In the twentieth chapter of The Golden Compass, two gigantic polar bears fight to the death. No, seriously, there is nothing wrong with the world. This is perfection. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Golden Compass.
I am just at a point where I am so ready to proclaim this as one of the most fantastic books I have ever read. And I mean….this honestly might replace books I’ve cherished for years. I know that is not something one should say lightly, but I truly believe I am going through an experience where, at the end of this, I’ll have no problem ranking this book amongst Dostoevsky and Camus and Sartre and Carson McCullers and Jane Austen and Alice Munro…this. is. so. good. Gorgeously written, with poetic prose that builds a universe that feels so very real to me, all of it tied together by a riveting, chilling, and emotionally difficult story about the fight against destiny and about the closest thing to genuine evil that I’ve ever come across.
And on top of all of this: A BRUTAL, BLOODY BATTLE BETWEEN TWO GIGANTIC, ARMORED POLAR BEARS. Just…..HOW IS THIS ALL IN ONE SINGLE BOOK. This is also only the first of three books in a series. Oh god, there is more after I finish this.
Let’s just get to it, shall we?
CHAPTER TWENTY: MORTAL COMBAT
I can’t lie: the title of this chapter made me snicker. I mean…Pullman had to be aware of the video game series, right? Whatever, I can excuse this because what follows is horrifically violent, terrifying, and immensely entertaining.
Fights between bears were common, and the subject of much ritual. For a bear to kill another was rare, though, and when that happened, it was usually by accident, or when one bear mistook the signals from another, as in the case of Iorek Byrnison. Cases of straightforward murder, like Iofur’s killing of his own father, were rarer still.
But occasionally there came circumstances in which the only way of settling a dispute was a fight to the death. And for that, a whole ceremonial was prescribed.
Thus, this is what opens chapter twenty. It acts as another way for Pullman to pull us further into this culture to understand how violence is an inherent part of bear society, but that its as much a spectacle of ritual as a brutal behavior. The bears prepare the armor of Iofur Raknison while others clear the combat ground. Others sharpen his claws. It’s Lyra’s observation of this ritual, though, that causes her to break. After experiencing so much trauma, I’m a bit shocked that Lyra hasn’t had time to sort of address the reality of what she’s gone through, but at the same time, we know she is one tough gal, motivated by her desire to do good, and that provides enough catharsis as it is. We’ve seen her put aside her fear before when she confronted Tony that first time and chose to comfort him instead of feel bad for herself.
But this is suddenly too much for Lyra, and I really adore that Pullman addresses this here in the way that he does. He forces Lyra to admit that she may have actually gotten in over her head, that her actions can have deadly ramifications for other people. It’s an accountability based on the fear of losing one you love, and it’s why Lyra has to get away from Iofur to have a good cry.
(Unrelated: THERE ARE SHE-BEARS. omg YES.)
(Also another thought: The scene where Iofur discards his “dæmon” and the rest of his bear admirers don’t know what to do with theirs. seriously hilarious.)
Pullman moves the narration to focus on the oncoming battle between Iofur and Iorek, and he chooses a particular word to describe it all: uncertainty. That’s not only for us to think about; it’s a way to explain the actual atmosphere amongst the bears who have gathered for this fight:
They weren’t sure what they were. They weren’t like Iorek Byrnison, pure and certain and absolute; there was a constant pall of uncertainty hanging over them, as they watched one another and watched Iofur.
He’ll build on this in a bit, but it’s really about a clash of two ideologies in a way. After Iofur had enacted so many new changes to the culture of bears, where would they stand?
She found herself crying, with tears that froze almost as soon as they formed, and which she had to brush away painfully. She was so frightened. Bears, who didn’t cry, couldn’t understand what was happening to her; it was some human process, meaningless. And of course Pantalaimon couldn’t comfort her as he normally would, though she kept her hand in her pocket firmly around his warm little mouse-form, and he nuzzled at her fingers.
As the fear builds in Lyra, she comes to realize she may have actually made a grave mistake in setting up this entire confrontation without Iorek’s knowledge. Despite that she believes in Iorek wholly and completely, she cannot ignore that he is at a distinct disadvantage: he’ll be hungry, tired from traveling, and he’s half the size of Iofur. His armor is not new, freshly cleaned and oiled, and it does not cover the underside of his body. And it looks like he is going to lose.
It was when she saw this that Lyra finally realized that she had betrayed Iorek Byrnison, for Iorek had nothing like it. His armor protected only his back and sides. She looked at Iofur Raknison, so sleek and powerful, and felt a deep sickness in her, like guilt and fear combined.
It’s actually a bit difficult to read this section because I don’t think we’ve ever experienced an admission like this from Lyra and it’s starting to make me feel bad about this. After everything that Pullman has thrown our way, all of the terror and trauma, it’s now evident to me that there is a very real chance to Iorek is going to lose. That’s something he deserves credit for, too. Thinking of either way this could go….both options produce a fascinating storyline that I could foresee. That’s what was so exciting about reading this section: I honestly believed it could go either way.
So when Iorek does finally arrive and, sticking with the plan she made with Iofur, she runs to Iorek’s side, “pretending” to be his dæmon. She wastes absolutely no time with this either, immediately sharing as much of the plan with Iorek as she can, trying to describe how she tricked him into believing she was an actual dæmon and that now he’s got to battle the king of the bears.
“You tricked Iofur Raknison?”
“Yes. I made him agree that he’d fight you instead of just killing you straight off like an outcast, and the winner would be king of the bears. I had to do that, because–”
“Belacqua? No. You are Lyra Silvertongue,” he said. “To fight him is all I want. Come, little dæmon.”
She looked at Iorek Byrnison in his battered armor, lean and ferocious, and felt as if her heart would burst with pride.
SWEET, SWEET VICTORY. For me, now it didn’t matter if Iorek won or lost. Lyra just won his complete respect. There is no need for guilt. Lyra has just helped Iorek with an impossible task again, and he will serve her until the day he dies.
Like many of the moments in this book that had me clawing at my face and t-shirt in suspense, Pullman, like Suzanne Collins or Alfred Hitchcock, has an innate sense of creating scenes that are painful in their intensity. Like the battle at Bolvangar, the fight between these armored bears does not shy away from the explicit violence that would naturally be a part of it. I don’t need violence explained graphically to me in order to believe the narrative. Hell, I’d say my overexposure to horror films for the last decade has satisfied that more than I could ever ask for. For Pullman, though, he’s built a fantastical world that is only somewhat similar to our own, and he grounds that all by writing in terms that are real to us.
I’ve been revisiting my old Twilight reviews as I convert them to book form (!!!!!! excite !!!!!) and a particular part of mine in the final review of Twilight stuck out to me: Stephenie Meyer wrote her books as if a fantastic world and realistic storytelling were mutually exclusive terms. Pullman, in contrast to that, does not do this at all. This world he’s built is full of ghasts and witches and truth-telling instruments and talking bears and souls personified as animals that live with humans their entire lives. The parallels are there, but what makes it all feel so real is that everything that governs these people and these creatures is so familiar, in both an emotional and physical sense. Even if we don’t understand the panserbjørne entirely, since we are not armored bears (omg why not tragedy), Pullman writes them with a fully-formed culture of behaviors, rituals, social stigmas, acceptable mores, and then describes their conflicts with anger, rage, honor, duty, and A SHITLOAD OF BLOODSHED. I do remember maybe five minutes of the film version of The Golden Compass and I do recall enjoying this fight a lot, but this….this. THIS IS SO MUCH BETTER.
Then with a roar and a blur of snow both bears moved at the same moment. Like two great masses of rock balanced on adjoining peaks and shaken loose by an earthquake, which bound down the mountainsides gathering speed, leaping over crevasses and knocking trees into splinters, until they crash into each other so hard that both are smashed to powder and flying chips of stone: that was how the two bears came together. The crash as they met resounded in the still air and echoed back from the palace wall. But they weren’t destroyed, as rock would have been. They both fell aside, and the first to rise was Iorek. He twisted up in a lithe spring and grappled with Iofur, whose armor had been damaged by the collision and who couldn’t easily raise his head. Iorek made at once for the vulnerable gap at his neck. He raked the white fur, and then hooked his claws beneath the edge of Iofur’s helmet and wrenched it forward.
Even in a moment of pure brutality, Pullman doesn’t avoid assigning a poetic, natural beauty to this all, using an extended metaphor of an avalanche of rocks to give the motion and sheer force a proper mental image.
Seriously, this book is amazing.
The enormous power between these two bears is felt through the pages as Iorek and Iofur crash into each other and Iofur is the first to draw blood from Iorek:
Drops of hot blood were flying through the air: one landed on Lyra’s furs, and she pressed her hand to it like a token of love.
jesus christ oh my god 🙁 🙁 🙁 🙁
The first sign of hope comes when Iorek manages to rip away a large portion of Iofur’s gold armor, which is not as strong as Iorek’s sky-metal, and the two bears stand facing each other, waiting to see what is next. Iorek takes the opportunity to attack as Iofur is occupied with his hanging armor, and the battle becomes more chaotic than ever.
Iron clanged on iron, teeth crashed on teeth, breath roared harshly, feet thundered on the hard-packed ground. The snow around was splashed with red and trodden down for yards into a crimson mud.
Yeah, I don’t remember any of this at all from the movie. I mean, I suppose I can understand that they probably didn’t want to have a scene with bears ripping open wounds and shedding blood all over the snow to keep an accessible rating, but good christ, this is so intense. As the damage is clear on both bears, it’s Iorek who is suffering the most: he has an injured forepaw, blood seeping from wounds on his bodies, and his physical disadvantage is more clear than ever.
Lyra was in tears. Her dear, her brave one, he fearless defender, was going to die, and she would not do him the treachery of looking away, for if he looked at her he must see her shining eyes and their love and belief, not a face hidden in cowardice or a shoulder fearfully turned away.
What a depressing scene. I suddenly stopped feeling positive about this fight once Iorek’s flaws were spread out for all to see. However, this is not the end, not by a longshot. I couldn’t figure out what Iorek was doing, but Pullman described him as “moving backward only to find clean dry footing and a firm rock to leap up from…” Was he trying to trick the king of bears who wanted nothing more than to be a man?
That was when Iorek moved. Like a wave that has been building its strength over a thousand miles of ocean, and which makes little stir in the deep water, but which when it reaches the shallows rears itself up high into the sky, terrifying the shore dwellers, before crashing down on the land with irresistible power–so Iorek Byrnison rose up against Iofur, exploding upward with his firm footing on the dry rock and slashing with a ferocious left hand at the exposed jaw of Iofur Raknison.
It was a horrifying blow. It tore the lower part of his jaw clean off, so that it flew through the air scattering blood drops in the snow many yards away.
HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT !!!!!!1!111!1!11!!!!
Once again, Pullman uses a metaphor about the fury of nature to give us the image in our minds. As Iorek finishes off Iofur by tearing his “life” from his throat, I was completely shocked by this:
There was one ritual yet to perform. Iorek sliced open the dead king’s unprotected chest, peeling the fur back to expose the narrow white and red ribs like the timbers of an upturned boat. Into the rib cage Iorek reached, and he plucked out Iofur’s hear, red and steaming, and ate it there in front of Iofur’s subjects.
THERE IS NO WORD, NOR GIF, NOR MACRO, THAT BEST DESCRIBES WHAT I AM FEELING RIGHT NOW.
I mean….can you imagine including this in the original script adaptation and trying to convince studio execs that you need to include a scene of a polar bear ripping out the heart of another bear he just violently killed and still keep it PG-13. Oh, this book is just PRECIOUS I LOVE IT SO MUCH.
From this point on, immediately, the change in tone in chapter twenty is both obvious and incredibly necessary. We’d been given so much doom and gloom and Iorek just conquered a seemingly impossible conflict. He is now king of the bears. From being exiled to king. The new king’s first act: to throw away all signs of Iofur’s reign and to topple the palace that once stood to honor him. The human prisoners are released and Lyra tends to Iorek’s wounds. Actually, that scene is a great sign of how much Iorek now respects Lyra: Instead of letting other bears help him, as is tradition, he allows only Lyra to place bloodmoss on his wounds.
Ah, shucks. My heart is warmed.
After a brief nap in the snow (SERIOUSLY YOU ARE SUCH A BAMF LYRA), Lyra is reunited both with Roger and a healing Iorek. Who is king of the bears!!! I can’t get over this. He started off as an exiled bear, drinking his sorrows away, and now he is king of the bears. Also:
It turned out that Iofur Raknison’s dominance over them had been like a spell. Some of them put it down to the influence of Mrs. Coulter, who had visited him before Iorek’s exile, though Iorek had not known about it, and given Iofur various presents.
“She gave him a drug,” said one bear, “which he fed secretly to Hjalmur Hjalmurson, and made him forget himself.”
Hjalmur Hjalmurson, Lyra gathered, was the bear who Iorek had killed, and whose death had brought about his exile. So Mrs. Coulter was behind that!
Seriously. Most malicious villain ever. Oh god, should I just ask for the earth to open up and eat her? I’d like that, a lot. I mean, she was going to set up a second station like the one at Bolvangar and eventually try to basically make the bears her slaves. Oh, I cannot wait until she is crushed.
But…well, that’s not the only thing she wants to do. There’s a long segment right here where Lyra consults the alethiometer to learn what has happened with Lee Scoresby and Mrs. Coulter and what their plans are, but Lyra learns why Mrs. Coulter is so intent on killing Lord Asriel:
“It’s why she wants to kill Lord Asriel: it’s because she knows what he’s going to do, and she fears it, and she wants to do it herself and gain control before he does…It must be the city in the sky, it must be! She’s trying to get to it first!”
WHAT???? Why does she want to open the bridge between worlds? What possible benefit could she gain from that? I DON’T UNDERSTAND IT.
But I’m guessing that, very soon, I will learn what all of this is. Knowing that lord Asriel needs the alethiometer to finish whatever he is doing in his cell, Iorek agrees to accompany Lyra to where Lord Asriel is being held.
Oh god, shit is just going to get so real, isn’t it?