I’m using today’s post to reflect upon Philip Pullman’s thoughts about religion in The Golden Compass, which I’m currently teaching in my British Fantasy class. The book has stirred up religious controversy and we heard a direct report from one of my students, who informed us that her Catholic priest had advised parents to keep the book away from their children.
In Golden Compass, Lyra is an orphan growing up in a fantasy version of Reformation-era Oxford. Everyone in this world has an animal companion, called a daemon, that functions as a spirit guide. Lyra’s quest, at its core, is to grow up. Her “journey of the hero” is a coming-of-age story.
The maturation theme is complicated by society’s anxieties about sin. Sin takes the physical form of the astral dust that is pouring into the world through the thin atmosphere over the North Pole. While it leaves children alone, it becomes attracted to them when they enter puberty. Adults are entirely coated with it, which causes a great deal of consternation amongst the church authorities.
One other detail is important here. People’s animal guides can change forms before their humans become adults but then solidify into a single animal. We may have several possible selves in our childhood but eventually we grow into a fixed identity. The church authorities therefore see the daemons as sin attractors.
The church, we learn, is Calvinist. The Reformation appears to have been so successful that it has taken over the Catholic Church, with John Calvin becoming pope and moving the Vatican to Geneva. This is thematically important because of Calvinism’s intense focus on sin (think of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon). The church, as Pullman sees it, benefits from sin because it controls the process of repentance and penitence.
While the church may set itself up as the means by which people negotiate sin, however, other characters in the novel want to take more radical measures. One of these is designed to keep the children from growing up.
This is the aim of Mrs. Coulter, who (so Lyra eventually discovers) is her mother. Mrs. Coulter slices daemons from the children, a horrific act that she compares to castrating young boys to preserve their youthful voices. One of Lyra’s tasks is to free the children who have been kidnapped and are about to be sliced.
Seen as a family drama, Mrs. Coulter is an overly controlling mother who wants her daughter to remain forever innocent. If Lyra is to step into her own powers, she must rebel.
Meanwhile Lord Asrael, a man who (so Lyra eventually discovers) is her father, follows a different route: He wants to go to the source of sin and eradicate it, thereby returning Earth to a Garden of Eden state. To that end, he goes to the North Pole where the dust is streaming in and where, in the aurora borealis, one can see another world in the sky. He builds a bridge to that world and crosses it, apparently prepared to go to war with God himself. Much of Pullman’s imagery is drawn from Paradise Lost, with Asrael functioning as a Satan figure. (More on this shortly.)
Seen as a family drama, Asrael is the father who wants to create a safe sin-free world in which his child can grow up. Some home schooling parents have a version of this fantasy.
Lyra will not be able to grow up if either of her parents prevail and so has to battle against them. Indeed, her animal guide suggests to her that, if the adults think dust/sin is bad, maybe that means that it is in fact good. You can see why certain religious teachers would be convinced that Pullman is on the side of sin. The fact that Lyra engages in adolescent sex in a later novel probably confirms their views.
Pullman would argue, however, that the church wants to control people, not help them grow up. Yes, we may use our free will in pursuit of sinful acts. But we can also use it to become fully self-actualized adults. In Pullman’s mind, the church is trying to keep us in a child-like state. Indeed, the church in his book doesn’t only target children. It also splits certain adults off from their daemons, turning them into soulless, unthinking functionaries.
I turn now to Paradise Lost to set up my discussion of The Golden Compass’s conclusion. Somewhat awkwardly, Pullman titles his trilogy His Dark Materials, an allusion to the moment when Satan is about to launch himself from Hell into Chaos and Night and make his way to Earth. Satan’s plan is to corrupt God’s new creation. The passage holds out the possibility that God, having created Earth from the void, may also have created other worlds out of these “dark materials”:
Into this wild Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wild Abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and looked a while,
Pondering his Voyage
Along with images of chaos, Pullman gets his idea of a celestial bridge from Milton as well. Here’s the bridge that Sin and Death construct from Hell to Earth after Satan has seduced Adam and Eve:
Deep to the Roots of Hell the gather’d beach
They fastened, and the Mole immense wrought on
Over the foaming deep high Arch, a Bridge
Of length prodigious joining to the Wall
Immovable of this now fenceless world
Forfeit to Death; from hence a passage broad,
Smooth, easy, inoffensive down to Hell.
In Golden Compass Asrael uses the energy from slicing Roger, Lyra’s closest boyhood friend, to build a “bridge to the stars.” He is replaying Satan as he crosses the abyss to a new world. The sacrifice of Roger is unutterably sad, a symbol of the end of Lyra’s childhood. Asrael has betrayed his daughter and through this betrayal she realizes that she was wrong to look to him for protection. Now she must assume responsibility for her own future as she crosses the threshold into adolescence and adulthood.
Thus we get the bridge from another vantage point: it is not a journey to stop dust but a journey to grow up. As Lyra puts it, “If Dust were a good thing…If it were to be sought and welcomed and cherished…”
Lyra follows the path of Adam and Eve as they leave the Garden of Eden. She leaves behind her (dead) child self and moves forward:
So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.
Or as Milton memorably puts it to conclude his epic:
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
Although Pullman’s use of Paradise Lost is clever and his images stay in the mind. I find it somewhat problematic how he characterizes Christianity. While there certainly are churches that try to keep their young people in perpetual innocence—no sex until marriage, for instance—there are others (including my own) that encourage young people to question and explore. Not all Christian denominations are obsessed with sin to the exclusion of all else. Not all churches want you to check your mind at the door.
Because of that, Pullman’s fascination with dust doesn’t seem all that vital to me and fails to engage. I don’t find Asrael’s battles with angels in Book III compelling but rather bizarre. His Dark Materials lacks the powerful storylines of Tolkien and Lewis.
The coming-of age-story, on the other hand, has my full attention. In my opinion, it saves the trilogy.
In other words, don’t look to Pullman for spiritual advice. But as a story about a young girl stepping into her powers, it works.