Original Sin Is the Source of Truth? (The Golden Compass) 

I've been questioned as to whether I should have trusted SparkNotes' plot summaries for the trilogy, His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman. I've just finished reading the first book, The Golden Compass. The plot summary at SparkNotes proved to be very accurate, and the analyses were very insightful and supportable. They missed an important element, though. 

Two Symbols
The two most dominant symbols in the book are Dust and the alethiometer. Dust is mentioned from the beginning, but its nature is a mystery to Lyra, the protagonist, and also to the reader, up until the very end. The alethiometer is the golden-colored, compass-looking object for which the book is named. Its name comes from the Greek for truth and to measure. Lyra uses it to uncover mysteries and gain knowledge, in a kind of clairvoyant manner. It is always correct; it never misleads; it is a teller of truth.

(The same cannot be said of Lyra, unfortunately. Our heroine, the one destined to save the world, makes it through danger and trouble primarily by practicing deceit and trickery. She has a Golden Compass; other than seeking to rescue friends, though, she does not seem to have much of a moral compass.)

Truth Comes Out of Original Sin?
At the end of the book we finally learn what Dust is: it is "the physical evidence of original sin." It is also the power by which Lyra can read the alethiometer. The message is quite clear: original sin leads her to truth. Now, is this a completely non-religious novel as some claim it is? Does it belong in public schools?

Of course it's a fantasy novel, and fantasy novels set in other worlds can be whatever they wish to be. They do not have to have much to do with our world's institutions or beliefs at all. Earlier in this series we looked at how the series treats the Church and God. God does not appear in the first book, but the Church certainly does. Is it possible that no allusion to the Church in our world was intended, or that none is apparent? We know from at least one interview with Phillip Pullman that he does intend the connection to be made.

Not Disconnected From Our World
Is the connection apparent in the book, though? Well, Pullman's Church has a "Vatican Council." A character speaks of his desire to go to Geneva and "be baptized as a Christian." The last Pope in this Church was John Calvin (feel free to grin over that one). The allusion to our world's Christianity looks a bit cross-eyed on that last point—but it's certainly there, impossible to miss.

Series Overview

The Golden Compass and "Killing God"--Not An Urban Legend
Coming Soon To Your Child's School: Hostility Toward God and Church, Heavily Promoted
Once Again, How Can This Be Legal?
On Christianity, the Arts, and How To Have a Disagreement
Original Sin Is the Source of Truth? (The Golden Compass)
Death of Divine Authority—Pullman's Agenda
BreakPoint.org on The Golden Compass
"I'm Trying to Undermine the Basis of Christian Belief"
"Democracy of Reading" or a Hidden Agenda? (Phillip Pullman)
Strongly Recommended: Jeffrey Overstreet on the Golden Compass
A New Bearing on The Golden Compass
Rehabilitating The Golden Compass's Religion?
Preacher-Man Phillip Pullman  

Posted: Mon - November 12, 2007 at 04:02 PM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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