was blazing, with more brilliance and grandeur than she had ever seen. It was all around, or nearly, and they were nearly part of it. Great swathes of incandescence trembled and parted like angels’ wings beating; cascades of luminescent glory tumbled down invisible crags to lie in swirling pools or hang like vast waterfalls.
So Lyra gasped at that, and then she looked below, and saw a sight almost more wondrous.
As far as the eye could see, to the very horizon in all directions, a tumbled sea of white extended without a break. Soft peaks and vaporous chasms rose or opened here and there, but mostly it looked like a solid mass of ice.
I cannot forget that amongst all the horror, Pullman can still remind us of the inherent beauty of this place. Or of SERAFINA PEKKALA. And Lyra’s first conversation with that witch is also loaded with much weirdness and hints towards even more of the story I haven’t reached. We learned twenty-two Tartars and nine staff at Bolvangar were killed. (!!!!!! THAT IS A HIGH BODY COUNT !!!!!!) The children are safe, and while it appears the gyptians are returning all of the children home, Lee, Iorek, Roger, Lyra, and the witches are headed to Svalbard to free Lord Asriel.
“I think there are things I need to tell you,” said Serafina Pekkala.
And then Pullman is like LOL MARK NO YOU HAVE TO WAIT.
The balloon moves to the north and as I finally relax, I have to remember: I am only three-fourths done with this book. What I just read WAS NOT EVEN THE BOOK’S CLIMAX.
HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE. oh my god I am not even remotely prepared.