Lyra and Iorek in The Golden Compass

Will Toronto schools yank The Golden Compass?


With the Star reporting this morning that Halton's Catholic school board has pulled copies of Phillip Pullman's fantasy novel The Golden Compass off the shelves - reputedly due to complaints about its "atheistic" nature - questions are already being asked around school boards in the GTA following suit.

These are heady times for The Golden Compass: New Line is banking that next month's movie adaptation will hit the same fantasy movie jackpot that bankrolled The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia - the latter featuring doggedly pro-Christian themes which did not, of course, invoke the attendant faith-based hand-wringing earned by Harry Potter and now The Golden Compass. Remarkable how atheists rarely petition school boards to remove books about resurrected Jesus-lions from the shelves, lest those books corrupt the innocent godless children.

Pullman's literary series has lately found itself at the center of quite a lot of hullabaloo about whether or not the books will seduce our young people into believing in a world without God. Halton's Catholic trustees are now reviewing Compass and its sequels to determine whether they should be made available to their student body.

The complaint in Halton was filed in part due to a Toronto Star article regarding Pullman and his work which appeared earlier this month. Though he has toned down the flag-waving in the months leading up to the film's release, Pullman is on the record as an atheist and has stated that he wrote the fantasy trilogy in response to the religious subtexts (and in many cases, just plain ol' texts) of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series.

(That series, for those who don't remember, ended with the entire cast of principal characters being killed in a train wreck, having "earned" their divine reward: an afterlife in Narnia. Pullman has spoken out against that series as having been "anti-life," and uses Golden Compass and the rest of the His Dark Materials trilogy to debate those themes.)

To be fair, we're talking about a Catholic school board here, and Catholicism has been Target Numero Uno according to those who read Pullman's trilogy as an argument against the Catholic church's conceptions of sin, innocence, and faith. The story's principal character, Lyra, journeys through multiple parallel worlds in what ultimately becomes an effort to bring down a corrupt and malevolent dictator-deity - one that Catholic protest groups have interpreted as a thinly-veiled analog of the Judeo-Christian god.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board has yet to report any similar complaints that might lead to an inquiry into Compass' appropriateness for Toronto-area schools. Under the circumstances, however - and given that high-publicity events like movie launches inevitably lead to efforts by boycott groups to grab as much free press as they can - one suspects a similar move may be in the offing over the course of the next few weeks.

Until now, Pullman has enjoyed the relative luxury of dwelling in the shadow of the larger, more popular Potter series - which, in spite of making absolutely no anti-Christian mission statements beyond the simple fact of its witchcraft-related content, has drawn fire from protest groups for years. If the Compass movie breaks through, however, the His Dark Materials trilogy's safe anonymity may give way in favour of a harsh reading by Catholics and others regarding its appropriateness not just in educational circles, but as literature itself.

It's ironic, though hardly new, that a novel series that is ultimately about the importance of free will and human choice (particularly as it relates to children) could shortly cease to be an available choice for some of those very same children. In Lyra's alternate world as depicted in The Golden Compass, the Magisterium is smiling.


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