From Moses to Krishna, Superman to Harry Potter, the trope of the baby given away at birth for safekeeping is one that runs through many of our stories and myths. And because of that familiar trope, you know that little Lyra Belacqua is destined for great things the minute she — an infant in her swaddling cloth — is given away by her uncle to the Master of Oxford’s Jordan College.
Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, is an adventurer who spends much of his time in the frozen wilderness of the North; it is obviously no place for a child. More importantly, the world outside is dangerous for Lyra, who is prophesied to possess a special ability that might make her an adversary of the Magisterium — the all-powerful religious body that rules the land. Within Jordan College (where a privilege known as ‘scholastic sanctuary’ prevails), and under the Master’s protection, Lyra will be safe.
But Lyra has a penchant for getting into scraps. As she grows up, the roofs of Jordan College become her favoured mode of transport, and she’s always running about its archaic corridors, often with her friend — a kitchen boy called Roger.
On one of Asriel’s annual visits to the college, Lyra overhears of the project that’s occupying his time in the North: of a substance called Dust (whose mention the Magisterium expressly forbids) that abides to adults but not children; of a hidden city; of a former expedition that went awry. She begs Asriel to take her with him when he returns North, but he refuses, leaving her heartbroken.
Enter Mrs Coulter: an elegant, enigmatic scholar who takes Lyra under her wing and offers her a chance to live with her in London, as also assist in her own Northern mission. Lyra agrees on the condition that Roger can go with her to London too.
Meanwhile, there is trouble brewing just outside Jordan College. Someone has been kidnapping children of the Gyptian community (a free people that mostly live on barges). A friend of Lyra and Roger’s — Billy Costa — is the latest victim. And then Roger himself disappears. When Mrs Coulter says she’ll help Lyra locate Roger (and Billy), Lyra leaves Jordan College for London.
With Lyra is Pantalaimon or Pan, her daemon — a sort of spirit animal that manifests as a physical presence by every individual’s side in this world. Secretly, she’s also carrying a golden compass-like implement given to her by the Master of Jordan College — an alethiometer — a device that can show you the truth, provided you know how to read it.
And so begins a journey that will take Lyra to London on the trail of Roger, then North, when she uncovers a vast and sinister plot.