Spiritual Lessons from 'The Golden Compass'
Text by Donna Freitas
The upcoming release of "The Golden Compass," based on the first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, has been met with intense criticism from many Christians who see these books as an overtly anti-Christian tale intended to "sell atheism to kids." But in my view such accusations are a misunderstanding of Pullman's story.
In our book "Killing the Imposter God," my co-author Jason King and I, theologians and Catholics ourselves, argue that "The Golden Compass" is a magnificent epic, filled with spiritual themes, Christian virtues, and a glorious vision of God. Click through this gallery to read the top 10 spiritual lessons from Pullman's "The Golden Compass."
Donna Freitas is the co-author, with Jason King, of "Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman's Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials." She is one of Beliefnet's Idol Chatter bloggers.
Pursue Truth Wherever It Takes You
The heroine of "The Golden Compass" is a 12-year-old girl named Lyra who receives an alethiometer, the golden compass of the title, a beautiful and rare truth-telling device. (In Greek alethia means truth.) Only Lyra has the gift to read it, but she struggles to interpret the often-cryptic truths it offers. By following the word of the alethiometer, Lyra is heeding God's call (with "Dust" being Pullman's word for the divine).
Through the alethiometer Lyra talks to God, and she consults it at every turn in her journey--a journey that takes her to the northernmost regions of her world. To read it she must enter a meditative state of a sort--and it is during this time that we can say that Lyra is in prayer. Pullman even describes our heroine poring over the alethiometer "like a lover with a picture of the beloved." How's that for divine adoration?
Love Your Soul with All Your Heart
In the world of "The Golden Compass," all humans have daemons, animal-creatures that are part of a person yet exist outside the body. Lyra's daemon is named Pantalaimon (Pan for short) and they chatter, argue, and laugh like the best of friends. Pan can change form with lightning speed--at one moment a pole cat, then a mouse, then a butterfly. Children's daemons change until the reach puberty, at which point daemons "settle" into a form that represents something significant about the person. The daemon is Pullman's version of the soul.
Imagine if we could talk and question and laugh with our own souls? What would they say to us? What sort of personality would they have, what shape would they take, and what would that tell us about our own deepest truths and desires? Lyra and Pan truly love each other with all their hearts. Would that we all could know and love our own souls so passionately.
Knowledge Is Divine
The concept of Dust is introduced in the very first moments of "The Golden Compass." Dust is a mysterious substance that Lyra's father, the scholar-explorer Lord Asriel (played by Daniel Craig in the movie), has captured on camera during his latest exploration in the north. Dust gives the alethiometer its truth-telling power and that it is the stuff of daemons, a kind of "soul-material."
A word that reminds us of the dust from which humanity was created in the Book of Genesis, Dust is connected to knowledge and our ability to be conscious, animated beings. Villains wish to wipe out Dust's existence altogether--but Dust turns out to be Spirit, Wisdom, the divine. Dust (God) not only loves us, but Dust wants us to know Dust more than anything else in the world. Our telos, our purpose, is to come to know Dust as intimately as possible. To pursue Dust is to invite the Holy Spirit into our lives.
Someone Is Always Watching Out for You
Our heroine Lyra may be an orphan of a sort--her father, Lord Asriel and her beautiful but cruel mother Mrs. Coulter (played by Nicole Kidman)--abandoned her as a child.
But Lyra is never lonely. Whether it is her daemon-soul Pan, the kindly old scholars of Oxford's Jordan college where Lyra spent her childhood, the seafaring, courageous Ma Costa and Farder Coram--members of a people called gyptians, who take Lyra in when she is on the run--or Iorek Byrnison, the great armored bear (voiced by Ian McKellen) who becomes Lyra's champion and loyal companion, someone or something always turns up to shepherd Lyra along on her journey. Through the alethiometer, Dust is there for Lyra too--God responds whenever she seeks.
The Devil Is Often (Wicked) Beautiful
Everything about Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter, is stunning: She is knockout gorgeous, her voice is like velvet, her charm irresistible, the fur of her golden monkey daemon so beautiful children almost can't help wanting to stroke him (even though it is taboo to touch another person's daemon). She lives in an impeccably kept home filled with luxuries.
Like other children, Lyra is immediately enamored of Mrs. Coulter, the woman she eventually learns is mother she the supposedly lost long ago. But Lyra soon learns that beauty can be deceiving. What's most important is who we are inside--inner beauty--and Mrs. Coulter is rotten (almost) to her core. She is the devil dressed in mink.
Always Be a Good Samaritan
When Lyra journeys north with the gyptians to find a group of children kidnapped by Mrs. Coulter for cruel experiments, Lyra rescues Tony Makarios. Tony is a desperate, lost child who has been severed from his daemon at Bolvangar, Mrs. Coulter's experimental compound. A human without a daemon is no longer human in people's eyes, grotesque even, and everyone around Tony is so repulsed and fearful that they can barely even look at him--except for Lyra. She still sees Tony's humanity. Lyra is the very definition of a Good Samaritan not just for rescuing Tony, but for saving him spiritually by recognizing his inherent humanity.
Always Help Your True Friends When They Are in Need
Friendship is a powerful theme throughout "His Dark Materials." Lyra embarks on the journey that drives "The Golden Compass" on behalf of her young friend Roger, the kitchen boy with whom she long enjoyed playing and exploring the nooks and crannies of their world's Oxford. Roger is kidnapped by the Gobblers, people led by Mrs. Coulter who steal little children for cruel experiments.
When Roger disappears, Lyra doesn't simply despair, she determines to find him no matter what. For Lyra, the bonds of friendship are strong, and Pullman is reminding us that we must do whatever we can to preserve the well-being of our beloved companions.
Defy Authority When It's Corrupt
Lyra is a willful child, and willfulness turns out to be her saving grace in "The Golden Compass." Her defiant curiosity leads her to overhear her father, Lord Asriel, first discussing Dust--a moment that changes her life forever. This same quality leads Lyra to run away from Mrs. Coulter, to challenge the gyptians when they refuse (at first) to take Lyra north, and to travel with Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear, to find Tony Markarios.
Lyra does what she believes is right and true--she is not afraid to challenge authority when it is unjust. Lyra is a prophet of sorts: She often speaks of things no one else wants to hear, but which are the most important, even life-changing tasks ahead.
Fight for the Good--and If You Must Fight, Do It Fiercely
Daemons fight with each other, armored bears fight with each other in pursuit of what's right, children fight for their lives when adults act cruelly toward them, and gyptians fight on behalf of all children who are wronged.
In "The Golden Compass" Lyra heads into battle on behalf of her kidnapped friend Roger, and on behalf of all children threatened by Mrs. Coulter and her henchmen, who want to sever children from their daemons. Lyra gathers as many friends as she can find to help her fight. All are willing to fight to the death if they must. Pursuit of the good requires bravery, courage, and loyalty, no matter what the consequences.
Keep Your Soul as Close as You Can
Like so many children in the world of "The Golden Compass," Lyra and Pan--human and daemon--often play at seeing how far away they can move from each other without anguish. Daemons (souls) are not literally "attached" to their humans, but there is an invisible bond so powerful that each time Pan and Lyra experience distance, the hurt of separation sends them hurtling back into each other's arms to hug and hold and comfort each other with nearness and love. Souls are our most precious gifts, divine fonts of love and wisdom and playfulness. Never let them out of your sight or your awareness.