Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Golden Compass

My interest in The Golden Compass was sparked by the protests accompanying the release of the movie. On New Year's Eve a stranger handed me a leaflet that appeared to be a Golden Compass bookmark, but turned out to be a denunciation of the book. Similar bookmarks were surreptitiously placed in the library. Many other people must have been interested in the controversy as well. I was on a waiting list for the MP3 download for more than two months.

Although I listened to most of the story, there were a few chapters that I read from the book when my MP3 wasn’t handy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is helpful when trying to write about an audio book because it gives the listener a chance to see how unusual names, places and creatures are spelled – especially helpful in a high fantasy novel like Pullman’s The Golden Compass. Conversely, my daughter read the book at the same time that I listened to it; while I couldn’t spell the names, she couldn’t pronounce them – Iorek Byrnison and Iofur Raknison giving us both the most trouble. A combination approach to experiencing the book was perfect.

The audio version of this book was superb in quality. This was apparently a big budget release by Listening Library. According to Random House, this nearly eleven hour novel was read by the author himself and a full cast, including "some of the finest actors of the London stage."
The few chapters that I read, rather than listened to, were pale in comparison to the richness of the audio version.

This is an old book (1997) and well-reviewed elsewhere. I just want to add a few comments. I think the story is a fantastic and gripping adventure, fantasy, sci-fi and mystery. Lyra is a feisty and endearing protagonist - like her friend, the great bear, Iorek Byrnison, she is purposeful and without guile.

As for the controversy, I am mixed. If the author's intent was to provoke thought and introspection about good and evil, sin and virtue, kindness and wickedness, and the validity of the credo "the end justifies the means," then I believe that these themes should have been intrinsic to the story. Instead, the nature of the overlying problem facing Lyra is obscured throughout much of the book. Only in the final chapter is role of the church fully revealed. I don't believe that the message of The Golden Compass is powerful, compelling or clear enough to actually cause any person of religious conviction to question his faith. I can understand, however, why particular branches of religion might be offended by this story. The re-writing of certain verses of the Bible to fit with the storyline might be offensive to some readers or listeners. Of course, it should also be stressed that this is, without a doubt, a work of fiction and should be taken as such. I don't believe that I will see the trilogy through to the end, but I am interested enough that when my daughter finishes it (she's already asked for the second title, The Subtle Knife), I will ask her if good wins out over evil.

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