0118 | Northern Lights – Philip Pullman


Northern Lights

Context: Finished this off on my in-laws’ decking in the garden.

For a long time I’ve been wanting to get my hands on the first book in His Dark Materials trilogy and I finally found this copy in a charity shop. It wasn’t at all what I expected. For those North American readers of the blog, note that in your continent, this book is sold as The Golden Compass for reasons that elude me.

For a start, it was a children’s novel in the style of Harry Potter (or rather I should say HP is in the style of Northern Lights.) Now, I really didn’t like the first HP book and I have to say, after so much great literature in the last couple of years, it was a bit of a shock to be reading something that was so simple in its written style.

But I warmed to it and enjoyed the detail of Pullman’s world here. I like the way it is set in Britain but not the Britain I know. It’s a kind of apocryphal world that could have existed in another parallel universe (maybe a clue there about the story line!) because it is so similar but then just not quite right. It’s a bit like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go world in that sense.

But while it’s a good story in itself and I’m looking forward to finding out what happens to Lyra in books to come, it wasn’t for the story that so many of my non-Christian friends have recommended it to me, I’m sure. It was because of the way the church is portrayed.

So, as I approached the book, I had an inkling that it may rub me the wrong way. It didn’t really though, at least, not until the very end. This is because my non-Christian friends have, understandably, made a common error and equated my love for Christ with a love for organised religion which I certainlyly don’t possess. I’m all for the organised church to be held accountable for any abuse of power.

But what did intrigue more than incense me was the eerie passage from Genesis 3 right at the end of the book. There’s a quote from it refuting the church’s idea of original sin and the unusual thing is that it isn’t Genesis 3 in the Bible we all read but a modified Genesis 3. And this is what intrigues me. As Pullman has created a parallel Britain with things that are similar to but still not the reality of Britain as I know it, he seems to have done the same with the Bible. Because of this, I’m not too sure that he is actually being critical of the actual Bible itself or any particular interpretation of it.

Instead, I think it’s a clever way of making an illustration of how theology can be used to crack the whip over people and keep them in bondage when it was intended to bring freedom. And criticism of this I am all for.

Having said that, I’m not sure what role Lord Asriel is supposed to be playing when he says “Death is going to die.” In terms of parallel’s with Christianity, that would make him synonymous with the Messiah and I’m not sure (yet after book one) whether Pullman intends that or not.

Still, I look forward to getting my hands on book two, The Subtle Knife, someday.

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.

So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked towards the sun, and walked into the sky.

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  1. I agree with you about the portrayal of the church. I approached the story more from an anti-establishment angle. I think the church in this story was just a symbol of establishment, not unlike the Empire in Star Wars. People are going to get out of it whatever they bring into it. If they are anti-church, or anti-christian, they will read it from that perspective and see no other angles. If people are christian and throw their arms up into the air at the mere idea of the church being portrayed in a negative light, then they will see this as an assault on their faith. In other words, people just need to relax and enjoy the fun adventure story! 🙂

  2. Thanks for the plug! 🙂 Howzabout this–we’re reading the books at the same time! I’m nearly finished with The Subtle Knife, which definitely has some more concrete statements about the Church of Lyra’s world, and what Asriel is up to.

    I did discover why the title changed between the UK and US. Pullman originally titled it The Golden CompassES, for the pair of drawing compasses depicted on the alethiometer. The US publishers thought he was referring to the alethiometer itself, which is described as looking somewhat like a directional compass. They took a liking to that title and refused to change it. It’s very confusing–I also assumed it referred to the alethiometer, since that’s the magical object of focus in that book. The two compasses on the dial don’t seem to have a big role.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what you think of the others!

  3. A great little review of a fascinating book, part of an increasingly fascinating series, if you continue on with the other two. I very much encourage you to do so. I read these three books one after the other at around Christmas/New Year’s last year. I thoroughly enjoyed them… if you read on, the theme sort of morphs into a very touching, innocent, love story.
    But yes, the theological ideas are always present also. I was fascinated by his whole fictional way of presenting sin as this sort of… Dust. He presents it as something negative, yet essential.
    I encourage you to read the rest of the series. Really, they get better as you go.

  4. I read the the first book as a Christian and didn’t find it offensive at all, but as I progressed through the series I was increasingly disturbed by what I felt were Pullman’s personal rantings against religion (or christianity, or catholicism – it wasn;t clear). I loved the creativeness of the series, with all the touching detail of Harry Potter and the epic magnitude of LOTR, but I found that the story was crafted with deep veins of a world view or theology so utterly contradictory to my own that I couldn’t enjoy it. Yes, there is something of a touching love story at the end, but innocent it was not – a touch of the Subtle Knife is necessary to separate the story from the spirit in which it was written.

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