Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

The upcoming release of The Golden Compass movie has prompted criticism from some Christian groups, with Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy labeled as "Narnia for atheists," and the author's motive said to be to "kill God in the minds of children." (For more on the debate, visit Idol Chatter, the religion and pop culture blog at BeliefNet.)

I had heard before about the religious controversy swirling around the trilogy, and with the movie about to debut, I decided to finally read the books.

I really enjoyed The Golden Compass, the first book in the trilogy. Others have said they found the book tedious, especially in the first half, but the novel captured my interest and held it from the opening pages.

Lyra, the novel's 12-year-old protagonist, is a resourceful, mischievous and confident girl who has grown up largely unsupervised at Oxford's Jordan College. Lyra's world mirrors our own but is quite different in many ways. In her world, every person has a daemon, a sort of familiar spirit who takes the shape of an animal and mirrors the person's soul and personality. Not only were daemons a fascinating concept, they proved a very effective storytelling device, as Pullman could reveal a character's thoughts and reactions through the actions of their daemon.

The novel's atmosphere, familiar in some ways but strange in others, hooked me at once. It evoked the feel of Victorian England with a few modern touches. The story, which combined fantasy and science fiction elements, was complex, multilayered and beautifully written.

The story begins with Lyra overhearing a scholarly discussion about Dust, a mysterious, microscopic particle found only in the frozen North that clusters around adolescents and adults. As Lyra eavesdrops, the scholars also talk about a mysterious city that can be glimpsed when the Northern Lights illuminate the sky, a city that appears to exist in a parallel world.

Lyra longs to visit the North to see these things, and she gets her chance when children from Oxford are kidnapped by the sinister Gobblers. Lyra joins a gang of gyptians (riverboat people) to rescue the children from the Northern outpost of Bolvangar, where the Gobblers are conducting horrific experiments on the children and their daemons.

During her journey, Lyra meets witches who fly on cloud-pine branches, warlike armored polar bears and a Texas balloonist before she discovers something of the nature of Dust and sees the city in the Northern Lights for herself.

Pullman's story was both imaginative and quite dark, especially during the book's second half. It seemed targeted more at teens and adults than children. Lyra experiences some horrible things and has her faith in adults shaken to the core. Her unshakable bond with her daemon, Pantalaimon, and their unconditional love for one another, made the dangers they faced more harrowing and their escapes poignant and emotionally stirring. I really cared about Lyra and Pan and felt their wonder and their fear along with them

I had just a few quibbles with the novel. First, I had a hard time accepting the role Lyra's alethiometer (the "golden compass" of the title) played in the story. Lyra could use the device to find the answer to any question, which made her quest too easy at times, in my opinion. It also killed suspense knowing Lyra could solve most any problem she encountered using the alethiometer.

Second, Pullman hinted throughout the book at the absolute power the Church and its Magisterium had over Lyra's world. But the Church played nearly no role in Lyra's life or in the lives of other major characters. Except for Mrs. Coulter (who obviously used the Church as a means to power) characters were neither fervent believers or opposed to Church doctrine. The Church itself played only a minor role in the story until the very end, when Pullman suddenly tossed some deep metaphysical and theological concepts at the reader (including quoting a well-known passage from the Book of Genesis, which seemed out of place). The Church would have been a much more sinister villain if Pullman had portrayed its oppression from the beginning of the story, or had Lyra or other characters believe in Church teachings only to have their faith sorely tested.

That said, however, I did enjoy the book, although I don't see it as the next Lord of the Rings. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. My grade: A-

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