Saturday, February 9, 2008
Flying Through The Golden Compass
Outside of my obsession with Harry Potter and love affair with Middle Earth, I've never been much of a fantasy reader. But there is something in those stories that pulls me in a way other genres cannot. So, I signed up for a course at Teacher's College this semester where we are exploring how fantasy can help students grow as readers and writers. One of the challenges was to start a fantasy book club with students. I have some really high level readers in my classes this year, so I decided on "The Golden Compass" by Philip Pullman.
Admittedly, I was drawn by the controversy surrounding the book. We just finished a unit on "banned books" in my classroom, so it seemed fitting. My reading experience can be described by two things: underlining and page turning. One of the aspects of fantasy that we have been discussing is its ability to create worlds in which our rules don't apply and in turn asking what that says about our world. I was incredibly anxious to talk with my students about the themes and issues that were raised in this story...but the mere mention of "themes and issues" sounds like nerdy, boring English teacher talk. But the reader doesn't have to search for these things: they are innately a part of the story and the reader just automatically asks questions while flying through.
"It's no surprise that themes like love, death, and the fate of the soul should be the province of young-adult literature. Passionate readers are most captivated by reading in their early teens. It's at that age that literature can take, can seem the most important thing in life. In some ways, it might seem that writers of young-adult fiction have an advantage: Their audience is primed for intense literary experience." This, this is why I am an English teacher. My students are so bright and are at the sweet (yes, really) age of 13 when a few of them will be able to make the jump that reading can be so much more than just the story while simultaneously realizing just how wonderful it is to find truth in story.
"This is what Pullman's work is about: a longing that nothing can satisfy but whose intensity is its own difficult and ambivalent pleasure. Like the Yale literary critic Harold Bloom, Pullman equates this longing with the ancient heresy of Gnosticism: the idea that our souls are defined by a spark of transcendence by which we aspire beyond the pious moralisms of human order and society, and seek something the authorities that govern the world cannot or will not give." But this doesn't just fit into Gnosticism. I think it is a fact of life that the soul is complex and is constantly yearning for meaning and fulfillment. I agree that such transcendene cannot come from authorities that goven the world. I do believe this longing will be fulfilled...but not on earth and not by men.
Recently I have been taken by the fact that life itself is incredibly complex: take the intricacies of my own mind and heart and multiply that by the mind and heart of everyone who has ever lived. And although I don't believe that everything is relativeI have been frustrated by attempts to claim that there is one right way to live, work, vote, think. This is where I read Pullman's work a bit differently than the Christians who criticize it: his characters aren't black and white and the story can't be oversimplified. Questions and complexity lurk on every page, and to my current state of thinking, it comes as a bit of a relief. Though many may disagree with me, I do think that questioning the motives that the church has historically held is important. Sometimes the structures that people put up take away from the richness that is life and the beauity that is the complex reality of our individual hearts. Our souls have a depth that the law and moralism and black/white line drawing cannot satiate: it is more and it is deeper. So my overall thought is that though I don't share the same theology as Philip Pullman at the end of the day, he makes me think. His books are so imaginative and exciting and fantastical that they draw kids into these questions. That is why I love literature.
***Many thanks to Julie and Eric Mecca for talking through this book with me! And to this article that I quoted and that added to my thinking of reading and teaching this book: