Book Review: The Golden Compass

So here’s my take on The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. It’s a little rambly. (If you want to read a great article about this book check out Christianity Today’s take on The Golden Compass.)

Honestly Guys, I really liked the book. It was tremendously well written. The characters were engaging and unique. The plot like was intriguing and packed with action. His use of simile and metaphor throughout the book is beautiful.

I probably think the book only had one problem with it: the slams on religion.

I‘m not just saying that because I’m a Christian. When I went to college I actually earned a BA in English and I’m speaking as a guy with a literary background.

Hear me out.

Essentially you have this excellent book, it’s multilayered in it’s meaning and subtle in it’s approach – at least throughout most of the book. I found this so refreshing for a fantasy novel. A lot of fantasy will straight up take a break from the story to go on and on about the history of the characters or to spell out very blatantly and in a boring manner the unique rules of that fantasy world. (*cough* Fellowship of the Rings *cough*) Pullman doesn’t bore you with this drivel. Instead he uses the characters and plot to reveal fantasy elements.

For example, he doesn’t take you on some ridiculous tangent to explain the fantasy rule: a Daemon must maintain a close physical proximity to their human. Rather he reveals this quite cleverly through the story. At one point Pan (Lyra’s Daemon) starts to “pull”(move outside of the normal physical closeness) and Lyra describes how retched she feels. It’s more engaging because you are told about an experience rather than a simple sharing of facts.

Enter the theology bashing. Honestly, a lot of it is clever and subtle like the rest of the book. For example, Pullman doesn’t come right out and say, “The Church is Bad,” at least not early in the book. Instead he does things like introducing a character who is a clergyman and that character has some really negative traits. It’s like an underhanded and slight way of bashing on the Church.

Then, in the closing chapters of the book, that all of a sudden changes and out of nowhere you get a face full of dissertation.

Lyra asks her father a few questions and he launches into a several page monologue on theology and original sin. It was completely out of place in this story. Most of the book is fast-paced, emotional and very real. This was the boring junk you expect out of fantasy. It’s not even that huge of a bash on the Church because he gets so specific about what original sin is and what it isn’t he’s really only bashing a subsection of the church who holds to that theology. (Keep in mind this is just a review of The Golden Compass. I haven’t read The Subtle Knife or the Amber Spyglass, which I heard are more deliberate in the selling of atheism.) I almost laughed out loud when in the monologue this character quotes the Bible and Pullman’s re-written it to include daemons. This was so dorky and cheesy. It didn’t fit with the rest of the book which is pretty hip for a fantasy novel.

The Golden Compass, from a literary point of view, would have simply been better with the final monologue omitted.

Unfortunately you couldn’t do that without sacrificing the entire story. Throughout the book Pullman is a genius about setting up very subtle foreshadowing that pays off big time later one. He does it over and over again very masterfully – except for the main point of the book!

It’s like he set up all the clues a hints and they’re all pointing at something and when it came time to write the final chapters he just ran out creativity and was like, “Oh well, I’ll just be lazy and have this one character tie up all my loose ends in one chapter through the use of a long boring monologue.”

I call this the Star Trek syndrome. Ya know – they’d invent some type of complicated situation and you never thought they’d get out of it and your totally intrigued with what’s going to happen. In the end all the problems get solved simply and easily because some science guy invents a weird device and launches in a monologue to explain some made-up science fiction reason why it works. It’s unimaginative at best.

So for all my ranting I really enjoyed the book.

Go check out the Christianity Today Golden Compass Article.

Leave a comment. I’ll talk more about this with you.

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5 Responses to “Book Review: The Golden Compass”


  1. 1 Sarah Chia December 21, 2007 at 9:44 am

    I’ll read it one of these days.

    It sounds like Pullman must’ve attended the creative writing classes that Tolkien skipped. Every good author know the rule “show, don’t tell.”

    I’m glad that Pullman was able to use his God-given talent so well in that respect. 🙂

  2. 2 W.E.B. Adamant December 21, 2007 at 10:21 am

    On the note about Tolkien, I can’t get through any of his books (not that I’ve tried in the last five years or so). But I remember reading that he wrote those books to test out his new languages. Of course they’re going to be boring. Thanks to Peter Jackson, they make terrific movies.

    As for your review, I agree. It’s beautifully written, and I remember thinking that that last rant was out of place. I’ll also agree with you that The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass press the issue a bit more. But there is a beautiful story beneath it all, and it’s still worth reading.

    I’m glad you liked it though and came out “in tact.” Maybe people will consider that when their children ask to read the books.

  3. 3 Chris December 21, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    I think that Lyra’s father’s little bible speech is quite necessary to set up the rest of the books, it is necessary for Lyra and Pullman’s younger reader to know why the church hates and fears dust in that world. In Lyra’s world the church believes every word that the bible states, hell I have people at my work tell me that all the time, they don’t care that every bit of scientific knowledge says that one point could not possibly be “literally” true. I have read Milton’s Paradise Lost many years ago, and Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is basically a retelling of that story for teenagers, but I think that many teens lack enough classical literature background to pick it up. I don’t feel that the books are anti-religious, only anti-organized religion. A telling point in the books is the lack of Jesus as a character in Lyra’s world, and that’s on purpose. Jesus existed in Will and Mary’s world and that Christian faith line is much more tolerant than in Lyra’s world. The word is that Pullman will include a Jesus character in his upcoming novel titled “The Book of Dust” late 2009, this book is rumored to have Lyra journey to a area similar to our middle east and she will encountered a character very similar to Jesus, if not out-rightly named Jesus. Oh, by the way if Jesus was around at the time of the Golden Compass I’m 99% sure he would have side with Lyra and her quest over the church in her world.

  4. 4 Billy Chia December 22, 2007 at 10:51 am

    W.E.B.,
    Right on, I’m way down with the Peter Jackson version 🙂

    Although I’ll still contend that this book is not even remotely close to being anywhere near at all to be being a children’s book. Early teens is the best I think you could get in terms of target audience. Completely ignoring the religious issues, the book was simply really violent and dark and I think if people are reading it to younger children they are probably neglectful parents in more ways then one.

    Chris,
    Completely agreed, you need the anti-religious sentiment. It’s the crux of the whole book. omitting it would destroy the story, and so from a Christian’s point of view if people choose to pass this book up I’d don’t really fault them and think it’s pretty reasonable.

    As for the Bible, I think you’re treating the Bible like it’s one book written by one author at one time.

    It is not.

    It’s a collection of writings. Written by over 40 different authors over thousands of years. There are many different types of literature represented including everything from historical documents and personal letters to poetry and retelling of people’s dreams. When the Bible makes historical statements they are literally true – archaeologists and scientists have proved this over and over again. When Biblical authors write poetry they never intended it to be taken literally any more than Pullman would have us believe that Lyra is a real person.

    Do I believe in every word of the Bible?

    Yes, absolutely.

    I just don’t ignore the author’s intent or cultural context a Biblical document was written in. Trying to pretend the Bible was written in our modern culture by one author can take you to all kinds of dark places.

    As for Jesus siding with Lyra. Yeah, I think you might be on to something there. The Church in Pullman’s book ridiculously abuses power, distorts the truth of the Bible, lies, murders, cheats and steals. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Jesus preaches heavily against the established religious leaders of his day as they likewise very poorly followed God in their leadership practices.

  5. 5 Harmony December 22, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    I though the movie was boring and the anti-religious themes were very obvious. I haven’t read the book, but I’m sure the books are better than the movie. They always are.


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