The Golden Compass follows 11-year-old Lyra as she embarks on a quest to save her best friend, Roger. In Lyra's world, which exists parallel to the reader's world, all humans have dæmons, physical manifestations of a person's soul and conscience that take the form of animals. Because Lyra is still a child, her dæmon, Pan, can change his form at will, but as children reach puberty, their dæmons "settle" into a form that they'll have for the rest of their person's life. This transition from child to adult is one of great interest to the characters in the novel, and as such, Pullman goes to great lengths to draw out the differences between children and adult characters. The Golden Compass proposes, first and foremost, that while childhood may be (to some) an idealized state of innocence and inexperience, it's still absolutely necessary to move through it and become an adult.
Lyra has grown up in the care of the Scholars at Jordan College in Oxford. As an 11-year-old in the care of men who love her but aren't parents in any sense of the word, Lyra is afforded a great deal of freedom to truly be a child. She engages in "wars" with the children from Jordan College, the surrounding colleges, the "townies," and the traveling gyptian children. Importantly, all of this takes place away from the jurisdiction of adults, leaving Lyra free to experiment and learn. She doesn't yet need to focus on the bigger-picture events of adulthood. Lyra's freedom situates her as truly an innocent: though she's entranced by the idea of the north, where her parents supposedly died and where her beloved uncle Lord Asriel (who is actually her father) travels to study, she's unaware of any goings-on that aren't directly connected to her. The novel suggests that while Lyra may be the protagonist, this sense of innocence, selfishness, and a narrow understanding of the world is something unique to all children—and it's this innocence that goes hand in hand with youth that's of special interest to government bodies who wish to study the mechanism by which this innocence disappears during puberty.
While puberty in Lyra's universe presumably still begins with the same onset of adult hormones as it does in the reader's world, certain scientists in Lyra's world have discovered an external way of measuring whether or not puberty has begun: Dust. In the novel, Dust consists of elementary particles that are attracted to humans—but only adult humans. While Lyra is still at Jordan College, she sneakily sits in on a secret presentation in which Lord Asriel shows Scholars photographs developed with a special emulsion that picks up on Dust, in which adult figures are illuminated by Dust while children remain dark and shadowy. The role of Dust is remarkable and of interest to many because, as Lord Asriel explains, Dust is thought to be the physical cause or proof of original sin. In theory, at least, stopping the onset of puberty and the related settling of one's dæmon so someone doesn't attract Dust would stop a person from ever moving beyond innocence to gain experience or, as one nurse puts it, experience "troublesome thoughts"—presumably, sexual thoughts. Given this state of affairs, children exist in a very vulnerable state. Because of their innocence they know little about the danger they face from the organization that kidnaps them, ships them north, and performs experiments on them by severing the connection between their bodies and their dæmons, a procedure known as intercision. Because of their status as children, they're also in a relatively powerless position to fight back when they do get wind of what's happening.
Despite the interest in separating humans from their dæmons, the result of the experiments, both on adults and children, paint a chilling picture of the consequences of attempting to suspend a person in a state of pre-pubescent innocence. At Bolvanger, the northern laboratory that carries out these experiments, Lyra learns that the adult nurses there have undergone intercision. Those nurses appear to be little more than shells of humans, while their dæmons are similarly lifeless and incurious. Children who undergo intercision, meanwhile, suffer physically and emotionally, and if they don't die of shock during the procedure, they all die an emotionally and physically painful death within a few weeks. All of this suggests that attempts to preserve childhood innocence are futile and cruel—rather, the novel suggests people should be allowed to experience all that life has to offer in adulthood, both the good and the bad.
Once all of this becomes clear to Lyra and she learns how cruel and unfeeling Lord Asriel is (he heartlessly performs intercision on Roger in the name of his studies into Dust, killing Roger), Lyra and Pan begin to reevaluate some of their earlier, childish desires to never grow up, and come to the radical conclusion that Dust might not be a bad thing after all. This conclusion represents, first and foremost, the understanding that as uncomfortable as it may be for children to mature, doing so is absolutely necessary and not a bad thing. Indeed, Lyra's burgeoning emotional and intellectual maturity, even if she doesn't yet attract Dust, is exactly what enables her to escape Bolvanger and intercision herself, and it helps her form a more nuanced view of the adults around her in which she understands that she can't trust them at their word. With this, Lyra and Pan move forward into a parallel world that contains the source of Dust, as well as progress further toward emotional and physical maturity. In doing so, Lyra fully accepts the necessity of growing up. This progression suggests that, while adults may idealize childhood and innocence, remaining innocent is unfulfilling and ultimately robs a person of any ability to think critically, come to conclusions, and positively change the world.
Childhood, Innocence, and Maturation ThemeTracker
Childhood, Innocence, and Maturation Quotes in The Golden Compass
"I didn't have anything in mind, and well you know it," she snapped quietly. "But now I've seen what the Master did, I haven't got any choice. You're supposed to know about conscience, aren't you? How can I just go and sit in the library or somewhere and twiddle my thumbs, knowing what's going to happen? I don't intend to do that, I promise you."
"Yes. Lyra has a part to play in all this, and a major one. The irony is that she must do it all without realizing what she's doing. She can be helped, though, and if my plan with the Tokay had succeeded, she would have been safe for a little longer."
Lyra was frightened. No one worried about a child gone missing for a few hours, certainly not a gyptian: in the tight-knit gyptian boat world, all children were precious and extravagantly loved, and a mother knew that if a child was out of sight, it wouldn't be far from someone else's who would protect it instinctively.
The Master sighed. In his black suit and black tie he looked as much like his dæmon as anyone could, and suddenly Lyra thought that one day, quite soon, he would be buried in the crypt under the oratory, and an artist would engrave a picture of his dæmon on the brass plate for his coffin, and her name would share the space with his.
Mrs. Coulter came into the bathroom to wash Lyra's hair, and she didn't rub and scrape like Mrs. Lonsdale either. She was gentle. Pantalaimon watched with powerful curiosity until Mrs. Coulter looked at him, and he knew what she meant and turned away, averting his eyes modestly from these feminine mysteries as the golden monkey was doing. He had never had to look away from Lyra before.
Indeed, Tony heard from gossip in pubs along the way that the police were making raids on houses and farms and building yards and factories without any explanation, though there was a rumor that they were searching for a missing girl. And that in itself was odd, considering all the kids that had gone missing without being looked for.
He had to stay close to the ship, of course, for he could never go far from her; but she sensed his desire to speed as far and as fast as he could, for pure exhilaration. She shared his pleasure, but for her it wasn't simple pleasure, for there was pain and fear in it too. Suppose he loved being a dolphin more than he loved being with her on land? What would she do then?
"Anyway, there's compensations for a settled form."
"What are they?"
"Knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She's a seagull, and that means I'm kind of a seagull too. I'm not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I'm a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That's worth knowing, that is. And when your dæmon settles, you'll know the sort of person you are."
Lyra's heart was thumping hard, because something in the bear's presence made her feel close to coldness, danger, brutal power, but a power controlled by intelligence; and not a human intelligence, nothing like a human, because of course bears had no dæmons. The strange hulking presence gnawing its meat was like nothing she had ever imagined, and she felt a profound admiration and pity for the lonely creature.
She felt angry and miserable. His badger claws dug into the earth and he walked forward. It was such a strange tormenting feeling when your dæmon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love. And she knew it was the same for him. Everyone tested it when they were growing up: Seeing how far they could pull apart, coming back with intense relief.
"My armor is made of sky iron, made for me. A bear's armor is his soul, just as your dæmon is your soul. You might as well take him away"—indicating Pantalaimon—"and replace him with a doll full of sawdust. That is the difference."
"How do you do that?"
"By not being human," he said. "That's why you could never trick a bear. We see tricks and deceit as plain as arms and legs. We can see in a way humans have forgotten. But you know about this; you can understand the symbol reader."
"That en't the same, is it?" [...]
"It is the same," he said. "Adults can't read it, as I understand. As I am to human fighters, so you are to adults with the symbol reader."
"Yes, I suppose," she said, puzzled and unwilling. "Does that mean I'll forget how to do it when I grow up?"
"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."
"She guessed that the two things that happen in adolescence might be connected: the change in one's dæmon and the fact that Dust began to settle. Perhaps if the dæmon were separated from the body, we might never be subject to Dust—to original sin."
"We've heard them all talk about Dust, and they're so afraid of it, and you know what? We believed them, even though we could see that what they were doing was wicked and evil and wrong...We thought Dust must be bad too, because they were grown up and they said so. But what if it isn't? What if it's—"
She said breathlessly, "Yeah! What if it's really good..."