The Miltonic Context of The Golden Compass

I’ve neither read the books nor seen the movie, but this 2005 review by Craig Bernthal seems helpful.

A few snippets:

Pullman is a better writer in every way than J. K. Rowling, and given the cinematic success of Lord of the Rings, Pullman’s eminently filmable work will undoubtedly soon show up at a theater near you.

Pullman writes with energy and at times, beauty. His imagination works on a grand scale.

… Pullman weaves together elements of modern cosmology, quantum physics, the I Ching, and especially, the Bible, for His Dark Materials is a rewriting of Paradise Lost in which “Lucifer” gets to win. The title itself comes from Book II of Paradise Lost in which Satan, on his way to Eden, must cross chaos.

The explicit philosophical position of the books is a smoothly compatible blend of Blakean romanticism and its near descendant, humanism. (Bertrand Russell and the currently popular A. C. Grayling are as thoroughly behind this narrative as Christianity is behind Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.) Pullman’s world favors the material over the spiritual. Indeed, God—referred to only as “the Authority”—and the angels are all material beings, though their substance is less substantial than that of men, whose sensuality they envy.

Oddly absent from all of this Miltonic scaffolding is the Son, Jesus, referred to only twice in HDM, and then only obliquely, although we do see various servants of the church crossing themselves. Pullman simply doesn’t deal with the significance of Jesus, as human, son of God, or even idea. Christ’s courage, love, and sacrifice are simply ignored, and the church that Pullman creates is all evil. What Pullman attacks, therefore, lacks even the substantiality of a straw man. Pullman’s decision not to include Christ in his version of Paradise Lost is not only a cosmic cop-out, but a clue to the weakness of his story, which is ultimately shallow.

Humanism may seem a sober and bracing philosophy, but for fiction, it is deadly. Its sense of comedy reaches no higher than “zest,” and its scope for tragedy is correspondingly shallow. As human life and its portrayal approaches the extremes, humanism fails.

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