HIS DARK MATERIALS, PART I: A DARK ADVENTURE
~ A SPIRITUAL EVALUATION OF PHILIP PULLMAN'S THE GOLDEN COMPASS AND THE SUBTLE KNIFE

By Marcia Montenegro

[First published in the Midwest Christian Outreach Journal, Vol 14, No. 1, Winter, 2008; modified for website March, 2008]

[Note: Some of the material for this article is also found in the CANA article on the first book, "The Golden Compass: A Hint of Evil," although this article is more comprehensive, covering both the first and second books of the trilogy.]

Philip Pullman's series, His Dark Materials, relays the tale of an 11-year-old girl (Lyra), a 12-year-old boy (Will), and their adventures in a fantasy universe where one can cross from one world into another. The first book, The Golden Compass (published as Northern Lights in the UK), focuses on Lyra and her world; and the second book, The Subtle Knife, brings Will into the adventure. Will, who comes from a world other than Lyra's, finds his destiny crossing with Lyra's-their two independent purposes blending-as they gradually learn they each have a special mission in a coming war involving all the worlds.

Lyra and Her Daemon

In Lyra's world, all humans have what Pullman calls a "daemon" (pronounced "demon"). The daemon is described but not really explained (Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass [A Yearling Book, Random House Children's Books; NY: Random House, Inc., 1995], 197. The bear, Iorek Byrnison, whom Lyra befriends, speaks of human's daemons as their "soul") -- the reader must observe and draw his or her own conclusions on daemons. Daemons were guardian spirits and/or good or malevolent spirits in Greek mythology. In Pullman's books, daemons take animal form and are always with or very near their humans. Although in animal form, daemons can speak like people. Children's daemons can change shape; but as children grow into puberty, the daemon takes on one shape. The animal form usually reflects the power, status, and characteristics of its human.

Daemons have names and are always the opposite sex of their human. They are like an outer soul for the human, feeling what the human feels; and the human and daemon share thoughts and experiences. The daemon seems to be both an extension of the human as well as semi-independent of the human-able to warn their human and give advice. When the human dies, the daemon fades away. Daemons seem not to be mere spirit creatures, since they are embodied and interact with the material world. Lyra's daemon is named "Pantalaimon;" and she and "Pan," as she often calls him, are completely loyal to each other and closely bonded. The name Pantalaimon may come from a saint in the Orthodox churches, St. Panteleimon, which means all merciful (http://www.hisdarkmaterials.org/srafopedia/index.php/Pantalaimon).

The plot involves a beautiful but conniving woman (Mrs. Coulter) who is an agent of the "Church" directing experiments that involve cutting daemons away from children, leaving the children drained and suicidal, and the daemons in agony. Since daemons are so instrumental in the story, one can only wonder if they represent something more than a companion. A hint is given when "Lord Asriel"-an explorer who is seeking the true nature of something called "Dust" (who also turns out to be Lyra's father)-reads from the third chapter of Genesis to Lyra. Eating the fruit from the forbidden tree, according to the version read by Lord Asriel, allows Adam and Eve to see "the true form of their daemons" and to speak with them (The Golden Compass, 372.) This implies that God did not want Adam and Eve to see their daemons. Lord Asriel tells Lyra that sin came into the world when the daemons of Adam and Eve became "fixed," that is, they could no longer change. However, Lord Asriel also tells Lyra that the Biblical text is "corrupt," and that man returning to dust means God has a sinful nature (The Golden Compass, 373).

At this point in the book, it is difficult to figure out the message about daemons. However, we get more of a clue in The Subtle Knife when Mrs. Coulter (whom Lyra discovers is her mother) says people with no daemons have "no fear and no imagination and no free will" (Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife (NY: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1997), 176). In Will's world, humans do not have visible daemons, and it is assumed by the characters in Lyra's world that Will's daemon must be internal. The reader could conclude from all this that daemons represent, at least in part, the free will of the human. If this is true, then Adam and Eve seeing their daemons would imply that the Fall resulted in the discovery of their free will. This view matches the Gnostic and Luciferian belief that Satan was really an angel who desired to awaken man to a wisdom intentionally withheld by a cruel God.

The Alethiometer and Magic Tools

Lyra is given a large, round, compass-like object-called an "alethiometer"-with hands like a clock that move and point to various symbols engraved on its surface when one asks questions (this is the "Golden Compass" of the title). Lyra discovers she has a natural gift in "reading" the meaning of these symbols. Lyra becomes adept at this, and this compass gives her vital information on her journey as well as helps her to rescue children captured for Mrs. Coulter's cruel experiments in the far North.

The alethiometer is clearly a divinatory device-an object used to elicit answers or information beyond natural means. The description of Lyra reading the alethiometer-"I just make my mind go clear and then it's sort of like looking down into water" (The Golden Compass, 174) -eerily evoked my experiences reading astrology charts for many years, which almost always took me into an altered state where I "connected" with the chart through its symbols. Lyra is even told that the scholar who invented this object was trying to measure the influence of planets "according to the ideas of astrology" (The Golden Compass ,173). Lyra does, indeed, go into a type of trance while reading the alethiometer: "... she found that she could sink more and more readily into the calm state in which the symbol meanings clarified themselves" and describes it to someone as a "different kind of knowing" (150; also 26). Indeed, the word "trance" is even used to describe this state (174, 359; The Subtle Knife, 80.) In the second book, Lyra talks about her mind "going blank" in order to read the alethiometer; and she is able to help Will learn to use the subtle knife because of her experiences with trance states with the alethiometer (The Subtle Knife, 84).

This altered state or "trance" is not merely something found in occult practices, but is promoted and taught by occult teachers as part of "divination"-whether it is astrology, Tarot cards, reading objects (psychometry), using psychic abilities, or other similar practices. The late Sybil Leek (a well-known psychic and witch) wrote that a psychic, while concentrating on a crystal during a reading, induces a trance both in the client and in the psychic in order to release "dormant psychic awareness" (Sybil Leek, The Sybil Leek Book of Fortunetelling [NY: Macmillan, 1969], 122). Another writer on occult techniques emphasizes the need for "centering," another term for occult meditation and getting into the altered or trance state (Rachel Pollack, Teach Yourself Fortunetelling [New York: Holt, 1986]). Using these terms openly, an expert in crystal healing urges the readers of her book to use the crystal to help achieve "an altered state of mind to access information which you otherwise wouldn't know" and advises that this state is also called a "trance state" which can allow one to " 'see' the future or past (Phyllis Galde, The Truth About Crystal Healing [St Paul: Llewellyn, 1994], 26).

When Will is being taught how to use the subtle knife, he is told Zen-like things by the previous knife bearer such as "it's not only the knife that has to cut, it's your own mind," and "You become the tip of the knife" (The Subtle Knife, 161, 162). The knife, like Harry Potter's wand, has an innate intelligence or consciousness: "the knife knows when to leave one hand and settle in another"( The Subtle Knife, 159). This is an occult concept of a magical tool.<

In the second book, when Lyra sees some symbols on the door to Dr. Mary Malone's office, she is told that they are from the I-Ching (an actual ancient, Chinese divinatory device associated with Taoism). Dr. Malone (an ex-nun and scientist) has been trying to communicate with some responsive "dark matter" or "Shadows" using a computer. Lyra succeeds in getting some information from them by visualizing the alethiometer; and she tells Dr. Malone that contacting the Shadows can also be done with the I-Ching, which is only one of many ways of communicating with these dark particles. Dr. Malone later converses with the particles and learns that they are "rebel angels." It is these angels who respond through divination in this book; it is these rebel angels who give answers when Lyra consults the alethiometer. This is actually in sync with Biblical principles that divination elicits responses from fallen angels.

It is interesting that both rebellion against God and a divination tool figure so prominently in these stories, since in the Bible, God tells Saul (through His prophet Samuel in 1 Sam. 15:23) "rebellion is as the sin of divination." Some Bible versions use the word witchcraft here, but the Hebrew term essentially refers to occult practices that involve seeking answers from sources other than the one true God; in some cases, the terms translated as divination or witchcraft are interchangeable.

Witches and Shamans

In the book, there are witches-both good and bad-who live very long lives. Although they have daemons, which would indicate they are human, they have supernatural powers such as flying (using tree branches), not feeling cold, seeing things other humans can't see, dealing with spirits, casting spells, and possessing "powers" who speak to them, who have powers above them, "and there are secrets even from the most high" (said by witch Serafina Pekkala to Lyra; The Golden Compass, 313; The Subtle Knife, 43, 226-29).

As with witches in the real world, these witches use spells and herbs for healing (The Subtle Knife, 315. In The Subtle Knife, an involved incantation and spell to heal Will's injured hand is done by the witches but proves ineffective, 226-228. Will is later healed by the shaman). The witches appear mysterious, charismatic, wise, and powerful; and, except for one witch who kills a former lover, they play the role of good-and even heroic-characters, who often risk their lives to help or protect Lyra and Will. As the witch Serafina chants a healing spell over Will, he "thought he could feel all the atoms of his body responding to her command" (The Subtle Knife, 227). The witches also have known about an ancient prophecy foretelling of a special child (who turns out to be Lyra), who has a destiny that will affect all the worlds.

Just as Lyra seeks Lord Asriel, whom she learns in the first book is her father, so in the second book, Will is seeking his father-an explorer who disappeared when Will was young. Will's father went into another world and became a shaman. A shaman is basically a sorcerer-one who allegedly heals and divines by communing with spirits via trance, potent herbs (drugs), and supposedly leaving the body (For more information on shamanism, see sidebar article by this writer, "The New Age Embraces Shamanism," Christian Research Journal, Vol. 25, No. 4, 2003, or see http://www.equip.org/atf/cf/%7B9C4EE03A-F988-4091-84BD-F8E70A3B0215%7D/DS836.pdf). Will's father is able to summon the wind, control it, and to cause a storm, although this requires a deep trance and much effort (The Subtle Knife, 192, 194, 250, 253). These actions are taken in order to defeat and kill men who are after one of the characters, Lee Scoresby.

The Church and The War on The Authority

There is reference to a past Papacy with a "Pope John Calvin" that was abolished and replaced with a consortium of "courts, colleges, and councils" known as the "Magisterium," which includes an agency called the "Consistorial Court of Discipline as the most active and most feared of all the church's bodies" (The Golden Compass, 30). In our real world, the term Magisterium refers to the ruling authority of the Roman Catholic Church and consists of the Pope and the Bishops, so Pullman seems to be referring to this even though the words Roman Catholic are not used. By referencing John Calvin, Pullman also covers the Protestant tradition, presumably not to leave them out of the books' attacks on the Christian faith. Pullman does not seem to oppose religion per se, because he presents shamanism and witchcraft in mostly positive ways.

There is a "General Oblation Board," which is presented at first as mysterious and later as evil. Mrs. Coulter is head of the Oblation Board that is directing the experiments severing children from their daemons. Oblation comes from a Latin term meaning an offering or presentation to God, and it is also a term used in the Roman Catholic Church.

Lyra has no favorable attitude toward this Church. There is an "Intercessor" at Jordan College (Father Heyst), who preaches, prays, and hears confessions. He loses hope for Lyra's spiritual welfare due to "her sly indifference and insincere repentances" (The Golden Compass, 51).

Lord Asriel acidly tells Lyra the Church used to castrate boys to keep them as singers, sometimes causing death in the process; so it would be nothing for the Church to be involved in cutting daemons away from children (The Golden Compass, 374).

Mrs. Coulter's cruelty and her connection to the Church in the story indicate Pullman's apparent negative view of organized religion, the Roman Catholic Church, and/or Christianity in general. In the second book, we read that the "Magisterium" has representatives in the philosophical research establishments "to act as a censor and suppress the news of any heretical discoveries" (The Subtle Knife, 110). Pullman uses the straw man approach with Christianity, painting it as negative, hierarchical, controlled by evil men, etc. It is clear Pullman has confused the machinations of sinful men with the Christian faith itself. What men may do in the name of God does not mean God teaches or endorses it. This simple truth seems to escape people like Pullman who use Christianity as a whipping boy for their own anger and bitterness at perceived injustices of the "church." One can only hope that they would instead investigate what they attack, and perhaps discover what the gospel is really about. In fact, the evil actions done in the name of God only prove how much man needs redemption, and how deep is our need for Christ, who is the only one who can offer that redemption.

The second book reveals the rebellion against religious authority more clearly. We learn that Lord Asriel is gathering an army to complete "the war that was fought in heaven eons ago" (The Subtle Knife, 175). A witch who has visited Lord Asriel tells her witch sisters about this army, and how he is planning to challenge the "Authority;" and she urges the witches to join him. She speaks of the "hideous cruelties dealt out in the Authority's name ... designed to destroy the joys and the truthfulness of life" (The Subtle Knife, 240). For this war, Lord Asriel needs a special knife called "Aesahaettr," which one witch says means "god destroyer" (The Subtle Knife, 243; one web site gives the information that Pullman created this word from two Norse words, one meaning "God" and the other meaning "death," http://www.hisdarkmaterials.org/information/his-dark-materials-books/faq). This is the "subtle" knife carried by Will, who is its special bearer. Much of the second book relays how Will comes to possess the knife, and how he learns to use it to cut into other worlds. He also discovers the knife cuts not only objects in the physical world, but also it is able to tear through the world of the spirit as well.

Ironically, the witch who so admires Lord Asriel complains to witch Serafina Pekkala that "the agents of the Authority are sacrificing children to their cruel god" (The Subtle Knife, 243). She is referring to the daemon-cutting experiments; but in reality, it is the Biblical God who condemns the sacrifice of children to pagan gods (See Lev. 18:21; Deut. 18:10; 2 Kings 17:17, 23:10; Ps. 106. 37, 38; Jer. 7:31, 19:5; 32:35; Ez. 20:31, 23:37). As God says in Ezekiel 16:20: "Moreover, you took your sons and daughters whom you had borne to Me and sacrificed them to idols to be devoured" (NASB). It is pagan practices that historically have sacrificed children to their gods. Repeatedly, archeologists have come across the bones of children found amongst the sacrificial altars to ancient pagan gods.

Dr. Malone (the scientist and former nun) learns from the rebellious angels that they want vengeance for Satan being cast out. These angels tell her she must play the role of the "serpent" to Lyra and Will. As the second book closes, it is revealed that this war on the "Authority" will involve a re-enactment of the Fall with Lyra playing the role of Eve. The knife that Will bears is the one weapon that can defeat "the tyrant. The Authority. God" (The Subtle Knife, 283). Will is told by his father (the shaman) that the rebel angels from the previous war failed, because they did not have the knife. Will is reluctant to join in the fight. However, his father tells him that two powers have been fighting "since time began;" and this time, "the right side must win;" and he urges Will to take the knife to Lord Asriel (The Subtle Knife, 282-84). It certainly cannot be accidental that the previous knife bearer who gives Will the "subtle knife" is named "Giacomo Paradisi" (i.e., Paradise/Eden).

The Watchers

The fallen angels take an increasingly prominent role in the story. Interestingly, they call themselves "Watchers." This is not a biblical term, but is the word used in occult ritual (ceremonial) magic for fallen angels who are summoned by the practitioners of this occult art. This name seems to have originated with the pseudepigraphical (i.e., anonymous or pseudonymous writings claiming to be biblical, but with no support as such)Book of Enoch, which has as its first section, "The Book of Watchers," describing the fall of these angels. Sixteenth-century occultists John Dee and Edward Kelly developed Enochian magic and the Enochian language of angels based on messages channeled by Kelly from spirits claiming they had communicated with Enoch. Watchtowers (the supposed dwelling place of these guardian spirits) are summoned in modern Witchcraft rituals (style="font-size:12.0pt">See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchtower_(magic) and http://www.angelfire.com/realm2/amethystbt/Watchtowers.html).

There are extensive references to these Watchers and Watchtowers in occult books such as Bill Whitcomb, The Magicians Companion (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1994, 317-347). Also see the Index listing for "Watchtowers" in Janet and Stewart Farrar, "Leaves From the Book of Shadows," A Witches Bible (Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing, Inc., 1984, 348). In one of the more alarming examples of this, we find in one of Silver Ravenwolf's books on magick for teenagers, Angels: Companions in Magic (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1996) that the author illustrates the "angelic alphabet" of John Dee, (pages 208-09), instructing teens on how to summon (fallen) angels. (For further information from a biblical perspective on magic and the occult, see the author's book, SpellBound: The Paranormal Seduction of Today's Kids).

A group of angels guard Lyra and Will, and two of these rebel angels come to Will in order to lead him to Lord Asriel. More about these angels is revealed in the third book, which will be evaluated in Part Two of this article.

Suitable Reading?

On The Golden Compass web site, there is a "working alethiometer," and the site alluringly states: "You can meet your daemon" (http://www.goldencompassmovie.com/). This invitation is repeated on the popular Neopets site where it says: "Take the quiz to meet your animal companion. You will be asked 10 multiple-choice questions about your personality. At the end of the quiz, your score will be tallied, and the form of your daemon will be revealed" (http://www.neopets.com/games/play.phtml?game_id=947). At the very least, this idea of cuddly, friendly companions called "daemons" desensitizes children to the actual meaning of the word demons and to the reality of their evil nature.

These notions-that fallen angels are good, and that Lord Asriel's planned war on a God-like being called the "Authority" is a noble cause-are nothing less than direct attacks on the God of the Bible. The heroes (Lyra and Will) are contributing to this war, and the story is written so the reader will view them as sympathetic characters.

It is not, as many say, that Pullman is opposing the notion of some kind of false god or hierarchical religion. Pullman clearly opposes what he perceives to be Christianity, even if his view is flawed, which it is. It is more likely and makes more sense that Pullman perceives God as a creation of man, but in Pullman's judgment, belief in this created God has nevertheless enslaved man.

The positive references to divination, trance states, witches, spells, shamans, fallen angels, and waging a war on God (who has the names of the Biblical God) are disturbing and ungodly themes and render these first two books entirely unsuitable for children.


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