3.29.2015

what i'm reading: the golden compass by philip pullman

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, has been on my to-read list since it was first published in the mid-1990s. Although I generally don't read fantasy fiction, after reading an outstanding review in The New York Times Book Review, I was very intrigued. Thanks to the Teen Book Club I facilitate at the library, I recently had an excuse to read it: The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights in the UK) is our March title.

This is an absolutely wonderful book. Lyra Belacqua, a smart, spunky 11-year-old girl, is wholly believeable as our powerful, but very human, hero. She lives in a world recognizable to us, but different - a parallel universe which unfolds naturally, without the ponderous world-building that I find so tedious in more typical adult fantasy fiction.

The book is chock-full of adventure, mystery, and action, with just the right touch of thoughtful reflection thrown in. It's an excellent youth or tween read, which is to say it's fast-paced, written in a clear and straightforward style, and with the darker, scarier, and potentially violent material handled with discretion and a gentle touch. There is sadness and loss and frightening elements, as there should be, but there's nothing graphic.

The Golden Compass is sometimes called a youth novel, but it lives on the younger side of that spectrum, perfect for a 10- or 11-year-old who is a good reader. Why, then, is it catalogued in the adult section of our library? I can only speculate that it might have been a response to "challenges" - meaning controversy and calls for banning or limiting access in the library.

To an adult reader, the reason for the challenges - though silly, in my view - are obvious. On the surface The Golden Compass is a straightforward fantasy-adventure, but on another level it can be read as a critique of The Church. The book is certainly not anti-religion or anti-spirituality, but it is a harsh condemnation of the institutional Church - the Church of the Inquisition, the Church of intolerance, and most of all, the Church that has harbored and protected known pedophiles for centuries, allowing countless children's lives to be shattered.

There are other aspects to which some Christian readers might object: our hero is herself identified with Christ imagery. But I believe the principal objections would focus on a negative portrayal of the institution of organized religion.

Some critics see Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass is book one) as a response to C. S. Lewis' The Narnia Chronicles, with its clearly Christian underpinnings. Not being a reader of fantasy, and never having read Narnia (I read and enjoyed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, but stopped there), I can't comment on these critiques. There are many comparisons online, but most focus on film adaptations - not a reliable way to critique a book!

The 2007 movie adaptation of The Golden Compass was greeted with articles like "The Chronicles of Atheism" and "The Golden Compass: A Primer on Atheism". This is nonsense, of course. I'm pretty sure anyone who says the movie version of The Golden Compass is about atheism hasn't seen it. For this, I'll turn to the late, great Roger Ebert's review of the movie.
For most families, such questions will be beside the point. Attentive as I was, I was unable to find anything anti-religious in the movie, which works above all as an adventure. The film centers on a young girl named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), in an alternative universe vaguely like Victorian England. An orphan raised by the scholars of a university not unlike Oxford or Cambridge, she is the niece of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who entrusts her with the last surviving Alethiometer, or Golden Compass, a device that quite simply tells the truth. The Magisterium has a horror of the truth, because it represents an alternative to its thought control; the battle in the movie is about no less than man's preservation of free will.
One of the better pieces I've found on this subject was by Jenn Northington, writing on Tor.com, for Banned Books Week 2013.
One could argue that while the disdain for organized religion and bureaucracy registers in Pullman’s books as well as in his interviews, it doesn’t prevent them from containing all kinds of mystical elements. There are witches with super powers, embodied souls in the form of daemons, a trip to the underworld. One could further say that they promote a sense of spirituality and a belief in the possibility of things beyond our comprehension. There’s a word for that; some call it faith. This argument, of course, is unlikely to hold weight with anyone who objects to the series. In matters of taste there can be no dispute, and each reader finds something different in a book.
If The Golden Compass works equally well as a great children's read, and a response to a famous fantasy series, and a critique of a social institution, that is quite a feat, and Pullman deserves huge recognition for pulling it off. The symbolic meanings are there for discussion and debate, but the solid base of the book is vivid, highly accessible, and simply excellent.

7 comments:

James Redekop said...

What's not to like about armoured polar bears?

I think the atheism angle to so much attention when the film came out not so much because of Pullman himself, but because of timing -- it was around the time of the "New Atheist" news craze (the concept of the "New Atheists" was created by reporters, not by the atheists in question).

laura k said...

I don't get the atheism angle *at all*. There's so much mysticism and spirituality and faith in this book! It's the Church that's the problem - not faith or belief, in my reading.

James Redekop said...

The atheism angle comes from two things: Pullman is out publicly as an atheist, and the book criticizes The Church. Therefore, the book must be one of those New Atheist screeds against religion!

About as much thought went into those articles as goes into most modern science reporting...

laura k said...

I will say this, in terms of the book being catalogued as adult - my teen book club members did not see any deeper or symbolic meanings at all. When I tried to lead them in that direction a bit, it didn't work. I didn't take it as far as I would have liked, because they didn't bite.

One of them said, that might be why it's thought of as an adult book. We might not have understood it as much as you. Huh!

James Redekop said...

I don't think you missed anything; I don't think Pullman intended the book to be the polemic that the press liked to present it as.

It certainly wasn't as heavy-handed an atheist book as the Narnia stories are Christian books (esp. the first and last).

Rachel Adelson said...

This series was/is my daughter's absolute favourite. She learned about it after we moved to Canada. Her Grade 6 teacher read the first novel aloud to the students as a daily treat and when done, they all walked in winter to the cinema to see the movie. At the time, the Catholic school board banned the book and I was tickled to think that in the "normal" board, a teacher found it to be a fine thing for the kids. Keep reading...the next 2 are fascinating as well. Beautifully done. My daughter's only complaint was when the boy came on board...she felt Lyra was a completely satisfying protagonist on her own.

laura k said...

That's great! Glad to hear it. I won't keep reading. There are too many youth books to know - and too much readers' advisory to do - to linger on any one series. But I'm glad to know the books remained mostly satisfying for her. :)