Navigating the Golden Compass : Religion, Science and Daemonology in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (Smart Pop series)
by Glenn Yeffeth
Review by Edward Carmien
Benbella Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1932100520
Date: 01 August, 2005 List Price $17.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Michael Chabon's "Dust and Demons" is an extremely worthy reprint from the New York Times Book Review. In it Chabon argues that Pullman's trilogy is an exception to the "Tolkienesque trend" in contemporary fantasy writing, that Pullman, by drawing on and retelling Milton's epic Paradise Lost addresses a theme inherent in our culture, "the narrative of Innocence, Experience, and, straddling the margin between them, the Fall." Michael Chabon, here no less lyrical and eloquent than in his fiction, is a must-read for those who think about fantastic literature, and Yeffeth's anthology is well-led by his contribution.
Naomi Wood's "Dismembered Starlings and Neutered Minds" addresses Innocence in Pullman's work, arguing that he "subverts our notions of innocence by first showing children's innocence not as guiltless, but rather as uncouth, even feral." This readable and smart analysis comes from the halls of academe, as Wood is an associate professor of English at Kansas State University. May her kind increase: accessible writing about accessible literature makes sense.
Don Debrandt contributes "His Dark Pharmaceuticals" to Navigating the Golden Compass, an interesting survey of drug-related themes in Pullman's work. Punctuated by section titles such as "Lyra in the Sky with Diamonds," if nothing else this piece points out Pullman's experiences in 1960's Oxford surely must have shaped him as a writer. Sarah Zettel's "Dust to Dust" reviews Pullman's destruction of traditional tropes, such as the "girl with a talking animal" and "giant protective talking creature" elements. Robert A. Metzger, with his "Philip Pullman, Research Scientist" writes an analysis of the rigor of Pullman's fantastic world from the perspective of a scientist who is also a science fiction and science writer.
Moving from the hard sciences to psychology, Arthur B. Markman's "Science, Technology, and the Danger of Daemons" addresses the mysteries of how consciousness works and more importantly provides an analysis of how cultures as a whole manage information. This leads to Markman saying that "technology can be a force for good, but it must be grown within the structure of a culture rather than imposed on it." "Coming of Age in Svalbard" is Kim Dolgin's look at cognitive development in Pullman's work, tracking contemporary theories of the development of reasoning from childhood through adolescence. Though Dolgin notes that "most thirteen year olds restrict their cross-sex interactions with those to whom they are attracted to giggling (girls) or showing off (boys)," hope remains for the postscript to Pullman's work, as "modern physics tells us that time runs differently in parallel universes, and so too might maturation."
Karen Traviss is another author who contributes to Yeffeth's anthology: her "I Gotta Get Me One of Those" is an amusing analysis of what our world would really be like if everyone?s "soul" took the form of a Pullman daemon--physically manifested as a creature relevant to our inner nature. Jean Rabe shows her prowess as a fiction writer by contributing a "Letter to the Editor" in which she praises Mrs. Coulter for her many laudable traits and actions, including her sophistication and wit as well as her work to reduce the number of unwanted raggedy children. While there are no babies to be eaten in order to solve the problem of famine here, Rabe's spot-on imitation of a Victorian letter writer will leave any reader of Pullman's work in the aisles: Coulter is "A Loving Mother," who is "Saving All of Society Money" and "Improving the Lot of Poor Families," to name but a few of Mrs. Coulter?s finer points.
Kay Kenyon suggests that fantasy writers should learn from Pullman, beginning by avoiding the info-dump so common at the beginning of novels that are fantastic in nature. "Reading by Flashlight" goes further to note many aspects of Pullman's work that make it more accessible than the typical fantasy novel being written today. Her comments about what non-fantasy readers say and think about the field is particularly good reading for writers and readers of fantasy alike. In "O, To Be in Oxford" Richard Harland lauds the life Lyra lives in the early pages of Pullman's The Golden Compass, an ode to joy that makes one wish to re-read certain sections of the novel just for the refreshing glow of it all.
"Pull up a Chair," is a reprint from The Horn Book. Gregory Maguire suggests that he sees "more of C. S. Lewis's Space Trilogy than?the works of Tolkien or Susan Cooper" while asking many of the questions that those with a religious bent will surely ask after finishing the series. Harry Turtledove contributes name-power and "Occam's Razor and The Subtle Knife" to the anthology. His article calls forth Heinlein and other comparatives, does not spare Pullman a minor rebuke or two ("Take the Gallivespians, for instance. What are they? They are plot contrivances."), and concludes by saying His Dark Materials isn't perfect, but "Like all the best YA books, it leaves both young adults and their elders with plenty to enjoy."
Sean McMullen's "The Field Naturalist's Guide to Daemons" is a witty trifle that presupposes you the reader are a trans-dimensional observer being oriented to the world Pullman invents. "Kids in the Kitchen" is Natasha Giardina's assault on the common conception that children require the wisdom of adults to achieve anything useful, be it saving the world or safely cutting a tomato in the kitchen.
Dave Hodgson contributes an unusual look at the evolutionary consequences of cheating and altruism. His "New Eve" mentions fascinating research concerning the biological value of altruism and how it can be mapped in the real world. For readers seeking a value-free analysis of the choices we make, Hodgson's work will no doubt serve as a jumping-off point for further reading. In the closing section of Yeffeth's anthology he has paired two antagonistic articles that will be of great interest to most readers. The first, "Mrs. Coulter vs. C. S. Lewis," is Justin Leiber's defense of Pullman and the message of His Dark Materials. This is a pre-emptive defense, as in his view it will take a few years for a "Christian fatwa" to be issued against Pullman and his trilogy. "The relevant grown-ups around here don't know about it yet!" says Leiber, meaning that Pullman's message of a "joyous atheism and materialism" has yet to spark a response. Detailing Pullman's philosophical background, Leiber provides a strong foundation for those who will in time need to defend this work against those who would prefer to see it go away, or at least those who would prefer to interpret Pullman in a way that dilutes his message.
The last article in the anthology is just one effort. Daniel P. Moloney's "Show Me, Don't Tell Me" (subtitled "Pullman's Imperfectly Christian Story (and How He Lost His Way)") is present because Yeffeth no doubt felt obligated to show some variety in the responses to His Dark Materials. It is a pity no better candidate was offered: Moloney's article is rife with rhetorical blunders, as when he equates Pullman's inherent philosophy with Pantheism, then notes Pantheism is "a silly religious belief if ever there was one." Whether true or not, equating Pullman's views with Pantheism and then dismissing them as silly both begs the question and is a faulty analogy. Moloney discusses a dizzying array of subjects in his essay, including a reasonable analysis of Pullman's failings at narrative. His fundamental argument, however, is that Pullman is somehow too unchristian to have really succeeded in his overall philosophical aims. If one accepts Moloney's rather tilted playing field as fair and equitable for discourse, this could be thought to be true. But that's a big "if."
By assembling these 18 essays Glenn Yeffeth has done the field a great service. He has made sure that articles with an academic slant remain readable and accessible, and he has included authors with a wide array of backgrounds and perspectives. For critical perspective on Pullman as a writer it is useful to draw upon those with an academic as well as a working professional background. Aside from Moloney?s muddled complaint the contributions here are thoughtful or amusing--or both. Readers of Pullman's work will find this anthology both thought-provoking and interesting. Libraries interested in providing materials for those who research children's literature and young adult literature should consider this text a "must acquire" item.