Book Review: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Some very dark Materials: A warning about The Golden Compass
Book Review by David Schütz

I first became aware of the upcoming movie The Golden Compass when my wife and I saw the shorts for it at the cinema. We instantly put it on our “must see” list and said to ourselves: “The children would enjoy that.”

Next I heard that Nicole Kidman—our Australian Catholic Nicole—was under criticism for appearing in a movie based on an anti-Catholic novel. It was the very same film. What was all this about?

The Golden Compass is the US title for a book that in Australia is called The Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. It is billed as a children’s book (I found it in the teenage fiction section of our library) first published in 1995 by Scholastic. It won the Carnegie Medal, which (according to their website) is “awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children”. It is the first of three novels, the others being The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000), which won the Whitebread Book of the Year prize. Together the series is known as His Dark Materials, a phrase borrowed from Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Let there be no mistake about it: these are NOT children’s books. The blurbs on the back of the books compare Pullman’s novels to Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. The only thing he has in common with these writers is a grand imagination and the ability to create convincing imaginary worlds. But in style and substance, Pullman reminds me more of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (in particular Memnoch the Devil).

Philip Pullman is an atheist with a mission specifically directed toward children. Together with fellow author Michael Rosen, he produced a DVD entitled “Why Atheism?” aimed at children 11years and older. In an important essay entitled “The Republic of Heaven”, he stated: “It seems to me that the children’s books I love are saying something important about the most important subject I know, which is the death of God and its consequences.”

What makes him different from his fellow “evangelical” atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens is that he has decided to target children rather than adults with his message. Moreover, whereas Dawkins (et al) argue on the basis of science, Pullman knows and uses the power of story. This has lead Hitchen’s Anglican brother Peter to declare Pullman to be “the most dangerous author in Britain.”

Whether or not the film of The Golden Compass will be such a medium for Pullman’s anti-religious message, his novels (and I have now read all three) certainly are. They are the exact opposite of The Narnia Chronicles and The Lord of the Rings (Pullman has expressed deep loathing of both). The bad guys in His Dark Materials are ‘The Church’, ‘The Magisterium’, and ‘The Authority’ (as God is called in these novels).

By the end of the series, the primeval temptation in the Garden and the War in Heaven have been replayed. But this time the rebels win, God is killed and the Fall is celebrated as a victory. In the place of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Republic of Heaven is established.

‘Original Sin’ is described as mankind’s true liberation from the tyranny of ‘The Authority’. Depicted as an actual physical substance called “dust”, this ‘sin’ is leaking out of the world and it is the task of the 12 year old heroine Lyra to stop this leakage. She and a boy the same age finally achieve this through having a sexual experience with one another. Pullman’s meaning is captured in an interview he did with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury:

“The Fall is something that happens to all of us when we move from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and I wanted to find a way of presenting it as something natural and good, and to be welcomed, and, you know – celebrated, rather than deplored.”

Pullman is an beautiful writer who writes about deeply religious and philosophical matters. I admire the imaginative depth and passion in his work–it is so much more intelligent than Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Nevertheless, at a profound level his writing is disturbing.

In these novels, Pullman takes on the role of the serpent in the garden. He presents what Christians would regard as ‘lies’ wrapped up in a generous helping of ‘truth’. As if to alert us to his meaning, in the third novel he quotes the poet William Blake: “A truth that’s told with bad intent, beats all the lies you can invent.”

Pullman sets out, through his characters, to poison the very idea of God and the Church in the minds of his young readers. But the pathetic and powerless being he calls “The Authority” and the cruel and morally bankrupt institution he calls “the Church” are appalling caricatures of the God we love and the Church to which we belong. Most significantly, Christ is completely absent from his story. “Jesus” finally gets a single fleeting mention 50 pages before the end of the third book, but there is never any suggestion of his redeeming work or saving love.

Should you read these books? If you are firmly grounded in your faith and believe you are ready to answer a powerful challenge to that faith, then you might benefit from actively engaging with these novels. If your teenage child or someone else close to you reads the series, I would say that it is imperative for you to read them too, if only so that you can engage your child or friend in discussion about the serious themes and issues which they raise for Christians.

And should you see the film The Golden Compass? The Catholic League in America has called for a boycott of the movie. I wouldn’t go that far; my wife and I will still go to see it. But we won’t be taking the kids, because whatever the movie turns out to be like, the books on which it is based are intentionally aimed at destroying the reader’s faith in God.

Leave a Reply

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