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Washington Post Book Club: The Golden Compass

October Post Book Club Selection

Jennifer Howard
Washington Post Book World Staff
Thursday, October 28, 2004; 3:00 PM

Welcome to the online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of The Washington Post Book World.

In Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series, he introduces the heroine Lyra Belacqua, an orphan growing up half-wild among the Scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. In "The Golden Compass," Book I of the series, "Lyra inhabits a world that intersects ours, one of an apparently infinite number that coexist, for the most part invisibly." The book opens with Lyra hidden in a wardrobe of her uncle Lord Asriel, an explorer and politician, who reveals a great discovery from the Far North that other worlds exist.

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Post Book World's Jennifer Howard was online Thursday, Oct. 28, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss this month's selection, "The Golden Compass."

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Jennifer Howard: Hello, and welcome to today's Washington Post Book Club online chat about "The Golden Compass," the first book in British fantasy writer Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. It's a lovely sunny day here in DC, and it seems incongruous to be plunging into the Miltonian abyss on this lovely fall afternoon. Still, there's a lot of light in Pullman's universe too, so let's see where it takes us. I'm looking forward to your thoughts about and reactions to the book.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Ms. Howard: You mentioned the Milton inspiration for the "dark Materials" (Pullman epigraph) in your write-up. It does seem an ideal underpinning to support the many theological themes of the novel. I found the separation ("intercision") episodes especially painful. (I looked up "Azrael"--glad you mentioned it--and learned that Azrael is the Angel of Death who severs the soul from the body.) A lot of the novel's near-words and neologisms connote nicely, don't you think?.

Milton's outcast Satan searched desperately all four borders for even the faintest glimmer of light. Pullman's little half-child died heartbreakingly pining for warmth, for his little daemon familiar ("Where's Ratter?").

Separations (think "aubade" for one) are always "Lost" experiences. Frank McCourt tells that when his little twin brothers died in Limerick the second one, dying six months after the first, spent the entire time searching for his twin--looking under beds, saying "Ollie, Ollie." Your thoughts? Thanks much.

Jennifer Howard: Hello, Lenexa! Nice to see you online, as always. I also found the intercision episodes very painful to read--how the daemons struggle and fight to stay with their humans, how heart-rending (in perhaps even the literal sense) it is for both halves of the unit. It's a very dramatic way of describing the loss of a soul, and it's one of Pullman's most powerful indictments of theological hierarchy, that the supposed representatives of God would commit such atrocities on other human beings, especially children. (Though it would be pretty horrible to do to an adult, too.)

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Jennifer Howard: And to pick up on another of your points, loss is everywhere in this book. The loss of innocence--the Fall that some in the Church think Dust represents, as well as Lyra's loss of her Jordan College life, which is a paradise of sorts; the loss of daemons via intercision; the loss of parents (just as Lyra discovers hers are still alive, she's given reasons to wish that she had no parents, especially where Mrs. Coulter is concerned--and then Lord Asriel's betrayal at the end); the loss of good friends (the sequence of events concerning Roger is especially traumatic for Lyra and for the reader). And the list goes on.

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Glorious Fall: Hello: Just wanted to comment, I started my Pullman with this book but have since gone on to read many of his earlier works. They are all good, he is a very fine writer/storyteller. Thanks.

Jennifer Howard: So glad you liked the book enough to read some of Pullman's other stuff. I've only read the "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Which of his earlier books in particular would you recommend, and why?

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Washington, D.C.: Although I've adored Pullman's trilogy, it's been many long years since I've read any classics. Could someone speak more specifically about the Miltonian parallels to remind me?

Jennifer Howard: Wow, that's a biggie. Anybody out there want to offer a "Paradise Lost" thumbnail refresher?

One place to start is this article in the New York Review of Books by Michael Chabon: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/17000

It's probably the best overview/exploration of Pullman's trilogy I've seen so far, and it touches on some of the Miltonian parallels/reworkings. For instance, Lord Asriel's counterpart in "Paradise Lost" is of course Lucifer, the powerful rebel who attempts to overthrow the order of the universe.

Like me, Chabon is not as fond of the subsequent two volumes in the series, "The Sublte Knife" and "The Amber Spyglass." As he points out, "The Amber Spyglass" can be read as a tribute to the idea of the Fortunate Fall--the wisdom gained when innocence is lost. And in that final volume, Lord Asriel leads a Lucifer-like Second Rebellion against no less a figure than Jehovah--the real villain of the piece, in Pullman's telling.

Milton enthusiasts, please weigh in!

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College Park, Md.: Given that every human being in Lyra's world shares their longest and deepest personal relationship with someone who appears to be an animal, I expected the prevailing societal attitude toward real animals to be somewhat more empathetic. Although daemons are not real animals, the emotional reaction I had to them as characters was certainly based on my perception of them as animals (albeit, very humanlike ones). It seems hard to imagine that people would not come to see some of their own daemon's "personhood" in the real animals around them. Would Lee Scoresby not have been in the least bit uncomfortable eating a rabbit right in front of Hester? To further complicate matters, the distinction between humans and some "real" animals in Lyra's world—such as polar bears—is even less clear. Despite all this, animals seem to be used for food and clothing in Lyra's world with as little thought as they are in ours. Did any other readers find this incongruous?

Jennifer Howard: I wonder if Pullman isn't doing this deliberately as a way of underscoring the brutality of Lyra's world (and by extension our own). PETA wouldn't have much of a chance there, would it? Not with all those fur-wrapped Polar explorers. It's a universe of carnivores.

Of course, even though daemons take animal form, they are very much extensions of their humans--the equivalent of souls--and therefore not subject to the same rules as "lower" forms of life. That may explain why Hester doesn't seem troubled by Lee's consuming a rabbit in front of her; if Lee doesn't mind eating meat, she's not likely to mind either. (Especially since as far as we know, daemons don't need that sort of physical sustenance.)

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Herndon, Va.: Jennifer, the post, fairly recently, reported that we can expect a movie version of the trilogy eventually. Have you any udates?

Jennifer Howard: From what I've gleaned online, New Line Cinema has signed up Tom Stoppard to do the screenplay (with Pullman's assistance, I think), and Chris Weitz tapped to direct. (A less promising choice right off the bat than Stoppard--CW's credits include the immortal "American Pie 2"). No release date has been set for the film, as far as I know; 2006 is what they're saying on IMDB (the Internet Movie Database).

Go here for more info:
His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass

And these fan sites too:
hisdarkmaterials.org
http://www.bridgetothestars.net

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University Park, Md.: The beauty of the works is their almost universal appeal to a wide age group. First read by my teen-aged son after Harry Potter, the rest of us took them up--two fiftish parents and a 24-year old son (graduate student). We each have read all 3 and found them page-turningly compelling. Our background training in the history of Christian theology at Catholic high schools and colleges made many of Pullman's points deliciously ironic! We found the recorded performance version on cassette to be particularly dramatic since the voices were read by many different actors and Pullman himself narrated.

Jennifer Howard: They're billed as YA (young adult) fare, but as you say they have all-ages appeal. (Well, almost all ages--I wouldn't want children below a certain age reading them.)

I've heard Pullman described as "C.S. Lewis for atheists." Coming from a Catholic background, is that your reaction too? Would practicing Catholics see what Pullman's doing as a heretical assault on the Church? It sure reads like one to me.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Thank you--always enjoy your selections and responses. Michael Dirda has said that "Arguably, science and fantasy fiction are the most significant contributions to literature of the last century." Certainly travels to Narnia, Middle-Earth, Earthsea, Hogwarts, and other exotic places like Pullman's "Aurora" North have added a lot.

By the way, this comes from a Book Club member who filled out Mr. Yardley's card with something like: "I don't have any interest in science fiction. My reading interests are in the world of literature that explores the existential-condition angst and life's real themes of Eros and Thanatos." (From memory--hope it wasn't really that sophomoric.) Anyway, I now claim to be an "eclectic" reader. QUESTION: How core is science and fantasy literature to yourself? Thanks again.

Jennifer Howard: Really great literature in any genre explores some of the themes you mention: life, love, death, the angst and joy of being alive. Thanatos and Eros. I grew up reading SF and fantasy and it remains one of the great reading pleasures of my life (although I enjoy many kinds of storytelling). For the exploration of existential vertigo and the essential loneliness of being alive, for instance, you could read "The Stranger" or you could read Ursula Le Guin's "Earthsea Trilogy." Or--a favorite of mine and Dirda's--Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination." Or ... the list is probably endless.

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Washington, D.C.: Good afternoon -- this is my first Post on-line discussion,so kindly forgive (and correct) any errors.
Speaking of separations, I find Pullman's writing about 'dust' - the "original sin" evidence mentioned in Ms Howard's review - to describe it as valuable and attractive as well. Perhaps a parallel to Western religions' valuing the soul (daemon) over the sinful body? It's been many long years since I've read Milton. Any thoughts on connecting his work to valuing the dark?

Jennifer Howard: This touches on the idea of the Fortunate Fall I mentioned earlier--that the loss of innocence may be a good thing, if one wishes to be fully alive. As the series unfolds, it becomes clearer and clearer that Dust is not the manifestation of Sin that the General Oblation Board and the other theocrats believe it to be. Pullman, I think, has a great attachment to the richness of being alive, and part of that of course is experience in all its forms--for him, experience is a kind of light. Remember that Dust is first "captured" on film, in a special process Lord Asriel invents--and what is photography if not the channeling of light?

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Washington, D.C.: I may not be seeing all the responses, as nothing new has appeared to me in some time.
To follow on Glorious Fall's remarks, I recently heard a CD recording of "Lyra's Oxford," a short story. It's themes repeated the layering of realities started off in the intial chapters of The Golden Compass: The Oxford-not-quite-ours, the detection of dust... It also reinforced another theme I see in the trilogy: gaining awareness of the differences and commonalities of varying cultures.

Jennifer Howard: Pullman's universes are most definitely studies in multiculturalism, with witches, Gyptians (gypsies), armored bears who think and fight, even Texans! I haven't read "Lyra's Oxford" yet--how does it stand up to the full-length volumes?

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Munich, Germany: It has been quite a while since I've read and enjoyed science fiction. In my teens and during university, I devoured all of Tolkien's Middle Earth sagas, Frank Herbert's Dune Trilogy and Asimov's Robot and Foundation trilogies. A smattering of Philip Jose Farmer and Arthur C. Clarke came afterwards, but in the meantime, I've simply haven't been motivated to read fantasy or science fiction.

These days I like to read something that will add to my perspective and give me something to think about afterwards. I think that more realistic novels are easier to adapt to daily circumstances than otherworldly novels.

Maybe I'm getting old.

Is there anybody out there, a former SF fan, whose interest in SF was rekindled by Mr. Pullman's works?

Jennifer Howard: I'd be curious to hear other answers to your question too. As you can probably tell from my earlier answer about reading SF/fantasy, I'm more and more convinced that the best works of literature in ANY genre have the ability to speak to our experience of life. Some writers find that an alternate-world setting allows them to explore the human condition (there ought to be a better phrase, but that's what I'm going to use for now) more movingly and acutely than they'd be able to do if they wrote naturalistic fiction.

Short answer: Don't give up on SF and fantasy! Try some Le Guin, some Philip K. Dick ... even "The Phantom Tollbooth" or "The Wind in the Willows" to see if something connects for you.

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Lenexa, Kan.: I'm certainly no Milton scholar but there is a nice Naxos abridgement Audiobook available with notes that I listened to a couple years back (nicely read by Anton Lesser).

To me the Pullman parallels are really larger than Milton--rather to the Christian story. There are many clever allusions: Simeon, Herod's hunt for the child, the captivity, and so on. I noted Pullman even inserted the word "daemons" into the account of Genesis (the novel takes place in a similar--but different universe, of course).
Milton shows the consequences of Man's folly--we see the results even in Lyra's universe. I haven't read the other books but there is an attempt to track down the real First Causes, isn't there?

Jennifer Howard: Yes, Pullman gets more and more ambitious theologically as the series go on. The Chabon article I talked about earlier makes a good case--echoed my feelings, anyway--that Pullman winds up caring more about the theological points he's making than he does about letting his characters live to the fullest. I'll admit to feeling disappointed as the series wore on, disappointed and a bit angry that things played out as they did. But even that's a sign that Pullman's telling a very effective and moving story--if the reader didn't care what happens to Lyra et al., that would be the real failure.

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Washington, D.C.: Okay, I read lots of fantasy.... And I just don't get the fascination with this book.

Garth Nix, J.K. Rowling, Robin McKinley, Diana Wynn Jones, Tolkien -- all create similar worlds (especially Nix) that in my opinion are far richer than Pullman.

I'm interested in why people focus on Pullman in particular as worthy of praise. It was a fine book, but nothing extraordinary.

Jennifer Howard: I'm always fascinated to see how different people respond to books--there's no universal standard of good or great or even simply enjoyable. If Pullman doesn't float your boat, that's okay. The elements that, to me, make "The Golden Compass" a standout are daemons and dust, but especially daemons. I'm also fascinated by the alethiometer, the golden compass of the title, and its strange truth-telling properties. Note that it's not a predictor of the future--it couldn't be in a series that has so much to do with free will--but it suggests that higher powers do exist and are involved. It's almost a Deist scheme that Pullman's working out.

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College Park, Md.: First, as pertains to the movie, there is an interview with the director posted on the Bridge to the Stars Web site. After reading it I felt considerably better about the chances of these movies presenting a decent film adaption of the books.

As for my earlier question about animals in Lyra's world, one of the major problems I had with the perception presented in His Dark Materials that animals are "'lower' forms of life," that their mistreatment by humans is of less moral consequence than the mistreatment of people, is that in our world this is one of the oldest, most pervasive, and least challenged lies ever propagated by the Church in the name of the "Authority." One of my favorite moments in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 film classic, The Ten Commandments comes when the Pharaoh has finally agreed to free Moses' people, and they are gathering outside the city to begin their trek into the desert. One family is tugging on the reins of their pack-laden donkey, who is stubbornly refusing to get up off the ground, and Moses' lieutenant, Joshua, observing their difficulty, remarks laughingly, "Two thousand years of bondage and TODAY he won't move!;" Joshua (and no doubt most people watching the movie) is of course oblivious to the irony that for the donkey, it was two thousand and one years of bondage. Whether his master is Egyptian or Hebrew, he is still a slave.

I actually made these points in a letter to Mr. Pullman and he responded that "Maybe the presence of their daemons will guide people eventually towards a decent relationship with animals."

Jennifer Howard: Stoppard's involvement alone is enough to make me optimistic about the movie.

Do you think that in describing the brutalities of Lyra's world, Pullman is endorsing them? I didn't get that sense, although he's certainly most interested in man's (or God's?) inhumanity to man. I'm a vegetarian (not as hard-core as I might be, but I try), and I hear you on the subject of our ongoing mistreatment of animals. And it is kind of shocking, in a YA novel, to have the heroine eating sweetbreads (I think that's what she has at one of the fancy dinners she goes to in the city with Mrs. Coulter). That's an aggressive choice, for sure--but Lyra's not the squeamish choice, is she?

I'm fascinated too that Pullman responded to your question. That's great. I love it when authors take the time to communicate with readers. Did he have anything else interesting to say?

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Washington, D.C.: Your comments about practicing Catholics go right the the heart of my reactions to these books. I am a practicing Catholic and a woman of faith, sometimes because of the things my church does/teaches and sometimes in spite of the actions of the hierarchy. I loved the Golden Compass -- the discovery of a whole new world, the richness of the characters, the mystery. But I find Pullman so angry about organized religion that his critique is often shallow. He is clearly wanting to send a message about the church -- but the one he wants to criticize does not exist in reality. He is attacking a straw man. There is certainly much to criticize, but I was hoping for something a bit more intelligent, something with depth. At the end of the final book I was amazed at such a -- -boring- ending.

Jennifer Howard: Fascinating. Thanks for sharing that. As I was describing earlier, I had a similar reaction to the way the series plays out. Although I was raised Episcopalian and don't have much immediate attachment to any church's hierarchy, I also felt Pullman ultimately got too caught up in his assault on theocracy--too caught up to finish telling the story the way he'd started it, anyway. "The Golden Compass" remains for me by far the most satisfying of the three.

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University Park, Md.: Dear Jennifer: practicing but open-minded Catholics who have a solid background in Church History not only see the truth of Martin Luther's assertions about the state of the 16th century Roman Catholic Church but can appreciate the irony of Pullman's comments on the monolithic authoritarianism of a univeral church hierarchy. It is said that the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century would have been impossible without the Protestant Reformation--witness Galileo. One could even go so far as to say that the Roman Empire conquered the early Christian Church and remade it in its own image--Christ as King, not Good Shepherd--rather than that Xtianity conquered the Roman Empire as "in hoc signo, vinces." I think Pullman exposes the contradictions in these events and hints at what might have occurred if the Catholic Church remained dominant, monolithic, and unopposed by the rise of nation-states.

Jennifer Howard: Also fascinating--thanks for laying out the historical perspective so nicely. Did you find the series' resolution satisfying, then?

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Jennifer Howard: That's it, folks--we're out of time. Thanks again for joining me online and contributing so many good observations and questions. Join my colleague Dennis Drabelle next month--Nov. 23rd, I think--to talk about Paul Bowles's "The Spider's House" here on washingtonpost.com.

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