You can say a lot of things about Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass. One thing you can’t say is that it’s subtlely evil or devilishly crafty. It isn’t. It’s unsubtle and heavy-handed. It isn’t smoothly written. The characters are ill-formed, oddly-motivated, and not realized. The geography is all higgledy-piggledy and the history jumbled.
When I went to Wikipedia to read up a bit on the author, I found that the story takes place in a parallel universe. This was news to me, and I’d just finished reading the whole book! Maybe you need the Cliff Notes to make sense of this one, but I didn’t get the parallel Earth thing at all. I thought it was a Historical What-If sort of book with exo-souls thrown in for fun.
So, here goes: in some Parallel Universe where there are cowboy blimp operators from the Country of Texas, a foundling child—Lyra—grows up at Jordan College, Oxford University. Her parents were lovers about five hundred years after Pope John Calvin’s failed reign ended in the abolition of the papacy.
This places the story about present day plus fifty years or so, but nothing is clear about the time. The Papacy is abolished, but the Church is in high gear, complete with monks, nuns, magisteria, and Bibles. Genesis is intact, though the wording in chapter 3 is fuddled. There are gas engines, telephones, and fire drills, but also abandoned children brought up by scullery maids. Witches fly around on pine boughs, but everyone is conversant in physics.
Original sin is a sort of drizzly atomic dust that coats everyone, but not kids. You have to be above the age of accountability in order for it to stick to you, odd if you understand anything about the historical teaching on Original Sin. Original kinda sorta means inborn and already attached, not something that floats around until you start your period and then sticks to you and causes you to lust.
Well, each person has a daemon, a shape-shifting shoulder-pal that acts as a personal higher-level-thinker and can’t be too far away or you start to shake and get all fearful. If you are ever cut off from your daemon, both of you will die, you first.
Lyra’s daemon is named Pantalaimon, Pan for short. Of course. Each person’s daemon is of the opposite gender from the person, so Pan is a boy daemon. Why this is important is not told, but he is always clinging to her breast. The word breast is used far too many times in this book, but it’s from England, and maybe over there authors of kiddie lit haven’t glommed onto the reality that this particular word is a no-no in books for children, and if you ask me, in hymns—can I get an amen? (Large congregation is loudly singing, “LEANING ON HIS LOVING BREAST…OH TO LIE FOREVER THERE!” and I cannot be the only person thinking, could we get an editor in here? )
Lyra, it turns out, is important. Only she can get to Lord Asriel in time, and it will only all work out in the end if she doesn’t know she’s supposed to get there in time, but does anyway. Well she does and she doesn’t know about it, but we’re not clued in on why she shouldn’t know. Witches seem to know that she must do this, but in the end, when she unwittingly brings a sacrificial boy for Lord Asriel’s dark purposes, the witches aren’t involved, benefitted, or notified. Maybe it’s clearer in the sequel, but I won’t be finding out.
Tediously, the whole book is a slow plod on a linear track. There isn’t any subplot, any internal struggle separate from the main line, any break in the point of view to help us out. There are strange “tellings,” as if “show don’t tell” isn’t taught where this author picked up writing. Things pop up out of nowhere and then disappear. I can’t describe this particular bad writing any clearer than to say (in the immortal words of Justice Stewart), “I know it when I see it.”
Of course, to be fair to Mr. Pullman, our spirits don’t mesh. I am a Christian, and he is not a Christian. The church he mocks is not my church (I am not Roman Catholic), and I abominate unregenerate hierarchical excess as much as he apparently does, but his heavy-handed hammering on religion in general is tough to swallow. He only describes, and does not show any actual religion with the horrifying exception of Mrs. Coulter’s soul-excisions, hideously accomplished by way of guillotine. Why she does this is unclear, but distinctly identified as “theological.”
Worse is the Adult Explanation at the end. Good children’s literature has the answer unfolding throughout, with the child discovering the meaning of life (or whatever) by herself at the end simply by the opening-up of the onion layer by layer until the middle is reached. (Sorry to mess up the beauty by using an onion, but I’ve been low-carbing for a while now and my food metaphors are limited.)
For example, in Little Princess, bit by bit we learn her entire history and then at the end, the whole joyful opening of the story-essence, that is, the meaning of her life, is unveiled. In Horse and His Boy, we begin in a hovel and end in a palace, but it’s bit by bit, layer by layer. King Lune’s explanation at the end is more of a tying-together of what we’ve already hoped for than it is a didactic lecture as in Golden Compass.
Compass is theological goulash mixed with poison, as if the author wanted to throw in anything he could think of before making it completely, indigestibly awful. Don’t worry—your theologically-trained young person won’t be tempted to eat it. Mine wouldn’t even try—that’s because the beginning is so slow, you have to force yourself to read on.
This is Harry Potter’s fault. Harry is so delightful from page one of Sorceror’s Stone that unless someone makes you smile in the first—or at the very latest, the second—paragraph of any fiction from now on, you’re not going to get on board for the ride. JK Rowling is a genius at mixing deft story-telling with humor, darkness, suspense, angst, pathos, and so forth, all while flinging around such deliciousness as Whomping Willows, butter beer, quidditch world cups, Olivander’s Wand Shop, flying cars, and ill-fitting hand-me-down dress robes. It’s fun. It’s captivating.
Compass, on the other hand, alerted me from fairly early on that this was going to be something I had to slog through because I’d promised a friend I would. And let me tell you, if she hadn’t been such a dear friend, I might have given up.
Yes, there are Armored Bears (the King Bear wants a daemon so he can be baptized as a Christian, and this desire for full-blown humanity causes his ruin), truth-telling sextants, and lost children, so it sounds fairly interesting. The evil woman’s name is Mrs. Coulter. She’s tall, thin, and blond. She wants your soul. (No first name given—down, boy!) Am I the only person who thinks that’s weird? Seriously, High Brazil? Maybe the hard-copy book has maps and charts: the Kindle edition doesn’t, so I was knocked for a loop every time the story ran smack into the King of Lapland (mentioned, never met, not part of the plot), anbaric this and anbaric that (I have no idea), gyptians (Gypsies, not Egyptians), various Colleges at Oxford that aren’t really there, and on and on.
Pope John Calvin as the end of the papacy is just mean. No explanation is given, not even a convenient Servetus rising up from the dead to point a ghastly ghostly accusatory finger. On the other hand, I wonder what Calvin would have done had someone said, “If you do this gig, there will never be another Pope.” Now that’s the sort of free-will/predestination conversation I want to get into!
The Texan is like a regular Texan, and the Country of Texas is no big stretch—I’m sure all Texans pretty much think that way—he’s polite to witches and wants to be paid for his work. I did have a cool connection with Mr. Texas (I forget his name). He sends his gold to Wells Fargo Bank! I send my gold there too! Of course my gold is only direct deposit, but still!
The bad guys, headed up by Mrs. Coulter (who turns out to be Lyra’s mother, but don’t worry, it doesn’t matter) wants to perform intercision on unsuspecting children who haven’t reached the age of accountability. Intercision is a separation of the child from his exo-soul, his daemon. This causes agony and death, but releases massive, shattering amounts of energy, which, if harnessed, can make a bridge from one universe to another. She doesn’t know this, but her ex-lover, Lord Asriel (Lyra’s father), does.
He knows that if you can get to the other universe, you can find the source of Original Sin Dust and obliterate it. But Lyra suddenly realizes that if the bad guys want to obliterate the Original Sin Dust, it probably isn’t bad after all—OSD must be good.
This is how the book ends, with Lyra’s suddenly-reunited parents locked in a passionate kiss (and their respective daemons going nuts together beside them) and disappearing to unknown universes for who knows why.
It’s possible that I didn’t enjoy the story because of its heavy anti-religious atmosphere, the corporate Bad Guy identified as The Church. Of course, Pullman isn’t talking about my church, the Body of Christ. He was talking about the Roman Catholic Church in its worst manifestations and then castigating it. Sort of like the Adjustment Bureau (see my movie review) where a inane mockery of God is set up as God and then ridiculed as a myth.
Pullman sets up a palpably evil Church, complete with Inquisitions. Lyra never goes to Church. No priests appear. No doctrine is explained except that children are innocent until puberty and then they’re corrupted. Again, it’s a mishmash and no one will be fooled into thinking this is a careful expose of the ways in which the Church wants to steal your soul. It’s not finessed enough, or at all, actually.
This book did, however, make me want to write some magnificent Christian fiction, but the feeling passed. “Magnificent writing” and me have never gone hand in hand. But, if I ever do write anything that’s even the tiniest bit allegorical, the motivation for it will date from today—March 10, 2011, on which I finished reading a truly bad book, Golden Compass.