I originally wrote this February, 2011 on a different blog, but decided to repost it here.
|Lyra and Iorek
It's a really, really good book.
I remember when the movie was coming out, all the hubbub surrounding it due to its anti-religious and specifically anti-Christian messages. And it's absolutely true. The book isn't really anti-religious, as there are plenty of religions portrayed as wonderful and benevolent - it's really just anti-Christian, and Christianity is the only religion it addresses and defames. So yeah, Christians have every right to be offended by the book.
Before I had ever read it, though, I only knew that it was blasphemous and that Christian leaders were calling for a boycott of it - so I put it in my mind that I would never go to see it or buy the book. I didn't have any problem with seeing it or reading it, I just refused to let my money go to making someone rich for slandering Christ. Since I was unlikely to ever read it, but as I was still curious, I read the entire Wikipedia synopsis and thought it sounded fascinating. Excepting the main plot line, the fantasy setting of a multiverse with metaphysical machinery sounded like exactly the sort of thing I'd want in a story.
I had a friend who killed himself sometime over the summer. I had known him through high school but we never really spoke much after we left for college. One of the last conversations I had with him was him telling me to read the Golden Compass. I refused because I wasn't interested in the plot line, he told me to stop listening to stupid Christian propaganda, and eventually I apologized to him (because I'm one of those evil child-murdering Christians) for being rude and dismissing his suggestion and told him I was going to read it and asked if he'd want to discuss the book with me (since I love a good book discussion). He never replied, and it was a few weeks later that he killed himself, and since then I still felt an obligation to read this for him.
Not long ago, for want of something to do besides homework, I started driving to various used book stores around my town. I found one having a 25¢ sale! I got 40 books for $10! While browsing a pretty high-end store closer to my school, there on the top shelf in a beautiful paperback binding was the Golden Compass. So I got it, along with a handful of other books and set them all on a shelf in my apartment for the day I didn't have papers to grade and problem sets to complete.
I figured since I bought it used, the original author isn't getting any money from me. If you think that's too much or too little, feel free to tell me so.
Anyway, it was a very good book that I would never allow any children of mine to read until they were young adults. I'm very glad I read it for some of the cooler ideas that Pullman had, sad at some of the sillier notions of God and spirit that Pullman had, and upset over the kind of Christianity Pullman must have been familiar with growing up in England. I figured that I'd share some thoughts on it.
The series begins explicitly referencing the Chronicles of Narnia. The heroine, a young girl, finds herself hiding in a wardrobe to avoid trouble, and while in there discovers that it is much larger than she thought and full of all kinds of fur coats. The wardrobe is located in what is a men's lounge for distinguished people to discuss important topics, so there is absolutely no reason for it to be there at all if not to recall to the readers mind another girl who hid inside of a wardrobe, finding it much larger than she initially thought.
In the beginning of the first book we also hear a brief history of the Magisterium which sadly is too brief to explain how on earth there is Christianity in this world (an interesting question to me given the themes of Lewis' writing), but we are told that John Calvin became Pope, set up some sort of Inquisition court in charge of punishing heresy, and shortly thereafter the papacy dissolved and the Magisterium becomes run by various organizations competing for power, the most powerful of which being the Inquisition organization. They also apparently have a Bible in this world, or at least they have the beginning of Genesis and a book called the Apocalypse of St. John (aka Revelation), only their Genesis (and they still use the KJV in this universe) is slightly different to account for the slightly different nature of human beings in this universe, namely that a physical embodiment of their soul appears in animal form outside of their body.
|From Abstruse Goose
Very early in first book, as I said, we are assured that the Magisterium in the series is in fact the Christian Church. There is very little Christian language used by anyone in the Magisterium, and in fact no one in the main characters' (Lyra's) universe even mentions Jesus once. All the same, just in case we got any mischaracterizations about the intention of the work, we are reminded many times through the entire series that the Magisterium in the book is a Christian organization that exists in every universe with intelligent beings, including ours, and that they all operate in a manner synonymous with our own. Our Christian Church is at least given a little slack since we're nice enough to let a nun leave her vows without killing her, but the ex-nun in question assures the reader that we're still every bit as much all-about smothering joy and knowledge as the more murderous forms of 'Christianity' in all the other universes.
Which brings me to a point about how Christianity is portrayed in the books: it has nothing at all to do with Jesus or the commands of the Bible. I don't know if I should be more or less insulted by that fact. One one hand, Pullman isn't really saying such horrible things about Christianity because he's describing a religion of austere legalism. On another hand, he is attributing all sorts of false motives and beliefs to me in a way akin to libel. I have no problem with the author's criticism of such evil institutions as the ones in the book, or his condemnation of man-made religious traditions like the "pre-emptive absolution" or the whole notion of clerical celibacy, because such things are an imposition on us from humans seeking spiritual control of others (which is rightly condemned) - I have a problem when he then goes on with, oh yeah, by the way, this is what Christian believe.
I realize that Pullman is probably more familiar with a tradition of Christianity far removed from my own and a tradition of Christianity far removed from the Bible's grace, and I realize that the Christian Church at some point largely apostatized from the Bible's sweet, simple message of grace, but it's just frustrating that the bleeding heart of Christianity - God's Grace to sinful humanity - is totally ignored in the entire characterization of Christians and replaced with a message of asceticism and moralism.
Whose fault is it, then, that Pullman apparently has no idea what grace is?
He's basically speaking to the depraved and unnatural things ascetics do for the sake of avoiding sin -- things like intercision, the process of severing the silver chain linking a human to their soul in order to prevent "sin" particles from accumulating on them.
The point of Christianity is not to avoid sin. It is not to avoid accumulating sin through your life that you have to have forgiven through some process of penance and fasting and prayer. The letters of Paul speak loudly and clearly that avoiding sin altogether in this world is impossible. We will not be made whole until the next. We look forward to the coming of Christ who will make us whole, and until then we trust in Him alone - not in any thing that we can ever do or say, but only in Him, who He is, what He has done - to make us complete in His own time and that until then we are justified and made right before God despite of however many "sin particles" we attract because God loved us first and sent His only Son to die for us.
With that in mind, almost none of Pullman's themes on Christianity make any sense. You'd almost wonder what on earth he thought he was talking about, except for the many abuses of Christian organizations throughout history. Christians have fallen away from the simple grace of God, preferring to add to it all kinds of silly things to make the Gospel "even better" than it already was, and thus you end up with a Christianity like Pullman's depiction of it. And yet I could write a more powerful critique of that kind of man-made religion, and in fact Jesus DID give a much more striking and scathing and stirring condemnation of it in Matthew 23, not by denying God but by affirming him and his revelation.
Near the end of the book you have a priest wandering in to an alien universe where there are rational creatures who have developed the ability to roll about on wheels. The priest briefly considers evangelizing them, which "of course" means insisting to them how evil and sinful it is that they're rolling about on wheels and that in order to please God they have to give it up at once. What on earth makes the priest think that? There's nothing in the Bible that says that. These beings don't even have a Bible. Forgetting the Bible, there is absolutely nothing about rolling around on wheels rather than walking that would even suggest sinfulness. The priest in his travels had to come through our world which was full of cars and didn't say a word. The point Pullman is trying to make seems to be that the intention of religion is to keep you from having fun and living to the fullest, and again I have to wonder how much he understands Christianity. The law was made for man and not man for the law, and Christian children go rollerskating as often as any other.
There are other things besides.
The reason I wouldn't ever let my children read the book (assuming I ever have children) isn't so much the portrayal of Christians -- since I intend to actually raise them as Christians they'll be ale to spot the errors in Pullman's understanding -- but rather the portrayal of morality that develops near the end of the first book. It begins by affirming very powerfully the goodness of honor and of keeping promises, of telling the truth to others, of protecting people, loving people who are strange and other, and of the goodness of human friendships, as well as a dozen other moral lessons I don't feel like listing. And then it begins to change as Lyra, the main character, begins to discover her habit of lying. She is apparently very good at deceiving people with stories and for the rest of the trilogy this becomes her pride role of service to the other protagonists. This ability of tricking people is always praised by others, and even if not always brings about a good and desirable result (at least until the last hundred or so pages of the last book where suddenly Pullman seems to change his notion of honesty).
Lyra also decides that it is safe to follow a friend of hers precisely because her truth-telling device tells her that her friend is a murderer. Someone else might be cowardly or finicky, but a murderer you can trust. That kind of thing continues, and once you see it you can even read it back to the beginning, that Lyra has an obsession with powerful and dangerous men and the books go to great lengths to glorify political and physical strength. All of the men Lyra loves are able to command and kill, and she comes to trust Will because she learns that he's killed someone. Throughout the second book and some of the third, anytime something happens to upset her, she starts screaming for someone to come and kill the offending person. Someone steals her alethiometer and she shrieks that she wants someone to make him die.
There is a lot else about Lyra's character and the way others react to her that would make me want to make sure children of mine never read it until they're old enough to handle adult themes like insipid brats screaming for strongmen to make people die.
Another thing that struck me is Pullman's portrayal of women. It is very ironic, given that he is on record blasting Narnia for being "sexist". Compare Lucy to Lyra. Lucy is probably more feminine than Lyra. Compared to the other characters in either story she loves more, is more compassionate, is more gentle and kind, and is less interested in feuds and fighting. She is curious, always discovering something and therefore finding Aslan the most. She is the most deeply valued by all the characters around her and makes the most profound insights. She isn't subject to any of the males around her, even if she does defer to them. With her gentleness and caring spirit, she instantly becomes like a mother to anyone she encounters. Compare this to Lyra's attitude toward Will or Iorek (the bear king), where her attitude is almost one of a dog in submission to a human master. After meeting Will, she exerts a conscious and stated desire to obey whatever he says and go wherever he goes and only do something if he lets her because she's just supposed to. If you add to this the portrayal of Mrs. Coulter, I feel overall a much more pessimistic attitude of women in Pullman's book than in Narnia. At least, if I wanted to argue that anything I didn't like was racist and sexist because I didn't like it (which I don't do, but is the modus operandi of my ideological counterparts), I could make a better case for HDM than Narnia.
There are some other things, like in Pullman's multiverse soul and spirit are made of matter, and in Pullman's universe God is made of matter (and it is very explicit this matter-god is the God of the Bible), and in fact conscious thought is made of matter. Anything that exists is matter. I could also make the case that the story just loses all sense of itself somewhere midway through the third book where it goes from an inversion of Paradise Lost to just a pre-teen love story, but by now I've said enough negative stuff maybe you have no idea why I'm saying the book is good.
The book is fantastic. I disagree with the author's philosophy and intention, but his story crafting is incredible and the imagination of his world is fascinating.
I'm a scientist and I loved the metaphysical technology. Lyra's universe is like a metaphysical steampunk world, which is exhilarating. In Lyra's world they have developed a clockwork mechanism that acts as a spy. It's very small and runs entirely off of gears, but they have attached to the mainspring a dark spirit and they use the anger to the spirit to perpetually wind the mainspring so that the clockwork robot doesn't wind down. Brilliant!
The most fascinating to me had to be the subtle knife. Firstly, such a brilliant name for it! Subtle. The knife has a blade that asymptotically tapers off to nothing. It is so thin that it can pierce and cut any material whatsoever as easily as if it were butter. The tip extends out, becoming more focused than presumably the Planck length, being able to pierce the separation between worlds and open little portals from one to the next. This one really got me thinking, because technically one atom length is the thinest you can have any material, and for a metal blade that one atom would be a pretty thick atom. I started thinking of "physical" ways to construct something like that by means of the wave functions and probability distributions. It would also violate the uncertainty principle. You would have to have it that it wasn't the atoms of the knife, but something like the probability distribution of the knife, and so the blade of the knife wouldn't be there, but merely a probability of there being a knife. The more I thought about it, the more cool this became. I started thinking about maybe there's a machine that can force a material to assume any arbitrarily programmed functional distribution, and you program it with something like Gabriel's trumpet (except then the knife would be infinitely long and so that wouldn't work). Or maybe it doesn't have to be that thin and one atom thick is enough - then we already have a material like that, called graphene! Could we use graphene as a knife?
Fictionally speaking, the physical problem with the subtle knife is the particulate nature of matter. But if there were, say, a universe where matter was continuous? Then it'd be easy to make a knife edge like that!
Another really cool thing that got left off in the third book, was the nature of these ghostly things called Specters. In the second book it is revealed that they were discovered in the experiments of scientists to divide matter up more and more. They just kept cutting it up smaller until they got to things they couldn't cut more, but then they cut them anyway and then the Specters came out, having been curled up tight inside of the atomic nuclei. It's a really cool image. For one, it draws a parallel between the subtle knife and atomic energy (and the parallel is made in another place for arguing why the children must use it lest anyone else does). The idea that in some universes gluons and pions and conscious beings who if cut, rather than exploding in a release of energy like they do here, fold out and physically attack you was also really neat. In the third book this changes and Specters become lame and unexciting beings from some abysmal universe, but in the second book they're really cool.
But it isn't just the technology, but also the worlds themselves. The armored bears have a manner and a culture that is completely different from human culture. They have a way of thinking that is not like human thinking and thus a way of being different from the human way of being. The humans of Lyra's world have a way of interacting with their daemon's that is at once intuitive, like we all have daemon's and we're used to handling them. The story of Citagazze, the portal world, is intriguing and compelling, and the story is griping, running from place to place in a constant pursuit.
One more brilliant tidbit, is the vocabulary. Since Lyra's universe developed differently from ours, the technology developed differently and thus the names given to it are different. It was very clever of the author to think of not just alternate words but alternate etymologies of the words. The main example is the use of "anbaric" for "electric". Our word "electric" from the Greek word "electrum", which means "amber". Lyra's word "anbaric" comes from the Latin word "anbar", meaning "amber". That, along with how well thought-out the different cultures and universes are, all add to making the story more like a description of an actual living, breathing parallel universe, just as likely as our own but slightly different.
Anyway, like I said, it was a very good book. I missed sleep for the sake of reading it and am now behind in all of my classes, and I feel none the worse for it. I do recommend it, and you can probably get it at a used book store for about $5. Setting the main plot line aside, it really is a fascinating story and the author has put plenty of thought into making his story seem alive to the reader.
I'm sure that I have more to say, but I have 80 papers to grade by tomorrow.