I first heard of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in junior high, when my friend Chris (who, for the record, is a committed Christian and theology buff) recommended them to me. I wasn’t the voracious reader then that I am now, and never followed up on that recommendation. Now, however, with the first cinematic episode of the trilogy hitting theatres (meekly) at Christmas, and a friend loaning the trilogy to me, I decided I’d read it just to see what all the goddamn fuss is about. Mind you, every time Bill Donohue opens his mouth, a kitten dies, and I am immediately suspicious of anything he says. So far, I seem to be right. Read on.
The Golden Compass takes place in another dimension from ours. We don’t necessarily realise it at first (though clearly the depicted world is not—quite—our own). We are introduced to Lyra, a “half-wild” eleven-year-old girl who serves as the unlikely protagonist for the books. I won’t give away too many details about the plot itself, though I’d like to talk a bit about context.
Lyra’s world is a technologically-mixed one. Cars and planes don’t appear to exist, though nuclear science (“atomcraft”) does; zeppelins and boats are a common means of transportation. The era seems modern, but somehow oblique and mystical: there is apparent knowledge of subatomic particles, and yet also of magic and other somewhat arcane pursuits. “Steampunk” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.
One more important facet of Lyra’s world is that the Reformation never happened (I think), and the Catholic Church continued to grow, unchecked, until finally the papacy was dissolved after the death of Pope John Calvin (!) and the Church became the Magisterium, a complex bureaucracy of infighting departments. It’s essentially a Protestant doomsday scenario, where the Church has absolute power over just about everything, and exercises it inimically—e.g. there’s talk of resurrecting the Inquisition.
This is the extent of the religion-bashing in the first book of the trilogy. I accept the the following books may have more, but so far I’m skeptical of the hysteria. Nor am I surprised that there was no such hysteria when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out: “Kids are going to see it and read the books, and become Christian! Oh no!” I think the real problem that people like Bill Donohue have is that they don’t like people thinking for themselves.
Besides, for all that, The Golden Compass was a pretty good fantasy novel. Most unique, I think, was his concept that in Lyra’s world, the soul is harbored outside of the body, in the shape of an animal (think like a Patronus from the Harry Potter series). This, like his other world-building, is excellent, if perhaps a bit far-reaching for a young adult audience.
Stay tuned for the next two books.