Dark Materials book review (in honor of Golden Compass movie)

Dark Materials book review (in honor of Golden Compass movie)

The Golden Compass topped the box office the weekend it came out, but had lower than expected revenue. I personally expected a lot more controversy.  Before I knew the movie was coming out I had started reading the books based on the recommendation of a friend.  The Golden Compass was the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. The second book is the Subtle Knife and the last is The Amber Spyglass. I just recently finished them all.

I almost don’t know where to start as it’s like trying to sum up the Lord of the Rings.  I didn’t know much about Pullman or his atheistic leanings before I started, so I kind of came blind into the controversy surround the author.  That was actually nice because it helped me stay more objective (I hope).

Non-spoiler summary:

Overall, I’d give the books a C+/B-. For one, I just wasn’t drawn into the characters like I did with other kids-level books such as Bridge to Terabithia, Charlie and the Chocolate factory, or the Harry Potter series.  The biggest turn-off was that I found myself disliking Lyra.  She spends a good deal of the book lying about things, yet she is continually rescued from the problems her lies cause by the other characters.  He goes so far as even rewarding and praising this behavior.

I loved the armored bears but not so much how they were treated in the book. Overall, I felt mixed about a lot of it – mostly because its mixed messages about Lyra’s behavior. Would I recommend it? I wouldn’t recommend them to kids honestly, but it is a fast read. Probably the fastest trilogy I’ve ever read. But by the last third of the last book, I was just ready to get done and move on to some other reading (namely a dual-language version of Beowulf with great commentary). I found that it did leave me with a few ideas to ponder for later; but mostly about the message he was trying to get across. Which is in the spoiler section below.


First off, Lyra.  She’s a strong-willed girl who is prone to a good bit of mischief. This isn’t bad itself as I grew up around my grandfathers farm and probably did even worse at times.  There is, however, a recurrent theme of her lying about things to manipulate others and must be rescued by her friends.  Yet these friends always seem more than willing to sacrifice themselves for her lies without bothering to question the young girl’s behavior or have a good sit-down and ask her if she might want to re-think some of her behavior. Probably the most egregious example is when she lies to the king of the bears (saying she is Iorek’s daemon and promising to become his daemon if he fights Iorek).  She does this under the auspices of saving Iorek Byrinson, the armored bear who is coming to rescue her.  Lyra then apologizes to Iorek for the lying and he then calls her ‘silvertongue’ for this.

This reference caught my eye because Saint Anthony was known as the ‘silver’ tongue of truth – and his tongue is actually in-corrupt and publicly visible to this day. This is a key word for at least the Catholic community for those that speak the truth and are later vindicated. Now, Pullman clearly wants to paint Lyra as his protagonist in speaking truth against the magisterium. This is fine, but in this case Lyra is in one of the most exuberant bits of lying and manipulating the bear king. In St Anthony’s case it is the opposite behavior.  He spoke the truth even when others didn’t wish to hear it.  Yet Lyra is clearly lying but gets vindicated because the end is good.  While this king was certainly a bad fellow (poisoning the previous king, exiling Iorek, and is a general scoundrel), promoting the use of deception, lying, and manipulation of folks to get your way so long as the ends are ‘good’ certainly isn’t the best or highest ideals of truth I’d like to see kids imitate.  This is something that bothered me greatly and it happens several times in the book.  Flawed characters aren’t a problem, it’s just that when tearing down another system’s moral/ideological systems I would hope one should at least posit a heroine to be imitated or admired.  Maybe our author was implying these values aren’t important.  But even then, as a kids book I think it is a subtle distinction that young adults would need guidance to understand.

The second aspect of the book I had a hard time swallowing is how readily able and willing people are to just lay down their life for Lyra after having just met her and do not question Lyra’s behavior.  I don’t know about you, but grown men and women usually don’t usually go around following a young girl into death without so much as batting an eye to her lying and manipulation.

The biggest theme I had difficulty with was the core themes at the end.  Pullman seems to be indicating consciousness and life really comes from a cosmic ‘dust’ that is flowing around and used by our minds. God (the authority) is just a being that exists in a parallel world (one of many) and got the title of God most likely by our misdirected interpretations.  His power was mostly transferred to a lesser ‘angel’ as he got old. This angel got overly ambitious and both die in the end. There’s lots of symbolism in how he handles these themes. The mountain of God in the battle is heavily wreathed in smoke and grandeur but hides a largely inept and feeble old guy who wasn’t really God. This is basically the same pulling-back-of-the-curtain on the real wizard behind the great and powerful Oz.  I felt it was all contrived and rushed in the last book.  I mean, why would beings of another world really care about the souls of folks in another world and go so far as to imprison them for … well apparently no purpose other than to lock them up after they die.  There is just bits like this that left me scratching my head.

I also found it interesting how Pullman resolutely works within the Catholic doctrinal world by using the terminology of faith – but to give them other interpretations.  While interesting, it doesn’t actually work very well if you are well versed in the actual subject matter.  My take is that he thinks the church has some of the ideas right but got the theory wrong and he is there to set it straight.  If I had one real criticism of this whole approach it is this:  the Catholic Church doesn’t think this way.  Instead, it’s the same, tired old rehashing of a medieval, Hollywood-ized perception of Catholic teaching as oppressive and backwards.

In the end, I felt it left things a little empty/weird and simply left a lot of unexplained details.  Dust (aka the power/energy of the universe that allows the use of reason) was interpreted as sin by Lyra’s magisterium.  This implies that original thought was to be discouraged and blind obedience honored.  There’s a soul-like element in us that turns back into dust to spread around the universe again and find form in order again.  I was confused by this.  So why were the daemons so important?  We had people in the land of the dead without their daemons and bodies but were still ‘themselves’.  Yet that was the part that turned back into dust – so what were the daemons about?  How does the body/’soul without a daemon’/daemon/dust equation work out?  Dust is apparently drawn to the creative/order-giving(enthalpy)/inventors and helps them do the work of thinking and creating. Dust also seems to have a sort of consciousness of its own (like the idea from Greek philosophy that we all come from and return to the same world-fire).  We can travel between parallel worlds (e.g.  recent theories of constantly forking universes to explain quantum mechanical properties) via the subtle knife which can cut between the universes – but they won’t do that anymore because it leaks dust but to where exactly isn’t clear.

Overall, I felt left with a lot more questions than answers and that all this is a bit much for a kids book.  There are tons of philosophical, religious, and existential themes in the book; but one needs to have a lot of background on these themes to understand what he is saying.

So what do we do?  Were left with a new philosophy that says we should all think for ourselves, not accept what authority tells us (this in itself is a self-refuting argument), and have a heroin that seems to boil down to the idea that everything you do is ok as long as the results are good.  Unfortunately, history has shown again and again that the road to the gas chamber was paved with good intentions (Samuel Johnson).  Clearly we need something much more robust as that.


One final bit/rant: There’s one thing that makes me sigh that is a major theme in this book – but is hashed and re-hashed all the time. I’m not going to be very eloquent with all this as I’m just writing from the hip right now. But the idea is that faith/the Catholic Church/religion are still depicted in as requiring blind obedience and torture for questioning what is taught. As someone who has spent 5 years reading the history of the Christianity – the actual writings of its doctrine, saints, and teachings – blind obedience was even at its earliest stages was strongly discouraged. Obedience had its place for sure, but we see that word obedience with modern connotations – not the ones that they were originally written to mean (this is true of the word freedom our founding fathers used – read the Greek/classical understanding of the word freedom they intended for an eye-opening experience).  Obedience in many of these writings means a voluntary conformity of will – a critical, fully-aware turning of self to what ones hopes is a better way of life. Much like obedience to an exercise plan that might be hard and require discipline or consequence if you skip, but is desired and believed to hold great reward for the person doing it. It was also always meant to be fully voluntary and entered into with understanding of what one is undertaking. Most of the great saints talk of their questions, doubts, and working through of issues openly in their writings (which is why their such good reading). Blind obedience and harsh punishment are simply something I never experienced while living at the seminary/monastery with the monks.

This is always sticky because there ARE elements of blind following in certain people’s individual experiences and I don’t doubt there are misguided believers that staunchly discourage or even get violent if doctrines of faith are questioned. But we call that literalism/fundamentalism – which can become a problem far any religious or philosophical system.  Unfortunately, our faith is transmitted through people – and sometimes those people don’t get it right or carry agendas of their own.

I argue (the Catholic tradition and my experiences with a life of faith backs up) that one *necessarily* must question and have doubts and struggles in their faith in order to truly believe. Guys that were blindly obedient at the seminary rarely stayed very long (I don’t think I even ran into someone that fit that category like they portray in the book). I was constantly encouraged to dig up solutions to my questions and challenge things at the seminary. Something I did all the time. My best talks on the hill were with the monks and my instructors about things that I had trouble buying into.  As an example of this criticality, the Catholic Church are supporters of the idea of evolution (also coming out many times against the much more problematic doctrines of creationism and intelligent design), they embrace scientific experimentation and thought, admitted to and apologized for the mistakes of the past (yes, it was slow coming for Galileo – but come it did), spells out the rights and dignity of the human person – affirming that each person has an inaliable right to choose their faith free of coercion, and many others. I find it helpful to think of the Church as a person. She is sometimes very stubborn, sometimes very slow to say its sorry, sometimes right well before its time – but that’s not much different than most of us (since the Church is made of us after all).

Even with that cleared up, there’s another point about holding the past over peoples heads as an excuse to write it off. I don’t go around asking my scientific friends (I have a computer *science* degree myself) how the alchemy is going, or if the blood-letting has cured their cold, or phrenology led them to the murderer, or if they’ve finished calculating the square root of 2 all the way because it’s certainly a rational number. Has the Church made mistakes in the past – you bet. Has science made mistakes in the past – you bet.   Apologize when needed, yes. Make amends where possible and take responsibility and accountability best you can. But I always remind myself that even with what we have today – we’re going to probably look as equally barbaric, stupid, and prejudiced to our future generations in 500 years too.

When faith, or science, or thought reaches out for understanding – we make mistakes because its carried out by people with imperfect knowledge, or worse, their own agendas. The true goal of faith and science is truth – something we are constantly seeking and a basic need of our human nature. They should not be (and the Church would assert that they won’t be) in conflict with each other; but should inform each other. They’ll challenge each other – you bet. Things have to get re-evaluated with every discovery (like the latest quantum mechanics that has really upset the ordered classical physics we had till this century) but we don’t go back and just discount everything some said because we get things wrong and chalk them up as blathering fools that intentionally lead everyone astray (even if partly true). It has been, and will always continue to be, a process of improvement – with plenty of mistakes along the way. So let’s just chalk up the middle ages as a bad time for everyone and get on with it. I want to live in the good I can do *today* – not constantly rehashing and ribbing each other for the mistakes of the past. There’s plenty of that on both sides.

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