A couple of weeks ago we went as a family to see The Golden Compass. Afterward, I was mystified by the fuss that the Catholic League in the United States has made about the movie. The movie is a harmless children's fantasy, with a young girl named Lyra as the protagonist. I enjoyed it, and couldn't see anything sacreligious about it at all. My children, who had read the book, were disappointed. The book, they said, was better. So I read it, then the Subtle Knife, and yesterday I finished the final book in the trilogy, the Amber Spyglass.
In Pullman's alternate universe, a world where people's souls (their daemons) are manifested as animal companions, the Catholic Church has run amock. Ruthless, controlling and dictatorial, it is working on a weapon that can be used to control people by suppressing creativity and individual thought by means of separating their daemons from their selves. Lyra has a special purpose and a gift, which isn't be revealed until the end of the third story, that will save the universes and thwart this ambition.
This is no light story, however. Throughout all three novels, Lyra confronts difficult truths, moral choices, and tragedy. She questions authority and learns to think for herself; finds and loses love; befriends angels, witches, kings and queens; fights horrific creatures; crosses multiple universes to meet people like herself but different as well; and crosses over to the world of the dead to release their souls from purgatory to eternal happiness.
The books are well written. Pullman has a talent for descriptive prose, dialog, and a fertile imagination. With echoes of Paradise Lost, Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, the Wizard of Oz, the Old Testament and the Book of Revelations, these are children's fantasy as it was written 100 years ago by Nesbitt, Lewis, and Tolkien.
The Catholic League's attempts to suppress this movie and these books is particularly ironic. Pullman may profess to be atheist, but the books he has written are profoundly human and religious with their themes of truth, sacrifice, love, tolerance, hope, peace and joy.
This holiday, take a child to see the Golden Compass. Then buy the books, read and discuss them together. Whatever your faith, you will be entertained, thrilled, and moved.