Some thoughts on The Golden Compass

I’ve been looking forward to the debut of a movie called The Golden Compass since I saw the previews in August, so last weekend I read the book on which the movie is based. I enjoyed it. Quite a bit. It’s a well-written, highly creative, and engaging story. I could barely put it down. There were some themes that made me mildly uncomfortable, but on the whole, my anticipation of the movie to be released on December 7th only increased. Then this week I received an email warning me against watching the movie, calling it the anti-Narnia€ and the work of the evil one.€ This sent me on a search for the truth about the books and their author Philip Pullman. Quite a scandal has arisen over them, complete with mud-slinging and overblown accusations from both sides (though not from Pullman directly, I don’t think). I have struggled to form my own hopefully more balanced opinion. Below are some of my thoughts. (A word of warning: I do give away the ending of the book series, so if you’re planning to read the books for fun, you might want to stop here!)

Case in Point

I think it has been a mistake to blow this up into a huge drama. One of Pullman’s loudest, clearest mantras is against the scenario repeated throughout history (to our shame) in which a religious power tries to control something that it fears and ends up depriving people of good things or even hurting people. Yesterday on The Today Show€ he said,

I always mistrust people who tell us how we should understand something. They know better than we do what the book means or what this means and how we should read it and whether we should read it or not.€   

If we take our stance in fear and ignorance, we are just giving him a case in point. He is (rightfully) laughing at us as he says with a smug smile, I’m delighted to have brought such excitement into what must be very dull lives.€

Let’s calm down and think about this logically. What do we have to be afraid of?

Fantasy is for Fun

When the scandal about Harry Potter first hit the fan several years ago, I really didn’t know what all the fuss was about. People seemed to think kids would confuse Rowling’s fiction with reality, and I didn’t think that was likely. The whole point of fantasy literature is to escape to the worlds of the unreal; that’s why fantasy is fun. (If you’re going to boycott books and movies that skew kids’€”and adults’€”view of reality, why not target romantic comedies??) That was my initial take on The Golden Compass, too. I wrote in an email to a friend:

As with The Dark is Rising or The Chronicles of Narnia or any number of other books I read as a kid, someone could probably read or watch The Golden Compass without picking up on any political or religious statements and just enjoy the very creative and engaging story.€

When asked if he consciously aimed to deal with life’s big questions when he sat down to write the books, Pullman answered, “No. The only duty it [writing] has is best expressed in the words of Dr Johnson: “The only aim of writing is to help the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” 

And again yesterday on “The Today Show” he said, Well, what I intend that they [viewers/readers] take from it is a good experience of a good story.€

I don’t think Pullman had an agenda when he was writing the books, so I don’t think we should read an agenda into them, as if he were deliberately trying to corrupt or kidnap our children. You’d think he was a pedophile instead of an author, judging from some of our recent responses.

Fundamentally Serious

However, as I did more research, my view on Pullman and his books began to change somewhat. Eventually I had to concede that they are a little more than just fun stories.

In an interview on MTV, Philip Pullman compares C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia with Tolkein’s trilogy by saying,

“The ‘Narnia’ books are fundamentally more serious than ‘Lord of the Rings,’ … [because they] are full of serious questions about religion: ‘Which God should we worship? Is there a God at all? What happens when we die?€

I think that whatever Pullman intended to write when he sat down to pen the opening scene with Lyra hiding in the wardrobe (sound familiar?), he has written a fundamentally serious€ trilogy in His Dark Materials. For me that puts his books in a different category than the average fantasy book.

What an author believes will come through his stories whether he plans for it to or not, and if we’re going to believe that The Chronicles of Narnia are powerful because of the truths they contain, then we must also believe that the untruths in His Dark Materials could be powerful and influential. Therefore, without overreacting in fear and paranoia, I think it is important to examine what Pullman believes and the themes that are likely to come through in the film. Here are a few important points:

#1 Pullman is an agnostic. He says on his website: 

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.€

#2 Pullman’s stance is not exactly anti-religious, but he is opposed to religions which abuse their power. I think we can all agree with him on that part, though we might arrive at different solutions to the problem. In an interview with some elementary school students, he described his views this way:

In the world of the story €” Lyra’s world €” there is a church that has acquired great political power, rather in the way that some religions in our world have done at various times, and still do (think of the Taliban in Afghanistan). My point is that religion is at its best €” it does most good €” when it is farthest away from political power, and that when it gets hold of the power to (for example) send armies to war or to condemn people to death, or to rule every aspect of our lives, it rapidly goes bad. Sometimes people think that if something is done in the name of faith or religion, it must be good. Unfortunately, that isn’t true; some things done in the name of religion are very bad. That was what I was trying to describe in my story.€ 

#3 In the end of Pullman’s trilogy, God dies, and it isn’t a very flattering description. From The Amber Spyglass, the last book in his series:

Demented and powerless the aged being could only weep and mumble in fear and pain and misery, and he shrank away from what seemed like yet another threat. “It’s all right,” Will said, “we can help you hide, at least. Come on, we won’t hurt you.” The shaking hand seized his and feebly held on. The old one was uttering a wordless whimper that went on and on, and grinding his teeth, and compulsively plucking at himself with his free hand; but as Lyra reached in, too, to help him out, he tried to smile, and to bow, and his ancient eyes deep in their wrinkles blinked at her with innocent wonder.

Between them they helped the ancient of days out of his crystal cell; it wasn’t hard, for he was as light as paper, and he would have followed them anywhere, having no will of his own, and responding to simple kindness like a flower to the sun. But in the open air there was nothing to stop the wind from damaging him, and to their dismay his form began to loosen and dissolve. In only a few moments he had vanished completely, and their last impression was of those eyes, blinking in wonder, and a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief. Then he was gone: a mystery dissolving in mystery.€

#4 Pullman sees with natural eyes. Therefore his answers to life’s serious questions are basically the opposite of Christianity’s answers. It’s striking how much like a mirror image Pullman’s ending is from C.S. Lewis’ ending in The Chronicles, which makes sense, considering Pullman’s view of Lewis’ ending. Pullman says,

“I didn’t read the ‘Narnia’ books until I was grown up, and I could sort of see what he was getting at, and he was getting at the reader in a way I didn’t like…The questions are all there, but I don’t like Lewis’ answers. I don’t like the fact that he sends the children through these extraordinary adventures, allows them to see and do these wonderful things, and then at the end of the book kills them in a railway accident. They’re all dead, and this is meant to be a great release, a wonderful thing. It seems to me the proper thing to do, the moral thing to do, the Christian thing to do would be to let those children continue to live and do good in the world, having learned something. But no, that wasn’t what Lewis wanted.”

In direct contrast, here is Pullman’s ending from The Amber Spyglass. Lyra, the protagonist, is speaking in the closing scene some time after the death of God.

“[Will's father] meant the Kingdom was over, the Kingdom of Heaven, it was all finished. We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place€¦”

“We have to be all those different things like cheerful and kind and curious and patient, and we’ve got to study and think and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build . . .”

“And then what?” said her daemon sleepily. “Build what?”

“The Republic of Heaven,” said Lyra.

If you look at Lewis’ ending with natural eyes, it is a horrible tragedy; if you look at it with spiritual eyes it’s one of the happiest endings ever written. (I cry with joy almost every time I read it.) On the other hand, if you look at Pullman’s ending with natural eyes, it sounds great: there is no longer anyone in control; the ultimate good, freedom, has been achieved. The idea of a world without someone telling you what to do is about the best heaven€ natural eyes can imagine, but spiritual eyes show the emptiness of that freedom.€

Pullman’s views are the water we’re swimming in these days. He’s not the first or the last to hold up a world without boundaries as the best goal. (I can just hear the hyenas on The Lion King chanting, No king! No king! La la la la la la!€) Perhaps that’s why we’re afraid of the power of his philosophy. We know it’s attractive. Part of us wants to believe it, and most of the world around us does. As sinners we all think we would be better off on our own, doing as we please. We’re blind to the fact that we’re enslaved to our own desires, and we cringe (or run from) the thought of making ourselves the slaves of God, not realizing that God’s law is the law of liberty€ (James 1:25), and when we seek His precepts we walk in a wide place€ (Ps 119:45). All of us at different points think we want to be free in regard to righteousness.€ But what fruit are we getting from the things we do on our own? The end of those things is death€ (Romans 6:20-23).

How do we Respond?

So, how do we respond to Pullman, his books, and the upcoming movie release? With love and careful discernment. Talk to God about whether or not you personally should watch this movie and/or read these books. If you choose to do so, think carefully about the themes presented and measure them carefully against the truth. Only take your kids if they’re old enough to sit down with you afterward and sort out truth from fiction. (Though I highly recommend that you do that at the end of romantic comedies€”and other movies€”as well!)

Have compassion on Pullman. Unless something changes, he and many of our friends and family around us are going to refuse to trade in their freedom.€ They will cling to the best this world has to offer and miss the exhilarating joy at the return of the King!

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