28 January, 2008

The Golden Compass review

I've been asked to renew my series (called "margin smudges" in our parish newsletter) in which I review and comment on books I'm reading, and specifically to start with Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. At the time of the request, I had neither seen the recently-released movie nor, more importantly, read the book on which it's based. Having now done so (thanks to a loaner copy from Betsy Rupe to get me started), I can with a little more integrity add my two cents to the reviews that have already been published.

The Golden Compass is the first of a three-volume work entitled His Dark Materials, and as such is only the opening to a longer story. It is remarkably well written and makes an enjoyable read. The characters are believable and real, and Pullman has great storytelling skill. The movie is also well done, and actually does the first novel some justice. The acting is superb, the CGI and special effects are seamless, and other than what I thought were a few poor casting decisions (Sir Ian McKellen as Iorek? Really?), it's a thoroughly enjoyable film.

As you've probably heard already, though, it's not the first book of the trilogy that's the problem; it's books two and three. Philip Pullman is an avowed atheist, and, as he told The Sydney Morning Herald point-blank in an interview, "My books are about killing God.” At the end of book three, his protagonists do just that (sort of).

The god that gets killed in Pullman's novel, though, bears almost no resemblance to the Living God we worship and serve. It's more the medieval concept of an old man with a long beard living in the sky who is out of touch with the world. He's described with weak limbs and rheumy eyes, a rather pathetic and almost pitiable figure.

Pullman's real target isn't God, exactly, but rather "the church." The overarching point he makes is that the church wants to control behavior, and thus robs humanity of our freedom and robs life of all beauty. Pullman is particularly savage in his criticism of the church's desire to control human sexuality. The exercise of sexual expression, for Pullman and his characters, is something to be celebrated, a way to grow and mature, to expand human consciousness. Thus puberty is the beginning of self-knowledge and intellectual curiosity. To quote Hanna Rosen's review in Atlantic Monthly, "To [Pullman], the loss of sexual innocence is not a tragedy; it’s the springboard to a productive and virtuous adulthood."

While many Christian writers have condemned the books and the movie, it may be surprising to note that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury (and a formidable theologian), is an admirer of Pullman’s and a supporter of his books. Williams even spoke in favor of using the books as a text for religious education in England, for he contends that Pullman's negative portrayal of the church amounts to an attack on dogmatism and the oppressive abuse of religion, not on Christianity itself. (It’s interesting to note that the person and teaching of Jesus are not a part of Pullman’s construct called “The Authority.”)

It’s unfortunately true that there’s been plenty of oppression in the history of the church, and plenty of attempts to control human behavior, even going so far as abuse and violence, so Pullman’s argument finds an easy mark.

Where the rubber meets the road on this kind of review is: will I take my son to see the movie, and will I read the book to him (or let him read it himself)? And a close corollary is: do I think the children of the parish should read it?

My answer is entirely dependent on the maturity of the child. I’m all for engaging children with deep and meaningful questions about life, spirituality, and morality. But the main point of the book requires a certain level of maturity to grasp. Any child able to read with comprehension will understand that the books are firmly against “God” and “The Church.” I’d want to wait until the reader has sufficient maturity to be able to question how Pullman’s world and ours differ before tackling these stories.

To pre-pubescent children, much of the subtext about sexual expression may also be missed, which may be an argument for letting them read the books early, depending on how you look at it. The whole "heroine loses her virginity and thereby saves the whole multi-world universe from impending doom" ending seemed... pointedly overdone, and fairly ridiculous. I saw it coming from at least three hundred pages away and kinda hoped that particular train wreck wasn't going to happen. Alas.

I will, eventually, encourage my boys to read these books. But I’ll wait until I think they’re ready, and until I judge that I can engage them in the important conversations that the book begins.