Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Anti-religious themes in The Golden Compass

(Note: no spoiler alert yet)

On December 7, The Golden Compass movie is coming out. The atheist blogosphere has seriously been abuzz about this for months. Why? Because The Golden Compass, first in the trilogy called His Dark Materials, is *gasp* anti-Christian! Or so the many boycotting groups say. See, the author, Philip Pullman is *gasp* an atheist, and hates Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia, and probably babies too. Never mind that the movie will dilute all such themes into nothingness--it will end up boosting book sales! I could probably insert an analogy to homeopathy in there.

These worries do have some foundation. Take a look at some of these Philip Pullman quotes.
So I'm caught between the words 'atheistic' and 'agnostic'. I've got no evidence whatever for believing in a God. But I know that all the things I do know are very small compared with the things that I don't know. So maybe there is a God out there. All I know is that if there is, he hasn't shown himself on earth.
When you look at organized religion of whatever sort – whether it's Christianity in all its variants, or whether it's Islam or some forms of extreme Hinduism – wherever you see organized religion and priesthoods and power, you see cruelty and tyranny and repression. It's almost a universal law.
I didn't read the whole of Narnia as a boy: I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and felt slightly queasy, as if I were being pressured to agree to something I wasn't sure of.
Narnia has always seemed to me to be marked by a hatred of the physical world.
What I say to people who criticize me for attacking their religion... is simply this: what qualities in human beings does the story celebrate and what qualities does it condemn? And an honest reading of the story would have to admit that the qualities that the stories celebrates and praises are those of love, kindness, tolerance, courage, open-heartedness, and the qualities that the stories condemns are: cruelty, intolerance, zealotry, fanaticism... well, who could quarrel with that?
I don't know anything about the movie, but I do know about the books. As it happens, I read the entire trilogy just last year. I highly recommend the first book, The Golden Compass. It has a tremendous amount of depth, a terrific plot, and makes for great reading even for adults. The other two books, I didn't like as much, since they sacrificed plot quality for stronger themes, but they're still good too.

Let's dive into the details of what might be considered anti-religious about the first book. If you don't want to read spoilers, the conclusion is that the major theme is not so much anti-religious as it is anti-dogmatic. Also, this is just one of many themes, most of which do not directly touch on religion.

Spoiler Alert for The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass occurs in a parallel world. In this world, theology and science are one and the same. The main political power is the Church (also called the Magisterium), which is actually composed of a bunch of rivaling groups. The Church is portrayed as a sort of corrupt organization that tends to suppress "heretical" research. The message here isn't so much anti-religious as it is anti-dogma. After all, in this world, theology plays the role of science, providing technology for the world. It's not that theology is wrong, it's that their rigid beliefs become a barrier to progress.

But I don't think the characterization of the Church is the real meat of what's anti-religious in this book. The biggest theme in this book is all about growing up. Pullman is using this as a rebuttal to Chronicles of Narnia, which in his mind, seems to glorify children and demonize growing up. In particular, Pullman was unhappy about a certain part of Narnia in which one of the characters became "too keen on being grown up" (she was interested in lipstick, boys, etc), and essentially lost salvation. Also, at the end, the children died, as if C. S. Lewis wanted them to forever stay innocent rather than have them grow up to do good in the world as adults. Pullman thought this was just terrible, as if C. S. Lewis hated the physical world (see quote above).

In the world of The Golden Compass, there is a precise moment when children suddenly become grownups--when their daemons (souls, in the form of talking animals) can no longer shapeshift, and settle on a single animal form. To Lyra, the protagonist, this seems scary at first, since she likes her daemon to be able to shapeshift. But it turns out that growing up is a good thing.

When they grow up, a kind of particle called "Dust" gravitates towards them. Dust is basically (spoiler alert!) original sin, or at least the Church thinks so. In their version of Adam and Eve, the daemons of Adam and Eve stopped changing shape after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge. The Church mostly tries to suppress all knowledge of Dust. However, one part of the Church, headed by the charismatic and deceptive Mrs. Coulter, tries to actually do something about Dust. She kidnaps children, and brings them to a facility where they are severed from their daemons (which is like severing their souls). If the children even survive, they do indeed lose Dust, but also develop a mindless, apathetic quality.

Pullman clearly considers original sin a good thing. It is the knowledge of good and evil. It confers a higher level of consciousness, a freedom of choice, and a feeling of love. It's what allows armored polar bears to talk, think, and be all-around awesome. But again, this theme is more anti-dogma than it is anti-religion. Pullman's complaint about religion is that in its misguided quest for purity, it tends to reject knowledge, freedom, and love.

It seems strange to me that so many people have a problem with this. Are they pro-dogma? They're overreacting. You don't see me complaining about the whole thing with the souls.

I'd also like to mention that there are a ton of other themes that aren't anti-religious in this book. The story has a picaresque structure, in which Lyra travels place to place, learning new things at every step. Also, practically every detail in the world is used as a metaphor of some sort; daemons are but one example. For more details, you'll have to read the book. (Reading spoilers before reading the book? tsk tsk...)

I wrote more, but it went on too long. See Anti-religious themes in His Dark Materials (there will be more spoilers).


Anonymous said...

I think that your posts on "His Dark Materials" are excellent book reviews. I would never read the books because I dislike fantasy, but I am sufficiently intrigued to invest a couple of hours in the movie.

miller said...

I hear that the movie will be thoroughly bowdlerized and will instead prominently feature polar bears. I don't know whether that's good or not.

Speaking of fantasy, there were a few quotes in the page I linked in which Pullman says His Dark Materials is not fantasy, but "stark realism". He seems to dislike fantasy like you do. I've heard J. K. Rowling also express similar dislike for fantasy. citation

It's interesting to think about what subtexts people have associated with the fantasy genre.

Kyle said...

I disagree with you partially. The thing is, I don't think he agrees Original Sin is a good thing. Perhaps it's because of my 16 year long stint as a Catholic that makes me say this.

I think original sin, no matter if it's dogmatic or not, is horrendous and I think Pullman does too.

I haven't put my finger on what exactly the Dust is (I'm only through book 1, so let me know if I missed something in there.). However, the "soul" or "daemon" is easily translated as "free thought". At least, that's how I looked at it. They Magisterium (Church) cuts a child's "free thought" because otherwise they grow up and acquire Dust. (Which right now, for me, is "truth" - truth in any way shape and form).

Let me know what you think about that.

miller said...

Well, two facts are indisputable. Dust is good, and the Church thinks Dust is Original Sin. Whether Dust in fact is Original Sin is moot. Dust continues to be important in later books, so you'll get a better idea of what it might be.

If you asked me, Dust is not Original Sin. I think that in the world of The Golden Compass, "Original Sin" is a myth that is wrongly used against Dust. I have my own ideas as to what Dust might be (and it's more than just truth).