Moral Compass or Golden Compass?

The conversion of traditional archetypes of evil into morally good ones makes a quantum leap in a film based on a novel by British author Philip Pullman. It is titled The Golden Compass, which is also the North American title of the first volume of Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. [1]

According to interviews with Pullman, the author’s stated intention is to reverse the traditional Biblical account of the war between heaven and hell. In his introduction, Pullman says that he “is of the Devil’s party and does know it” (a line adapted from a poem by William Blake).

Institutional religion is portrayed in the series as the merciless oppressor of mankind. Though the story supposedly takes place in a “parallel universe,” this fictional universe is very much like our own, thinly disguised for readers and film audiences. Though numerous differences exist, such as air traffic by dirigible balloons and sea voyages by sailing ships, the scenes take place in modern Europe, with recognizable countries and institutions such as Oxford University. The central character, a twelve-year-old girl named Lyra, is an orphan, the ward of a college in the Oxford of her universe. The world is governed by an authoritarian religious organization called the “Magisterium.” Visiting the college where Lyra lives, is her uncle Lord Asriel. Though Lord Asriel is a positive character, his name appears to be taken from Jewish and Muslim traditions, in which Asrael is the name for the Angel of Death. In the series, he eventually is allied with the rebel angels and witches, who are presented as good beings, and his nature is only gradually revealed as Machiavellian, even Luciferian (as Christians would identify it), but for a “higher” purpose—the end justifies the means.

Asriel is a master of “experimental theology,” which in Lyra’s world is roughly analogous to a science, more precisely a mystical physics. He has discovered the existence of mysterious particles called “Dust”, which seep from one universe to another, passing through the “daemons” that accompany their human hosts. Because this flies in the face of official Magisterial doctrine, he is considered heretical. The film opens with Lyra saving him from an assassination attempt by a Magisterium agent, after she observes the plans of the assassin.

With the exception of witches and talking bears, all sentient characters in the series have a “daemon” (pronounced “demon” in the film) which always accompanies them. These are intelligent creatures, capable of conversation, manifesting as butterflies, jackrabbits, puppies, ermines, cats, leopards, birds, wolves, and other animals that embody a person’s soul, not unlike the Patronus of the Harry Potter series, though more material. Their characteristics express the distinct personalities of their human hosts, and to some degree contain their souls.

In Oxford, Lyra and her friends are worried about the disappearance of several children. Unknown to them, children are being kidnapped by the Magisterium and taken to a secret establishment in the far north, where experiments are being conducted to sever the connection between the child and his daemon. Asriel is funded by the college, which is quietly defying the Magisterium, to undertake a research journey to the far north in order to further investigate the mysterious particles called “Dust.” We learn that the Magisterium believes that it may be the physical manifestation of Original Sin, and that its influence must be eradicated. But the Magisterium also sees the potential in Dust for opening portals between universes, and thus the possibility of spreading its rule from universe to universe. We learn that Dust is the substance that confers consciousness, knowledge and wisdom. It is also the thing that allows all “magic” to be done in the parallel universes. It is formed when matter becomes conscious.

It is useful to note that the concept of the evolution of matter into consciousness is a crucial component in the speculative theology of the scientist-priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.[2] Teilhard believed that the universe is matter “thawing out” into spirit, and that mankind is inexorably evolving into “the Cosmic Christ.” This false belief, which never comes to terms with the problem of evil, and which bypasses the necessity of redemption, has been condemned by the Church but continues to exercise considerable influence in New Age thinking and the neo-pagan “theology” of apostatizing Christians. Even a dwindling number of firmly believing Christians still hold on to some of Teilhard’s concepts, which are typically expressed in semi-mystical, poetic mode. Marshall McLuhan, for example, was influenced by certain intriguing ideas in Teilhard’s thought, such as his belief that the use of electricity expanded the central nervous system of man and represented a spiritual leap forward in “evolution.” Later in his life, McLuhan repudiated this, since he had come to believe that the electronic universe was an “unholy impostor” and a “blatant manifestation of the AntiChrist.” [3]

In Pullman’s cosmology, Lord Asriel is the scientist as “priest” of unholy gnosis, the quester who will unlock the mysteries of a thawing universe. After Asriel’s departure on his expedition, a woman named Mrs. Coulter visits the college and offers to take Lyra on a journey into the arctic regions of their world. Before leaving, however, the Master of the college secretly gives Lyra an “alethiometer,” the golden compass of the title, which points to the truth in cryptic fashion; manipulated properly it can give answers in symbolic form to any question asked of it. It is partly technology, partly a portal into mystical vision. The Magisterium has confiscated all other compasses and destroyed them. Lyra promises never to reveal that she has the last one. As the journey is delayed, Lyra lives in Mrs. Coulter’s home and there she discovers that the woman is director of the Magisterium’s General Oblation Board, the “Gobblers” who have been kidnapping children, including two of her friends.

Mrs. Coulter learns that Lyra possesses the golden compass, but the girl escapes before it can be taken from her. The Gobblers pursue her, but she is rescued by Gyptians, a nomadic boat people who are traveling north in the hope of rescuing captured Gyptian children. On board the ship, Lyra learns to use the compass with the help of a wise man and a witch queen, who informs her that the kidnapped children are being held in a research facility called Bolvangar. At a Nordic port, Lyra befriends “aeronaut” Lee Scoresby and together they liberate an enslaved armored polar bear named Iorek to help in their quest. They continue on northward.

The compass guides Lyra to her friend Billy who has escaped from the Magisterium facility. She finds him in a dazed, barely conscious state, which is the result of having lost part of his soul (residing in his daemon), since the daemon has been severed from his body. Lyra entrusts Billy to the Gyptians’ care, and proceeds onward to Bolvangar. After some twists and turns of plot, she arrives at the facility pretending she is lost, and is welcomed by Magisterium scientists. Inside, she seeks out other captured children who have not yet been severed from their daemons, and warns them that they must prepare to escape. Discovered by scientists, she is taken to a room where they begin the separation procedure, causing Lyra and her daemon to go into a frenzy. Before the cut is done, however, Mrs. Coulter arrives and commands the procedure to stop.

She takes the girl to her quarters and there explains that she is Lyra’s natural mother, and will not let anyone hurt her. She is a rigid dogmatist Mom who has abandoned her child, but can’t quite bring herself to obey the rules when it comes to her own daughter’s demise. However, she remains a person with a divided heart, as is further revealed in the second and third volumes of the trilogy. In the first, however, she recovers from her momentary lapse and proceeds as a loyal agent of the Magisterium, explaining to Lyra that separating children from their demons is for their own good. But Lyra is horrified by this. When Mrs. Coulter tries to take the compass from her, the girl escapes, and while fleeing finds herself again in the separation chamber. There she destroys the machinery, causing explosions that begin to demolish the facility. Leading the other children outside, she finds Magisterium guards blocking their escape. But Iorek the king of polar bears, the Gyptians, and a swarm of flying witches attack the guards, and an epic battle ensues.

In the end, the children are rescued, and Lyra and her friend Roger travel farther north in an airship with Lee Scoresby to save Lord Asriel, because she has learned that Magisterium agents have been sent to assassinate him at his research station. She has also learned that Asriel is her natural father. She is certain that once she delivers the golden compass to him, together they will be able to overcome the tyranny of the Magisterium. As the witch-queen Serafina explains to Lyra, the Magisterium does not want to control only their world, but “every world in every universe.” If the Magisterium can kill Asriel and steal his research into Dust, they hope to be able to open portals into other universes where they will extend their power limitlessly.

As potent as all this is, it is significant that the film dilutes the themes so central to the books, that is, the rejection of religion and abuse of power in a fictionalized version of the Catholic Church. The director/screen-writer, Chris Weitz, has stated that in the books the Magisterium represents the Catholic Church, but in the film adaptation it represents all dogmatic organizations. He admits that the production company had feared the novel’s anti-religious themes would seriously affect box office sales in the U. S. A., and had decided that religion and God (“the Authority” in the books) would not be referred to directly. Even so, there are sufficient hints about what it represents, since the “Authority” is referred to in the film, and there is frequent use of the religiously significant words such as “oblation” and “heresy.” The Magisterium’s logo is a capital M surmounted by a cross—a hollow cross with a hole in the center of the crosspieces. When a character smashes through the wall of a Magisterium building we see that its exterior is decorated with Christian icons. And, of course, in the real world, “Magisterium” refers to nothing other than the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. [4]

Referring to Christian critics of the film, Philip Pullman has said, “Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world.” [5]

While J. K. Rowling is probably naïve in her intentions and about the effects of her use of symbols, Philip Pullman has done it consciously, deliberately intending to overturn the voice of Christian moral authority in the conscience. It is beyond any doubt that the trilogy takes aim primarily at the Roman Catholic Church. With more than one billion baptized believers, it is by far the largest of the Christian churches, the only one that has consistently, since the time of Christ, proclaimed moral and theological truth as absolute. That some Catholics have lived their faith badly—at certain points in history very badly—is not sufficient evidence that the Church itself has ceased to be the Body of Christ in the world. If in our times a portion of the body of believers has slid again into apostasy (mainly in the affluent nations of the West), it should be remembered that throughout history this has occurred many times. As Chesterton once pointed out, “The Church, like her Master, is always leaping out of the tomb just as the world pronounces her dead.”  

Pullman would like to hasten the death of what he has openly stated to be an oppressive and dying structure. For example, in the second volume of the series, The Subtle Knife, one of the human rebels against the Magisterium says:

“[Lord Asriel’s] gone a-searching for the dwelling-place of the Authority Himself [God], and he’s a-going to destroy him… He’s a-going to find the Authority and kill him.” A witch and friend of Lyra’s named Ruta Skadi also calls for war against the Magisterium: “I know whom we must fight,” she says. “It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history … it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out… That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”

By this stage of the trilogy, the witches have made reference to how they are treated criminally by the Church in their world. Mary Malone, one of Pullman’s main characters, states that “the Christian religion … is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.” She was formerly a Catholic nun, but gave up her vows when the experience of being in love caused her to doubt her faith.

Pullman also portrays the Christian heaven to be a lie. In the third book in the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, the afterlife is depicted as a bleak place where people are tormented by harpies until Lyra and her friend Will (the other main character) descend into the land of the dead. Through their intercession, the harpies agree to stop tormenting the dead souls, and instead receive the true stories of the dead in exchange for leading them again to the upper world. When the dead souls emerge, they dissolve as they become one with the universe.

At the climax to the trilogy, God Himself (the Authority) dissolves into nothingness with the help of Will and Lyra. But first he is mocked by the author, who indulges in a couple of paragraphs depicting the “ancient of days” as “demented” and “powerless,” whimpering, pathetically grateful to the two young protagonists for liberating him from his “crystal cell”—we presume the prison of his supposed deity. With “a sigh of profound and exhausted relief,” God dissolves and disappears. Ruling in the place of this feeble old figure is “the Regent,” a malevolent being named Metatron, who is, according to the story, “the first angel.”

Balthamos, an angel who joins Lord Asriel’s army of angels in rebellion against the Kingdom of Heaven, summarizes Pullman’s cosmology succinctly:


Balthamos said quietly, “The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—those were the names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves—the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself . . . The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie.” [6]


The overwhelming message implanted in the minds of young readers is that the Judeo-Christian God is a frail fiction, his Regent (Christ) is evil, Christianity is a diabolic deception, the Church is Satanic, and true heroism lies in overthrowing all of them.

Pullman, a professed atheist (and sometime agnostic), has said in an interview:


“I’ve been surprised by how little criticism I’ve got. Harry Potter’s been taking all the flak. I’m a great fan of J. K. Rowling, but the people—mainly from America’s Bible Belt—who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven’t got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.” [7]


Confusion and sifting

Pullman has, however, found support from some Christians, most notably Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual head of the worldwide Anglican communion, who argues that Pullman’s attacks are not against Christianity itself but focus on the dangers of dogmatism and the oppressive misuse of religion. Williams has gone so far as to recommend that His Dark Materials become part of the Religious Education curriculum in British schools. Believing Christians can understand why an unbeliever would hold such a position. It is beyond comprehension how a minister of Christian religion can reconcile it with his Christian faith. It may be that the archbishop’s mind is so completely absorbed in abstractions that he forgets that children and young adults are in the state of formation, and that the exquisitely nuanced ruminations of modern theologians can be quite disconnected from reality. Or it may be that in his personal spirituality-theology he has drifted into religious syncretism, where “openness” trumps all other considerations. Apparently the archbishop is not an atheist; possibly he is an unwitting “Christian Gnostic” of some nebulous kind.

A review written for the cultural office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has also given its approval to The Golden Compass (much to the horror of many American bishops). [8] This, despite the fact that Pullman’s trilogy exalts the downfall of the Kingdom of Heaven and would replace it with the “Republic of Heaven.” Non-Catholic readers will doubtless find this inexplicable, but they would understand it better if they realized that immanentist-modernist factions within the bureaucracy of some “national” Catholic churches, immersed in and influenced by materialism, are in their own way acting as if they are building a “republic of Heaven.” It is a shame and a scandal to mention this, but a worse scandal would result if readers were to think that a review by a committee of medium-level bureaucrats represented the teaching and spirituality of the universal Church. The USCCB’s positions on all manner of topics are sometimes faithful and at other times display a failure of prudence, as well as a distortion of the sensus fidelium of true Christians. The universal Roman Catholic Church does not invest any binding authority or recognize any anointed charism in such national organizations. It is some consolation that the positive film review of The Golden Compass was swiftly deleted from the USCCB website, yet in numerous diocesan newspapers throughout North America the review was reprinted and the film erroneously promoted as “approved” by the Catholic bishops of the U.S.A.


Sliding poles

On October 16, 2000, classrooms across America went online to the website of Scholastic Books, the publisher of the Potter books in the U.S.A., for a live interview with J. K. Rowling. When she was asked by a student if there were any books she would recommend to her fans while they awaited volume five of the Potter series, she replied: “Loads! Read E. Nesbit, Philip Pullman, Henrietta Branford, Paul Gallico. Just read!” [9]

Just read? Just read anything? Is there no distinction to be made between Paul Gallico and Philip Pullman? Does Rowling really believe that as long as a child is reading he can come to no harm, regardless of the material he is ingesting? It would appear that she does believe this, if she sees no problems in His Dark Materials. This is understandable enough when one considers that, in the Pullman trilogy, as in the Potter series, magic and witches play major roles as instruments of “good.” Moreover, if a reader has accepted this as a legitimate premise, why would he approve of one series and not the other?

It is interesting to note, therefore, that following the release of The Golden Compass film there was a shift in evaluation of the Potter series offered by a few orthodox Christian reviewers who are somewhat more thoughtful and usually more discerning about neo-paganism than is Rowan Williams. Originally cautious about the Potter series, they now maintain that Pullman’s novels are so obviously a corrupt mythology and so overtly anti-Christian that by comparison the Potter books, which are not aggressively hostile to Christianity, fall within acceptable parameters of healthy fantasy literature. This is an easy conclusion to jump to, but a shallow one. It is like saying that marijuana is acceptable because it is better than cocaine. It is to ignore the inherent ills of marijuana use and the fact that marijuana use often leads to cocaine addiction, and from there to worse addictions.

One of Satan’s most effective and time-tested strategies in his war against mankind is to afflict us with a blatant evil (for example, the dark imagination of authors like Pullman), and then to offer an apparently lesser evil (the murky imagination of authors like J. K. Rowling) as an alternative, even as an antidote to the more blatant evil. Then, we jump hastily for the quick solution, the lesser evil, forgetting that it may be the lesser evil that Satan wishes to spread through the world. Of course he desires both, and more, a sliding scale of familiarization and comfortableness with evil.

Well-intentioned adults are always asking themselves: “What cultural material can I give to my children, my students, my young parishioners that contains some positive values, will get them reading and make them literate and avoid the worst evils of our times?” This is a good motive, but it can prompt a flawed solution. The ancient enemy of mankind knows us very, very well. He knows that “lesser evils” are far more productive for his cosmic agenda than are blatant ones. He knows that only a small minority of people can be directly seduced into overt evil. Yet a majority, it now seems, have been led to just that, in the sense of deriving much pleasure from, and giving tacit approval to, what in real life is overtly evil. They have been charmed and dazzled by incremental mixtures of good and evil, and by the underlying presumption that we shall decide what is good and evil, and how the “good” is to overcome the “evil.”

This brings to mind a passage in Goethe’s Faust, where the devil says:


“Humanity’s most lofty power,

Reason and knowledge, pray despise!

But let the Spirit of all lies

With works of dazzling magic blind you,

Then absolutely mine, I’ll have and bind you!”


And what would be our condition if this dazzling blindness were completely disguised as a purely human invention, as our fantasy, our harmless fun? What shapes would the disguise take? How would we first become fascinated by it, if not through excitement of the imagination?

In the imagination we can now experience the integration of two major obsessions currently afflicting mankind: our fascination with technology and our desire for mystery—and behind the latter our need for wonder and transcendence. In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote:


There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating them both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…” [10]


The success of Satan’s strategies depends upon the weaknesses of human nature (which are operative regardless of how simple or how brilliant one may be), especially our ignorance of spiritual warfare and our vulnerability to impressions. Human beings tend to choose the “balanced” approach, the middle zone or point between two opposite poles, the poles of absolute good and an apparent absolute evil. Thus, when we are confused by powerful cultural impressions we can perceive these poles as something other than what they are. Planetary poles shift. Cultural poles also shift, mutate, slide. And the poles in men’s minds are more unstable than these.

The true center is never the exact mid-point between these poles, because when a Pullman appears in the cultural matrix, pushing the poles, a Rowling suddenly will seem by comparison to be tame and palatable. She will appear to be situated at the reasonable and moderate center, and that is precisely, of course, where reasonable and moderate people want to be. Who among us desires to be the “lunatic fringe” (as Rowling has categorized her Christian critics)? Who among us desires to be a “book-burning fundamentalist” (as we have been endlessly caricatured by pro-Potter and pro-Pullman critics)?

These warps in the psychology of perception have their source in that abiding problem in the people of God, during both Old and New Testament eras: We keep forgetting. We keep forgetting that culture forms consciousness, and hence conscience, and hence actions. We keep forgetting that we are at war until the end of time. We keep forgetting that the seducer of mankind is the “subtlest of creatures.” We keep forgetting that he is the master impressionist, a smoke-and-mirrors fallen angel who, through dark materials used with the appearance of light, little by little eases us into a mentality where we find ourselves calling good that which is evil, and evil that which is good—and not really knowing how we got there.

And what further distortions, along with negative consequences, will we see in the years to come as a generation enthralled by Rowling and Pullman becomes more and more dominant? In interviews during her 2007 tour of North America, J. K. Rowling frequently referred to Christian opposition to her series. She did not say, “Regrettably, some Christians have failed to understand my fictional character Harry Potter.” Nor did she say, “Some Christians don’t realize my good intentions in the Harry Potter series.” Instead, she said a number of times, “Christians hate Harry,” and “Christians hate me.” The message here for the hundreds of millions of young people who identify with Harry and idolize Rowling is: Christians hate you! What will be the long-term effects of this kind of message?

But where Rowling may be suffering from ruffled pride and hurt feelings, Pullman’s animosity toward Christianity displays something closer to malice—even loathing. He has characterized C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, for example, as “blatantly racist,” “monumentally disparaging of women,” and “immoral.” [11] Unsatisfied by issuing such a flagrantly false condemnation, Pullman has in other interviews stated that “The message of the Narnia books is evil. It exalts cruelty and it excludes anyone who is felt to be inferior.” [12]

Pullman has his tens of millions of young readers. Rowling has her hundreds of millions. But Rowling has played a major role in paving the way for Pullman. Both have pushed and warped the poles in men’s minds. They exercise complementary functions in the deformation of the contemporary imagination, and their differences are only in degree, not in kind.

This brings me to a question I think we might ponder and pray about with some attention: If Harry Potter represents a loveable sorcerer who saves the world, and is also the primary cultural presence who prefigures the overtly anti-Christian heroes of Pullman’s fantasy, is there not a paradigm here, similar to two figures in the Book of Revelation? St. John’s vision informs us that a False Prophet will precede the Anti-Christ. I do not for a moment believe that Rowling and Pullman are the ones prophesied by sacred Scripture, but I do ponder the possibility that the extraordinarily popular role-models they have created, and which are now enthralling the imagination and thinking of a generation, are preparing the ground for later developments. When an actual man, performing “signs and wonders,” appears on the world scene, and then leads mankind to another seemingly benign figure who is the embodiment of the spirit and ideas of Anti-Christ, will this present generation (and perhaps those that are to follow) be able to discern the evil at work in the illusion of “light”?

No one would deny the civil rights of Pullman and Rowling to write and publish what they write and publish. My point here is this: We cannot foresee the long-range effects of inflating a part of human discernment (the purely rational or the purely impressionistic) to an absolute, overwhelming all other faculties of discernment, including the spiritual. Why have so many Christian commentators done so, on the groundless presumption that the effects of the Potter series will surely be good because it contains a little good. Why have we become so desperate to find the bits of good floating in a soup of evil? Is it because we are starving for real nourishment?

If we hope to shake off the illusions of corrupt culture, and if we hope to develop a wholesome integration of faith and culture, we must first seek the true center, which is above.


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[1] Volume one of the trilogy is published in Britain under the title Northern Lights (1995), followed by The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000).

[2] See Dr. Wolfgang Smith’s Teilhardism and the New Religion, TAN Books, Rockford, Illinois, 1988.

[3] “The Wisdom of St. Marshall, the Holy Fool,” Gary Wolf, January, 1996;

[4] For a more in-depth analysis of the three novels in the series, please see the essay “Pullman’s Dark Materials,” by two Catholic educators, Susan Tenbusch and Mary Teresa Tenbusch, posted with the authors’ permission on the website:

[5] “Philip Pullman: Catholic boycotters are ‘nitwits’”, The Times online, London, November 27, 2007. In 2008, production plans for the film sequel were cancelled, and New Line Cinema refused to discuss the reasons.

[6] It is heavily implied in The Amber Spyglass that Balthamos and another male angel are homosexual, “loving each other with a passion.” In the trilogy, angels have form and gender. Though their bodies appear to be human and interact with the material world, they are neither purely material nor purely spirit.

[7] Sydney Morning Herald, December 13, 2003.

[8] This same office enthusiastically approved the Harry Potter series and the homosexual film Brokeback Mountain.


[10] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Macmillan, New York, 1947.

[11] “Narnia books attacked as racist and sexist: Philip Pullman dismisses work of C. S. Lewis as blatant religious propaganda,” John Ezard, The Guardian, 3 June, 2002.

[12] “Writing the book on intolerance,” Mark Ably, The Toronto Star, December 4, 2007.