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Meditation 657
That Dangerous Subversive Book

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With the furor raised in some circles over the release of the film "The Golden Compass,"[1] I read the book[2] this week.

My initial reaction was that this is pretty deep for a children's book. But on reflection, I remembered that I had read The Golden Bough[3] at twelve. So, I'm fairly sure most kids of a similar age today can handle Pullman's works.

Why do I say The Golden Compass is deep? It introduces a number of interesting concepts (some rather subtly, others up front) which can lead to thinking beyond the book, a few of which are:

The big complaint about this book has been that it is anti-Catholic or anti-Christian. I don't really see that. Yes, the "enemy" is identified as the Catholic Church, but in the alternate universe of the book, this is not identical to the Catholic Church on our Earth. In its powers, the book's Church is more like the medieval Catholic Church without the Reformation, not today's Church. And, for a reason which escapes me right now, the Papacy has been done away with. (Perhaps, however, the analogy gets stronger in the second and third volumes as other universes are visited.)

It strikes me that if there is a target here, it is more than the Catholic Church, it is the entire spectrum of authority, and especially parental authority. Overall, the book undermines the fifth commandment.[4] As the story unfolds, the heroine discovers who her parents are; first of all literally, as she starts off not knowing; and then she discovers who they are figuratively. (Somewhat of a plot spoiler follows - skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know.) At times she idolizes each of her parents. Then she finds out what her mother stands for, and finds it necessary to reject her, turning towards her father as a model. She then finds out what he stands for, and then rejects him.[5]

That's powerful and subversive stuff for a child, yet it does reflect what many of us do in growing up, some of us in small ways, others in a large way.

Should a child or young adult read this book? I think so. But, the wise parent will read the book too, and will be freely available to discuss[6] any issues which the child may have. And that will be better parenting than Lyra got.


  1. Unfortunately, apparently a critical and financial failure.
  2. The Golden Compass, originally published as Northern Lights in the UK
  3. The Golden Bough Sir George James Frazer
  4. From this aspect, I think the book supports my own view of the fifth commandment, honor must be earned, not accorded as a matter of right.
  5. Both parents love Lyra in a way, but more as a prized possession than a living person who they are responsible for.
  6. Meaning exchange views as opposed to directing the child how to think.