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Even if you haven’t read Phillip Pullman’s book, The Golden Compass, you probably have heard some of the controversy surrounding it. So with the release of the film I thought I’d provide a few of my own thoughts on the matter.
Although I had never heard of the book before, I saw the previews for the film version some months ago and my interest was piqued enough that I decided I wanted to read it before seeing the film. At this point I knew nothing at all about the controversy around it. I was able to read it without any preconceived ideas about its take on religion, Christianity or anything else.
So what was my initial reaction to it? I loved it. The book is fabulous…mostly. It follows a young girl named Lyra on her adventure to rescue her friend from the mysterious Gobblers who along with her uncle are wrapped up in a search for a strange sort of Dust that links all human beings together. Those are the basics, but what’s to love is Pullman’s world. It is set in an alternate version of our own world in which technology and culture seem to have halted sometime during the early 19th century. There are zeppelins, and cowboys in hot air balloons, and gypsies (called gyptians) and all sorts of other wonderful flavors. Science calls itself ‘experimental theology’ and Lyra’s uncle happens to be a experimental theologian that’s off to explore the wild north. One of Pullman’s most original and interesting ideas is that in this world, a person’s soul lives outside their body. A person’s daemon, as it is called, is their closest companion and is able to shape-shift into any animal form until adulthood when it settles on a final shape that will reveal the person’s nature. A subservient person might have a dog for a daemon, while soldiers have ravenous wolves. Great stuff.
So why do I say it was “almost” fabulous? To begin with, Pullman doesn’t provide any answers, which is odd because a key part of the story is Lyra’s Alethiometer, the Golden Compass, an arcane gadget that is somehow able to tell only the truth—if a person knows how to read it. So here we have a adventure centered around an object that is able to tell the truth and yet the author doesn’t seem to be able to read it himself. Don’t take that to mean that he’s down on religious truth, that’s not what I’m talking about—yet. I mean the story lacks a resolution. None of the questions raised about a person’s soul and what it means to be separated from it, or what it means to possess the knowledge of objective truth are given any answers. The book does have some dramatic closure to it but it’s thematically open-ended, which, while somewhat unsatisfying, left me eager to move on to the final two books in the series. That’s where the trouble starts.
The first book, while imperfectly ended, is wonderful, exciting, and fresh to read. I loved every page, right up until the end. The final books in the story though are a meandering mess that are neither exciting, dramatic, nor even very coherent. And what is worse, what began as a magical adventure in “The Golden Compass” is quickly revealed in the following book, “The Subtle Knife”, to be a quest to kill God. Say what? Where did that come from? That’s right, almost out of nowhere Pullman decides that the rest of his trilogy is going to be an essay on his dislike of the Catholic Church, Christianity, and God in general. Great reading material for kids right?
What bothered me the most was the deceptive way that he tries to draw readers (kids) into accepting these ideas. As I said, the first book was wonderful, just the kind of book young people would love. It gives them a great character and a fascinating world, it lures them in with what seem to be promising images like an ephemeral city in the sky that may hold the promise of mankind’s future and engaging spiritual themes like the nature of the soul and the importance of innocence and wonder, and then, once that young reader is taken in, they are suddenly led to believe that the Church is the cause of all suffering and men can only be free when they are liberated from the hand of its Authority (the title he often uses for God).
And make no mistake, Pullman’s railing against the Church is not merely between the lines, it’s explicit. Here’s a quote from the final book, The Amber Spyglass:
“…all the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity…the rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.”
Despite what I think about Pullman’s views though, I might have respected his work had he presented his ideas well, but he doesn’t. In the end he doesn’t even have the guts to do what he’s been aiming to for three entire books; instead of actually killing God, he lets him off easy and allows him to “become one with the universe” on his own. Then of course when all is said and done Pullman apparently realizes that in the absence of God there must be some other source of the Alethiometer’s objective truth and he has to explain that away in addition to dancing around the fact that there might be some other God-like being out there that was the original creator. I can’t even begin to explain the bizarre way he deals with death and the afterlife throughout most of the final book. Truly, the last two books of his trilogy are a complete mess, whether or not you agree with his worldview.
In the end Pullman comes off almost like an angry child, yelling at a parent that won’t give him exactly want he wants, in complete denial about what he actually needs. Here’s another quote from The Amber Spyglass:
“…it was the sense that the whole universe was alive, and that everything was connected to everything else by threads of meaning. When she’d been a Christian, she had felt connected, too; but when she left the Church, she felt loose and free and light, in a universe without purpose.
And then had come the discovery of the Shadows and her journey into another world, and now this vivid night, and it was plain that everything was throbbing with purpose and meaning, but she was cut off from it. And it was impossible to find a connection, because there was no God.”
This longing and emptiness the character feels isn’t something Pullman is able to answer to. Reading the book I often had the impression that indeed he knows the truth but refuses to admit it. How ironic. When I finally finished the series I was left feeling almost heartbroken for an author who seems completely unconvinced of his own beliefs. Pullman has said in interviews that he considers this series of books to be an answer to the worldview presented in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. He is more right than he knows, I think, and that is to his own detriment artistically and spiritually.
So what of the movie? I’m looking forward to seeing it. The first book was very well written and should translate wonderfully to the screen (although early reviews say otherwise). I cannot even imagine, however, how the rest of the series could translate to the screen, it lacks almost any dramatic structure, and once again, the truly troubling thing about it is that if the first film is good, it will entice people to watch the second, which is where it really gets into troubled water.
Would I recommend the books or movies to kids? Definitely not. I would recommend them to discerning adults though on the basis of being well-informed during the coming weeks when there are sure to be at least a few picket lines seen on the news. Frankly though, the books aren’t worth the time or energy of the people that are making a stink about them. Good art will rise to the top and it won’t take long for this body of work to settle on the bottom.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.