The Golden Compass: Why was it banned?

This month we’re reading The Golden Compass, the first novel in Philip Pullman’s YA fantasy series His Dark Materials. But there was a time when the book sparked some controversy for promoting atheism, and they’re still frequently challenged.

When the film adaptation came out in 2007, the Catholic League made it clear that the books promoted atheism. Even though the movie watered down those themes, it was “bait for the books.” The Catholic Church discouraged parents from buying the books for their kids as Christmas gifts; the fact that the film and book series is geared toward children made them even more dangerous, according to the league. As they put it:

Atheism for kids. That is what Philip Pullman sells. 

So what does the author think? I was curious to find out just what Pullman intended with the series, given that my reading of The Golden Compass so far does seem to set up the Magisterium as something akin to the Church — but it’s grown into a totalitarian power that wants to squash any dissent and does evil things in the name of good.

Philip Pullman: an agnostic?

My first question is what Pullman personally believes. In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Pullman talks about how he has nothing against certain spiritual leaders, including Jesus. He also states that organized religious institutions can do great things, such as raising money for charity. So when does he start to worry?

Whenever you get a political structure, with ranks and hierarchies, you get corruption; you get people who are more interested in progressing through those ranks than in doing good. Power corrupts.

Philip Pullman, The Guardian (2002)

When it comes to spirituality, Pullman sets himself up as more agnostic than atheist, admitting he has no evidence for or against the existence of a god. Reading his views, I’d argue that he doesn’t feel too extreme to me, merely curious about when religious institutions do good and when they don’t.

That got me curious about how he depicts the Magisterium in The Golden Compass. Apparently later books explore this more directly, but I’ll stick to the first novel as it’s our book of the month!

What is the Magisterium?

Without diving too deep into spoiler territory, we can say that the Magisterium in His Dark Materials is similar to our own world’s Catholic Church during the height of its power. In the history of Lyra’s world, John Calvin — famous for the Protestant Reformation in real life — became Pope, the papacy moved to Geneva, and Calvin’s new Consistorial Court of Discipline started a campaign banning any heresy against the Church.

But it sounds like the Church died with Pope Calvin — and the Magisterium was born to replace it. The Magisterium wasn’t exactly the Church; instead, it was “a tangle of courts, colleges, and councils,” as The Golden Compass explains.

For a large part of the previous century, the most powerful had been the College of Bishops, but in recent years the Consistorial Court of Discipline had taken its place as the most active and feared of all the Church’s bodies.”

from The Golden Compass

In The Golden Compass, this campaign against heresy extends to every aspect of life in Lyra’s world. Even scientists are required to have inspectors with them to make sure their work and findings align with the Magisterium’s teachings. This is precisely why Lord Asriel is a heretic in the books: he conducts research about Dust, beyond the reach of the Magisterium.

Whatever your own beliefs, it’s hard to deny that the Magisterium in The Golden Compass can stir up interesting debate. While it may seem extreme in its methods, we can draw a lot of correlations between the Magisterium and real-world extremist organizations, including corrupt religious institutions and authoritarian governments. History repeats itself, which means we repeatedly face authorities who demand absolute control over our lives. And that’s why The Golden Compass, with its depiction of the Magisterium, remains so relevant.

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