Friday, January 04, 2008

Book Review: The Golden Compass/Northern Lights

I’ve just finished reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (published outside of North America as Northern Lights) and what a fantastic read it is! In reviewing The Golden Compass, here’s what I plan to cover: 1) the basic narrative arc to give you an idea of the basic plot; 2) a brief discussion of the main concepts (theological/philosophical) that the author includes in the narrative; and 3) a response to the controversy the book has raised within some Christian circles. The basic narrative The Golden Compass is the first of a trilogy by Philip Pullman entitled His Dark Materials. This first volume has recently been released as a movie called The Golden Compass. I have only read the first volume so far and I haven’t yet seen the movie. So my comments will primarily be related to the book I have read. I plan to read the rest of the trilogy and see the movie so will comment on those later. The story revolves around Lyra Belacqua, an orphaned 12-year old girl who lives at Jordan College. She secretly enters the Retiring Room and sees the attempted poisoning of Lyra’s uncle, Lord Asriel, by the Master of Jordan College. After avoiding the poisoning, Lyra’s uncle shows photographs he has taken of elementary particles he has been investigating called Dust. Her uncle then returns to the North where he is engaged in experiments related to Dust. Shortly afterwards, Lyra’s friend, Roger, is abducted by the Gobblers who are part of children’s mythology. Lyra decides she is going to rescue Roger - and so begins her adventures. Before Lyra leaves the College, she is entrusted with an alethiometer - a sort of cross between a lie detector and a crystal ball. As she travels on her journey, she inductively learns how to read it and makes use of it in her journey. During the story, Lyra learns about a church organisation called the "General Oblation Board" which turns out to be the reality behind the Gobblers myth. The General Oblation Board are terrified of the implications of Dust which seems to be particularly attracted to adults. So, in their attempts to control Dust, they begin experimenting on abducted children to prevent them from becoming aware of Dust as they grow up. This they try to accomplish be separating children from their daemons. Daemons are physical manifestation of a person’s soul/personality and take various physical forms and reveal the inner life of a person. The General Oblation Board are trying to work out ways of separating the daemon from the person so that they will be able to control the growing awareness of humans to Dust. Lyra discovers this and more as she seeks to rescue Roger. There is, of course, much more to the story and I have been deliberately minimalist so that I don’t spoil the plot surprises for readers. The Golden Compass is profoundly rich in ideas - theological, philosophical, religious. This has led to considerable controversy which I will discuss below after surveying the major concepts in the novel. The major concepts in The Golden Compass Integral to the story of The Golden Compass are a number of concepts that raise profound questions about the nature of reality, human nature, theology, science, the organised Christian church, and much more. These concepts are explained as part of the experience of discovery that Lyra undergoes on her adventure. But when discussing the book, it is important to know what they are. Here are just a few to give readers a sense of their significance.
  • Daemons (pronounced the same as "demons") In Pullman’s novels, daemons are a physical manifestation of a person’s soul. It takes the form of an animal and, when a person is a child, can take on many forms. As a person grows older, the daemon gradually settles into one form. As this settling takes place, it leads the person to greater awareness, wisdom, and knowledge. Although a person’s daemon is a distinct entity, they are inseparably connected and form one identity - two bodies, one person. In the story, these daemons have characteristics drawn from many cultures and religions. For example, daemons usually are of the opposite sex to their human counterpart - obviously an allusion to the Jungian concepts of anima and animus.
  • Dust Dust is a fictional form of "dark matter". It is an elementary particle that is invisible to the human eye and has its own consciousness. Because Dust is attracted to people and the objects made by people, the Church is particularly interested in it which believes that it is a manifestation of original sin. As the trilogy progresses, we will learn that Dust brings consciousness, knowledge, and wisdom. The Church wishes to control Dust for obvious reasons. The concept of Dust is explicitly linked to the story of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis which is quoted as part of a conversation Lyra’s uncle has with her. Dust also has allusions to the Buddhist concept of "dust" where the term refers to sensation, knowledge, and entanglement in worldy things which prevents enlightenment.
  • Intercision Intercision is a fictional operation that separates a daemon from their human. Because the Church believes that daemons "settle" into one form at puberty and, thus, brings awareness of Dust (original sin), it believes that separating the daemon from the human will prevent contamination by original sin and, therefore, prevent sinful thoughts such as sex, homosexuality, etc. In the first novel, the Church has developed two approaches to separating the daemon from the human - the second, more effective and less traumatic way, is called intercision. (I will leave readers to discover how it is done by reading the novel!) Significantly, intercision is discovered to have some useful side effects, one being the production of huge amounts of energy that enable travel between parallel universes.
  • Parallel universes Central to the novels is the existence of parallel universes. Parallel universes are "replicas" of our own world where all the possible alternatives are played out as a result of free will, natural events and consequences. Lyra travels between these worlds throughout the trilogy. These are just three of the concepts described in the novel and, as you can see, there is an incredible potential to raise profound questions about human nature, religion, epistemology, ontology, and so on. These concepts are superbly integrated into the narrative and, despite their apparent complexity, are not at all difficult to understand as they are explained or experienced by characters in the story. But you can probably see, by now, why the trilogy has generated considerable controversy - to which I now turn.
The controversy Pullman’s trilogy has generated significant controversy. For many Christians, the books are a dangerous polemic against Christianity and promote an atheistic point of view. According to David Yonke:
Mr. Pullman has described himself at various times as either an atheist or an agnostic, but in a recent interview with Donna Freitas for he called himself "a religious man" because he is "preoccupied by the questions religion is preoccupied with," including "Who created the universe?" "What are we here for?" and "What happens when we die?" Mr. Pullman has made it clear that he is not happy with the way religious institutions have answered those questions. He told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003, for example, that "my books are about killing God," and that he was amused that American Christians have been more critical of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books than His Dark Materials. "I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything old Harry has said," Mr. Pullman said. He has stated a number of times that he wrote His Dark Materials in part to counter the Christian themes and values woven into C.S. Lewis’ literary children’s classic, The Chronicles of Narnia. That series was the basis for the 2005 blockbuster film, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, grossing more than $740 million worldwide, and a sequel, Prince Caspian, due for release in May. "Pullman’s been pretty upfront that part of his intention is to write sort of the ’anti-Narnia’ story," said Bruce Edwards, a Lewis scholar and professor of English at Bowling Green State University. "I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with a deep and bitter passion," Mr. Pullman told one interviewer, according to Christian movie guide Plugged-in Online.
Well... that’s all pretty clear. And it is easy to see from the first volume that there are anti-institutionalised Christianity themes. The book’s themes are highly spiritual and it is easy to see how, as the trilogy progresses, the themes may become stronger and more critical of Christianity. But so what? If Christians can produce literature that promotes Christianity, either explicitly or more subtly, then why can’t atheists? What is it about some Christians that think that culture and literature should only reflect what they believe to be legitimate? As Pullman has said, he is interested in the same questions as Christians are -- he just doesn’t like the answers they have come up with and wants to promote rethinking them. And that, as far as I am concerned, is fantastic. As I read The Golden Compass I became quite excited that a piece of literature could be so well written and raise a host of important questions about things that are taken for granted by many people. In my view, there is nothing to fear from this sort of literature. It should make us think, re-evaluate, reformulate, and refine our own understandings. Dialoguing with this literature and any other well-written literature, whatever perspective it comes from, can only serve to help us learn more. David Yonke goes on to report that:
Mr. Donohue [president of the Catholic League] is urging parents to read a booklet published by the Catholic League titled "The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked," saying that its readers "will be armed with all the ammo they need to convince friends and family members that there is nothing innocent about Pullman’s agenda."
Of course there is nothing innocent about Pullman’s agenda -- just as there is nothing "innocent" about the thousands of children’s books published by Christian publishing houses that promote Christianity and implicitly criticise other perspectives. People like Richard Dawkins are highly critical of Christians "brainwashing" their children from birth to uncritically accept a Christian worldview. Given all this Christian children’s literature, why shouldn’t an atheist produce a children’s story promoting his own views? The Christian has C S Lewis; the atheist has Philip Pullman. David Yonke’s report continues:
Mr. Pullman, in his online interview with Ms. Freitas, said parents "should read the book and trust the book and trust your children. If you brought them up decent, open-minded, wise, and clear-sighted, you don’t need to worry about them turning into little monsters or little atheists or anything."
Now here’s the rub. How many Christian children are, in fact, brought up open-minded, wise, and clear-sighted. Mr Donohue promotes reading a book against the Golden Compass so that they can ’convince friends and family members that there is nothing innocent about Pullman’s agenda.’ But why not encourage them to read the books for themselves and think critically about the ideas and themes therein? That way, they can come to their own conclusions. Unless, of course, they haven’t been taught to think for themselves about their faith. A number of people, after reading the whole trilogy, are arguing that Pullman, far from being anti-religious, is really anti-control of thought (see, for example, the report in the School Library Journal). And, indeed, when we go to Philip Pullman’s own website, we see this distinction explicitly stated by him. He writes:
Some of the articles and talks I’ve written are to do with the subject of religion, which I think is a very interesting one. The religious impulse – which includes the sense of awe and mystery we feel when we look at the universe, the urge to find a meaning and a purpose in our lives, our sense of moral kinship with other human beings – is part of being human, and I value it. I’d be a damn fool not to. But organised religion is quite another thing. The trouble is that all too often in human history, churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people’s lives in the name of some invisible god (and they’re all invisible, because they don’t exist) – and done terrible damage. In the name of their god, they have burned, hanged, tortured, maimed, robbed, violated, and enslaved millions of their fellow-creatures, and done so with the happy conviction that they were doing the will of God, and they would go to Heaven for it. That is the religion I hate, and I’m happy to be known as its enemy. (Philip Pullman)

We can clearly see from this that, like many atheists, Pullman is deeply disturbed by the darker side of organised religion. And aren’t we all? In the FAQ section of Pullman’s website, he responds to the question: ’His Dark Materials seems to be against organised religion. Do you believe in God?’ His answer:

I don’t know whether there’s a God or not. Nobody does, no matter what they say. I think it’s perfectly possible to explain how the universe came about without bringing God into it, but I don’t know everything, and there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away. Actually, if he is keeping out of sight, it’s because he’s ashamed of his followers and all the cruelty and ignorance they’re responsible for promoting in his name. If I were him, I’d want nothing to do with them.

Now that is a revealing comment. Pullman is essentially an agnostic who is struggling to answer the deep questions that we all ask. But the second paragraph should make us Christians ashamed. It is a for a similar reason that people like John Shelby Spong say that God is not a Christian -- meaning God would not want much that is done in the name of God to be identified with God. So many writers have expressed similar thoughts derived from what they see as a very negative portrayal of God by the Church. For example, Nietzsche has written that ’After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands.’ So, maybe ... just maybe, Pullman has something important for us Christians to hear. Although I haven’t yet seen the film, apparently the religious themes have been quite diluted in comparison to the book. This, too, has caused concern for some Christians who are arguing that, because the movie is relatively innocuous, people might rush out and buy the books for their kids not realising how "dangerous" the books actually are. Ironically, some atheists have also criticised the movie because they believe the movies have diluted the real message of the books so much that they have lost their heart. What disturbs me so much is the element of fear that seems to drive so much Christian criticism of literature like this. We had the same sort of issues expressed about the Harry Potter books. Fear is a dangerous motivation because it so often ends up with calls to boycott movies, censure literature, or control people by trying to "persuade" them that it is evil and should be avoided in order to prevent contamination of one’s spiritual life. Ironically, this is the very thing that Pullman seems to be criticising about organised Christianity! Instead of fearing literature like this, Christians need to read it, think critically about it, and enter into dialogue with others on the themes it raises. Doing this intelligently is much more likely to bring understanding about spiritual themes than running around in a panic trying to tell everyone to avoid reading or watching it. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and challenges of The Golden Compass/Northern Lights and can’t wait to see the movie and read the rest of the series. Then I want to enter into in-depth discussion about all the ideas that Pullman raises with the hope of learning something about myself, Christianity, atheism, and how to better live my life. Bertrand Russell once said that ’[c]ollective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.’ I hope that we Christians can avoid the collective fear mentality when it comes to important literature and thus avoid the herd ferocity towards atheists. After all, as a German proverb says, ’Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.’ There is nothing dangerous about The Golden Compass except as we refuse to read, watch, think, discuss, and evaluate the ideas. Pullman is one person who has provided the world with a deeply creative story on themes of great importance. Let’s use his story gratefully as a springboard for thinking and, thus, make our Christianity less likely to be something for which God would be ashamed. We need a robust Christianity that is actually more like the robust Christ we claim to follow. Maybe The Golden Compass can help us to grow into that sort of Christianity. NOTE 1: Much of my knowledge about some of the concepts in the trilogy has come from information generated by NOTE 2: I have heard/read that Books 2 and 3 of the series become much more strident in their "attacks" on Christianity and the Christian understanding of God - to the point where the characters kill God. I cannot comment on this until I have read the books myself. But, readers may find value in perusing some of the material I have linked to below. Related Links


  1. It is very srange that at the end of one of the most violent of all centuries in human history that a seemingly intelligent man is incapable of realizing that the overwhelming majority of the more than one hundred ten million people killed by their own governments were murdered by those with a completely atheistic ideology. It raises the question as to whether he is incapable of seeking out and understanding facts and reasoning from them or whether he, in fact, is among those brain-washed by what passes for modern education.
    And such a violent reaction to the Narnia books! Just what does this say about the sanity of his personality? I guess that I was quite lucky in that among the first Christian whom I came to know were some first rate scientists including the head of Oak Ridge Institute.

  2. Lee,

    I can't believe that you know so little history that you can make these series of statements. First of all the last century in reality was no more violent then any of the previous centuries, it is just that technology made killing more efficient. I would say the most violent century was the period of the Reformation in which most of Europe was embroiled in RELIGIOUS wars that lasted over 100 years with countless massacres leaving the economies of many countries devastated...all in the name of God and Christ. As far as these governments of atheistic ideologies are concerned...All they did was replace one "AUTHORITY" that being God
    for another, being the State. To me, one of the themes in "The Dark Materials" is the struggle between FREE WILL and Submission to Authority no matter which form it takes