On Christmas Eve the Daughters and I went to see the movie The Golden Compass. We rushed out of the cinema to the high street, to see if the local bookshop was open. It was, and I bought the two books in the series we didn't have, the first, Northern Lights, and the last, The Amber Spyglass.
Both girls had read the Philip Pullman trilogy His Dark Materials some years ago, but two of the books had become misplaced. While I'd begun The Subtle Knife on the recommendation of Daughter Number Two, I'd never finished it, just as I'd never finished any of the Harry Potter books. I thought it was a good book, though; I'd just been too busy then to finish what I thought of as merely a kids' book, albeit an intriguing and complex kids' book.
But with all the talk lately about the books, and about whether or not the books are a full frontal assault on religion, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
I found the first book (called Northern Lights here, The Golden Compass in the U.S.) interesting for its comparisons to the Oxford and England I know, a somewhat different version from "the other world" of the books, where humans possess pet-like daemons and bears talk. Having seen the movie, I didn't expect too many surprises in the plot, but I mostly read for character anyway. The child in the book, Lyra, is, like Harry Potter, destined to save the world. (The Jesus figure? You tell me.) She's not got all the magical talents of Potter at her disposal, yet is far more resourceful. Whereas Potter seems to rely on his friends (namely, Emma Watson) to figure out things, Lyra, nicknamed "Lyra Silvertongue" by the bear whose allegiance she earns, lies and schemes and fights her way out of trouble. I like that. It's about time (actually, more than ten years have passed since the books were written) that the hero of a book (and film) aimed at both sexes is a girl.
While my girls were in school I complained endlessly about the required reading in middle school, almost always books written by males about young male heroes. I called it the "Hatchet syndrome", the book by Gary Paulsen being representative of most 6th grade reading lists. Interesting, isn't it, that a popular series written by a woman features a male hero, while a series by a man stars a young female protagonist who lives in very male-dominated world.
But this isn't meant to be a rant about sexism in children's literature. While I enjoyed Northern Lights, I'm really enjoying The Subtle Knife even more. It takes place, so far, in the world that I know, in particular one I know very well. Many of the scenes take place in present day (early nineties, anyway) Oxford; in fact, the children (Lyra and her new friend Will) walk up and down Banbury Road, where my class building is located. The portal to the other world they discover is near the roundabout at the ring road and Banbury, a junction I've sat through countless times. How fascinating to know there's a portal there!
In one scene Lyra goes to Oxford's Museum of Natural History, one of my favorite museums anywhere, and to the fascinating Pitt Rivers Museum located through a sort of portal in the back of the Natural History museum. Here she gets an important clue about the nature of Dust among the trepanned skulls that I've gazed at myself.
That is just so cool.
I know, I'm supposed to be focusing on the possibly heretical nature of these books, but it's difficult when a good story gets in the way. And frankly, if you're reading the books looking for some sort of atheist propaganda, you're not going to find it. Sure, the bad guys, such as they are, are the Church, with a capital C, yet up to now the "bad guy" has mainly been played by Mrs Coulter, who as a woman isn't allowed to have much of a role in the Church. As to the existence of God, the books, as far as I've read, don't exactly present a convincing case (to someone who's already convinced) that there is no Higher Being. In fact, just the opposite. For these separate worlds to exist, so similar yet so distinct, requires some overall intelligence—an intelligent Designer, perhaps? Dust? Dark Matter?
Or is Philip Pullman, described as one of England's most outspoken atheists, setting me up? I don't know yet, but for now I've concluded that those people running around screaming about the anti-religious nature of His Dark Materials need to calm down, unwad their panties and read the stories.
Or go see the film. I liked it far better than the Harry Potter films I've seen. There's less reliance on talking portraits and other special effects (talking polar bears aside), which is perhaps the appeal of the books to me as well. I'm not a fan of science fiction, finding I can't suspend disbelief for long enough to buy into the premise. But His Dark Materials, set mostly in worlds I'm familiar with, don't cause that "yeah, right!" reaction I get from others in the genre.
They're just good stories.
Hopefully by next week I'll have finished The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. I'll let you know if my opinion remains the same.
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