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“The world was all before them”

December 23, 2007

We had the obligatory family outing to see The Golden Compass last weekend. I was nervous going into it, a similar feeling to the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. A series of books that I had read and enjoyed; would the cinematic version betray the original? It was also more important than the other blockbuster, namely the Harry Potter films. Much as I enjoy Harry, Pullman is to Rowling as Milton is to Ayers (that is a bit harsh, but you get my point).

Overall I thought it succeeded, consistently well acted and special effects that told the story rather than taking over. The armored bears were excellent, the shifting daemons of the children in the opening scene a delight. Although she lost her accent from time to time, Dakota Blue Richards was Lyra to the core, the new Eve in the making. The film finished earlier than the first book, the transition to other worlds awaits the second film, assuming it’s made. I suppose this excuses using the American title of the first book, rather than the British Northern Lights, if the Lights don’t end the film it can hardly be named after them! Yes it would have been better if the film had continued to the books ending, or if it had finished with the Battle for Bolvangar, but that is a minor criticism. This is the first of three, and should be judged when complete.

Now a lot of people are getting excited about this film in all the wrong ways. Robert Paterson reports on the banning of the books by the that well known opinion leader the Halton District Catholic School Board. There are more rational voices, for example this interview between the most intelligent Archbishop of Canterbury we have had in ages, Rowan Williams and Pullman himself. The substantial point is to see the whole His Dark Materials trilogy as an exploration of some of the most profound questions for humanity. Questions of the legitimate role of authority, the origins and nature of consciousness and the identity or otherwise of the mind and the soul. Here the daemons, and the discover of Will’s daemon through separation in book 3 are highly significant. They allow a level of social interaction and visibility which ever present in Lyra’s world, is less so in the daemon-less world that Will and we inhabit. The concept of redemption and change is ever present: Mrs Coulter’s joint sacrifice through love with Lord Asriel, in book 3, the role of Will’s father (in discovery, great loss), Lee Scorseby’s wild west last stand and his final conversations with his daemon Hester to name but three. The great thing about the series, which works for adults and children alike is that it is not a polemic, it is an exploration of deep issues.

Pullman is caught up in the anima and animus of existence. He has written a religious work of great significance. The nearest he comes to a direct attack on the Catholic Church is the character of Mary Malone The ex-Nun and Physicist who is cast as the Serpent, and becomes Will’s companion and mentor at the end of book 3. Yes the form of the Magisterium takes on aspects of the excesses of Church, but in his world Calvin was Pope. The Magisterium is also a secular power. Like Milton, Pullman is attacking the destruction of free will through the imposition of authority and the abuse of that authority. He is also, in a very modern theme exploring the interdependence of all things on each other. Now it would be foolish to argue that it is a pro-Cathollic (or pro-Christian for that matter) book, it clearly is not. But equally it shares many of the values and issues of those religions, and is drawn from them. It is within the tradition of dissent, with Milton, and would be better treated as such rather than been used to trigger the same sort of mindless dichotomy for which I have previously criticised Dawkins.

Back now to Rob’s thoughtful post. He rightly condemns the act of his fellow Canadians in banning the book. he goes to make a mixed series of statements about Christ and a statement that the book is about the difference between positional power and personal power. Now I think this last point is wrong or at least mistaken. Both personal and positional power exist they cannot be opposed. The Magisterium contains both, there are power struggles within the institution. Lyra herself engages with the support of the Gyptians, for whom Farder Coram is a paternalist figure. Her support for Iorek is to reinstate him as King, the positional power of leadership through personal battle and the death of his rival. Lord Asriel creates an organisation, with positional authority and status to compete with the regent Metatron. The book is in part (along with many other themes) about the abuse of power, and the sacrifice of that power for wider purpose. We exist as actors within systems, those systems constrain us, as we constrain them; to be other is to be un-human. There is a doctrine (I use the word advisedly) that dominates the US, but less so elsewhere, in which the individual and individual actions are held out as the panacea for social issues and problems. The effect of this doctrine on political society and the environment is no less a sin than the abuse of authority that Pullman attacks so effectively. Human societies are complex systems, the organisational structures, and our individual interactions co-evolve they cannot be separated anymore than Lyra should be separated from Pantalaimon. In that realisation lies hope:

The world was all before them,
They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way
.

PS

For those interested the BBC did an excellent radio play of all three books, volumes two and three of which are available on iTunes (you can buy volume one on CD but not iTunes for reasons I do not understand). Personally, after I had read all three volumes (following my daughter volume by volume) I went back to Milton, reread Paradise Lost (the above quote is the conclusion) and then read the books again. Its a process I recommend as it changes your insight into both works. Milton remember was writing in and after the English Civil War, he was opposed to the abuse of power, but not to power itself. His monism, is clearly reflected in Pullman’s dust.

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