The Golden Compass: A Seasonal Controversy

The first film of BHA Distinguished Supporter Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is being premiered today, and has caused controversy with some religious groups who object to its theme.

The Daily Mail once called Pullman the ‘most dangerous author in Britain’, fundamentalist Christians have tried to get his books banned from school libraries, the dramatisation of His Dark Materials at the National Theatre caused the Association of Christian Teachers, before anyone had even seen the plays, to condemn them on the basis of their belief that the books are blasphemous and it is in particularly bad taste to stage them at Christmas. Now that the film version has been released, Catholic groups are protested about it.

Responding to the controversy, the British Humanist Association said,

‘Pullman’s trilogy is one of the greatest examples of children’s literature in recent years, and it has an inspiringly humanist theme. Yes, it explores and criticises organised religion, especially its more repressive aspects, but in its place is an ethic of personal responsibility for living a good life. At the end of the final book of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass,the central characters Lyra and Will have to make the very difficult choice of returning to their own worlds to help people learn and stay aware by ‘thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on.’ Lyra and Will are to help others to “learn and understand about themselves and each other and the way everything works…how to be kind instead of cruel, and patient instead of hasty, and cheerful instead of surly, and above all to keep their minds open”.

Non-religious and humanist young people will find much in the books and film to validate their beliefs and values, and this is still sufficiently rare for them to have a very special meaning for humanists, but critics need reminding that the story is a fantasy (there are no such things as daemons or armoured bears or witches – and most young and not-so-young audiences can cope with that!) and that those that are likely to be upset or offended (which seems very unlikely) have the option of staying away.’