Review: The Golden Compass (novel)
by MW Cook
Initial thought: He should have stuck with the original title: The Northern Lights.
Do you remember the movie? Probably not. There was nothing really memorable about it. It’s just as well, though. The book was everything the film was not.
C.S. Lewis suggested that if a children’s book is only good or useful in childhood, it’s not useful even then. I wish more children’s authors thought about that before they wrote. We’d have less Spongebob and Capt. Underpants stories, and I think the world would be a better place.
But The Golden Compass (like other great children’s books like Narina and The Hobbit) is great when you’re 13 or 30.
I know what a lot of you are thinking right now: Hold on, the book is anti-God. It can’t be good.
Admittedly, I’ve only read the first book in the series of three. And I know about the interview where the author claims he wanted write an atheistic version of Narnia. But The Golden Compass is no more anti-God than any other secular novel. Maybe that will play out later in the series. If it does, I’ll judge it then. But as a stand-alone novel, The Golden Compass is great.
Most children’s books have boring characters, despite their many eccentricities. I get the impression that authors think if a character is odd, he must be good. That’s just dumb, though. Spongebob is both the oddest and the most boring character I’ve ever had the misfortune of meeting.
The characters in The Golden Compass are real. The adults are fully adults – interesting and adult-like. The children are fully children – equally interesting and child-like. And that is what makes the story great. Even if most of the story was drab (which is isn’t) and if the world it was set in was shallow (it isn’t) the characters and their depth would be able to carry the book on their own. I especially loved a deeply complicated character interaction at the end of the novel, which I won’t get into because I don’t want to spoil it. I’ll just say this: my jaw literally dropped. Yay for deep characters.
I’ve been told to boycott this series because of its anti-religious message. I wish Christians wouldn’t boycott the things that seem to attack it. That’s not the way Jesus did things. When the rulers of the Temple attacked Jesus did he boycott the Temple? Naw, he stormed it! He engaged it! He wrestled and turned it upside-down. Because that was the only way to prove that he himself was greater than it. So don’t listen to people who tell you to boycott. Engage the series that Christians are afraid to engage. Because if you don’t, not only are you missing out of a quality piece of work, but you’re also letting anti-Jesus messages (if there really are these things in this series) go unchallenged.
I decided to try to read this book about two years ago. I came down differently than you did — I didn’t bother to finish it. I didn’t think it was that good. Totally not engaging for me.
On top of that, I think it was incredibly problematic as a children’s book. Many of the criticisms that people misapplied to Harry Potter fit here. By 2/3 of the way through the book I still couldn’t tell who the good guys were and who the bad guys were. From my perspective, that’s possibly the most dangerous thing you can do to children. I think the other stuff (the demon like characters that each of the human characters hangs out with, the dark tone) were problematic too, but not as much as the total lack of clarity on good guys / bad guys. One of the things that good children’s literature does is teach our kids basic truths of the world — good versus evil and the conflict that exists between them is one of those basic truths. It’s the reason that Star Wars, with all its buddhist / universalist / monist tendencies gets a bye in the Christian community.
Anyway, I was pretty uncomfortable with it as a children’s / young adult book. And, it was totally unappealing to me as an adult, so I figured it didn’t work… it’s kind of nice to know that someone did enjoy it… although I’m trying to figure out if there’s something wrong with you or something wrong with me. Heh.
I hear you loud and clear. But it’s very interesting how the fact that the good guys and bad guys were not initially obvious is one of the things that I admired most about the book.
I would agree with you 100% if there was ambivalence about WHAT was good or evil. But there isn’t uncertainty about that. The uncertainty is about WHO is good or evil. And I think that it’s a good idea to teach our children to be very hesitant to put those kinds of labels on people.
By the end of the novel Lyra learns that both Azrael and Mrs. Coulter are evil (or at least working toward evil goals). It was a long, hard process to discover this, but once she did there was no confusion about what to do: Oppose them.
As I saw things, it wasn’t out of moral uncertainty that the heroes and villains were shrouded. It was out of the deep complexity of th human condition and how, even in real life, it’s very difficult to point out heroes and villains. Even in the Bible we can look at people like Joab and Solomon and Lot and we can’t really tell whether they were the good guys or the bad guys.
I’m all for certain types of uncertainty. Lyra’s uncertainty paved the way for burning conviction, I think.
And as for which of us has something wrong with him? Obviously it’s both of us. Silly!
I agree with you, Matt. As an educator and parent, I am convinced that keeping our children from the literature, drama, and other aspects of our culture that deny God and His truth will not produce adults who are able to defend truth and stand by their convictions. Instead we need to compare all aspects of our culture–literature included–to God’s truth. We need to teach our children to look at everything they read, see, and hear in the light of God’s Word, the light which exposes everything for what it really is, instead of merely avoiding things which make us uncomfortable. Maybe adults avoid controversial material because they’re afraid the truth they claim to believe won’t stand up to scrutiny; but absolute truth is always truth, and will always stand up to any challenge. Faith can only grow when it faces the tension of a challenge and resists breaking. Challenge is the exercise that ultimately STRENGTHENS our faith. How ironic that our weak, North American church avoids the very challenges that would grow strong, healthy Jesus followers for the next generation!
True (though I don’t think that’s what Mack is quite saying). There is a bit of a balance, eh? How much do we protect our kids from the shadow and how much do we train them to fight the shadow? And I get the feeling that we’ve been leaning hard on the former, so that when they actually do come against the shadow, they don’t bother to fight it.
But with this book, I don’t see a lot of shadow (yet…except how Lyra is a wildly skilled liar and that’s her best asset…that kinda sucks). I’m sure it’ll come later, though.