The Golden Compass under review

It’s a sad day when a Canadian school board pulls your favourite children’s book from the shelves in dozens of libraries because it is allegedly ‘anti-religious.’ To be fair, Philip Pullman‘s The Golden Compass does take a critical stance on dogma and on hierarchical organizations. Elements can be taken as specific criticisms of the Inquisition and other religious abuses. At the same time, the book is engaging, well-written, and excellent. In characterization, creativity, and content it puts the Harry Potter books to shame, while also tackling much more important themes. The book was recognized by with the Carnegie Medal in 1995, and was selected by the Carnegie judges as one of the ten most important children’s novels in the past 70 years in 2007.

While the Halton Catholic District School Board clearly does have some responsibility for the selection of books in its school libraries, this choice is a mistake. If their students are going to have any kind of meaningful religious life, they are going to need to engage with criticisms of faith. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving them each a copy of The God Delusion, but it does require maintaining an atmosphere where questioning and discussion are possible. Simply stripping out high quality books that raise awkward questions is educationally irresponsible and theologically dubious in a faith supposedly based on personal relationships between individuals and God.

[Update: 4 December 2007] Emily has written a post about this book and another about the process of reading it.

40 thoughts on “The Golden Compass under review”

  1. A relevant quotation from Philip Pullman:

    Suppose that the prohibition on the knowledge of good and evil were an expression of jealous cruelty, and the gaining of such knowledge an act of virtue? Suppose the Fall should be celebrated and not deplored? As I played with it, my story resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence. The true end of human life, I found myself saying, was not redemption by a nonexistent Son of God, but the gaining and transmission of wisdom. Innocence is not wise, and wisdom cannot be innocent, and if we are to do any good in the world, we have to leave childhood behind.

    That is how one modern writer told this great story. It will certainly be told many times again, and each time differently. I think it is the central story of our lives, the story that more than any other tells us what it means to be human.

    You can see why the man might give a Catholic school board pause, but also why his criticisms are not trivial, superficial, or motivated by spite.

  2. To be honest, I would never be concerned that libraries had banned a book. UBC bookstore used to host book sales of “banned books” – and they were all popular and wonderful. Censorship is very rarely the appropriate course of action.

    I think the most coherent view of censorship is that it is justified in cases where speech or writing incites peoples to overthrow the institutions which make free living possible. However, a strong state should hardly ever have to exercise this right, because untruth brings upon it its own condemnation (this is why we needn’t censor holocaust deniers, although cases of elementary school teachers is more difficult).

    I think the Church has always be a joke of itself. Except when it touches its roots, which are not Platonist at all but a very interesting kind of pantheism. Heidegger draws it out of Pauls letters to the Galatiens, and I found in the TED lecture series an English Vicar whose come to the same conclusions from other sources:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wdkxdiOFJA

    also, I think you’ll appreciate the production values of this video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLfkYO6sz6Q&feature=related

  3. Making libraries safe havens for the ignorant once again

    From Pharyngula

    A Canadian school board has decided to remove Philip Pullman’s books from its schools’ shelves because people complained that the author is an atheist. This is a remarkable objection, obviously. I mean, we don’t see school boards screaming to remove Chuck Colson’s books from the shelves because the author is a convicted felon, which seems to me to be a much more serious indicator of moral turpitude than atheism, nor do we see a call to eject books by Ann Coulter because she is incredibly stupid, and is therefore a poor role model for students. It’s just atheism that spurs this objection.

    And, speaking of production values:

    Creationist crooks pilfer Harvard’s work

    “They’ve grabbed the video, retitled it, removed the biological explanations for the phenomena, dubbed in a really bad, unprofessional narration on top of it, and stripped off the credits.”

  4. Tristan,

    The fact that some banned books subsequently became famous is little comfort to all those who were denied the chance to read them.

    It is entirely possible that I first read Pullman’s work after it was promoted to me in a library.

  5. Yet another indication that the Catholic religion does not aim to enlighten, but rather to embrace ignorance.

    The balance between the power of the parent over the school system, and the systemic power vs. that of the parents is a strange beast, which is mostly composed of arbitrary choices. Usually it is a case of the school-board madly trying to appease the loudest, most persistent parents.

    It is a difficult issue to judge.

    If, for instance, the majority of parents had read the book and came away feeling that it was a dangerous piece of anti-Catholic material and altogether voted to ban the book, I think that would be fine. It would be sad perhaps, because they’d be depriving the kids of a great piece of literature, but the decision would reflect the interests of this Catholic School community.

    I think it’s important that parents who have a vested interest in their children’s education and lives have the opportunity to intervene, and collectively make decisions on the material available to the kids. Even if that means banning a great book.

    This indicates that parents are a) actively interested in what their children are learning, and b) are collecting information, sharing opinions, and then taking action to better their children’s education.

    However, I’m willing to bet that you’ve got about four or five bored, ueber-religious, ignorant soccer moms that haven’t read the book, that heard about anti-religious sentiment in it, and just raised hell about it.

    I think before banning a book from the libraries of any school(s) there should be a survey with a mandatory 75% return, indicating whether the parents agree or disagree with the choice. Also, included in the survey should be the question “Have you read the book?”

    If there’s less than 75% of the surveys returned, it’s probably clear that the parents are fairly unconcerned. If the majority of the people who want to the book banned have not read it, then I think that vetoes their opinion.

    We do live in a democracy after all. Not a theocracy.

  6. I am shocked, shocked I say! To think that a Catholic school board would ban a book which characterizes the Vatican as an intellectually and morally bankrupt spiritual despotate. I guess they must have something against their children being exposed to accusations that their faith and church is little more than a calcified edifice of justifications for its own power and authority. Who would expect anything less from an institution that has a flawless track record of inflicting a virtually unlimited amount of suffering to admitting fallibility?

  7. The approach the board is taking is odd:

    After reading the book, the committee will complete an evaluation form that examines a “wide variety of criteria” including grammar, plausibility, language, plot, etc…

    After evaluations forms are received, the committee will submit recommendations to the board of trustees, who will then vote on whether the book is suitable for students…

    Implausible books with poor grammar have no place on the bookshelves of the nation! We must push Dr. Suess down from his pedestal!

  8. Sorry, that should be “a flawless track record of prefering the inflicting of a virtually unlimited amount of suffering to admitting fallibility”.

  9. I don’t think anybody should be surprised — Trevor Paetkau argued that exactly this controversy was destined from the beginning (http://www.theopencritic.com/?p=21 if interested) … I tend to agree, the book is endemically anti-catholic despite recent protestations to the contrary … that said, removing it from the shelves is as always, the act of an insecure authority … Suzz

  10. Mark Twain once wrote, “There is nothing so weak as a virtue untested.”

    That holds equally for ideologies and theologies, (and Twain meant that it should). If your belief system cannot hold up under a little pressure from competing views, then it wasn’t much of a belief system in the first place.

  11. In addition to criticisms of religion-as-practiced, this book contains trenchent criticisms of science-as-practised.

    The northern research station where kids are cut away from their daemons is staffed by the same sort of disinterested personnel who ran Auschwitz or the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in the US. It demonstrates the dangers of scientific experimentation without ethical restraint.

  12. the book is endemically anti-catholic despite recent protestations to the contrary

    I would agree that this is true, though it is primarily because Catholic history provides such a vivid example of the kind of general religious abuses that anger Pullman.

    In addition to criticisms of religion-as-practiced, this book contains trenchent [sic] criticisms of science-as-practised [sic].

    One one level, this is a good point. Pullman does show how indifferent scientific and medical personnel can advance wicked plans.

    At another level, I object to the crude comparison of science and religion. “Anything that criticizes both is fair” is not a viable position. Something can criticize both, just one, or neither and be either fair or unfair.

  13. The Tuskegee Study makes me ill. I remember when Milan first described it to me I didn’t believe him. I thought it must be an exaggeration or an urban legend. What’s even more horrifing is how this was out in the open. The medical community waited almost 30 years to put a stop to it, meanwhile, hundreds are dying of what is pretty much the definition of a routinely treatable disease. No wonder so much of the black community thinks AIDS is an engineered genocidal weapon, they pretty much have a precident.

  14. His Dark Outrage

    A very interesting commentary on The Catholic League’s boycott of Phillip Pullman’s fantasy childrens novel, The Golden Compass. Nicole Kidman disagrees that the story is anti-catholic.

    The Golden Compass is the opening story in the His Dark Materials series.

  15. “It has become some sort of rule, some sort of perfectly delicious law of the popular culture upon which any open-minded and attuned and humor-licked and spiritually aware and intellectually curious and sexually alive human worth her moist, wine-massaged soul can now rely with utter and perfect clarity.

    It goes like this: If there is some sort of creation, a piece of art, a TV show, a column or a book or a movie or a statue or a blog or a movement, a wine bottle or sexual position or Jesus-shaped dildo that somehow deeply threatens the various ultraconservative sects of Christian-blasted America to the point where their pale, dour representatives demand boycotts and distribute angry pamphlets and try to stop people from experiencing said hunk of culture because of how negatively it portrays their seething, condemnatory God, well, you know it’s time to break out the Champagne. Or buy that book. Or get very, very naked. Or all of the above. Depending. “

  16. “In fact, director Chris Weitz, who adapted “The Golden Compass” for the screen, reportedly removed any direct mentions of God or religion from the film version, fearing, along with New Line Cinema, some sort of Christian conservative backlash. Fans were, appropriately, outraged. It remains to be seen how much of those vital themes Weitz left intact, but you could argue that the Bible-thumpers have already taken their sad toll.”

  17. “It goes like this: If your ancient, authoritarian, immutable belief system is truly threatened by a handful of popular novels, if your ostensibly all-powerful, unyielding creed is rendered meek and defenseless when faced with the story of a fiery, rebellious young girl who effortlessly rejects your stiff misogynistic religiosity in favor of adventure, love, sex, the ability to discover and define her soul on her own terms, well, it might be time for you to roll it all up and shut it all down and crawl back home, and let the divine breathe and move and dance as she sees fit. Don’t you agree?”

  18. The Golden Compass

    By bsag

    Reading a review in the Guardian of The Golden Compass — the film adaptation of the first part of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (HDM) trilogy — I was not sure whether to be excited or appalled. I’m a massive fan of Pullman’s work, and HDM is one of my favourite books of all time. Despite ostensibly being books for children, they are as rich, subtle, disturbing, intriguing, exciting, and many-layered as any adult book you are likely to find. Even after reading them twice, there are still aspects I don’t fully understand or that I wonder about, and that’s exactly the way it should be.

  19. “At the start of the book, Lyra is a tough, independent tomboy, running over the rooftops of Oxford colleges, and starting fights with local kids. She’s fierce, brave and scruffy, and has a tendency to lie to get her way or to talk up her own achievements. But she is also deeply empathetic to the feelings of those around her, and has a strong sense of natural justice. At one point in the first book, she unselfconsciously puts herself into a situation which horrifies and disgusts the adults around her, purely to provide what comfort she can for a boy in a terrible situation. Iorek Byrnison (the armoured bear) rebukes the adults hanging back where Lyra jumps in, because he shares Lyra’s deep sense of honour and justice, and the importance of keeping one’s word. Throughout the books, the things she has to go through make her more serious, and she loses her innocence. In short she grows up, which is one of the themes of the series — what does it mean to be an adult? Pullman’s thesis (I think) is that the mythical expulsion from the Garden of Eden was the best thing that ever happened to us — that losing our innocence and gaining knowledge about ourselves and the world around us is a precious, important thing, and not something to be mourned.”

  20. The Golden Compass is carrying a heavy burden here

    Category: Entertainment • Godlessness
    Posted on: December 3, 2007 1:14 AM, by PZ Myers

    “I’m very much looking forward to the opening of The Golden Compass at the end of this week — and we’re even getting the premiere here in little ol’ Morris. I’m having mixed feelings about the way it’s getting enlisted in the culture wars, though. It’s a fantasy movie, and it’s ultimately going to succeed or fail on its merits as entertainment, not its ideology…

    The movie is a pawn in the War Against Religion, whether we like it or not. It better not suck.”

  21. Calgary Catholic school board dumps Golden Compass

    The Canadian Press

    December 5, 2007 at 1:18 AM EST

    CALGARY — The Roman Catholic school board in Calgary has followed the lead of a Catholic school board in Burlington, Ont., in pulling the children’s fantasy book The Golden Compass off school shelves.

    Board officials said their decision followed concern voiced by parents and recent publicity surrounding the release of a movie version of the book, starring Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman.

    “Our children are exposed to a wide range of information,” said board spokeswoman Judy Mackay. “One of our responsibilities is to help them understand how that fits with their belief system and to equip them with the skills so that they understand how they can fit that into their own belief system.”

  22. “Calgary Bishop Fred Henry said there are more pressing issues facing Catholics than debating a children’s fantasy novel.”

  23. Her Dark Materials
    Should children read Philip Pullman’s trilogy—or the incest classic Flowers in the Attic?
    By Emily Bazelon
    Posted Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007, at 6:03 PM ET

    I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to go see the new movie based on The Golden Compass, the first novel in Philip Pullman’s transcendent trilogy, His Dark Materials. It’s not that the film looks bad. It’s that I loved the books so much that I don’t want any actors or special effects, no matter how well-cast and well-rendered, interfering with my own imaginings.

  24. “Christian activists who fear that this movie will spread the books’ anti-clerical, pro-sex message can relax in the knowledge that not a scrap of Pullman’s theology has made it through the Hollywood blandification machine. New Line should market the film to churches with the tag line: “Not only won’t you be offended by The Golden Compass, you’ll have no idea what’s going on!””

  25. “Even I know enough about Pullman’s books to know that a movie adaptation of the series could have been something truly beautiful and strange, a myth about a child’s quest to liberate the human race from God. Instead, The Golden Compass is a tepid, jumbled Hollywood fable whose final message seems to amount to little more than “Follow your dreams,” or worse, “Stay tuned for the sequel.””

  26. Catholic board bans novel

    “At a meeting of the board trustees on Tuesday night, the recommendation was defeated in a majority decision, said board chair Alice Anne LeMay. Most trustees felt the book promotes values that are at odds with the Catholic ones the board aims to instill in its almost 28,500 students in communities west of Toronto.”

  27. Gay penguins book is most banned

    Authors, artists and musicians are due to gather at a library in San Francisco to protest against the banning of books in schools and libraries in the US.

    The event, part of the 27th annual Banned Books Week, has been organised by the American Library Association.

    Since 2001 bans on 3,736 books and other materials have been requested.

    In recent years, And Tango Makes Three – based on a true story and centring on gay penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo – has had the most ban requests.

    The book’s authors are Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell.

    Reasons given by organisations and individuals for their requests to get it removed from public shelves, include “anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group”.

    Other works featuring in the most-challenged books list for 2008 include Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.

  28. Philip Pullman on censorship and free speech — pithy and wonderful

    Philip Pullman, addressing an audience at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, was asked about whether his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, was offensive. Here’s his reply:

    “It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one hasthe right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. That’s all I have to say on that subject.”

  29. Pingback: Oliver Twist
  30. The Gospel According to Philip
    Philip Pullman tries to repair the most sacred story ever written.
    By David Plotz
    Posted Sunday, May 2, 2010, at 6:44 AM ET

    Like many atheists, the novelist Philip Pullman has emphatic and complicated religious beliefs. Pullman used His Dark Materials, his masterpiece trilogy, to deliver a savage beating to the Catholic Church (the thinly disguised “Magesterium” in the novels) and lay out a fantastically appealing humanist theology based on angels and a supernatural force called “Dust.” To condense the belief system of His Dark Materials into a few sentences: Human souls and angels are made of the Dust that binds all living things together. There is no God, just a presumptuous first angel who called himself God. Wicked angels exploit the idea of God to rule the world. The Magesterium is their instrument of evil on earth—authoritarian, secretive, and murderous. Pullman’s theology is simultaneously crushing and ecstatic. Who can forget his depiction of God as a decrepit angel, locked in a crystal prison? Or his image of Dust, golden, hazy, flowing in and out of our bodies, a personal aurora borealis?

    It’s not clear whether Pullman himself actually believes in Dust or if it’s just an effective plot device, but there’s no doubt that His Dark Materials has the same effect on certain susceptible readers (say, me) as Avatar does on some moviegoers. You finish the Pullman trilogy electrified and desolate, heartbroken that the world can’t be as he depicts it. Though Pullman is most often compared to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, the author he may resemble most is Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. This is not a literary comparison—Hubbard was a pulp hack, while Pullman has written the most thrilling and imaginative novels in a generation—but we may wake up one day and find that Pullmanism has become a religion, that Dust has been made flesh.

  31. Suppose that the prohibition on the knowledge of good and evil were an expression of jealous cruelty, and the gaining of such knowledge an act of virtue? Suppose the Fall should be celebrated and not deplored? As I played with it, my story resolved itself into an account of the necessity of growing up, and a refusal to lament the loss of innocence. The true end of human life, I found myself saying, was not redemption by a nonexistent Son of God, but the gaining and transmission of wisdom. Innocence is not wise, and wisdom cannot be innocent, and if we are to do any good in the world, we have to leave childhood behind.

    “Every fact of science was once damned. Every invention was considered impossible. Every discovery was a nervous shock to some orthodoxy. Every artistic innovation was denounced as fraud and folly. The entire web of culture and ‘progress,’ everything on earth that is man-made and not given to us by nature, is the concrete manifestation of some man’s refusal to bow to Authority. We would own no more, know no more, and be no more than the first apelike hominids if it were not for the rebellious, the recalcitrant, and the intransigent. As Oscar Wilde truly said, ‘Disobedience was man’s Original Virtue.”

    ― Robert Anton Wilson

  32. It is nothing short of antagonistic for Pullman to state that the Son of God is nonexistent. That is not offering an open dialogue with those who might disagree, that is reaction and a blatant swipe with Carnegie-empowered claws. I recommend he leave his own childhood behind and become a man.

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