The Golden Compass, part one of the big-screen adaptation of Philip Pullman‘s brilliant and controversial trilogy “His Dark Materials“, is out later this week. It’s an epic trilogy which has caused an epic controversy – so here’s an appropriately epic blog (one I wrote earlier!) with my thoughts on it.
The novels tell the story of an adventure set across numerous mind-boggling realities and dimensions, in which a young girl, Lyra, helps to defeat an authoritarian force that is attempting to control the world. The trilogy is condemned by some Christians because the “baddies” in the books are a global religious organisation, and the books conclude with the overthrow of a God-like figure.
I read the books a couple of years ago, and while I will come to the religious controversy in a moment, it is irrefutable that the trilogy is a magnificent piece of literature. The worlds and dimensions that Pullman creates are incredible, with jaw-dropping devices, scenarios and ideas revealed to the reader.
In the main character Lyra’s universe, for example, humans’ souls are manifested externally in the form of animals, whose behaviour and interaction with their “owner” help to make the characters rich, deep and fascinating to identify with and understand. Later, in another fantastic dimension, we encounter a beautifully-balanced ecosystem inhabited by intelligent quadruped creatures, who travel on wheels along smooth volcanic paths. The wheels grow out of trees and are broken down through regular use by the creatures, eventually splitting and releasing the seeds from which new trees grow.
Throw in some witches, armoured talking bears, vast armies of angels and ghosts, plus weird and wonderful races of beings that would put Star Trek’s writers to shame, and you have a work of undoubted imagination and creativity.
However, many Christians – and not necessarily just the Harry Potter-burning fundamentalists – condemn the trilogy for their anti-church, anti-Christian and anti-God tone. Indeed, “His Dark Materials” is a children’s story that aspires to be an allegory for Humanism in the way that C S Lewis‘s Chronicles of Narnia was for Christianity.
In “His Dark Materials”, Lyra and others discover a plot by a sinister organisation called the Magisterium (seen as a thinly-disguised metaphor for the Vatican) to conduct gruesome experiments on children to help them better understand human nature, dark matter, and the meaning of the universe. Not only is the Magisterium defeated, but by the end of the story the Magisterium’s God figure has been overthrown and a “Republic of Heaven” installed.
And yet, as a Christian I think the books are excellent.
Besides being an incredible story, brilliantly told, it is nothing that Christians should fear, hate or oppose. Many of the characteristics which make the Magisterium the “baddies” – it is portrayed as secretive, manipulative, power-crazed, controlling and sinister – are indeed ones against which Christians should be vigilant in our churches.
And in terms of the defeat of God, the one portrayed in the trilogy is weak, over-burdened, and fatally flawed, and not one I recognise. Why shouldn’t such an interpretation of God be defeated?
And for those who might find it uncomfortable reading, then there is surely reassurance in the infinite strength and power of our God – if Pullman wants to destroy God through his story, he will of course will fail to strike even the weakest blow.
An infinite, timeless, all-conquering God who created the universe… versus Philip Pullman. Hmmm, let me think. I wonder whether any Christian who might protest against this book on the belief that it is damaging to God, is actually paying Pullman an alarmingly inaccurate compliment and therefore also underestimating the God they believe in.
Indeed, where I do have criticism of the books, it lies away from the religion issue.
I’m no expert on children and reading, but in my opinion “His Dark Materials” is utterly unappropriate for anyone under the age of about fifteen. This is not due to the religious content, but due to elements which are overtly and often unnecessarily sexual, violent or just plain complicated. Despite the youth of the main characters, it’s a story with many adult themes (and rather a lot of quantum physics), and it takes some serious concentration to get your head around the plot.
For me, the main threat to a child in reading this book is not any potential evil influence but rather that they might miss out on fully appreciating the literary and creative depth of this masterpiece.
In fact, it is a mystery to me as to why Pullman sees this as a children’s book when I (as a relatively literate and educated adult) struggle to fully get my head round it.
In any case, the religious content of the books is being significantly toned down in the films, probably in an attempt by the makers to avoid mass protests. It hasn’t entirely worked, though, and it’s amusing to note that while some American Christians maintain their criticism of the forthcoming film, Humanist organisations have condemned the fact that a core part of the plot has been watered down. Uniting hardline atheists and fundamentalist Christians in condemnation of something takes some admirable skill, I reckon.
Like with the books, I will maintain an open, prayerful mind, and judge the film on what I see.
Personally, I can’t wait.