A long time ago a Christian friend recommended a book to me. That is not unusual, as virtually all my friends are Christians and bookworms. The unusual part is that this book was The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, known as Northern Lights to European audiences.
Pullman is an outspoken atheist, and the His Dark Materials trilogy, of which this was the first part, is his anti-Narnia. And I loved it. I absolutely devoured it, right up until the last chapters of the last book, where I did a double-take, and decided to set aside the series once I had finished it. Despite its growing popularity and a feature film, I did not touch it again for years. Until this winter.
Now, I should explain that I have a very strong sense of loyalty and something of a contrarian streak. Though I got a little excited when the trailers came out, I pretty much boycotted the movie, and never recommended the book to anyone. If the author was going to oppose everything I believed in, I was not going to support him in any way.
Meanwhile, I was reading books by ancient Greeks, pagan Romans, and heathen Norsemen. I have always been of the opinion that Christians can learn from even the most virulently anti-Christian writers, if one has thick skin and a keen eye. “Gold from Egyptians,” and all that.
Now, I could pretend it was that philosophy that caught up with me, but it was mostly just an excuse. The truth is I loved those books. The world they painted captured my imagination and the moment I had finished the first part, I started spinning off all sorts of stories inspired by it. And after all these years, I am curious as to what it was that so enthralled me, when the agenda (I have come to realize) was so incredibly blatant.
So, I started reading them again. And here is my take on book one.
Daemons, Denmark, and Deadly Bears
Philip Pullman is absolutely brilliant at crafting worlds. His alternate earth is huge, filled with all sorts of cultures and countries, men and organizations with competing agendas, and some people so strange as to baffle all the rest of the crazy carnival. He can paint pictures of scholarly universities, high society cocktail parties, villages on the edge of the world, the icy wilderness, gypsy boat-houses, and the splendor of a bear’s kingdom. Details are plentiful, but never tedious, and can leave a childish heart captivated.
For one thing, there’s daemons. Daemons are not evil spirits, but a human soul on the outside of the human being. They come in the form of animals, lifelong companions to their human counterparts that visibly embody many of their feelings and charactr traits. Each pair is separate enough from one another to hold a conversation, but so tightly bound that too much distance between them can cause physical pain.
Can you imagine that? I mean, that’s cool. Like the world’s awesomest pet mixed with a furry little sibling. Who wouldn’t want one? And in Pullman’s world, you’re not human unless you have a daemon.
Then there’s all this slightly off terminology. It took me forever to figure out that “anbaric” meant “electrical” and “tokay” was a type of wine. “Aeronauts” could fly balloons or zeppelins. “Philosophical” things have to do with physics and “experimental theologians” are physicists. “Atomcraft” is pretty much what it sounds like. This may sound confusing out of context, but in the book it all makes perfect sense and is accepted as a matter of course.
Another cool thing: his geography, and the politics that spins off it. The Tartars (of Golden Horde fame) are still a very big deal, threatening the peace of all Europe and Asia–particularly Muscovy and Cathay. And Russia, which is not Muscovy. America is New Denmark, and the native Americans are Skraelings, a name taken right out of old Vinland folklore. Gyptians are gypsies that live in boats, and Lapland is still very much a thing. The Vatican has moved to Geneva, and the Svalbard archipelago belongs to a kingdom of sentient polar bears.
Speaking of sentient polar bears, there are sentient polar bears. They are massive beings that can bend metal with their bear paws or engage you in polite, though intimidating, conversation. They have no daemons. Instead, their armor (yeah, armor) is their soul. And this is thick stuff made from “sky iron” and forged in geothermal “fire-mines.” They have a king and an honor code and a giant island where human exiles are sent to have the living daylights scared out of them. Awesome.
But, there is an agenda. Pullman’s portrait of the Church is very interesting. John Calvin, the last pope, moved the Vatican to Geneva, where a dizzying series of committees and councils known as “the Magisterium” has taken over running pretty much everything. A Presbyterian nightmare. The Magisterium is pretty much all-powerful, running science, the Inquisition, and great deal of politics.
Honestly, though, the Church is not as horribly painted as you might expect. For one thing, it’s just a giant series of commitees. Easily mocked, perhaps, but hard to put a face on as the embodiment of evil. Mostly Pullman just paints the Magisterium as complicated, paranoid, slightly reactionary, and easily confused. And very, very distant. It has its hands in everything, but a clear representative is hard to find. Kind of like the US governmant.
Coming of Age
While this is a major theme, I don’t think much ought to be said until the sequels are taken into account. Suffice it to say that puberty is a big deal to Philip Pullman, and not just because it involves hormones ‘n stuff. It connects to reason, curiosity, original sin, self-reliance, and why the Church is evil. Also, to major plot points. So we’ll come back to that.
Ordinarily it’s not worth dwelling on a character’s petty sins, but this really stands out. Lyra lies very often, and often with little provocation. So does everyone else, and it’s just accepted without the least bit of justification. I mean, sure, any individual instance may not be a big deal, but the frequency just seems pathological. Nobody trusts anyone in this world. That, I think, fits very well with some overarching ideas in the trilogy, and we’ll come back to it in later posts.
A Fascination with Power
Pullman seems to have a heightened awareness of power, and a fascination with it. Several characters are admired for their commanding presence, the sense of danger that emanates from them, and their sheer superiority over other human beings. Power is not just ability to get things done, it’s a positive virtue. And an immensely attractive one at that. Again, this connects with an overarching sort of worldview Pullman has–and this is a very worldviewy trilogy. It will, I think, be important when all is said and done.
Book one, fun as heck. Awesome world, interesting plot. Characters are fun, if a bit flat. Good enough I checked out the second book.
PS– In a battle at the end of the book, Pullman decides to use epic similies. Seriously.