His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass
Alas poor Pullman; when the church responds to the theatrical release of The Golden Compass, he’s bound to find himself at the whirling centre of a debate, only to be equalled by that which will envelope Dan Brown’s, Angels and Demons. So far the book, the first in the trilogy, His Dark Materials, has escaped notice of the more easily offended christian community, but the series growing popularity seems destined to put it in the sightlines of not only an offended Catholic Church, but the evangelical flanks as well.
Summation of The Golden Compass
In The Golden Compass, the heroine, Lyra Belacqua, a young girl brought up in the cloistered world of Jordan College, Oxford, and her dæmon Pantalaimon — an animal-shaped manifestation of her soul — learn of the existence of Dust The strange elementary particle is believed by the Church to be evidence for Original Sin.
Dust is less attracted to the innocence of children, and this gives rise to grisly experiments being carried out by Church-controlled scientists on kidnapped children in the icy wastelands of the far North.
Turning the Christ Story on its Head
The Christian Church has been taken to task in all manner of ways; in a broad array of genres; and by the talented and not-talented alike. But never, however, in this way; not at its deepest theological roots; not as an endemically anti-human agent. Pullman follows the logic of “original sin” through to an alternative, but arguably valid, conclusion. In short, what he does is have the church (albeit a revisionist one) attempt to protect children from the effects of original sin by severing their souls from their bodies. A messiah is sent in the form of a young girl, Lyra Belacaqua, whom it’s been prophesied will “alter the fate of all worlds.” Ultimately, and of her own free will, she enters the land of the dead and frees the souls of all who have died.
Sound familiar? It’s Pullman turning the Christ myth on its head. And that’s just a beginning. By the end of the series, he’s set up an act of “original sin between two pure beings,” which as it turns out, is the act which saves the world. Some folks would call it two teenagers hooking up … regardless, we start again, this time unburdened and enlightened … perhaps how Pullman wishes we were in this world.
So, how does he, in The Golden Compass, link sexual maturation, with dust and concepts of original sin?
During the critical expository scene following the near “intercision” of Lyra’s daemon (the removal of her soul), Mrs Coulter, the executrix of the church, explains the process as being “healthy” and a necessary kindness which ensures a child is protected from the “impurity” which adolescence begets.
It’s herein that the conundrum for the conservative 20th century church lies; surely, to remove the agent of original sin is to be lauded; it is after-all what Christ did through his self-sacrifical act. Furthermore, it’s an act played out with each baptism and “born-again” event. Not only that, a soul separate from the body is integral to the church’s idea of spirituality. And in fact, only through the release of the soul from the body is redemption complete.
Pissing in the Face of Long Treasured Beliefs
Pullman had to have known that he was pissing in the face of this treasured belief, and that his novels would be a general “fuck you” to established church doctrine. Removing the soul by force is cruel; would be cruel; has to cruel. Yet it if were to save the soul, is a necessary cruelty.
It comes as no surprise then, when salvation comes to the universe through an allegorical act of that replicates the act of “original sin.” What Pullman is telling us is that the fall of man was truly an extra-ordinary act of love, and if replicated, it’s that act which will redeem us.
Okay the allegorical act is really thinly veiled sex between two deeply in love, just barely adolescent children.
Okay. Ummm … apart from it making readers seem slightly queasy, it all seems so simple, (and its here that fans of the book will excoriate me.) It IS too simple and, when it comes, three books in, it seems juvenile as well. After all the complexities and complications that Lyra and cast go through, to be told that love will save the world just doesn’t cut it. Somehow it seems as if Pullman ran out of steam.
A Remarkable Imagination
Apart from that, the pages of The Golden Compass are popluated by a race of super-bears, beautiful witches, cliff-ghasts, and salt-of-the-earth, gyptians. There is no doubting Pullman’s imaginative genius. It is precisely the same ability Rowling and Tolkien have – of being able to create believable, alternative worlds — that makes this book work. In clumsier hands it would have died by now: instead, producers have paid a pretty penny to make a movie of it which will, without a doubt it will be promoted to the ends of the earth. No longer will the The Golden Compass be a favourite of intellectuals and hardcore fans. Pullman should be prepared.
Reviewed by Trevor Paetkau
- Philip-Pullman.com Official site
- HisDarkMaterials.com Publisher’s site
- Philip Pullman Wikipedia
- His Dark Materials.org Fansite
- His Dark Materials | Bridge to the Stars Fansite
Book Review, His Dark Materials, philip pullman, The Golden Compass
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- 11.17.07 / 4pm