Last night, I went with my family to see The Golden Compass. Even if you are not a fan of the fantasy genre, you have probably heard about this film by now due to the efforts of some Christian groups to boycott it. It was the Christian efforts, in fact, that first got my attention directed toward the work, and their complaints which made me want to see it. This is not a review, so I won’t go into how brilliantly acted The Golden Compass is (though it really is), or how the aesthetics of the film are deeply satisfying (though they are). What I want to talk about is The Golden Compass as modern mythology, and why the Christians are right to be scared.
“My books are about killing God.”
One thing we are lacking in western culture is a good, modern mythology. As I have argued elsewhere, the only mythology we have to guide our thoughts these days are comic books, and while I am the very last person to denigrate their value, I feel that they are a poor substitute for the sweeping epics of our past. Comics are effectively a stop-gap measure, the best of which get us through but leave us without that sense of psychological fulfillment which comes at the end of a truly great myth. They’re road signs as we travel, when what we really need is, well, a compass.
In lieu of a comprehensive modern mythos, many people try to work with an older, pretested one. Tolkien addicts fall into this category, of course, but the vast majority choose an established religion and take their sustenance from that faith’s stories. Here in the United States three-fourths of our citizens are Christian (if H.R. 847, Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith is to be believed). The Bible is a wonderful mythology, full of intricate stories establishing whole systems of thought and providing a great deal of comfort and direction in its stories. Unfortunately, the Bible is not able to fully function as living mythology in current times, simply because it was written three thousand years ago. We interact with a completely different world than that of its authors, many of its recommendations are irrelevant or impractical in our modern lives. Which is not to say that it is completely invalid, not to say that the Christian God does not exist, but simply that the method of belief and adherence outlined in the Bible is no longer coherent with any reasonable means of application.
It is theoretically possible that the Bible could be reinvented to be practical as mythology again, in the hands of a creative and intuitive mythologist. From a purely psychological and anthropological perspective, one might suppose that this would be the role of the Pope, to renew the mythos for each succeeding generation. Unfortunately, however, this has not been encouraged by the Christian institution. The Bible is sacrosanct, not to be touched or changed. The doctrine is not to be questioned or doubted. The hierarchy of the church has set up comforting, solid walls of thought and behaviour, which substitute for personal discovery and guidance found in a living mythology. It is not God which is dead, it is the mythos, and it was the church that killed it.
“I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”
The danger to Christians in the movie version of The Golden Compass (and, I hear, even more so in the books on which it is based) is not that Pullman has created a mythology so powerful that it may replace Christianity’s hold on our lives and imaginations. Nor is it (as some claim) that the theme of the story will confuse kids about good and evil. The threat that the story presents is that it is compelling enough and subtle enough to get its message in past the conscious thought processes, back into the place where really good stories go in our minds to be referenced and revisited over time. It is an effective mythology, in that sense, but not one with a grand enough scope to supplant more extensive ones. The myth of this story aims to convey one, precise message, and the message is that institutionalized authority wants to cut you off from your soul. The Golden Compass does not seek to replace Christian notions of good and evil, it simply lays the groundwork for individuals to realize the need to make that call for themselves.
The most blatant moment in the movie is near the end, when the witch queen, Serafina Pekkala, tells the aviator-cowboy Lee Scoresby that a war is coming. Scoresby asks her what will be fought over, and the witch replies “Free will”. Throughout the course of the movie, we are reminded again and again of the central role of self-determination. Both lead female characters repeatedly mention that no one will tell them what to do, though Marisa Coulter gives a chilling little speech at one point about how some people need to be told what to do, for their own safety. The great and noble bear, Iorek, is rescued from a life of misery and servitude by the rediscovery of his stolen armor, which he describes as being like the daemon, or soul, of the human characters. The struggle in the movie is not against spirituality or even against God. It is against the institution that would cut you off from your own soul, and by doing so cut off your connection to something greater and more mysterious. The movie is about power, not God. It’s focus is on the inherent right of the individual to listen to their own conscience, rather than be overruled by an institution which claims to know better. And it conveys this message very effectively. Those who have found their calling in telling others what God wants them to do are right to be quaking in their pulpits.
“Argue with anything else, but don’t argue with your own nature.”
Though many people prefer the seeming safety of having others tell them the direction they are to take, the age of rapid mass communication has started to undermine the faith of many. Not in the myths and gods of their choosing, but in the directors and interpreters of those beliefs, who are all too often revealed to be incapable of living according to their own strictures. Whether we look at the institution of the church, or that of the government, the idea that these human bureaucracies could act in our best interest is becoming ever more transparently a farcical notion. It is upon this tipping point that The Golden Compass comes to rest, and with the full potential to effect the balance.
Time will tell how deep this message can run, how large its field of effect can be. This one story will not be the thing that sweeps up the entire world in a revolution of self-determination and self-knowledge. But it may be the first of many, it could be a significant chip in the structures that have kept us from exploring further the possibilities of what it is to be human. And for that, Mr. Pullman, I thank you.