On one hand, we could simply ignore The Golden Compass and wish it would go away. Denouncing it publicly might bestow a certain rebellious cachet. Some productions would like nothing better than for the Catholic Church and conservative Christians to bless them with disapprovals. I’m sure that there are some philistines who read books and watch movies simply because the forbidden adds pleasure.
But I do not worry that transgressive exhibitions benefit from the censure of conservative religious folk. I think, rather, that calling attention to an issue is worth the risk of enriching the likes of Philip Pullman.
Against the idea of making my denunciation public, there is also, of course, the embarrassing fact that I would be reviewing a movie without actually seeing it. I do not know if this is ever done by critics, so I might be the first. So let me be plain here: I have not seen the movie, nor will I ever see it.
I regret this, of course. The flick has a lot to commend it. James Bond and his newest Bond-girl straight from Casino Royale are some of the good guys. Nicole Kidman is the icy villainess. There are talking bears that wear armor, who sound and look like Vikings. Angels and Texan balloonists cavort in a romantic horizon. There is alternative history/universe stuff, part of the endless pulp river emanating from Hugh Everitt’s Many-Worlds Interpretation. There are airships and antiquated brass instruments in the polar climes. There are lots of astrological and alchemical gizmos, like Harry Potter on Vivarin.
However, I have read the book version of the story to my daughters, per our longstanding practice, and my girls can attest to the fact that we were fans of the story and we were all pulling for it to succeed. We were unaware of the author’s theological agenda. That came out quite clearly toward the end, and the anti-Christian aims of the story became pronounced in the second and third volumes. My older daughter read all three and said that by the end, it was like reading an Alice-in-Wonderland inversion of the Left Behind tree-slaughter.
Should I be comforted – nay, mollified – by the near-certain "disney-fication" of the story line, to make it fit into the camera-frame and an audience’s attention span? Nicole Kidman, who plays the film’s attractive Cruella DeVille, has assured us that given her “Catholic essence” (whatever that means – did it survive her scientological captivity?), she would never have performed in an anti-Catholic movie: “I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic.” We are told that she really didn’t want to be in the movie at first, since she doesn’t like playing a villain. Pullman always wanted her to play the part, and he wrote her a nice letter. I’m so relieved.
The director, Chris Weitz, said "in the books the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots," but in his film, the Magisterium will instead be a catch-all symbol of “dogmatic” organizations. As one might expect, censorship and secularist groups are incensed by this perceived retreat from Pullman’s sortie against the Church. Keith Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, of which the celebrated author is an honorary associate, protests the sublimization: "It is wrong that children watching these films should not get the opportunity to see the more balanced picture of religion." I am overjoyed to hear that someone from the NSS is ensuring that religion gets pictured in a more balanced manner.
Another problem that I have with going public with my distaste is that the author of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy is so deadset against dogmatism that coming out against his Nicole Kidman-blessed movie would look downright, well, dogmatic. The script would go something like this:
Me: Don’t see “The Golden Compass.” It is bad, despite its being attractive. If you pay for a ticket, lots of money will go to enrich Philip Pullman, and he might be encouraged to write more snarky stuff and maybe even finance other evil enterprises.
Pullman: See? I told you so. He and scores like him are representatives of the powerful conservative fundamentalist cabal that is organized around the world to keep you poor children in the dark, with the wool pulled over your eyes. It’s lucky that you have me, a decent children’s author, to counteract the propaganda of that Narnian brainwashing glop of C. S. Lewis.
Me: What cabal? Is it possible for a group of people like me to do anything in a sustained, organized manner? Even, and especially, a boycott?
So far, in the argument, the votes seem to tally toward not saying a thing about the theatrical release next Friday – which, by the way, is showcasing another young girl with the first name “Dakota” (I mean, what are the odds? Why not Minnesota or Idaho?).
But then I thought more about Pullman himself, and what he did about a series of children’s books and a subsequent movie. Did he scruple against going public with a rotten tomato? Did he worry that the writer would get more attention, and that his thumbs-down might be leveraged into greater box office receipts?
No, certainly not. Pullman would never hesitate to throw a putrefied vegetable at C. S. Lewis’ Narnia heptology, whether in book form or on the wide screen.
At a conference in 2002, he told a large group of children and youth that he first read the Narnia books when he was a grownup teacher, and was therefore protected from that childlike vulnerability that Lewis’ stories are wont to prey upon: “I realized that what [Lewis] was up to was propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in. It is monumentally disparaging of girls and women. It is blatantly racist. One girl was sent to hell because she was getting interested in clothes and boys.” (The Guardian, 6/3/2002)
I think Pullman was thinking of Susan’s departure from the Friends of Narnia in The Last Battle. I don’t remember her being sent to hell, but maybe Phil read the books better than I did – seeing, especially, as I starting reading them as an impressionable child, and therefore I don’t really know how stories ought to be written.
Earlier, Pullman had gone on record with an even naffier piece of fruit. In 1998, he assured the Guardian’s readership that “ … there is no doubt in my mind that [the Narnia cycle] is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read … I haven’t the slightest doubt that the man [i.e., C. S. Lewis] will be sainted in due course: the legend is too potent. However, when that happens, those of us who detest the supernaturalism, the reactionary sneering, the misogyny, the racism, and the sheer dishonesty of his narrative method will still be arguing against him.” (The Guardian, 10/1/1998)
And you thought that I was too trenchant? Pullman has established his own criteria for judging a story’s value with this last remark. So I will take him at his word, and see how his glass house bears up under the same rain of stones.
I’m not sure what he means by a “narrative method” that could be either honest or dishonest. I suspect that any violation of an author’s set of ontological and epistemological self-forged precepts will count as “dishonest narrative.” Aslan’s resurrection and the breaking of the stone table was dishonest. So was the reunion of families after the Last Battle. In Pullman's universe, miracles are "dishonest" not only because they are supernatural, but because they are too happy, and too full of grace.
Apparently, the occurrences of talking polar bears and flying witches (i.e., Eva Green zooming in the air) do not count as "supernatural." Daemon-animals who are – get this – the disembodied souls and “identities” of Pullman’s people must somehow be plausible in an "acceptable" science fiction manner -- anything to escape being called "supernatural." The wielding of the “Subtle Knife” to carve a hole into an alternative universe in the second book is not supernatural either (i.e., it must be "scientific," since "parallel world" is a regular theme in the Star Trek catechism, of which Pullman is an acolyte).
Talking animals in Narnia are supernatural, to be sure, as is the White Witch and Susan’s horn. These are “magical,” and somewhat charming and homely.
But Pullman’s nifty stuff is different: and perhaps by this difference he escapes the charge of supernaturalism. His works are not charming at all, and definitely not homely. Look everywhere in the “dark materials” of this children’s author and you won’t find a smidgeon of the homeliness, the warm affection or storgē of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. You will find no comfort by a blazing hearth. You won't ever see dwarves in snowball fights in "Dark Materials." You won’t be entertained by fauns.
You will find a trove of alchemy and astrology, and all sorts of devices of augury (it is little wonder that Pullman praised Harry Potter at the expense of Aslan). You will find evil but not goodness. You will find science fiction and alternative realities. It goes without saying that you will find no sacrament, no sanctification of the one reality into paradise.
By “reactionary sneering” Pullman means his hurt feelings about how state-inflicted secular education was depicted in the Caspian cycle: Jill and Eustace are forlorn, castoff students in a boarding school dedicated to the very principles enshrined in the author’s world: at the end of The Silver Chair, Prince Caspian and the returning heroes serve up some fear and trembling to the secularist, post-Christian bullies. Pullman protests this old-fashioned sort of justice.
Yet the same sort of invective waged against the old order of Christendom and the Church that runs rampant in "The Golden Compass" movie should also rate as “sneering," as it certainly would in a world that has not forgotten the distinction between Creator and creature. But since Pullman has anointed himself as progressive, his complaints cannot be “reactionary”: ergo, the sneering is not sneering, but "commentary," and therefore okay.
Then there’s misogyny and racism, those great darkest of evils in the modern rogue’s gallery. I take it that Pullman is offended that Lewis put the swords into the hands of Peter and Edmund, and told Lucy that she is not to go into the lists. He also protested that Susan “was sent to hell” because she was interested in nylons and lipstick: clearly, she was just going through puberty, Phil averred.
But this constitutes misogyny? That girls are kept from the fight, and that they should be more interested in eternal things than their own sexual development? That something, anything, is more important than sex? If one wanted to find real misogyny, then he need look no further than the lust-addicted depersonalization of women in the media-sphere, where every moment the noble Eve is reduced to the rutting Ishtar.
Pullman finds racism in Lewis’ treatment of the Calormens and the penchant of Narnian bad guys to be dark, swarthy and rather dull-witted. This is racism? Where dwarves, humans and animals talk together, and unite in a society governed by a Lion Who is not tame? That is about the most multi-cultural society I could ever think of. On the other hand, the best that Pullman can do with his "happily-ever-after" at the end of his long screed is something horrifically feeble, like a loathsome “Republic of Heaven.”
This is Pullman’s eschatology, writ large for the moral instruction of his children’s audience which will now be reproduced, geometrically, by the catechism of the movie screen. I kid you not, even though you are probably reeling from the thought of the inherent industrialized junkyard ambiance reeked by the sodden juxtaposition of “republic” and “heaven.”
I’m serious. When Pullman was asked about his concept of a “Republic of Heaven,” he said this to the poor children at the Guardian Hay Festival in 2002:
“When it was possible to have a belief about God and heaven, it represented something we all desired. It had a profound meaning in human life.
“But when it no longer became possible to believe, a lot of people felt despair. What was the meaning of life? It seems that our nature is so formed that we need a feeling of connectedness with the universe. If there is no longer a king, or a kingdom of heaven, it will have to be a republic in which we are free citizens. We ourselves as citizens have to build the republic of heaven.”
Pullman indicts Lewis for depicting the miraculous, the nostalgia of the hearth, the mystery of magic, and the beauty of the sacred order. Fine, then, Clive is guilty as charged. I wish, like Tolkien did, that he wouldn’t have been so messy in bringing together such a hodgepodge of mythical tradition. But it’s a kid’s book for heaven’s sake. Tolkien spent a lifetime in the construction and narration of a single grand mythical world, and was probably miffed that his non-Roman friend misspelled the lost lands of Avalon as “Numinor.” But Tolkien never complained that Lewis was dishonest as a narrator.
I, however, make that very complaint, but I lodge it not against Lewis but Pullman himself. I’ll be forthright:
He is a liar, and his books are full of lies.
The third book makes this clear. God is a fraud, Pullman reveals at the end. The Magisterium (aka the Christian Church, whether or not the movie says so outright) is His instrument of deception. The stuff of reality is not singular, but reproduced along an infinity of possibilities, and is therefore equally meaningless. There is thus no single truth. Phenomena merely constitute a confusing veil for the ignorant, those who are content to have the wool kept over their eyes.
At the heart of substance is a monolith called “Dust.” It is intended to be the same substance as what astronomers call "dark matter" -- whose existence can only be inferred from indirect observation. It is hypothetical matter that is inferred mainly because a certain amount of mass is needed to make desired equations work. It is mysterious only because it is not observed well: no astronomer has attributed spiritual meaning to it -- that is more the stuff of astrology. It is this very stuff, in Pullman's world, that confers consciousness – and thus, in Pullman’s very serious world-depiction, consciousness is NOT created, but a fragment of a single consciousness.
Here is Pullman, in his own words, describing God and the Dust:
The figure of The Authority is rather easier. In the sort of creation myth that underlies His Dark Materials, which is never fully explicit but which I was discovering as I was writing it, the notion is that there never was a Creator, instead there was matter, and this matter gradually became conscious of itself and developed Dust. Dust sort of precedes [sic] from matter as a way of understanding itself. The Authority was the first figure that condensed, as it were, in this way and from then on he was the oldest, the most powerful, the most authoritative. And all the other angels at first believed he was the Creator and then some angels decided that he wasn't, and so we had the temptation and the Fall etc - all that sort of stuff came from that.
We have heard this perennial philosophy before. There are traces of the Demiurge. There is more than a little of a philistine take on Spinoza. There is a lot of that ho-hum Harold Bloom adulation of Milton’s Satan. There is too much of the mean-old-Catholic-Church-kept-us-in-the-dark-
And there is a lot of Gnosticism. There is enough Gnosticism to warrant calling the whole pulp-load a lie. I am a dogmatist: what else can I do but call a spade a spade? I am "hampered" by the idea, or “wisdom,” that if Christianity is true at all, then it must be all true. I am limited by the cognitive bigotry that has room for only one truth, one way and one life. I can’t even consider an alternative, intellectually disabled that I am, to the pre-conscious reality that God as Creator is good and that He is the Redeemer and Lover of Mankind.
Philip Pullman as a children’s storyteller says that God is not good. His caricature of God is only that of a decrepit old wizener who dissipates in the wind, much like Saruman at Bag End.
That cuts deep, and therefore I must say that Philip Pullman is telling damn lies in his kiddie books, and in the kitsch movie about to be glued to our screens.
C. S. Lewis wrote myths that poignantly reveal deeper truths. The main difference between Lewis and Pullman is that Lewis believed the myths he wrote about. Pullman, however, doesn’t believe anything, because his "Dust" cannot be the object of belief. His stories reveal a terrible ennui at the core of a narrative without any purchase in the world: they are myths without belief, only entertainment (I guess ennui is what makes a narrative "honest" today). He doesn't believe: he only wishes for alternate realities to escape the One Who tells the One Story. He is clever, but he doesn’t really mean a blessed thing.
So I guess I'll go public with my rotten tomato, and I'll start with this:
There is one truth thing accomplished by the target of my spoiled veggies (a better use of brussel sprouts has never been seen).
On his book’s cover in England, and in all the movie posters, there is a golden dial. The ignorant American publicists thought that this was what was meant by “Golden Compass.” Pullman’s compasses were the circle-drawing instruments, not the navigational tool. What is depicted on the cover is really an “alethiometer” – that is, a truth-telling device.
Look carefully. Overlook the fact that the seventeenth meaning of the Sun (to which the one hand is pointing obliquely) is the obligatory endorsement of homosexuality.
Note that there are three hands, forming a triad (a sign that cannot be avoided).
And none of the truth-hands are pointing to Pullman’s name.