Why The Golden Compass fails as fiction

John C. Wright has written a very interesting analysis of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, in which he points out how very badly the stories are constructed, and makes the point that the point of the stories has to be the message, because the story fails.

Pullman has, in the past, spoken quite clearly how his intent in writing the series was to “kill God;” he apparently has been forever angered by Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, and set out to write an atheistic counterpart. Recently however, he has attempted to retreat from this position by saying that the accusations that the books promote atheism and are anti-Christian as “complete rubbish,” and saying, “If I wanted to send a message I would have written a sermon.” One can only guess that he is concerned about losing sales, or something of that nature. It does seem like an idiotic thing to say, after he’s been so vocal about his anti-Christian agenda. The point Wright makes is that the “agenda” appears to be the only thing holding the book together.

I’ve seen a variety of critiques of the books, including one in a collection of essays put together by the Borders book stores which made the case that in spite of Pullman’s atheist and anti-Lewis agenda, he could not have written the books without either religion or Lewis; he relies too heavily on both. He had to incorporate a spiritual realm to try to make his point, and he also borrowed concepts and styles from Lewis.

Now, Wright challenges the books’ structure:

Someone name for me a book that is more obviously a bit of preaching that simply abandoned its story line more blatantly? Even Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED actually had an ending that grows out of its beginning. John Galt’s radio speech was long, but the book did not end in the middle of that speech.

The first rule of story telling is the Gunrack Rule. If you show a gun in a gunrack on the wall in Act One, someone has to be shot by Act Three. It is the same rule every child learns in kindergarten, every merchant learns when generating customer good will. Abide by your contracts. Keep your promises.

Plots and characters and themes make promises. Prophecies in epic fantasy stories are blatant promises. When you are told that there is a prophecy that one and only one knife can kill Almighty God, and that one little boy is the one to do it, it breaks a promise to have God turn out to be a drooling cripple who dies by falling out of bed.

Wright believes Pullman to be a very good writer, and that he should know better.

Nothing I have ever read, not by Heinlein and not by Ayn Rand has been more blatant in dropping the story-telling, and devoting its pages to preaching a message. The writer was drunk on sermonizing. If this plotline was a motorist, it would have been arrested for driving while intoxicated, if it had not perished in the horrible drunk accident where it went headlong over the cliff of the author’s preachy message, tumbled down the rocky hillside, crashed, and burned.

I still haven’t read Pullman, so at the moment I can’t agree or disagree with Wright’s thoughts. However, this is an interesting analysis, and is probably worth considering while reading the books.

4 thoughts on “Why The Golden Compass fails as fiction”

  1. Just want to point out that the criticism quoted here only applies to AMBER SPYGLASS. No criticism is in the article against GOLDEN COMPASS.

  2. I had no idea I was supposed to be offended until the defenders of orthodoxy told me so.

    Then perhaps he failed as a preacher…

    I’ll have to read it myself over the Christmas break. Although, that seems a bit ironic, doesn’t it?

  3. Though I was not overwhelmed by the “The Golden Compass,” which I read shortly after it was published, I’m not sure I share Wright’s assessment. I thought Pullman actually did a pretty good job envisioning a unique world, and I never felt that he was preaching at me. His wouldn’t be the first work of fiction that took on God, and even if he is doing that, I wouldn’t dismiss the book as a failure (which I don’t).

    Though world views in fiction are important, I think we religious folk tend to go after the wrong things. Witness the Christian nonsense concerning the Potter books which helped catapult Rowling into billionaire status.

    Wright may have felt preached at in Pullman’s book. Having read the book before the Christian cultural champions noticed it, I had a refreshingly fun read. I had no idea I was supposed to be offended until the defenders of orthodoxy told me so.

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