Michelle Isenhoff

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, book one), by Philip Pullman, 1995

I’ve heard a great deal of controversy over this book in recent years, particularly when the movie came out five years ago. It was time to tackle it and make my own judgments. What I found was a complex, evocative, skillfully crafted tale with breathtaking scenes, highly developed characters, and a plot that is out of this world. It was entertaining and challenging at the same time. My overarching caution, however, is a blatant bias—almost an animosity—against Christianity.
Lyra is an uncontrollable ten-year-old who is abandoned in a college by her father to be raised by the resident scholars in Oxford while he pursues his life work. The world she lives in is very similar to ours, though there is a fantastical element to it. The date is not given, but it feels like the late 1800’s or so. It is a world dominated by the Magisterium, the worldwide religious organization that closely resembles the Catholic Church. It is also a world in which alternate universes have been discovered, but fear prompts the church to forbid research along such lines and label such notions heresy. But Lyra’s father is determined to pursue it anyway. In the meantime, the Gobblers, a church-sanctioned institution officially called the Oblation Board, has their own agenda, and it involves the kidnapping of children and the most vile of experiments. Lyra’s friend Roger has been taken. She’s determined to rescue him and also assist her father in his quest, unaware that she is destined to play a pivotal role in the history of universes.
Let me say again that this one is very complex. There are many institutions mentioned, a good deal of politics, and a lot going on. But it is skillfully wrought, and everything does make sense in its time. I especially love the fantasy woven into this world. For you see, every human is born with a dæmon. Yes, that is an archaic way to spell demon, but in this case, a dæmon is a spirit who takes physical animal form and is attached to a person’s soul. It is their closest companion who shares their thoughts and loves, a vital part of their existence that accompanies them even to death. They’re quite endearing. Even brief spacial separation from a dæmon is physically and emotionally excruciating. The book also creates intricate sub-societies like the gyptians, a tight-knit, nomadic water people often shunned by other societies, and witches, who love and breed with men, though they suffer centuries of heartache because they long outlive their sons and husbands.  And my favorite, the society of armed polar bears in the far north. This fantastic world is rich and compelling and a proper basis for a plot of this magnitude.
Despite the high quality of writing, I do have plenty of cautions to issue. There is a smattering of mild profanities, a good deal of spiritual content and mysticism, and the book dips into lots of subject areas that to my way of thinking seem too adult for kids under 12. In fact, I would not let my kids read this till high school. They include castration, drunkenness, exorcism, messy love affairs and discussions of sexuality, some atrocious acts of barbarism, and a variety of graphic scenes. But the religious statement the book makes is the one that caused all the controversy.
The Golden Compass, originally titled The Northern Lights in the UK, has been called a parody of Pilgrim’s Progress, the 17th century epic poem by John Milton, so let me divert for just a moment with some background. Pilgrim’s Progress is an example of Puritan literature. Puritans lived in a day when the Church of England was extremely powerful and intolerant of views which were not their own. (Think Mayflower and the Pilgrims’ desperate escape.) Milton’s poem was a challenge to the Church, a protest that cut through their traditions and powers and made a clear doctrinal statement of the Bible, particularly the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden and God’s promise and means of restoration through Christ. It also makes much of the choice given to men, free will to chose or reject God. Mr. Pullman’s novel does much the same thing, rightfully protesting the power of a corrupt Church, only it twists the text and message of the Bible to its own purposes and, in essence, applauds the rejection of God. The language and doctrine laid out in the novel are quite explicit. If your faith, like mine, lines up more with Milton’s, consider this an extreme warning. If my high school kids picked this up, I’d be sure to initiate questions, discussion, and comparisons with actual biblical text.
Interestingly enough, the movie didn’t do very well in America because it was strongly criticized by groups on both sides of the religious spectrum. Producers toned down the content enough to incense secular groups but not enough to please Christians. As a result, the two sequels were never put into motion. I have not seen the film, but now I’m very curious.
In conclusion, from a technical standpoint, The Golden Compass is a fine piece of literature. From the viewpoint of a conservative mom, its message is not one I condone. This is considered middle grade fiction, but my recommendation is age fourteen along with a dose of healthy guidance.

Book two: The Subtle Knife
Book three: The Amber Spyglass
The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, book one), by Philip Pullman, 1995

4 thoughts on “The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, book one), by Philip Pullman, 1995

  1. My kind of book! I loved the stories and have yet to read the two sequels. I love the movie. I don’t see it as biased and against Christianity–it is just a different world set in a different time where darkness prevails in a society. The past is lost. But the goodness of the child and others bring hope. I can’t wait to read the other books. They are on my TBR list. I think it is a beautiful piece of literature. And, I know it was the author’s intent to counter the Harry Potter series. I think it is an excellent book to read a long with your child and discuss and answer questions. I feel it is a MG book. Nice thorough and fair review.

    1. This is a remarkably done book, and my favorite of the three. The others will post over the next two Mondays. Honestly, I didn’t care for book two at all, but book three got better. They did get more blatantly hostile toward a deity figure. I do have to credit Mr. Pullman with a tightly packaged trilogy, but I think, even with personal bias aside, that Harry Potter is more engaging. Curious to hear your reactions when you finish books two and three.

    1. I don’t think I’d call this one dystopian, though it does have some similar control elements. Mostly because it takes place in the past, not the future, and has a good deal of fantasy mixed in. It’s almost alternate reality.
      The cover is very eye-catching, isn’t it?

Comments are closed.

Scroll to top