Adventures in Reading

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I first read Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass in high school, but for the life of me I could not recollect three-fourths of the book during my reread. The premise of the book was familiar as were certain scenes, but overall I was drawing gaping blanks. Recently The Golden Compass has had quite a bit of media attention because of the film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman (soon to be out in theatres), and perhaps more interestingly the criticism and outright banning of the film and book from religious groups.

The world of The Golden Compass is similar to our own world circa the 19th Century. Some geography and historical matters have changed, a race of talking bears exist called panserbjørnes, and every human has a sort of familiar known as a dæmon. The hero of our tale is a young girl named Lyra, and she quickly becomes involved in a theological and philosophical trip that will land her in a different world all together.

Prior to reading the book, I participated in a good bit of discourse with my co-workers regarding adult’s reactions to certain themes and language in children’s books. Reading a book at different ages will almost always result in differing interpretations. It seems what you get from a book is largely based on either what you are told to get from the book or what you are looking for. Consciously or unconsciously how we approach a book defines what themes, symbols, plot points, etc. are important to us. Our approach to a novel seems to differ every time we engage with it. Thus, how an adult, or specifically a parent, may read a book is perhaps drastically different than how a child, a parent’s own child, will engage with the same book.

The Golden Compass dragged for the first 50-pages, but it was well worth making it through those first few chapters. Lyra participates in a terrific journey that I must have been entirely oblivious to in my earlier reading. Reading the book in my 20s, Pullman – a well-known atheist – presents an intriguing and challenging commentary on the Catholic Church and theology in general. In 351 pages, Pullman slowly discloses a criticism on the brutal and unnecessary practice of various genital mutilations in religious practice and history. This is paralleled with the story as children are kidnapped to receive an “incision” that removes their dæmons, or sexual maturity or original sin, from them. The final chapters of the book quote from an adapted version of Genesis.

Considering my patchy memory, I cannot say how I interpreted these passages when I was younger. I can say that when I first heard of religious group’s criticisms of the book that I was entirely unaware of what had caused all of the excitement. I had never picked up on strictly religious criticism, but considering the ending of the book there really is not much left open for adult interpretation. To say that The Golden Compass is not outright criticizing the church is ludicrous and insulting to Pullman. However, I suppose it is little different than reading the heavy handed christian influence in The Chronicles of Narnia. More likely than not, a child will read the book for the adventure and fantasy. However, as with any book a child could become engaged and ask questions (oh, the horror!).

The Golden Compass is a grand read and one I would have no qualms handing to anyone: adult or child. Pullman has written a riveting fantasy adventure with a strong female character. An adult with only the slightest awareness of the catholic church cannot fail to read Pullman’s condemnation of church practices. Perhaps though rather than banning and censoring literature Pullman’s book can be read for the points of discussion it opens and for the magnificent story that unfolds.

Also reviews of The Golden Compass from Books I Done Read and Book Addiction.

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