This is the sixth in a series.
by LILY GOODSPEED
I must have read the first chapter of The Golden Compass at least ten times before I graduated elementary school. The premise was appealing: an alternate universe where humans held half their souls in animal companions called daemons, where the type of animal mirrored the personality traits of its owner. But getting through that first chapter was tough.
Lyra Belacqua spends most of the time hidden in a closet with her daemon Pan listening to stuffy old men discuss mysterious Northern phenomena. I remember one of my first attempts at reading this chapter particularly well. I was on an American Airlines flight to Florida to visit my grandma and I purposefully brought along the chunky paperback, convinced that a three-hour plane ride was the push I needed towards Lyra’s adventures. I promptly fell asleep on my brother’s shoulder.
Eventually I struggled through the slightly superfluous Golden Compass and scrambled through the much darker and more interesting books, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Even at eleven, I knew that these books were taking on some heavy stuff. In the first book, kids are killed, or at least zombie-ified. In the second, teenagers are stalked by soul-sucking monsters invisible to their pre-adolescent counterparts.
The third ups the ultimate ante, with Lyra and her friend Will traveling directly into to the land of the dead, and Lyra’s parents basically murdering God. I could tell that framing the Catholic Church as the world’s primary source of villainy was a brash move by Philip Pullman, even if I didn’t know much about God with a capital “G,” since I was raised in the religious vacuum that is Reform Judaism.
I was perhaps the only kid in existence who read His Dark Materials and felt more religious afterwards, or at least more spiritual. The phrase I have used since childhood for my faith, or lack thereof, is “culturally Jewish.” At Hebrew school, I spent more time in “Meditation” class listening to songs from the Garden State soundtrack with a chilled-out Wesleyan grad than I did discussing any metaphysical topics.
The Goodspeed family worshipped knowledge more than anything. My mother brought my siblings and I to every children’s’ museum in the Tri-County area, evidenced by the number of stories I can tell about losing my brother between exhibit rooms. (One time Sam got lost at the aquarium and casually joined a new family to view the seal room.) My dad bought me a rock tumbler for my eighth birthday.
My third grade notebooks are filled not only with the names of crushes, but also the names of my favorite birds of prey from most to least deadly. I knew a lot about dinosaurs and volcanoes but not much about souls and sin.
Pullman’s books were both puzzling and exciting to me. At the end of The Amber Spyglass, for all its rants against organized religion, the two protagonists save the world through some approximation of love, not strength or cleverness. Even the daemon element made me think about my soul in ways I hadn’t. What would my daemon’s form settle into? In a lot of ways, the His Dark Materials trilogy was a perfect bridge between my own love of learning and bigger and deeper questions I felt less comfortable answering.
Pullman advocates a kind of humanist spirituality while simultaneously extolling the importance of science and discovery. So says the scientist Mary Malone in The Amber Spyglass: “I stopped believing that there was a power of good and evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not what they are." It’s dialectic, not diametric. You don’t have to choose one or the other. The line between religion and science is fuzzy, perhaps even non-existent.
For instance, the empirical and rational field of physics on Earth is called "experimental theology" in Lyra’s universe. Physicists study dark matter, and experimental theologians study “Dust”. They are different, but the same. This was a revelation for an atheist kid obsessed with Animorphs and Bill Nye living in the suburbs of New York City. Maybe religion didn’t have to be this God with a capital “G” or the boring parts of Hebrew school. Maybe religion could have something to do with which bird of prey my daemon would be.
"Strange Man" - Red Hot Chili Peppers (mp3)
"Long Progression" - Red Hot Chili Peppers (mp3)