The Golden Compass Revisited

I have now read Volumes 1 and 2 of the Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman. Pullman is an amazing author with the ability to paint word pictures that are magnificent as well as beautiful. I have also seen the movie, The Golden Compass, which is for the most part a realistic portrayal of the novel.

One of the issues of concern, for some, centers around the idea of each individual having a daemon. In using this language, Pullman is using imagery to talk about the human soul. In the world of The Golden Compass, individuals have souls that are external. These external souls are called Daemons. I believe that it was a purposeful choice on the part of Pullman to name them such, so as to create a bit of controversy. These souls are amazing reflections of the true nature of the individuals. If the person is evil, the daemon/soul is evil, if the person is good the daemon is good. The book postulates the idea of a number of worlds that are connected but separate. In the other worlds or universes, there are worlds where the souls are internal rather than external. Pullman's external souls have some tremendous advantages over our internal souls. The wonder of the external souls is that they are so "in your face," while the internal souls are less so.

Another issue is related to the treatment of the church and The Authority which is the Magisterium's title for God. In books 1 and 2 there is little mention of the Magisterium, the church, other than to cast a cloud of fear, control, and suspicion. The reality is that the Magisterium is a controlling body that seeks to root out anything that is counter to its teachings. The Magisterium seeks to eradicate or at the least silence those who would seek to discover anything new, or who would speak out against their control. It is not unlike reformation or inquisition persecutions of our own church past. Pullman paints a picture of the church of which I don't want to be part.

In book 2, The Subtle Knife, Pullman begins to talk about God, but it isn't until book 3, The Amber Spyglass, (which I have not as yet completed) that a picture of God is fully revealed. It was of interest to me that this God is really a Gnostic God with some variations. This God is vengeful and evil. He is not the real power behind creation but has stepped into that place to fool other angels and to control humanity. The church is his handmaiden and the church seeks to stamp out all truth. In reality it is the church of the middle ages, that was afraid of science, progress, and free thinking.

It is difficult for me to believe that a real atheist could write this book. I know that Pullman describes himself as an atheist, but I am inclined to put him in a category of a seeker. No one who totally discounts the existence of God could write what he writes. There are qualities of love, loyalty, comradeship, sacrifice, and redemption that echo throughout the pages of the books. He is against the kind of God he portrays, but frankly, so am I.

The movie, The Golden Compassdoes an adequate job of telling the story, however, it leaves out significant ideas, changes key scenes, and reorders others; it also ends far short of the conclusion of the book which is significantly important as one picks up the second in the series.

This series is worth the read if not as an interesting critique of the church and our beliefs about God. The challenge of Christianity in the twenty-first century is that the Church no longer holds the same place in the minds, hearts, and lives of people. She has become marginalized and to many she is insignificant and of little importance. A major introspection of who we are as Church, is essential as we seek to be agents of God's Kingdom in this world. Pullman's critique, while I don't believe it all, does force us to take a hard look. We must evaluate what it is that God is up to and not so much create our agenda of what we believe is the Christian thing to do.

Gary Waller