Grandfather Tree

Now having come to understand that we are all spiritual beings who have chosen to temporarily live a physical existence on this planet, certain musings are inevitable, and shared here.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Golden Compass (review)

Phillip Pullman wrote a captivating trilogy called His Dark Materials which include The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Eyeglass. The first book was recently made into a major motion picture and so has gotten a lot of attention. The movie stars Nicole Kidman and it won the BAFTA film award for best special visual effects. Prior to seeing the movie, a friend of mine told me he would not see it because the author had an agenda of spreading atheism to our children and he could not support such a thing. I saw the movie but was unable to discover anything sinister about it. In fact I was so captivated that I decided to read the entire trilogy. This is, by the way, exactly what Catholic League's Bill Donohue has warned against. Our kids would be so enthralled by the movie that they would want to read the books and would get indoctrinated into atheism. Well my daughter did check it out from her school library but was little interested in it, but I was amazed by it.

My excitement grew throughout the books. The Golden Compass is so incredibly creative and fresh, in both the book and the movie forms. To bring to life the notion that our souls can live outside our bodies in the form of various animals, called daemons, is beautiful, delicate, and invigorating all at the same time. The character of Lyra is so captivating, yet her heroic adventures are so alien but feel so true within the heart. The Subtle Knife brought in such a believable character,Will. I have seen such self-sacrificing boys and girls inside of adults, those who fought battles that should not have had to be fought at such a young age, those who cared for parents and younger siblings with grace and strength, with resilience and power. Pullman understands so much about human life and about mythology and history. A knife whose blade is so subtle that it can cut through anything is of course the knife that separates you from me, me from myself. This is the Eden story. This is what we as humans chose, to quote Genesis, “the knowledge of good and evil.” By cutting up the universe into pieces, we were able to step into the world of polarity. God was able to see Itself. This is the so-called “fall from grace.” This fall from grace is of course our true grace, that which makes us human, that which makes us grownup. We are able today to look into the eyes of another and we think we see the other, but of course we get a glimpse of ourselves.

There are multiple universes, parallel universes, sitting on top of one another, unbeknown to the inhabitants. There are, of course, scientific theories and mathematics that support such an idea. At any rate, in the story, Will is able to use the knife to cut a window into other universes and then to step through.

In the third book The Amber Spyglass, Will learns that whenever he cuts another window, a way out is created for Dust (dark matter) to escape, thus robbing all sentient life of their very sustenance. At the same time, a ghastly Specter is created, one that literally feasts on Dust, but not on the Dust that floats around us, but the specified Dust within an adult being. It sucks the person dry of all which makes him or her sentient. It is the ultimate vampire, and, of course, difficult to defeat. It will literally eat an adult’s daemon, which is strangely the accumulation, the personification of Dust. Perhaps Dust is consciousness itself, God-energy.

Each new cut makes it more difficult to re-member our oneness. And yet, through an ironic twist, one window is allowed to stay open, and that is the window that Will cut to free the ghosts from the land of the dead so they might return to the oneness. The metaphor the “make-like,” as the mulefa would call it, is strained here, perhaps beyond the breaking point. So the knife itself is “willfully” so strained, and falls to pieces, thus permanently separating Will from Lyra.

But what disturbs me most is Pullman’s preoccupation with sacrifice. I think he gets the final sacrifice correct. Both Will and Lyra are willing to sacrifice themselves to come and live in the other’s world, but they both reject this sacrifice because they know it wouldn’t work. Each would be resentful of the other because neither would be complete or full. Each must live in their own world.

What I don’t get is the sacrifice of the daemon. In order to go into the world of the dead, Lyra (and Will too but he didn’t realize it) must leave her daemon behind. She must sacrifice her own soul in order to keep her promise. Of course she gets her soul (Pan) back and in a more powerful witch or shaman like way where he is freer to travel further from her body. However, there is something that is unsettling about it to me. This sounds too much like Kant for my liking.

There is a wonderful scene in The Amber Spyglass. (278) They are traveling through the suburb of the land of the dead, following a murky stream to Pullman’s version of the River Styx. They come across an injured toad. Tialys (the little spy) suggests they kill it to put it out of its misery, speculating that it is in pain.

Will says, “If it could tell us, we’d know. But since it can’t, I’m not going to kill it. That would be considering our feelings instead of the toad’s.”

Doesn’t Lyra do the same when she betrays her daemon, betrays herself in order to appease her own guilt in regard to Roger? Is this really a model to strive after? In my mind it doesn’t fit the theme of the book. To create the “Republic of Heaven” one must be honest with oneself, one must honor one’s own daemon. It is possible though that there is a piece here that I do not understand. The witch Serafina Pekkala explains that all witches go through this process as young girls. They leave their daemon behind but do not sever from it, and as a result, their daemon can roam further from them than other sentient beings. But I am not so sure that the witches provide very good role models either. They are fierce and jealous and have strange wars that make no apparent sense. When they offer themselves as lovers, they expect the man to comply, and if one refuses her, she feels totally justified in putting an arrow through his heart, as was done to Will’s father.

So I must remain unsatisfied in regard to the self-sacrifice issue. In regard to the God-issue, I am much more satisfied. Although Pullman does get just a tad preachy in the last few chapters, and the “Republic of Heaven” metaphor is a bit strained, the lack of a Creator fits well with my theology. According to the story, the first angel pretended to be the creator and set himself as the “Authority,” demanded to be obeyed and posed as Yahweh. We all know that god, jealous and immoral, vindictive and arbitrary. As Jung so aptly pointed out, Job revealed himself to be more ethical. The scene with the “Authority” aged and frail, sad and feeble, locked away in his crystal prison, was beautifully executed. He, like those he imprisoned in the world of the dead, is freed to spread his molecules throughout the universe. Pullman is critised over and over for "killing God" in the movie. Well first of all he doesn't kill off God but "the Authority" the God-imposter. The book leaves it open as to whether there was a creator or not. Even the angels do not know. I like that detail. For those who do believe in an after-life, it is refreshing to think that those on "the other side" may in fact be as clueless as we are about this question. I think the text will support the notion that Pullman, ultimately, showed "the Authority" more mercy than "The Authority" showed us humans. He has Lyra show empathy and pity to the aged creature. Lyra, the Liar, who becomes Lyra Silvertongue for tricking the bear who cannot be tricked, who later learns from the Harpy to tell the truth, is the one who shows pity on the Authority. And to that we must be thankful to Pullman.

Ultimately, however, I must confess to be disappointed by the third book. Pullman doesn't quite pull everything together. There are too many unanswered questions in my mind. All the talk and buildup to the necessity of Lord Asriel getting the knife in order to defeat the Authority is apparently dropped. The Authority doesn't need to be defeated because he is sterile, ineffective. The one needing to be defeated is his general Metrodon. And he is much too easily seduced by the beautiful Mrs. Coulter. She and Lord Asriel do sacrifice themselves to throw the powerful angel over the cliff into the abyss. Here is that sacrifice thing again. O.K. Perhaps that redeems them from the terribly abominable things they did to get the power they so much sought?

Going back to all the online criticism of Pullman and his work, what I don't get is that he is somehow promoting evil. We of course view the books through the eyes of Lyra and Will. Neither one is ever enthralled or taken in by Mrs. Coulter or Lord Asriel. Even though at the end, both Lyra and Will do fight on the side against the Authority, they never accept the idea that the ends justify the means. They would never go the way of Lyra's parents. The road they choose is an ethical one. They choose life, and to live it fully. They choose to refuse to put immediate pleasure and desire above the good of the community. But they have generally always chosen thusly throughout the tale. So it is certainly not a surprise to find them acting ethically at the end. And to do so without having to believe in a creator god is not so awful. After all they do have angels and witches on their side.

I have even read some online criticism of Pullman that he is somehow promoting irresponsible sexuality. This falls in the face of Will's father who refuses the overtures of a beautiful witch and ends up the target of one of her arrows because of it. Here is a guy who found himself in another world and could never return to his own, to his wife and child. A beautiful witch creature offers herself to him, no strings attached, and he refuses her. Will is impressed by this as he can return home and tell his mother that his father was never unfaithful. This is a promotion of unrestrained irresponsible sexuality? Give me a break.

And unless I am forgetting some important detail, there is no apparent creator god in the Narnia Tales either. So I really don't care if Pullman hates my beloved C.S. Lewis' work or not. Despite my criticisms of "The Amber Spyglass" he has clearly pulled off an excellent yarn. [5442]


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