The e-mail rumor mill is running full blast this month, all about the award-winning book and new movie The Golden Compass. The cry is boycott because the author—gasp—is an atheist! My response is “so what?” Does that mean we don’t read Edgar Allan Poe because he was a heavy drinker, Shel Silverstein because he once published an article in Playboy, or Ernest Hemingway because he committed suicide? All of them espoused ideas and ideals that we might not agree with.
Should only Mormons read Standing for Something: 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes by Gordon B. Hinckley, only Catholics read Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI, or only Buddhists read The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by Howard Cutler from interviews with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama? Of course not. We become more tolerant and understanding, finding the similarities between us more important that the differences when we share the common bond of the written word.
Besides, The Golden Compass is a children’s book. A fantasy, a genre that came into being at the time the highly successful works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis were published. Should we not read The Chronicles of Narnia because Lewis shares his views Christianity, or The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien was a devout Catholic? Has it not always been true that fantasy uses as its basis the war between good and evil? Through the telling of story, both sides are presented, but the didactic efforts to preach a philosophy do not make it to the level of popularity reached by each of these series.
A graduate of Oxford, the same school where both Tolkien and Lewis were among the faculty, Pullman first came up with the idea for the series known as His Dark Materials after reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Close friends, Tolkien and Lewis were both members of the informal literary discussion group at Oxford known as the Inklings, defined at Wikipedia as “a group of literary enthusiasts who praised the value of narrative in fiction, and encouraged the writing of fantasy. Although Christian values were notably reflected in several members' work, there were also atheists among the members of the discussion group.”
For what it’s worth, I’ve met Philip Pullman and had a nice long sit-down luncheon with him at the 2000 National Council of Teachers of English conference. He’s a very nice man, albeit he had a few oddities about himself as a writer. At the time, he wrote his books by hand only on yellow legal pads that were two hole punched, stopping for the day after he had written a single line of text on the next page. His workspace was a gardener’s shed on the back of his property.
Never once did he try to convert me to his way of thinking about religion, just like I never tried to convert him to mine.
Rather than being among those who spread rumors and encourage boycotts, I would hope that readers would at least accept that gossip is never fair, and that the best way to know if the information being presented as fact is indeed true, is, in a situation involving literature, to read the book, in its entirety for yourself. Get to know the author and their intent before you spread the word.
To end with Pullman’s own words from his website: “As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don't think it's the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means. The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader's mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I'm not going to explain. Anyway, I'm not in the message business; I'm in the ‘Once upon a time’ business.”