Friday, April 25, 2008

His Dark Materials Review

There is no doubt that I was drawn to see the film version of Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass because of the controversy surrounding it. Someone had mentioned that Christians were ticked off and some were boycotting it, so I decided to do just the opposite. This says nothing about me in regards to my respect for Christians though- I am merely drawn to controversy like a cat to a dangling string. If you know me, then you know that I have respect for Christians who are not overly preachy or judgmental, such as my mother, my brother and my aunt, a nun, who is perhaps one of the truest people I know. Enough about that, I don't need to defend myself.
Immediately after watching the film I ran to a bookstore and purchased the anthology of the trilogy. I dived into it after enjoying The Hobbit.  
What Phillip Pullman created is a universe uniquely his own and yet so connected with our own, from physical similarities to metaphoric, that he earns his place among the great writers of our time. Compass starts off as a children's tale, and not much more than that. At first Lyra is no more than a curious and audacious child, bent on conquering her playmates in war games and seeking the most parlous thrills of which she can conceive. One such caper has her stumble upon an attempted poisoning and and a discussion about a scientific phenomenon known as "Dust."  This first adventure thrusts her into the midst of an adventure that rivals Tolkein's work and crosses generational gaps as though they were but the spaces in sidewalks. 
The grounding of the story in world much like our own, save for- most obviously- the daemons, is what gives the tale its initial appeal. I was amazed at how seamlessly he weaved the daemons into the world. Daemons are, essentially, physical manifestations of one's soul, or one's true self as its form delineates in adult life. Lyra's daemon, Pantalaimon, changes shape according to her mood and to fit her objective: if she's feeling sneaky, he'll change into a moth. Of most note, however, is Pullman's ability to establish this creature as an extension of the character, thus delving into some insight one might miss, and adding a new vulnerability to each character, as the death of a daemon means the death of a person, and visa-versa. Sure, it sounds fantastic, but once a few chapters into the tale, you begin to appreciate them not as "fantastic elements" but as integral parts of each character. Other genre defining elements- such as the hundreds of years old witches, the talking armored bears and the "humans" of a third world who look like an amalgam of elephants and gazelles- blend similarly.
Pullman's fascination with parallel universe theories and dark matter form the sturdy backbone of the novels. A "subtle knife" is created and passed to Will, Lyra's partner in her quest, a boy from our own world who stumbles upon a window through which he travels into a parallel universe. The knife can cut through anything, but most importantly it cuts a window through the parallel universes allowing people to travel through if they should stumble across one. The dark matter is called "dust" in Lyra's world and dark matter in our own. It appears to have a consciousness as it gravitates toward adults and moves in an all too meditated current in one of the many known universes. Being the master storyteller he is, Pullman stretches the explanation of this matter throughout the course of the three books, divulging fragments at a time to keep the reader wanting more and constantly expounding upon its significance in subtle, puzzle-like eloquence.  
The great and inescapable controversy is what Pullman handles most deftly. Ask anyone and they will tell you, "Oh, isn't that the book where some little girl kills God?" To that I answer yes and no. After reading the novels you will see that they are not direct, malevolent attacks of Christianity, but a poignant, humanistic study of those things that make us human- namely compassion, intrigue and the quest for knowledge. The book's central argument is that man is not here to be controlled but to live in commune with nature and the universe, while simultaneously discovering its truths and tearing at fabrications until all we have is truth, each other and the wisdom that death is not something to fear and that life is meant to be lived. 
Pullman once stated that the novels were a response to C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia," but I hold my conviction firm that he did not do so maliciously. On a superficial level, it was necessary to create a world stripped of allegory (as Tolkein's works, although not meant as allegories, have suffered from such labeling) and a re-examination of the vague concepts "right" and "wrong", and "good" and "evil". Sure this has been done, but to use children as central characters we are reminded of the innocence of youth and Pullman uses that pretense as the surface upon which we should dissect morality. For Will, it was once necessary to kill and forget the implications, just as much as it was later necessary to feel compassionate in order to survive. Selfishness, lying and other such moral and ethical ideas are similarly examined and allowed to evolve from polarities. Concurrently, it was essential to examine the nature of these ideas from a non-Christian standpoint, so that when "the church" and "God" are killed, their deaths fuel the existential understanding that humanity can make the right decisions without religion. In fact, at the end of the novel, Lyra and Will are charged with the responsibility to spread truth, foster inquiry and live humanitarian and ethical lives because everyone deserves truth, everyone deserves love and everyone deserves the right to carve his or her own path.

I think that Pullman probably respects good Christians and other people of faith so long as they don't judge or use their faith to belittle or control. The humanistic messages of his novel speak to this too loudly for it to not be true. 
From a Wiccan standpoint, it's cool to see the notion of a universal consciousness manifested through the dust and similarly, although unintentionally, there are elements that I can even call mirroring of Wiccan tenets. Excellent!  

So it goes without saying that I highly recommend these books. 

yours in ghost,


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