In the ninth chapter of The Golden Compass, Lyra’s focus on learning the alethiometer produces a terrifying affect, changing John Faa’s decision to disallow her to come to the north. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Golden Compass.
IS THIS EVER GOING TO SLOW DOWN.
CHAPTER NINE: THE SPIES
Look, The Hunger Games was unbearably exciting at times. And the action in Deathly Hallows started pretty quickly. But WHAT THE HELL IS THIS BOOK. The moments of calm are so short-lived and Pullman has dropped us right into an UTTER AND COMPLETE FUCKING DISASTER. (Not the writing, I mean, because this book is composed of TOTAL BEAUTY.)
I know I’ve made reference to the movie version of this a few times, but honestly…HOW THE HELL DID THIS GET FUCKED UP. Could you imagine watching a movie that faithfully replicated this sense of oncoming terror, of the constantly building tension, and the way that Pullman constantly rewards you for continuing to read this book? Of course, I imagine that this conversation would be a bit spoilery to actually have, but I honestly remember absolutely none of this. Not one bit of this. I was not even remotely this entertained either.
And as much as this project is about being pedantic and overthinking and peeling back layers of subtexts so all of us can find ways to discuss how these narratives affect our lives and the world at large, it’s always quite exciting when I find something that is simply this entertaining. And that’s a really hard thing to pull off! To entertain people from various backgrounds and cultures and beliefs is not an easy feat, and I am so impressed with the way that Pullman has decided to organize the plot here. That’s a fascinating thing to think about, actually, because the structure of The Golden Compass so far seems like a traditional fantasy story in many aspects, but I’m enamored with the suddenness of the text. This is not a story of an everyday person discovering a magical world, and it’s not quite an adventure within a magical world. This whole story is a magical world with ANOTHER MAGICAL WORLD STACKED ON TOP OF IT.
I mean, seriously, think about it. This whole world of Lyra’s, while it resembles ours, is distinctly not ours. There are dæmons and spirits and ghasts and fucking WARRIOR POLAR BEARS and shit, so it’s absolutely an imagined fantasy world. The details are obviously different, but all of us who read fantasy are familiar with the tropes and the archetypes. But in this world, there’s apparently another world that is magical and weird and WHAT THE HELL IS DUST. Oh god, this is like a fantasy Inception. A world inside a world inside a world WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING
So, chapter nine. Christ. Lyra has convinced herself that she’ll find a way to come along to the north, but I like that this chapter immediately addresses the absurdity of that plan. She realizes that the gyptians must be traveling to a much larger boat somewhere, meaning she’d have to secretly hide on a narrowboat, which seems impossible. So how is she going to get to the gyptians’ proper ship?
In the meantime, she spends her days observing the frantic and fascinating work being done all around her, with men and women scurrying about in a haze. She tries to find the man she is most interested in: Benjamin de Ruyter, the one John Faa designated as being in charge of spying. Of course, what good would a spy be if they were readily available and easy to find? Lyra is discouraged when she finds that he is impossible to locate and no one will share any information with her about his whereabouts. Instead, she chooses to spend the most time with Farder Coram, informing him that since she knows the most about the Gobblers (you know, since she almost was one herself), then she’ll be needed to best understand de Ruyter’s messages.
As they both begin to focus on the alethiometer, Pullman takes a moment to share with us a bit more information about dæmons, helping me to understand something that previously confused me. Lyra is enamored with Farder Coram’s dæmon, a gorgeous brown cat. (I say brown because Lyra says that the cat literally appears as nearly every shade of brown ever because that is how gorgeous she is.) She longs to touch Coram’s dæmon, but it turns out you actually can’t.
…for it was the grossest breach of etiquette imaginable to touch another person’s dæmon. Dæmons might touch each other, of course, or fight; but the prohibition against human-dæmon contact went so deep that even in battle no warrior would touch an enemy’s dæmon. It was utterly forbidden. Lyra couldn’t remember having to be told that: she just knew it, as instinctively as she felt that nausea was bad and comfort good.
SERIOUSLY CAN I HAVE A DÆMON HISTORY LESSON. Gosh, these creatures are SO FASCINATING TO ME. Where did they come from??? WHY DON’T I HAVE MY OWN.
Anyway, back to the alethiometer. I was really stoked that we get to see the alethiometer used here, as it answers my question from a past review about how Pullman was going to explain how this instrument worked without confusing me. He succeeds, flat out. While I obviously couldn’t work on myself at this point, I do understand precisely how this object operates and how this is going to benefit Lyra. Here, in the first example, we learn that while Lyra is using the alethiometer, the fourth hand keeps landing on a specific symbol. This hourglass, which has a small skull at the top, represents death. Which…AWESOME. THIS IS CERTAINLY A GOOD SIGN, RIGHT?
But the way an alethiometer works becomes more clear: the symbols work in a specific order, giving the user a specific message based on what message the user gives it. In this case, Lyra picks three images she thinks best represents the fate of Benjamin de Ruyter:
“Because I thought the serpent was cunning, like a spy out to be, and the crucible could mean knowledge, what you kind of distill, and the beehive was hard work, like bees are always working hard; so out of the hard work and the cunning comes knowledge, see, and that’s they spy’s job; and I pointed to them and I thought the question in my mind, and the needle stopped at death…D’you think that could be really working, Farder Coram?”
Seriously, this is such a captivating idea and now I’m beginning to see how this instrument is so inherently complex. But I think I’m most impressed with how natural Lyra seems to be at working this out. Despite that the alethiometer is so complicated, it’s not completely ridiculous that a person with a good imagination (Lyra!!!) could figure out how to use it. That’s such a rad concept, too: It’s about breaking down a question to what it’s made of, and asking it that way.
I LOVE IT, PLEASE GET ME ONE FOR MY BIRTHDAY THIS YEAR.
Before he could finish his sentence, there was an urgent knock at the door, and a young gyptian man came in.
“Beg pardon, Farder Coram, there’s Jacob Huismans just come back, and he’s sore wounded.”
“He was with Benjamin de Ruyter,” said Farder Coram. “What’s happened?”
“He won’t speak,” said the young man. “You’d better come, Farder Coram, ‘cause he won’t last long, he’s a bleeding inside.”
what. what. what??????? did. did i just think what happened…..happen???? LYRA OMG ARE YOU
As Farder Coram and Lyra rush to meet Jacob, I suddenly knew the inevitable: the alethiometer works. IT FUCKING WORKS. And lo and behold, when they get inside the boat housing Jacob, they learn that Benjamin de Ruyter is dead.
IT WORKS oh my god my brain
We learn of the terrifying story of the spies’ work, as they tried to break into the Ministry of Theology, based on the information they received from a captured Gobbler. Yet the story is given this horrifically dark hue when Jacob becomes so weak that his dæmon speaks for him.
This isn’t going to end well, is it? I thought.
Jacob’s dæmon reveals that it was “like everything we did, they knew about before we did it, for all we know Frans and Tom were swallowed alive as soon as they got near Lord Boreal.” The entire trip was a disaster, as they were all ambushed by unseen forces just minutes after entering the Ministry of Theology. I cannot imagine a more depressing and sad image than a man’s dæmon trying to hold him up from a falling, but failing to do so and both of them perishing. Fucked up.
“And we couldn’t see anything of Gerard, but there was a howl from above in his voice and we were too terrified and stunned to move, and then an arrow shot down at our shoulder and pierced deep down within….”
And this is made even worse because Jacob’s dæmon never finishes the story. They were set up or someone leaked information. Either way, there is one absolute fact throughout all of this: Lyra can use an alethiometer, which told them that Benjamin was dead. This is not lost on Farder Coram, who sends Lyra off briefly so he may take of Jacob, but not before stressing that he must talk with her about the alethiometer.
Pantalaimon is convinced himself that the instrument is not some spiritual device; he instead suggests that elementary particles might be at work here. We’re given an example of this when Lyra remembers when she saw a thing called a photomill at Gabriel College, and I would be lying if I said that I understood this. I don’t. At all. I’m not sure I’m meant to at this point, as the idea clearly troubles Lyra. She likes the concept of elementary particles inside that alethiometer, but it doesn’t settle right with her. SLIGHT FORESHADOWING, I SEE YOU.
John Faa calls on Lyra to see her, and I actually laughed out loud because this was so awesome:
“I think we’re going to have to take you with us after all, against my inclinations. I’m troubled in my mind about it, but there don’t seem to be any alternative.”
YES!!! I knew there had to be a way for Lyra to get on that ship up north. Though…I suppose I shouldn’t be too happy about that, since A MAN HAD TO BE MURDERED IN ORDER FOR HER TO GO. Oops!
And thus Lyra gets a spot on the narrowboat, and she returns to the routine she’d been familiar with the first time she met up with the gyptians: she hides. She hides in closets and hidden doors, and is prevented from ever going above deck even once. The rumors about Lyra have gotten utterly out of control at this point, as the clergy and the police must be encouraging as much fear and disinformation about who she is as possible. Obviously, this works against Lyra, both on a personal level and for this entire journey. She’s further irritated with her conditions below deck because she can’t defend herself or disprove anything. She’s forced to stay in hiding. And I get why they have to keep her in hiding, too. With so much news and rumors floating around this part of the world, anyone would be willing to capture her and lay claim to being the one who did so.
She does get to spend more time with Farder Coram talking about the alethiometer and how she is teaching herself to use it. She explains to him about the sensation she gets when she uses it, almost as if there’s some sort of internal voice that speaks to her when she’s got it in her hand. I wonder if that is another explanation for what this thing is and if this is the case for everyone who uses it.
Knowing this, Farder Coram asks Lyra about Mrs. Coulter’s actions, and we see exactly how Lyra is able to determine the multiple meanings behind a single symbol. As she explains it, it’s like “climbing down a ladder at night.” So she can look at the hourglass and knows that it generally means “time” and the second “rung” is “now.” And I really love that Pullman, through Farder Coram, uses the chess analogy here, as it’s another thing that involves the intense, almost poetic concentration that Lyra exhibits when she uses the alethiometer, a certain kind of grace that is powerful and beautiful.
While reading for Mrs. Coulter, the alethiometer chooses the same five images in a row, and neither Farder Coram or Lyra can figure out what the fifth symbol, a lizard of some sort with its tail curled around a stick, means in this message. Slightly distracted by Coram’s interruption of her concentration, Lyra loses the moment and is unable to determine what this fifth message means. And given the physical atmosphere she’s been living in, trapped indoors for days on end, Lyra’s exhaustion gets the best of her, and she stops trying to sue the alethiometer. She takes the chance to ask Farder Coram to get a peak outside. He initially doesn’t seem to answer the question, but he finally concedes that a few minutes outside can’t hurt.
Lyra leaped up, and Pantalaimon became a seagull at once, eager to stretch his wings in the open.
Gosh, I love this so much. I actually think it’s much cooler to have a dæmon that changes shape based on your emotions or their own.
As Pantalaimon flies around in the dim gray sky, it’s not long before something dark and shapeless seems to fly at him and Lyra suddenly feels her dæmon’s pain. Well, not something, but a ton of things. If it wasn’t for the tillerman’s dæmon, Pantalaimon may have gotten hurt far worse than he did. I wondered: were these things dæmons that belonged to other people? Why are they like insects?
Farder Coram captures it in a tin mug and the two of them head downstairs, clearly aware that it was probably a bad idea for them to come up above, even for a few minutes. Farder Coram explains that this thing is “Afric,” which made absolutely no sense to me at the time, and that a living thing lives in the shell of this being, a “clockwork” of sorts, and “there’s a bad spirt with a spell through its heart.” Oh and the spirit is literally relentless within that body and, once released, will be sent into a murderous rage.
Obviously, this is Mrs. Coulter’s doing, as the things act as spies for her, and now the gravity of the situation creeps into their minds: One of these things not only got away, but the symbols on the alethiometer had told them this would happen.
Christ, now I know why those things are so rare. Could you imagine if everyone had one?
I don’t really understand the logistics of how this spirit could ever be disposed of, since John Faa later says that the spirit will never stop growing, so releasing it later would be inevitably worse than releasing it now, and releasing it now would also be 100% awful, so….yeah, that thing sucks.
I suppose that since Lyra’s already been spotted, Farder Coram doesn’t worry about taking her out into Colby, so they head into the city to speak with John Faa before taking off on their journey north. If anything, I feel that this chapter takes the excitement of Lyra finding out that she was going to get to travel to the north, and then dumps a bucket of freezing cold water on our heads. She is still going north, and while I’m excited for that, Pullman makes sure to remind us that this is not going to be a journey of puppy dogs and cup cakes.
Shit is going to get real.