[Note: This is not a book review, but rather an overview of problematic spiritual issues in the book. There is much information on Pullman's agnostic/atheist views elsewhere, so that is not covered here. I feel that any messages in a book can be gleaned without needing to know anything about the author. A book is a mouthpiece for an author; that is why they are written. Art, in the broadest sense of the term, can be analyzed without knowing who the authors, artists, playwrights, composers, etc., are, and themes and messages intended by the author thus discerned. This, I believe, is the fairest and most objective way to evaluate a book. Even if it is true that information about the author can add to an understanding of their work, I prefer to assess things about a book primarily from the book itself. Page references are from the paperback 1995 edition of Yearling, an imprint of Random House Children's Books. Amazon lists the trilogy as being for ages 10 and up.]
The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights in the UK) is the first book in the trilogy, His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman. The protagonist is Lyra Belacqua, an 11-year-old girl raised by scholars at Jordan College, a place that seems to be in England but which is otherwise in a fantasy world. In the author's words, Lyra is "a coarse and greedy little savage" who is defiant, deceptive, uses swear words, steals, takes the occasional alcoholic drink, smokes, and roams the streets in her free time (36ff, 47, 112, 121, 383). She is also very smart, tough, and resourceful.
In this world, all humans have what Pullman calls a "daemon." The daemon is described but not really explained ? the reader must observe and draw his or her own conclusions on daemons, and there is no hint in the first book as to why this word is used. "Daemons" were guardian spirits and/or good or malevolent spirits in Greek mythology; it is also a term used for a type of computer software. "In Neoplatonism, a daemon was more like a demigod rather than an evil spirit" (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daemon_(mythology)). In The Golden Compass, daemons take animal form and are always with or very near their human, somewhat like a pet, but they are more than that. Children's daemons can change shape, but as children grow into puberty, the daemon takes on one shape. The animal form usually reflects the power, status, and characteristics of its human.
Daemons have names and are always the opposite sex of their human. They are like an outer soul for the human, feeling what the human feels; and the human and daemon share thoughts and experiences. The daemon seems to be both an extension of the human as well as semi-independent of the human, able to warn their human and give advice. When the human dies, the daemon fades away. Daemons seem to not be spirits since they have real bodies, speak to their humans (and sometimes to others), and interact with the material world. Lyra's daemon is named Pantalaimon and she and Pan, as she often calls him, are completely loyal to each other and closely bonded. The name "Pantalaimon" may come from a saint in the Orthodox churches, St. Panteleimon, meaning "all merciful" (http://www.hisdarkmaterials.org/srafopedia/index.php/Pantalaimon).
Despite the term's similarity to or equality with the word "demon," nothing evil about daemons is apparent in the first book. However, the fact that such a word describes something so good and wonderful may be disturbing to some. Is Pullman trying to make a "daemon" a good thing when "demon" clearly indicates evil in most cases, or is he merely going back to some original meaning from Greek mythology and Neoplatonism?
It is clear early on that there is some type of religious organization in Lyra's world. A past Papacy is referred to (with a "Pope John Calvin," 30) that was abolished and replaced with a consortium of "courts, colleges, and councils" known as the "Magisterium," including an agency called the "Consistorial Court of Discipline as the most active and most feared of all the Church's bodies" (30). In our world, the Magisterium is a ruling authority of the Roman Catholic Church and consists of the Pope and the Bishops, so Pullman seems to be referring to this even though it is in a fantasy world and the words "Roman Catholic" are not used.
There is also a General Oblation Board, which is presented at first as mysterious and then later as evil. "Oblation" comes from a Latin term to mean an offering or presentation to God, and is also used in the Roman Church. Once again, Pullman transfers terms, mostly Roman Catholic in this case, from our world to the fantasy world of Lyra, but with a twist.
Lyra has no favorable attitude toward this "Church." There is an "Intercessor" at Jordan College, Father Heyst, who preaches, prays, and hears confessions. He loses hope for Lyra's spiritual welfare due to "her sly indifference and insincere repentances" (51).
Mrs. Coulter, who later turns out to be Lyra's mother, is an evil woman who is also charming and beautiful, and Lyra likes her at first. Mrs. Coulter is head of the Oblation Board and is directing cruel experiments in severing the tie between children and their daemons, leaving the children bereft and suicidal, and the daemons in misery. Lyra's discovery of this takes up a good part of the story, and is full of very intense and disturbing imagery.
Lord Asriel, a powerful and rich man with a cruel side who is Lyra's father, tells Lyra that the Church used to castrate boys to have them as singers, sometimes causing death in the process, so it would be nothing for the Church to be involved in cutting daemons off from children (374).
At one point, Lord Asriel reads from Genesis 3 to Lyra, but the text is changed so that Eve taking a bite of the forbidden fruit reveals "the true form of one's daemon" and Adam and Eve lose their previous sense that "they were one with all the creatures of the earth and the air" (372). The concept of "Dust" is a theme in the book, and Lord Asriel, reading God's pronouncement on Adam that he will go back to "dust," comments to Lyra that this may mean that God "is admitting his own nature to be partly sinful" but that no one agrees because "the text is corrupt"(373).
Mrs. Coulter's cruelty and her connection to the Church in the story indicate a very negative view of organized religion (as Pullman sees it), the Roman Catholic Church, and/or Christianity in general. There is no way to tell for sure from this book which it is, or if it's all three, or if all three are perhaps one and the same to the author.
Lyra is given a large, round compass-like object, called an alethiometer, which has hands like a clock that move around different symbols engraved on its surface (this is the "Golden Compass" of the title). Lyra discovers that the hands point to various symbols as she asks questions, and that she has a natural gift in "reading" the meaning of these symbols. Lyra becomes adept at this, and this gift helps her in her goal to rescue children captured for Mrs. Coulter's cruel experiments in the far North.
The description of Lyra reading the alethiometer ? "I just make my mind go clear and then it's sort of like looking down into water" (174) ? eerily evoked my experiences of many years reading astrology charts, which almost always took me into an altered state where I "connected" with the chart through its symbols. Lyra is even told that the scholar who invented this object was trying to measure the influence of planets "according to the ideas of astrology" (173). Lyra does indeed go into a type of trance while reading the alethiometer: "she found that she could sink more and more readily into the calm state in which the symbol meanings clarified themselves" and describes it to someone as a "different kind of knowing" (150; also see 126). The word "trance" is even used to describe this state (174, 359).
There are witches, both good and bad, who live very long lives. Although they have daemons, which would indicate they are human, they have supernatural powers humans do not have, such as flying on tree branches, inability to feel cold (186, though on page 313, a witch says that they feel cold but "don't mind it"), see things other humans can't see (187), and have "powers" who speak to them, who have powers above them, "and there are secrets even from the most high" (said by witch Serafina Pekkala who is helping Lyra reach the North, 313).
Serafina tells Lyra that one day, the "goddess of the dead," named Yambe-Akka, will come for her, but she "comes to you smiling and kindly, and you know it is time to die" (314). As with witches in the real world, these witches use spells and herbs for healing (315).
There are "Gyptians" who seem to resemble Gypsies (also called the Roma people), and talking bears. One bear, Iorek Byrnison, is befriended and helped by Lyra and becomes very loyal to her, aiding her in many situations. Some of the scenes involving attacks and fighting are quite violent and evoke grisly imagery.
High adventure, Lyra's courage and loyalty, the sweet bond between Lyra and her daemon, Lyra's kindness to outcasts, and vivid dialogue and writing are mixed in with slams at the "Church," the psychic-type reading of the Alethiometer, Lyra's tendency toward immoral actions, and the depiction of some witches and their powers as good -- all making a beguiling story for children and teens that is a tangle of relativism and amorality.
Children and teen readers will not pick up on the straw man arguments against the "Church" or the fact that despite attacks on "organized religion," there are spiritual and religious views being promoted through the use of the alethiometer, and through the views of the witch Serafina Pekkala and Lord Asriel.
I have received dozens of forwarded emails warning Christians about the upcoming movie, "The Golden Compass." I can't help but wonder why this did not happen with Harry Potter. Why is it okay to have a hero for children who casts spells, studies Divination, and learns to mix magical potions (all real activities denounced in God's word) but not okay to have a heroine who is in a story with anti-religious themes? Is it worse to be against religion than it is to go against God's word? Are they not equally disturbing?
Is it not equally a matter of concern for an avowed Christian to write books glorifying occult practices as it is for an outspoken atheist/agnostic to write books giving his views? I actually see the first as the more subtle and insidious danger.