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Monday, January 12, 2015

Northern Lights, Daemons, and Soul Experiments: The Golden Compass

Is it Evil?

I've resisted reading Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass for years because of everything I've heard about it being "evil." Anti-Catholic, anti-religion, anti-God, anti-whatever. The author is a self-proclaimed atheist who I heard wanted to write a fantasy series that didn't deal with God and spirituality in the same way most fantasies do.

I should have known better than to let the fact that people said a book was "evil" to stop me. After all, most of my favorite books, like Harry Potter, Lord of the RingsThe Hunger Games, and heck, let's throw the Book of Mormon in there, have been considered "evil" by one group or another.

Then in my college YA lit class, we received a template for one of our assignments and the template used The Golden Compass for an example. And I read that in The Golden Compass, people's souls lived on the outside of their body in forms called daemons, and the template posed the question, "But what happens when people try to separate a soul from its body?" The concept blew my mind.

Should I read it? I shouldn't read it. Should I read it? I shouldn't read it. I didn't know if I wanted to support a book that was anti-religion and anti-God.

But I couldn't stop thinking about it. In fact, I dreamed about the book and concept all night, and a few nights thereafter. It sounded right up my alley.

Finally I realized I just needed to read the thing, at least some of it, and decide for myself what I thought. But I was in the middle of college and didn't have time. I got out of college and had a huge stack of books in my "to-read" pile. But recently, I finally bought the book and read it!

Was it evil? I didn't think so. Sure, there may be some questionable ideas in it, but there are questionable ideas in pretty much every book, because we as individuals are all different, with different perspective and views. So maybe the church in this story is corrupt, or the protagonist doesn't believe the Bible, but guess what? In real life there are churches that are corrupt, and in real life, people don't believe in the Bible. I know, I know, it's a shocker.

Given, I've only read the first book so far, and I hear that the church and concept of God get a little crazy through the trilogy, but seriously, I just finished the Mistborn series that deals with a wicked church and a ruler who claimed to be God. I didn't feel offended by it. That happens in the real world. I think The Golden Compass got a bad rap because its target audience is children.

You'll have to decide for yourself if you think it's evil.

Fiction for Readers

Here Earth is one of only five planets in the solar system, every human has a daemon (the soul embodied as an animal familiar) and, in a time similar to our late 19th century, Oxford scholars and agents of the supreme Calvinist Church are in a race to unleash the power that will enable them to cross the bridge to a parallel universe. The story line has all the hallmarks of a myth: brought up ignorant of her true identity, 11-year-old Lyra goes on a quest from East Anglia to the top of the world in search of her kidnapped playmate Roger and her imprisoned uncle, Lord Asriel. Deceptions and treacheries threaten at every turn, and she is not yet certain how to read the mysterious truth-telling instrument that is her only guide. (Publisher's Weekly).

Who is it For?

I'm going to be honest. This book is for me. I completely fit the target audience of The Golden Compass in everything but age. This book was made for me. Had I read it when I was 11-ish, it would have been right up there with Harry Potter (mind you, only the first three Harry Potter books were out at that time). 

The Golden Compass is a middle-grade book. It fits in the same genre and feel of  The Chronicles of Narnia, and Harry Potter, but yet has its own style, a fresh take on the "classic" fantasy story form. What's interesting is that it's similar to the typical fantasy story and yet is the antithesis of it. While most popular fantasy stories deal mainly with Absolute Truths, and mostly clear-cut villains and heroes, this story leans toward the worldly truths, and makes who we'd expect to be heroes to be villains. We get a young female heroine instead of the young male hero.

Sure she starts as an orphan, but her parents' backstory isn't a heroic or sympathetic one. Lyra wasn't born from two loving parents who tragically died. She discovers she's born out of an affair of two morally questionable people. Instead of disappearing into a magical world or being in a different world altogether like in The Hobbit, The Golden Compass takes place on our Earth, but in an alternate reality or universe. The Golden Compass also differentiates itself from other fantasy stories by blending science fiction and fantasy. It's really more of a science fantasy (I love when people blend the two). The reader is taken to a world that is a fantasy one, but is also on the cutting edge of science. Instead of an entire world or civilization being at risk, multiple, alternate realities are at risk.

So, this book is for the reader who enjoys a good fantasy tale, but yet is open to reading the antithesis of that good fantasy tale. 

What I Thought

Remember how I said this book was made for me? I. Loved. It. The Golden Compass combines some of my biggest interests and personal fascinations. I love stories that play with the concept of souls, give me all the Horcruxes and Dementors and Fullmetal Alchemist Philosopher Stones and everything else, so the daemons were right up my alley. Your soul lives outside of your body in the form of an animal? That reflects your personality? That's genius. I couldn't get enough of it. I wanted to know everything there was to know about daemons. Not to mention that when I was a kid, pre-Harry Potter, all I wanted to read was stories with talking animals. I complained there weren't enough. And this world is full of them because everyone has a daemon.

Next, I love stories that play with religious aspects, which is why I love Narnia. I love the way C.S. Lewis combine Christianity with a fantasy world. I can't get enough of Aslan as the Christ figure. So the church in Pullman's world may be corrupt, but there is a part where two characters read out of the (alternate) Bible about Adam and Eve and Pullman combines those Bible verses to explain what's going on with the cutting edge of science. I reread that part several times because I wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything in it.

Then, creepy experimentation on the cutting edge of science? Yes! I love that stuff too! I loved that Voldemort was on the cutting edge of magic in Harry Potter, I loved that people were on the cutting edge of Alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, I love that Dr. Jekyll was on the cutting edge of science when he split himself into Mr. Hyde, and how Dr. Frankenstein was on the cutting edge when he made his monster. I like my villains very evil, the kind that will experiment on people--for the cutting edge of science! So villains experimenting on separating souls from bodies? Can't not read that! It's kind of like the spiritual equivalent of a lobotomy.

Speaking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I love stories with people who are somewhat split like that. I love Spider-Man and Venom. Harry struggling through the influence of Voldemort inside him. Werewolves. So while people's daemons in The Golden Compass weren't evil, with their presence, I got a flavor of that dual personality, but it wasn't good vs. evil, just differences of opinion.

And then, the Northern Lights. I've been in love with the Northern Light for ages. They're on my bucket list. I used to look up pictures of them regularly. But Pullman writes a story that says that, sometimes, you can see another city, another world through the northern lights?

I'm dying now. I can't express just how much The Golden Compass combines so many of my absolute favorite things. Before I was done reading it, I starting making plans to reread the thing.

You probably will not like it as much as I did, unless you happen to be just as fascinated by all of the above as I am. We likely have different tastes. But think of some of your absolute favorite things intertwining all together into one book, and you'll get what it was like for me. But I'll talk about it more generally now.

The plot had some good, refreshing twists and turns and plotting tools/techniques, and honestly, it might have just been me freaking out over the whole thing, but I felt like there were multiple climaxes at the end. I thought we had reached the climax of the story, only to run into another and another, and an intense cliff hanger ending. I like how Pullman weaved together several plot lines--I'm a sucker for stories that do that. We have a plotline about science stuff called Dust, one about kidnappers, one about Lyra's uncle, one that touches on alternate worlds.

Outside of the fantastical worldbuilding, we get an awesome realistic one. First following Lyra running around on street and roofs and tunnels of Oxford with scholars (a great juxtaposition of high-brow intelligence mingled with feral child's play), then traveling in a balloon to London, to sailing to the North with gyptians, to ice and snow and Northern Lights, and a wide range of social classes and cultures.

I'll admit, I didn't like Lyra or her demon Pantolaimon in the first scene. They annoyed me. But they quickly grew on me as the adventure got going, and I did start to love them. Outside of that though, I didn't really fall in love with any character so much as I fell in love with the world and concepts of the story. The characters were distinct and interesting and often fresh. I just didn't connect deeply with them.

The writing style itself wasn't anything amazing until we got to the climaxes, and then I was impressed. But this is a middle-grade book, so it's going to have a more straight-forward, simplistic writing style for its audience.

There is a storyline about a whole prophecy surrounding Lyra, that she is supposed to save the worlds etc. and that's been done so many times it's getting a little old. But it's important to keep in mind that this book came out in 1995, before we got all saturated with the whole prophecy bit, so I wouldn't count it as a strike against the story.

Book Vs. Movie

Before I finished the book, I naturally became interested in watching the movie. Was it any good? It performed poorly here in the box office in the U.S. I rented it and had a bizarre book-to-film adaptation experience. What was weird is that it followed the book's storyline very well and the acting was good. I mean, Nicole Kidman was great to watch, but even the little girl who play Lyra did well. The special effects were great, considering the movie was made in 2007, and daemons don't look exactly like real animals anyway. They even got some of the details right, like how the nurses in the north had vacant expressions after suffering a spiritual lobotomy. 

But the story wasn't fulfilling. That's what was weird. It felt like I was in an ice cream shop having tasters of each flavor, but never a whole ice cream. The movie was so fast-paced, there wasn't enough down time or set up to actually get invested in the story, characters, and world, making the movie feel so much more shallow. I was visually wowed, but emotionally empty.

Books have an advantage over that problem because novels are meant to be read in increments, and even if you read it all in one sitting, it still takes you longer to get through than a movie, so it literally drags out anticipation and apprehension, two of the key parts of a successful story. In the movie, everything happened so fast that it was resolved before you got to anticipate it.

Definitely pick up the book before watching the movie.

I'm looking forward to reading the second installment.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this series. There was actually more "religion" in it that I thought there would be. You will see more of it the further you go. I was blown away by the series.


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