Book Review: Discovering the Golden Compass, George Beahm (2007)

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

four out of five stars

Dust, Daemons and Disappointment

Discovering the Golden Compass is a charming little book (“little” in comparison to other HDM guides, that is!) that deals with everything His Dark Materials. Author – and fellow fan – George Beahm introduces readers to the trilogy (of course!), as well as:

– its sequel novella, Lyra’s Oxford (the prequel Once Upon a Time in a North was published a year after Discovering the Golden Compass, so it doesn’t make an appearance here);

– the unabridged audiobook (brilliant! you should definitely give it a listen if you haven’t already!) and BBC radio adaptations;

– the six-hour play staged by the National Theatre in London;

– the upcoming (eventually!) Book of Dust; and

– (groan!) the 2007 film The Golden Compass.

Also included are brief overviews of HDM-related books, collectibles, documentaries and websites, as well as copious quotes from the principals in and critics of each.

The design and artwork are the highlights of Discovering the Golden Compass. The book is primarily printed in black and white, with red and gold details throughout. A 16-page full-color insert chock full of photographs by Emma Raynaud provides a gorgeous (if all too short) tour through Philip Pullman’s Oxford, and the illustrations by Tim Kirk are both lovely and informative. This is one good-looking guide!

But the true gem of this collection is a 10,000-word autobiographical essay by Philip Pullman himself; originally published on Philip Pullman’s website (, as of this writing “I Have a Feeling This All Belongs to Me” appears to be unavailable online. Even if you read nothing else, the essay alone is worth the purchase price of the book.

On the downside, the sections concerning the film are terribly depressing. The Golden Compass was still in production while Beahm was writing Discovering the Golden Compass, and the book was published three months before the release of the film. Beahm’s outlook concerning the film adaptation is hopeful, even gushing, despite the early warning signs (for example, the filmmakers’ eschewing of His Dark Materials’ more subversive elements, such as at the 2007 Oxford Literary Festival – the panel discussion for which Beahm provides a transcript). While I can’t begrudge him his optimism, in hindsight these passages are difficult – painful, even – to read.

As someone who’d rather pretend that the film never happened, I think (some of) the precious space occupied by The Golden Compass would have been better spent looking at His Dark Materials: the plot, the setting, the characters, the curiosities. Dust and daemons, witches and armored bears, Svalbard and Bolvanger – all the details to delight a fangirl. Since Beahm aims to covers so much ground in so few pages, his discussion of the HDM trilogy is necessarily brief: Discovering the Golden Compass is a little bit of everything. Die-hard fans probably won’t gain any significant insights here, but it’s a fun romp through Philip Pullman’s worlds in any case.

Curiously, Beahm also keeps it (mostly) spoiler-free, which seems an odd choice to me; if you happen to find yourself intrigued by His Dark Materials, why not just read the source material? Picking up a book about a book you want to read, but haven’t yet, seems … silly. The primary audience for this type of tome – nonfiction written about a piece of fiction, be it literature, film, television, etc. – seems to me to be existing fans … so why not converse with one another using the language and shared knowledge of a fandom? It’s so much more fun that way!


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(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)