Anticipating “The Golden Compass”

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.

17 thoughts on “Anticipating “The Golden Compass”

  1. “it is irrefutable that the trilogy is a magnificent piece of literature”

    Hi Simon. I’d like to refute that 🙂

    I felt the style of the novels was contrived with little consideration for character development. I felt no strong ties to any of the characters, in fact I felt that none of the characters *had* any character. The guy in the balloon, the guys in the boardroom at the beginning (when she’s hiding in the cupboard). Her uncle, the evil mother. People died and changed allegiance and I thought I could not have cared less. In fact probably the most interesting character was the polar bear. The idea of projecting character onto the daemons was interesting (though not original) but I felt that this served as little more as a device to include animals into the story. The idea of it being a person’s soul was not properly addressed in my opinion.

    The variety of setting is at least appropriate for a fantasy novel, however I didn’t think Pullman did anything particularly original with that. The concepts being touted by many as signs of Pullman’s creative genius are really just standard sci-fi fare: indeed the whole genre seems to be about challenging our current ideas by presenting them in allegorical situations where controlled key factors have changed. The aim in these situations is never just to say “hey, in this book, the souls live -outside- the body, and are manifested as animals: cool huh?” but to use that as a tool to better access some idea that is more complicated when the soul does not have a concrete expression. But no such idea was appropriately addressed. No clear parallels were drawn: every idea was muddy.

    The story has little allegorical or thematic value, and by the end of the third book, has descended into a meaningless action-hero and battle scene ending. I felt Pullman rarely had anything insightful to offer on any of the subjects he touched upon.

    The style of writing failed to engage me, and his turn of phrase rarely went beyond mundane description. Writing children’s literature is no excuse for this approach, though it seems to be becoming more common if Pullman and Rowling are accurate indicators of the height of children’s literature.

    Pullman uses a broad pallette of ideas, but it is the shallowness with which he draws on these ideas that suggests to me that he is an author who only has questions and a very low capacity for suggesting answers. After reading it, I found my understanding was not expanded on any of the following subjects: youth and responsiblity, family and loyalty, soul and religion, good and evil, god and satan, parallel universes etc..

    But then perhaps the onus is on the reader to fill in these gaps, to conjecture his own response to the story. Perhaps Pullman intends to only ask questions and introduce the reader to the idea that the world may not always be as it seems.

    Regarding the attitude to religion: I felt his characterisation of the church was so ludicrously machiavellian that it was also laughable and barely worthy of comment. It’s the da Vinci code. The problem is that people will pounce on it as an entertaining idea for rejecting Christianity without actually reasoning it through. But people who do that are going to be inclined to that attitude whether they read His Dark Materials or not.

    I agree about the adult content of the book, particularly as it dealt with the idea of puberty and innocence. That made for some uncomfortable reading!

    I did manage to get to the end of the books though, so his writing style and grasp of tension is obviously adept enough to keep the reader sufficiently interested to stick with it.

  2. Simon and Beat,

    I love the fact that you have both critiqued Pullman’s work (albeit with different conclusions re. its value as literature)- precisely what we need to be doing with culture.

    I’m with you Simon, on God not being threatened by Pullman.

    Looking forward to seeing The Golden Compass this weekend……….

  3. Great blog Simon. I wanted to see it this weekend but noticed it wasn’t out until the 5th. Anyways, rather than being threatened by the film I look for it to challenge my own faith and understanding. Look forward to reading your blog post viewing!

  4. Hi Simon. I felt my last post (although wordy) did not do justice to the debate which seems to be raging about these books. I realised this after reading the following:

    (contains spoilers, btw)

    I still think that the guy’s literary style is substandard, but what jumped out at me from this link was the phrase:

    “He is an atheist whose most important literary project is intended to offer a moral narrative that will reverse the biblical account of the fall and provide a liberating mythology for a new secular age.”

    I’d never thought of Pullman’s agenda as being so sinister. (I think he has certainly “played up” that agenda, because it sells books.)
    Neither had I realised how concerning it is that people are reaching out for just such a “liberating mythology”. The fact that these books are a success suggests that people are dying to shed their inhibitions about the sinfulness of sex and pleasure, which they associate (fairly or unfairly) with their experience of religion.

    I suppose that because I didn’t really find this idea new, exciting or intelligent, it didn’t really grip me. But I think some people are really latching on to that: especially children with unformed ideas about it, so it should be addressed by Christians.

    The problem is that when you’re writing a story, it’s easy to say “and everyone lived happily ever after” but if the utopian paradigm Pullman has prescribed simply doesn’t cut it in real life, how are we to challenge this? It’s a story of fantasy after all, and it is seen as bad form to be criticizing a fantasy novel, and one for children at that.

    The discussion points, then, are:

    Pullman wants to get rid of what he sees as the church’s repressive ideas of sexuality being sinful, and targets the sinful hypocrisy often evident in the Christian establishment as supposed proof that the church’s approach is impotent. But his view of Christianity’s attitude to sex is skewed.

    It is fair to say that the church’s attitude to sex down the years has been clouded by repression and cultural misunderstanding. It’s easy to do whether you are a Christian or not, because sex is such a powerful and potent expression of our raw humanity. People should also be aware of the biblical attitude towards it.

    It should be highlighted that Christianity is a faith concerned with liberation, true, complete liberation. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. That is “Christian hedonism” and is actually the ultimate expression of our true selves. Love is God’s method. When you experience love, you experience a glimpse of what God intends for you.

    Pullman would suggest that no changes need to be made in us: we just have to embrace who we are in order for the world to be at peace.

    Christianity says, nice idea Pullman, but it doesn’t work. Embracing who we are doesn’t get rid of the problem. look around. The world is a mess, and it’s not because we’ve told people to feel guilty about it.

    Pullman reacts against those who tell children they are a “wicked child”, when all they are doing is projecting their own failings onto the innocents. And it is right to react against that.

    But Christians who do that are not reflecting Jesus, so it’s not Christianity but humanity that is at fault there. Jesus said “let the little children come to me and do not stop them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”. Innocence is prized and encouraged in Christianity. But the problem of sin is very real, and will hinder any attempt at a utopian perfection that we set ourselves. There will be no “republic of heaven”.

    Sin exists, and penetrates the deepest parts of us. No-one can force us to change that, because it doesn’t work. Neither is it sufficient to say “you are wicked” because A) this does not isolate, purge or rectify the specific wickedness and B) it is hypocritical to burden others with judgement when we offer no cure, since we are all sinners.

    People, churches have tried to become the moral judges, and it is to little or no avail. Only God is able to judge sin accurately. The rest of us simply suffer from its effects. Guarding against it is the job of the Christian, but doing this does not somehow destroy it: something more powerful is needed to destroy the power of sin. And that’s where the cross comes in.

    Christianity needs to convince the world first that sinfulness is at the root of all our problems, and that Jesus not only offers forgiveness for those sins, but reconciliation with the God who made us and who intends to satisfy us far beyond the momentary pleasures of sexual intimacy.

    Pullman reacts against his conception of God. He is an atheist, so I’d suggest that his concept of God is flawed. In a sense, I’m happy to see that myth of God going out the window. But only if it is replaced by the truth, and that is something I don’t think Pullman is able to do.

    Let us look for the True God, for there is no other. And let us look to Him for our salvation, because it comes from no other.

  5. Beat, get your own blog.

    Just kidding! 🙂

    Thanks, all, for your comments. I would disagree with Beat about the literary merit of the books, but don’t really have the arguments at my fingertips right now. I must re-read the books at some point and don’t have them with me in Inverness right now. I do, however, recall the prose being very descriptive and flowing well, and some of the characterisation being wonderful in terms of really caring about them. It’s probably all a matter of personal taste and reaction however.

    In your last comment, Beat, you said that the Pullmanite concept of God going out of the window is a good thing, only if replaced by the truth. Well, Pullman’s not going to do that, that’s surely our job to jump in and say “well, that flawed God is gone, and here’s one we know that isn’t.”

    Anyway, I don’t have the energy to write too much more this evening. I might do later or after I’ve seen the film (likely to be Monday).

  6. get my own blog? I only post on here because people might actually read my grandiloquent essays by mistake 🙂 Maybe see you at the ceilidh on Saturday: you planning on being there for the great Michael RH and co?

  7. Interesting blog Simon (I used to go to St. Silas and came via the gadgetvicar link). Plan to see the Golden Compass next week so will suspend judgement till then. Beat – I found your comment about Churches becoming moral judges to little or no avail curious; isn’t it the job of churches to steer people on the right path? I used to combine St.Silas attendance with going to St.Mary’s cathedral; people at the latter institution once asked me if St. Silas wasn’t, as they’d heard, “very right wing!”. I’ve decided to go back to St.Silas and one of the main attractions is that it has the authority of biblically-grounded morality which neccesitates making judgements on behaviour. I agree with Beat’s point about reconcilliation with God offering satisfaction far beyond momentary sexual pleasure; I recall hearing this point made in Church years ago and regret not listening then, which shows that Church-as-moral-judge model has some merit.

  8. I tend to agree with Beat Attitude’s criticisms. I enjoyed the first two books, but thought the third, apart from the wheeled animals, was a bit bathetic. The battle scenes in the third book were as banal as anything Frank Peretti wrote. I won’t go into detail, as I’ve written a critique on my own blog so not point in retyping it here.

  9. And I thought my post on the subject was long, Steve! 😉 Interesting thoughts, it was good to read them. I think the discussion and debate about the books/film(s) will go on for some time, and that’s a good thing, if it means we’re all talking about the nature of God and how we interpret him.

  10. I said:
    “People, churches have tried to become the moral judges, and it is to little or no avail. Only God is able to judge sin accurately.”

    Briefly breaking my blog-fast to point out that, sorry, this could be misinterpreted. Fair point Ryan. I think Christians and churches SHOULD try to be moral arbiters/judges in the sense that they can say what is right and wrong in a given circumstance, but to try and rectify it simply by naming and shaming is not going to yield lasting results. This gets into the nature of judgement (which has many different facets) so I’ll drop it there before things get too heavy.
    *fades into background*

  11. I’ll jump in late on this one. Please note that I am coming from a non-Christian background with a low level of Bible knowledge, so apologies for any childish mistakes or crass simplification/generalisation.

    Firstly, isn’t “Christian” a bit broad? Even with a limited understanding of the different churches, their rituals/specific beliefs, and their respective dogmas, it seemed clear to me that he was not intending to be anti-God, or even against the Christian church. It seemed to me that he has a major problem with the hijacking of religion for use as a method of control, in particular the (historical and current) running of the Catholic Church. See the “big lie” about Heaven/Purgatory/Hell revealed in the final book; the suppression of scientific knowledge; the metaphor/allegory of the weak, imposter God (the Pope?) with no control over his “forces”. In a world of fundamentalist Christian vs fundamentalist Islam clouding the “truth”, was he not slightly ahead of the curve?

    And just what is the “big idea” of the books? There seems to be a huge focus on sex and sexuality, when (and I haven’t read the books in a couple of years) I seem to remember that theme only entering in the final book, and even then only realised/made explicit at the very end. As an aside, the sex plot-line seemed to be a dig at original sin which (please correct me if I’m wrong) is a Catholic thing. I also didn’t see the overthrow of religion itself as the key point (although the re-telling of the fall/Paradise Lost is pretty obvious; interesting that Asriel, in the Lucifer role, seems to be named after Azrael, the angel of Death). Maybe the religion aspect was there to stir-up controversy and discussion, but surely the books are “all about the dust”? The sex/original sin angle is tied in to it, but I always felt that that the dust (and novels) was all about consciousness and free-will. In other words, the books are clearly against removal, obscuration, and obstruction of free will (and whatever removes it, be that a church, government, nondescript “magesterium”, or individual), and for individual self-determination and a quest for the (or your) truth? Remove/control a person’s soul/daemon, and you control that person? I don’t think that the philosophy of the books would judge you if your free-will choice includes a god/God: in fact, you could say that the books implicitly approve of the idea of a god by acknowledging the existence of (albeit corrupted) a “Kingdom of Heaven”.

    And I’m on Simon’s side on the masterpiece status: sure, he borrows themes and ideas form almost everywhere/when in literature, and he paints broad strokes at times, but what style he does it with. He is clearly acting as an agent provocateur by leaving things open to interpretation and by introducing such “big” themes. One of the strengths of the series is that he does not talk down to his intended (young) audience: he trusts them (as I think we all should) to be able to make their own minds up. As Simon said, why is something that challenges faith a bad thing? What is to stop you coming out of the other side with a renewed or strengthened belief? These books are generally viewed as atheist “propaganda”: does Christianity (and I’m asking a genuine question here) really have problems with its members reading the texts of other belief systems? Where is the line? Atheism? Hindu texts? Cthulu? Gaia? So what if children (or adults for that matter) read these books and decide that they no longer believe? Surely being a Christian (again, correct me if I’m wrong) involves challenging your faith? Can a person who has had a crisis of faith not come back with a stronger faith? If so, what is the fear of this propaganda?

    I suppose the final triumph of the Pullman books is that they have incited this level of debate (and a debate which has been very adult and civilised) about things that we, frankly, should be debating. It’s pretty subversive to get these themes into children’s books, isn’t it? Write the books, step back, light the touchpaper, and watch children and adults alike not only enjoy the storytelling, but debate issues that authors such as Tolkein and Rowling only ever brushed against.

  12. Justin, thanks for your contribution. No worries about your lack of biblical knowledge – to be perfectly honest I am really not up to speed about concepts like original sin, and I would guess most Christians are in the same situation. I am not even sure if it is an exclusively Roman Catholic thing.

    I see your point that Pullman was having a dig at all forms of authorities and mind-control but the parallels between the Magisterium and the Vatican are pretty clear and he has said he’s anti-religion. So I would say it attempts to be an anti-church book, although it doesn’t necessarily succeed in the way he’d probably have liked.

    Because as you say, Justin, Christians should be open to debate, and many find that being challenged actually strengthens your faith – as does being on the defensive foot in discussions and debates about just about anything.

    The problem (from my view) is, however, that some Christians will not use things like this trilogy or the Potter books to engage in debates or to examine their own beliefs and use the public controversy to present Christianity in a positive light, but rather stand at the sidelines sniping about something they’ve not seen or read.

    Hence my desite to post this blog, to encourage a positive response to the opportunities presented by the film.

  13. Thanks for both your posts on TGC, Simon; not been able to read the comments beyond seeing Greg didn’t rate the books so highly. I’ll at least give the first book a shot…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *