Review: The Golden Compass and His Dark Materials trilogy

My advice: Read the first book and watch the movie. Don’t bother with the rest, which betrays the characters created in the first book and is driven by a message as subtle as a bludgeon. If you’re a parent pre-screening books for your kids to read, do not judge on the first book alone. At the very least, get a summary of the rest of the series. This is especially true if religious beliefs are important to you.

His Dark Materials is a trilogy of fantasy novels written by Phillip Pullman comprised of The Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. The first book of the series was adapted to a movie in 2007.

The series first came to my attention when The Golden Compass movie came out. The previews looked interesting enough, but what really grabbed my attention was the religious groups protesting what they saw as an open attack against organized religion, and especially the portrayal of this within a movie that’s being marketed to children.

As an avid fantasy reader, I’m used to this sort of reaction from certain groups, and usually these reactions seem to be based on the assumption that magic is inherently evil, and so a plot that portrays the side of good using magic is somehow blasphemous. The Harry Potter series is the most memorable such example. I’ve read that series and have not found a single thing in it that I see as damaging or offensive to religion in any way, so I expected His Dark Materials to be the same way.

So first I went to The Golden Compass movie.

The Golden Compass movie

The movie primarily concerns 11-year old Lyra Balacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon (Pan for short). Now, “daemon” in this context has nothing to do with evil creatures of the underworld. The story takes place in a world parallel to ours where every person has a daemon. The daemon is the physical manifestation of each person’s soul. Instead of residing within the body, it exists as an independently thinking animal familiar which can never venture far from its human. For each adult, their daemon’s form resembles their own personality. So a guard might have a dog daemon, someone stubborn might have a badger, and so on. Children’s daemon’s are ever-changing, able to take a variety of forms at will, due to the fact that the child is not yet the adult they will become–so Pan’s shape is ever-shifting to whatever is most convenient at the time. This idea of the daemon souls is one of the coolest things about the series.

Lyra has grown up an orphan raised by Jordan College in Oxford. She eavesdrops on a conversation with Lord Azrael (Daniel Craig) talking to the Magisterium (the church that controls much of the known world), discussing an expedition to the north related to Dust. Dust is a secret well kept by the Magisterium, one of their many secrets.  Soon after that she is placed in the custody of Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) which seems to be a blessing, but events soon take a turn for the worse. Along the way she meets Iorek (voiced by Ian McKellan), an ice bear, one of a race of sentient armored bears and Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliot) a Texan aeronaut.

The movie is well worth watching. The visuals are stunning and do a good job capturing the cool idea of the daemon familiars. The stars in the cast, while offering poster appeal, do not rest on their laurels. Each of them plays their part well, convincing me of the people they’re portraying. And it’s mostly faithful to the book, which is a rarity. Most of what is changed is that the book ends after revealing one more major plot point than the book (more on that in the spoiler section).

But throughout the whole movie, I didn’t see a single thing as objectionable. The church of this world plays a major villainous role but even in our world, regardless of what you think of modern religion, past religions have done some terrible things in the name of their god. To portray one religion as villainous, especially a fictional religion, does not imply an overall anti-religion message. After watching the movie, my only guess was simply the fact that the word “daemon” was used to represent the soul.

His Dark Materials trilogy of novels

My interest still piqued, I picked up the books. As I said the movie was mostly faithful to the first book. I enjoyed the writing style, the characters were rich and interesting, the descriptions were fun, the worldbuilding was superb, and still no anti-religious undertones that I could detect.

But starting with the second book, The Subtle Knife, the anti-religion message began to coalesce even as the quality of the story declined. The third book, The Amber Spyglass, has an anti-religion message as subtle as a club with nails in, which I might’ve been able to overlook with great effort except that the story was weak as well, serving only to provide the framework with which to hang the message. Major characters constantly take a 180 degree turn in traits without any warning or provocation, even including our protagonist, Lyra! They spend embark on quests with no clear goal and much of the time is spent with secondary characters in other worlds that end up having no appreciable effect on anything! More details after the spoiler warning just below.

Now, finally, the reasons why I hated the series (other than the first book):

1. Story vs. Message– I often like a story that carries messages inherent in it, but the writing has to be a story, first and foremost. But I don’t like tales where the message carries the story, or in this case, robs and leaves the story bleeding and half-dead by the side of the road. Pullman is capable of writing a really great story, as evidenced by book 1, but the quality of the story steadily declined as the strength of the message increased.

2. Betraying Characters– Not only does Pullman disrespect his readers, but disrespects his own creations by destroying the characters he took so much time characterizing in the first book. Nearly every major character makes a 180 turn in character traits without inciting incident or really for any reason whatsoever. I want to find out what happened to the real Lyra, not the doppelganger that takes her place for most of the series!

3. The Grand Con–But above all, Pullman’s plot is structured to fly under the radar of concerned parents. If a parent reads the first book of the series and sees no objectionable material, they may decide it’s okay for their kids to read. Above all, my main objection is not that I hate the message, it’s the fact that the story is structured to conceal the message for so long. The message is clearly anti-religion, and I can totally understand why parents with strong religious beliefs would not want their kids reading it. He’s pulled off the oldest con in the book–the bait and switch. My advice: concerned parents should at least read a synopsis of the series before deciding if it’s objectionable–do not judge based on book 1 alone. For this reason, I think that the religious groups’ protests are completely merited in this case, and serve as a warning to parents who would otherwise have been duped by Pullman.

I’ve heard that Pullman intended His Dark Materials to counterbalance C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Narnia is well-known for it’s religious allegory, particularly the Aslan to Jesus comparison with the self-sacrifice and resurrection themes. Pullman hates Narnia, and more power to him: he can dislike whatever books he wishes to. But, regardless if you agree with Lewis’s religious message or not, he was upfront about it. The religious themes are present in the first book, so any parent who didn’t want their children to read religious themes could easily see that and just set the book aside. Lewis’s story carried a message, but he managed to do so without having to resort to the bait and switch. Also, Lewis’s stories stay true to their characters and carry their message much more seamlessly than Pullman has managed. I can read Lewis’s stories and just enjoy the stories.

Begin Spoilers!

And, for those of you who don’t mind knowing the plot details, I’ll now give details to back up my claims.

As the series go on we learn that Lord Asrael plans to kill God. That alone doesn’t make the series anti-religious, of course. The character is not the author, and at the end of book one it becomes very clear that Asrael is a psychopath, bent on reaching his own goals regardless of who he hurts along the way. I hesitate to use the word “evil”, but he is representative of some of the worst parts of humanity: selfish, greedy, void of compassion. Where this storyline does become anti-religious is the portrayal of God. He is no creator, merely the oldest surviving angel who has succeeded in duping everyone into believing he is all-powerful and the maker of everything. And even angels are nothing particularly special. They are merely a species that happens to look rather human-like, and have very long lifespans, but otherwise are like humans in every way. God, in the story, has gone completely senile. He is a drooling idiot without any clue what’s going on around. He is merely a figurehead, a puppet in the hands of the Metatron. And, shortly after he’s shown, God dies. Not only that, but the death scene is so unremarkably, remorselessly written that it may have well have been a description of someone eating breakfast.

Another message that I absolutely hated was the lessons learned in the afterlife. In the second book, a knife is introduced which can slice gateways between worlds. In the third book, they decide to go to the land of the dead, which is reachable through this sort of gateway. Why they want to go there is never adequately explained, but it somehow becomes a major goal, and they pursuit it with great ambition and no point. Every soul goes to the same afterlife, a lightless place where everyone is tortured by harpies. Why this should be is never explained, this is just how it works. Lyra’s grand solution is to cut a hole into another world and strike a bargain with the harpies. When souls pass through the portal they dissolve into nothingness. The harpies gain nourishment from hearing stories, so they will let souls pass through the gateway if they have stories to tell. This is where one of Pullman’s grand morals comes from: Live your life with curiosity, ask questions, learn, so that your grand reward will be nothingness. If you live any other way, then you will suffer through eternal torture. I enjoy contemplation of the afterlife, but to determine placement in heaven or hell by such an arbitrary concept is very annoying to me. I’m a curious person who enjoys many sorts of learning, but I don’t think that incuriousity should condemn you to hell. It seemed to me this was just his further condemnation of religion. If you rely on faith for your beliefs then you deserve such a fate, he is saying. That is just as bad as religious groups claiming that non-believers will be condemned to hell for their lack of belief–odd that someone who so readily condemns fate is the creator of such an illogical theological system.

One element that Pullman apparently meant to use for shock value is the presence of homosexual angels. I’m not objecting about the presence of homosexuals or homosexual angels. Historically, I think that angels are generally considered to be devoid of sexual organs or even gender differences, so the idea of them being homosexual is a little bit silly, but whatever. What bothers me about these characters is they have no other distinguishing characteristics other than their homosexuality, as if being gay is the only trait they have that is worth mentioning. I wish he’d taken the time to flesh them out a little bit more so that I could believe that he really meant them to be real people in his world, not just token gay characters who are present only to get a rise out of the more vocal religious groups.

As for how he betrays the characters: worst of all is how he treats Lyra throughout. She very well characterized in the first book, charismatic, a constant liar but not an immoral person. She’s very strong-willed and always willing to fight for what’s right, no matter the risk. The biggest change between the movie and the first book is that the movie truncates one huge plot element. At the end of the book, Lyra sets out to rescue Lord Asriel from captivity. That’s where the movie ends, but in the book she finds him, and he rewards her by kidnapping her best friend, carrying him away and forcibly separating him from his daemon. He’s discovered that the bond between a human and their daemon holds massive amounts of energy. By severing the link, the energy is released all at once. He harnesses the energy to open a portal to another world, remorselessly leaving her friend a shattered husk of a human being. This lowers my opinion of Lord Asriel’s character to a point that he can never be redeemed from, and especially since Lyra’s best friend was the victim, I would expect her to do the same. She’s mad at first, but as the books go on, she has more and more sympathy for Asriel, and seems to have completely forgotten what he’s done. This is never resolved in any way that makes sense for her character. Her feelings simply dissolve as if nothing had ever happened.

Worse than that, is the price she pays to get into the underworld. She is told that she cannot take her daemon with her into the underworld, when she boards the raft that will carry her into the underworld. After a shockingly short time of deliberation, she agrees. There’s no apparent reason that he couldn’t turn into a bird and follow along behind, but this doesn’t happen. Once the distant is too great, the bond breaks, and they are separated. This is her SOUL, for the love of Pete. And, in this world, the sould is a separate mind, so she is causing torture to this other individual for no reason. And remember, she had no reason to go to the underworld in the first place! I lost all respect for her at that point, and never regained it.

The end result is that I wasted weeks of reading time finishing these, and wish I’d read something else instead. But I hope this review will make the time somewhat worthwhile to share the information with others.

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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David also writes articles here and edits the fiction. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on Twitter for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

16 thoughts on “Review: The Golden Compass and His Dark Materials trilogy”

  1. I have to disagree with you on this – i loved books 2 and 3 better than the first and cried during them – and that was reading at 30! Pullman was creating a ‘Paradise Lost’ story for children and I think it worked for adults as well. To me, these were Harry Potter for the clever kids -brilliant, brilliant storytelling.

    I wish you’d liked them more!
    😉

  2. I wish I had seen this before I read all three books (which I also picked up because of the movie). I read the first one fast, took a while for the second, and dragged through the third.

  3. I disagree with you too! I thought the film a shallow, rushed, SFX laden version of a subtle book, and found the 2nd and 3rd books huge in scope, complex and I stayed with the characters, main and secondary, right up to the end.

    Pullman didn’t seem to say to me that you would go to an awful hell if you were incurious, I took this as just another thread in the many worlds he created. He was exploring religeous themes. Your argument that he tried to sneak an anti religeous message under parents noses does not convince me. If he had one particular message, which I don’t believe either, it would have been to think about religeon not accept it without contemplation or scrutiny.

    I always thought he was writing as a reaction/exploration of Milton’s Paradise Lost, far more than the Narnia books, even though he does have some strong and wide ranging arguments against that particular series.

  4. Damon–
    “think about religeon not accept it without contemplation or scrutiny.”

    I can totally agree with that message, but it’s not one that I saw there.

    Yes, I believe you’re right that it is an exploration of Paradise Lost, but I read that he’d also intended as a reaction against Narnia.

  5. And thanks to everyone who’s commented so far. I knew that not everyone would agree with me on this one–the series won major awards and has made huge amounts of sales, so clearly lots of people like it. I don’t, and not for the same reasons I’ve usually heard, so I wanted to share my view.

  6. Did you even read the right books? Most of what you said was invalid, as there were reasons for most of the things you said were “Pointless.”

    For a start the Golden Compass didn’t have HUGE anti-religious themes compared to the rest because Lyra knew nothing about it, you have to remember we are reading it from her perspective. I’m glad he didn’t rush into things, obviously unlike you; who would have liked him to mention it in the first chapter?

    Reviewers reported that it was an anti-religious book, anti-narnia book before it was realeased. Earning the book a lot of hype, good and bad, before it was released. Most knew what the morals of the story were before they purchased it, if they didn’t then they knew at the end of the first book, before it actually gets anti-religious.

    Secondly, he doesn’t betray the characters, they change, like humans do. Lyra grows up from the first to the third, which is obviously the biggest theme in ALL the books, she changes from a lying brat, to a smart concious young woman. She does not forgive Asriel at any point during the second and third books, she pities him, that is not forgiveness, and she does this because she realises he is mad. Another thing you would have realised if you would have read it properly.

    God’s Death; It is supposed to be pathetic and unmoving and unremarkable because that is what THAT God is, he is fake, unremarkable and pathetic. Philip Pullman clearly didn’t want to give him a grand exit, also, Philip is an atheist (clearly) and hates Christianity, so why would he want to give their God such a good exit? I for one found that to the be greatest part of all the books.

    Now on to the Afterlife, this is where I realised you couldn’t have read the book, skimmed it maybe, or read an overview of it, but not read it properly.

    The Afterlife in that Hell like place was created by the Autority so that those who fought against him aeons ago (the first war against Heaven) would be punished from then on. The Authority also hates concious beings, the original sin, so seeks to torture them. The Harpies explained that they were told by the Authority to do what they do, so they do it, end of.

    The next part about the Afterlife is why they went there in the first place. It is very, very, very clear why they went there. So that Lyra could save Roger and Will could speak with his dad, I don’t know how you missed that? That is also the reason why Lyra had to split from Pan, so she could save Roger and help Will find his dad.

    Last part on afterlife; another thing you missread. It is explained that after the dead tell their life stories to the Harpies and pass through the doorway they are reused, recycled, made into other things. It is described as an amazing experience. That is my perfect form of an afterlife, not sitting up in Heaven with my deceased family for eternity.

    Now, homosexual angels, not used as a shock factor. It is explained that they were once human, it is never said that they were both male or female as human, my belief is that one was male and one was female. Also, Angels have no gender, they are not humanlike in structure, something else explained. They only take the forms of humans because that is what humans expect them to look like, it is explained that no one had the capability to see Angels for what they are. So the two “gay” angels aren’t both male, they are just seen by Lyra and the others as male. Another belief of mine is that Angels may not see gender as a boundry, they may love anyone they please freely, as they are much higher being than Humans and probably capable of such feelings and love.

    I’ve re-read each of the books atleast four times over the past ten years, so I think I know what Im talking about over somebody who clearly had a biased view on them after finding out they are anti-religious. If there can be christian propeganda then there can be anti-christain of the same calibur.

    Final note; I really think you should re-read the books again, with an open mind, and read properly. Philip Pullman is a fantastic writer, and has created, in my opionion THE greatest world(s) ever, yes, even better than the one we live on 😉

    Sorry about the rant.

  7. James, thanks for the comments. Interesting points, though you could have made them without being a dick.

    “Now on to the Afterlife, this is where I realised you couldnà ₠℠t have read the book, skimmed it maybe, or read an overview of it, but not read it properly.”

    I didn’t realize that there was a proper way to read. I must’ve slept through that class at school. I was under the impression that if I read the words in order, then the words would group into sentences, the sentences would group into paragraphs, the paragraphs would group into pages, and the events of the story would unfold. I’m not sure what step I’m missing to read properly. Yes, I read every word of all three books, and yes, I still thought that they sucked. Opinions differ and all that, so I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    “Ià ₠℠m glad he didnà ₠℠t rush into things, obviously unlike you; who would have liked him to mention it in the first chapter? ”

    Avoiding a topic for the first chapter is one thing. Avoiding the supposed point of the series for the entire first book of the trilogy, is another thing entirely.

    “Secondly, he doesnà ₠℠t betray the characters, they change, like humans do.”

    People change when they have some inciting action that causes them to change. I never saw that in Lyra. Especially in her drive to visit the afterworld. I understand she wanted to visit her dead buddy, but there just didn’t seem to be any reason for it, and in particular no reason to rip out her soul and discard it. She ended up rescuing him, but she hadn’t known what the afterlife was like, so she didn’t really know he needed rescue. Likewise, both of Lyra’s parents change without inciting action, from villains who care nothing for anyone to people who sacrifice themselves to end the threat to humankind. I didn’t buy it.

    “It is explained that after the dead tell their life stories to the Harpies and pass through the doorway they are reused, recycled, made into other things. It is described as an amazing experience. That is my perfect form of an afterlife, not sitting up in Heaven with my deceased family for eternity. ”

    It is described as an amazing experience, sure, but just because it can be described as an amazing experience doesn’t mean you’ve convinced me that it is so. Your consciousness dissolving into mist only sounds like a great experience in contrast to being forever tortured by harpies. Given the choice between the two, I’d choose dissolution, sure, but great? It doesn’t sound like it. But that’s a philosophical point, not really a gripe about the story.

    “Final note; I really think you should re-read the books again, with an open mind, and read properly.”

    Please enlighten me how to read properly, as I’ve apparently been doing it wrong for decades. Silly me. Is this something I can learn in correspondence classes? Even when I do learn how to read properly, however, I doubt I’ll ever read these books again. The only thing that kept me going was thinking “Maybe they’ll get better. He’s shown he knows how to write, maybe he’ll get off his soapbox and tell a story instead of beating me over the head with his so unsubtle message.” Now that I know it just gets worse as the series go on, I have no desire to subject myself to that again.

    I do appreciate your comments, though I would appreciate it if you would stick to defending the book instead of just repeatedly claiming that I didn’t bother to read them, and that I couldn’t possibly understand the themes. I didn’t enjoy the series, and it’s just because my tastes differ from yours. As with any review, your mileage may vary, and all that. I’m glad your counter-review will be here as a counterpoint for others who stop by to see this review. Maybe it’ll convince them to read the book, and that’s great.

  8. Jees. For someone who doesn’t like these books you’ve obviously spent a lot of your time since reading them working yourself up about how “pointless” they are. Maybe just stop moaning and go and find a book you DO enjoy??

  9. christy–
    I’d heard them hyped so much that I wanted to find out what it was all about. And, as I explained in the review, I loved the movie and the first book. I wanted to see the characters complete their story arc. Even though Pullman managed to mangle his own story beyond recognition, I still wanted to see what happened to the original characters.

  10. Right on. I’m glad to have found someone else who dislikes the 2nd and 3rd book for sensible, well-articulated reasons. Unlike you, though, I didn’t get through the third book – it was so boring and pointless!

  11. I love all three books! But I do agree that the 3rd book wasn’t as easy to get through as the first 2. The only reason I would say that I like the 3rd the best is because Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel are in it a lot and they were my absolute favorite characters! Otherwise I was super super super bored with Mary’s storyline and I got annoyed that Lyra and WIll wouldn’t just go to Lord Asriel’s fortress like they were told to do! The Land of the Dead part annoyed me so much. I know they were rescuing Roger but it was only a dream and it just sort of took away from the rest of the storyline. A lot of times during the 2nd and 3rd book I had to keep asking myself “Wait, why are they camping out in the woods? Where are they going?” and then I would remember their goal but I just didn’t like that they went on those side adventures. Those are really my only criticism though. I love love LOVE these books. They’re definitely my favorite books ever!

  12. Thank you! I felt for a while like I was the only person who thought the later books were bad just on literary grounds. I never even got to the third book: the ending of the second convinced me it was just going to melt down into incoherence in the name of bashing Pullman Pet Peeve(tm), and I decided I could read something else instead.

    I’m sorry to have that suspicion confirmed.

  13. Got to agree with you, Dave. I was horribly disappointed with this series. As an Agnostic, I was really looking forward to the rest of the series after reading GC.

    But then Pullman the story teller went away and Pullman the propaganda seller showed up. I purposely avoided reviews and interviews to avoid spoilers, so to say the sudden shift in tone was a real “whiplash moment” is an understatement.

    Look, I get it: Narnia is a little heavy on the Christian undertones. But here’s the thing, CS Lewis never abandons the story to hammer you in the throat with his message.

    Pullman’s work on the other hand, is nothing but him standing on a soapbox, bringing his narrative to a screeching halt, and forcing his junior high philosophy class on us. What Pullman has done is essentially sink down to the level of the “Left Behind” books.
    His work by book 2 of HDM is nothing more than ranting and raving about how “TEH RELIGIONISTS R EVUL!!111!” .Which wouldn’t be so jarring for me, if he was just talking about some fantasy world. But no. He bases his criticism on OUR world, and as such much of the evils he accuses “religion” of, are based on a meta-history that simply doesn’t jive with reality and an empty accusation of close-mindedness and stupidity that could just as well be directed right back at him.

    The worst part is he does all of this at the expense of his characters and story. You know…THE REASONS YOU’D READ A STINKIN’ FICTION BOOK FOR.

    I’m insulted to be considered the target audience for this.

    Phillip Pullman once said he was “the Anti-Lewis”. Well, he’s right on that score: he has none of Lewis’s subtlety, charm, likable characters, or commitment to a good story.

    …and some of the fans defending this series really need some perspective. for the most part, they’re a reasonable bunch, but then you get someone like “James” who screeches and claims the only reason one can disagree or not like the book is because they aren’t being open minded or because they “didn’t read it properly” (How the hell does one “read properly” in this guy’s mind? Backwards, drunk and while skipping?). Then they go and reinterpret the hell out of it in order to explain that what you read in black ink on white paper or from the mouth of the author himself doesn’t exist because reality doesn’t fit their puerile need to argue with someone who disagrees with their hobby horse (which “James” conveniently does). Then they act like dicks when you point out that their arguments prove that THEY haven’t “read properly”.

    I swear I haven’t seen this kind of slavish devotion towards crap since the rise of “Twilight”

  14. Devil Fish–Thanks for stopping by, I’m glad I’m not the only one who had that reaction to Pullman’s books. I completely agree. If I had to label myself I’d probably go with Agnostic theist.

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