VIDEO: Philosophy of the Golden Compass #SkepchickCon

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Philosophy of the Golden Compass video

Panelists, L-R: Sasha Katz, Ruth Berman, Heina Dadabhoy, Chris Stenzel, Ashley Miller

Recorded by David McConnell

Title and credit effects by Jason Thibeault, with designs based on the work of Donna Mugavero

Transcribed by Chris Pederson

Philosophy of the Golden Compass transcript

Chris Stenzel: Thank you all for being here today. One of our panelists isn’t. I’m Chris Stenzel, a.k.a. Seedius, that’s what most people know me as. I’m a big fan of books. That’s why I’m here.

Ashley Miller: My name is Ashley Miller. I’m a mass communication scholar and I focus on representation issues and I’m really interested in representation of religion and atheism in fiction and so that’s why I’m here.

Heina Dadabhoy: I’m Heina Dadabhoy. I write for Skepchick and am therefore a quasi-professional atheist. I also kind of grew up on Chronicles of Narnia and I’ve always been interested in sort of the tension between the two works.

Ruth Berman: I’m Ruth Berman and I write fantasy. And when The Golden Compass came out, my niece and nephew, who were then about 10 and 8, said to me, “You’ve got to read this,” so I read it and I told them, “You were right.”

AM: So we don’t have a moderator, so this is some of the blind leading the blind here. I’m really interested in just, to start the panel off, when we say, “We want to talk about the philosophy of The Golden Compass,” what does that mean we’re talking about? Are we talking about the use of Nietzsche in the book? Are we talking about the philosophy the books are promoting? Are we talking about religion? When you think of the philosophy of The Golden Compass, what is it that you’re thinking about?

CS: For me it’s a little bit of all of that. And as a hobbyist in terms of my knowledge of philosophy and theology, I’d probably focus more on the theological questions and debates that it has within its own world in terms of what does the authority truly mean in the realm of the books. What is it about the organizations that promote the authority? [inaudible]  How would the removal of those groups, those organizations, that thought process, affect that world as a whole?

HD: I did major in philosophy and so, and I was right at the beginning of my philosophy major when I started reading The Golden Compass. And then I went back before this panel obviously when I found out I was going to be on it and reread it. It’s one of those things where you think things are really profound before you find out that the ideas have been said before. I’m not saying that the books aren’t good. They’re a little less mind-blowingly innovative. I mean they present ideas in an innovative way but these were not, these were apparently not, new ideas, which I didn’t know when I was 18 but knew in my 20s. So I would say on the reread I definitely focused more on the theology than the philosophy, but the first time around it was definitely like “Whew, these are novel ideas to me.”

RB: I think Pullman’s use of atheism in the book is very interesting and enjoyable since I too… I don’t know if I’m an atheist. An agnostic, let’s say. But curiously, I don’t think doing it works very well in the story, and I think there are basically two problems with the way he is using the philosophy of atheism. One is that it gets too much, he overloads the story. And the other is that if I didn’t know Pullman’s beliefs, I would think he was a Christian.

AM: I get really confused by people who read the book atheist because it acts under the presumption that there is a god. That’s the basic assumption.

Sasha Katz: Well it seems to be sort of a switch. It was like all of a sudden the church were the bad guys and they’re thinking they’re the good guys and they’re trying to re-enact this epic battle where they’re winning but they’re in fact the ones doing all of the evil, doing all of the bad. So it’s an interesting switch. It sort of came off a little bit heavy, like, “Whoa, you don’t like the church.” But–

AM: But it seemed like more of a critique of the church to me than a critique of theism in and of itself. Like that’s–

RB: It’s a church that combines all the worst points of Calvinism and Catholicism.

HD: I would say that more than an atheist novel, which is why when people are “It’s the atheist book”, I’m like “No… angels are real in it.”

SK: But they’re consciousness, they’re constructs of consciousness. I feel like it’s saying a lot more about human nature and a lot more about… like there’s not so much a creator of all of this, as our own ability to know is more powerful. Consciousness has come beyond humans.

HD: Nonetheless, they are physically embodied; they meet angels and go places with angels. So to me that makes it not atheist. But I consider it more anti-theist than atheist. It’s a critique of religion; it’s a critique of the way that people look at religion. Because, I don’t know, call me a literal atheist but if I read a book and there are angels physically embodied in it I don’t consider it very atheistic.

CS: Well, the question really is are they angels or are they beings that exist in that state that because of the authority was the first consciousness to emerge and define what everyone else was simply said “I dub thee angel.”

[Talking over each other]


HD: Well, regardless of what they are called, they are supernatural beings.

[Talking over each other]


SK: They’re not specifically beings though, they’re sort of floating consciousness that–

HD: I understand all that–

SK: …different forms depending on what. I get what you’re saying but they’re not just like angels. They call themselves angels because that’s what we’ll recognize. They’re seen as human because they said they were more like architectural structure if you saw what they really kind of looked like.

HD: I surrender on the angels example.



HD: What I mean is there is a creator; there is clearly a reenactment–

SK: There’s not a creator. I mean, theoretically there is possibly is a creator–

HD: There is Christian symbols that would reenact what is in the bible. In a way… in an indirect different sort of way. That’s my point. It’s not our reality where, at least what most of us here think, there are not these creatures there in the book that exist in our world. That’s all I am saying. I’m sorry if I use too specific a terminology.

RB: There are also witches and zombies

HD: Exactly.



HD: That’s exactly what I’m saying. So to call it an atheist book I don’t know if it reflects on our reality anyways, so I’ll shut up.

SK: I think it takes into… a lot of the worlds seem to be heavily influenced by different genres. And so I feel like it almost takes the bible as another genre. You’ve got the witches, you’ve got the little, uh, . . .

RB: Gallivespians

SK: Yeah. You’ve got all of these different ones that you can almost see the inspiration from them, what inspired them. And I feel like a lot of the things in there are also just inspired by the fictional works of the bible.



AM: One of the things I find really interesting about the book is sort of the mind-soul duality while also embracing materialism. Because the soul is embodied, there is a physical embodiment of the soul. It’s not just ephemeral. But at the same time there is still a duality between… I guess in the book it’s then a duality. It’s your body, your soul, your death and is that it, just the three parts? So you’ve got these different parts that are actually physically embodied rather than being totally ephemeral. Which is to me really interesting, that it’s like a combination of materialism but also mind-body duality.

HD: Actually… that’s another thing where I found it, like, okay. I mean I understand it’s for the sake of good reading and good literature. It’s one of those things where I read it and I go “I don’t know if this is really necessarily promoting atheism,” because to me atheism and materialism go hand in hand. You can’t… your mind is a function of your brain. You can’t quantify your mind. Or, you can quantify your mind and mind-body duality seems a little odd in an “atheist” book.

SK: Well, did he specifically call it an atheist novel?

HD: I don’t know.

[Talking over each other]


AM: He just said that it was about killing god.

SK: That’s how I got an ex-boyfriend to read it. I was like “Well at the end of the series, they kill god’’ and he was “Wow that sounds pretty metal.”



SK: He doesn’t read, he does not read ever. He read all three books in a week and he came back and he was like, “So that was a lot more subtle than you implied.”



HD: One thing that I wanted to talk about and I don’t know if this is directly philosophy related but I thought was interesting is the character of Lyra. She’s not likeable in some ways, in a lot of ways actually. And so the fact that she’s the protagonist, I wanted to throw it out there, what do you all think it means for the book in terms of, you know–

RB: I think she’s entirely likeable. But she’s not entirely admirable.

SK: She always calls herself “The one that lies, the one that cheats, the one that does all of that,” but she’s pretty much always doing it, at least once you get into the heart of the story, she’s always doing it for, sort of, for the good. So I find it interesting that she’s lying for good.

CS: Growing up the way she did in that environment where she has authority figures but no one’s really watching her that closely, I think she was just allowed to be the wild child that people imagine someone without discipline would be. And her gift for creative and believable lies comes in handy later, and her youth was basically something to practice, to get good at it. And so she was destined to have this role. I think is where that comes in for me and so I think destiny is something, especially with the way alethiometer (is that the way you all pronounce it in your head?), was portraying things. There is a destiny. There is a future that you really can’t change that much. You have a path that you’re supposed to walk; you’ll walk it not knowing it. So it’s a kind of Taoist thing for me.

AM: I think she’s really admirable on several traits. She’s curious, she’s passionate, and she’s shameless. She doesn’t function as someone who is, has been affected by the church in her world. She’s not someone who is embarrassed by her body or her lies. She has had almost no morality taught to her, which makes it so that it’s sort of like what would morality be if we came to it without instruction. Or at least that what she represents to me. And she comes to some mostly admirable conclusions. You could perhaps disagree with the ethics of lying, but she almost always does it for a greater good. I think that she is a totally likable character. She makes mistakes, absolutely. But it’s also so rare that you get such a self-assured female lead, in any kind of work but especially in young adult fiction.

RB: And especially one written by a man. He does a wonderful job making her come to life more [some coughing over] if anything, more vivid than the boy, Will, is.

HD: Yeah, Will’s a little flat sometimes.

AM: He’s, even more than she is, an embodiment of the meeting of his name. He is just Will. He is the will to do things. That’s it, that’s all he is. He’s almost not three dimensional because of it, I guess because lies are more interesting, sort of more vivid.

SK: It’s interesting seeing the contrast between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter because they both lie. They both are charming. They’re both super confident. But they’ve taken completely different routes. It would be interesting to see what Mrs. Coulter’s childhood was like.

AM: Maybe that’s what Lyra would have been like if she’d been raised in the church versus being raised in a place of learning. And they both are sort of symbolized by in what way has their sexuality been their “fall.” For Lyra it was the end of destiny, of being second [inaudible]. For Mrs. Coulter, it was her becoming so involved in the church that she lost almost any sight of what good and bad meant or what it meant to be human or anything like that.

SK: Did anyone notice that at one point it’s in the cave right after… or right before they are fixing the knife. They go down to get a bush that burns well.



HD: Yeah. There’s a lot of little cheeky bible things. Which I didn’t actually realize on my first read because I wasn’t as familiar with the bible. I grew up Muslim and there are similarities but there are just some things the Koran’s not long enough to cover. Whereas the Old Testament is giant and it covers everything. That was interesting.

AM: Are there any questions from the audience?

Audience 1: I have a couple of things. I’m wondering what the [inaudible] with wheels are called? I forget.

All: Mulefa

Audience 1: The other thing was, not really a question, more an agreement. I agree that it’s not atheist. It is instead anti-theist. Because when I was reading it… I grew up Catholic and had a lot of friends in the church tell me that it was atheist and I was like “No, he doesn’t say that he doesn’t believe in god and obviously there’s a lot of god stuff that goes on. There were all those bible references up the wazoo and whatnot. He just doesn’t like organized religion.” And that’s sort of the main point I guess.

HD: He didn’t explicitly write it as an atheist book; he explicitly wrote it as a counterpoint to Narnia, to give an alternative to Narnia. He does that in so many ways, between the criticism of religion as opposed to the sneaky Aslan-Jesus stuff. Which I didn’t realize as a child. I was this little Muslim girl reading. It wasn’t until I got through towards the end of the series when I realized “Oh he’s making fun of Muslims, great.” Really, I forget what they’re called, but at one point in Narnia, they journey to some land where these silly people do their silly worship that isn’t the right one.

RB: Telmarines [?]

HD: Yeah, and then I realized “Oh crap…



HD: …Allah hates me for reading this.” But in The Golden Compass you have religious themes, but also the female thing. Women in The Golden Compass, in that universe, have agency, they have power, and when they hit puberty, they don’t suddenly lose it all, unlike poor Susan in Narnia.

AM: They’re deep heretical books. They’re trying to give you every heretical idea that there is out there. But they’re not saying that the fundamental being of god is necessarily untrue–

SK: And I think a lot, sorry, a lot of the people that throw around the word “atheist” are usually the people that don’t quite understand what atheist means.

HD: Yeah, they’re probably thinking it’s Satan worshippers.

SK: They’re the ones that say “Wiccan is evil and Harry Potter is full of devil worship” and stuff like that. They’re not going to read it. They’re going to hear what it’s about and automatically chime in and throw a bunch of titles on it.

AM: When I was leaving the hotel this morning, a guy asked me what the panel I was on was about and he went on this rant about how the books were evil and they shouldn’t be in his school and why would his 10-year-old be allowed to read a book about trying to convert him to atheism. And I was like “I’m just going to walk away.”



CS: As for myself, I agree with the rest of the panel or what seems to be the rest of the panel saying that they’re less promotion of atheism than indictment of organized religion, and if these books promote anything it’s promoting the idea that free will is supreme and you should be allowed to come to your own conclusions. Which is what I find endearing.

AM: And that sexuality is positive. I think that the strongest message that I got out of the books, that the idea of innocence was not something to be aimed for. As a woman the messages of virginity and purity and all of that coming from church are deeply opposed to what the philosophy is he’s promoting. He’s saying that sexual knowledge is in fact part of what makes us human at a very basic level, part of what makes us special, I guess.

RB: Let’s get the comment back there.

Audience 2: I was just going to say that while I agree with you, that I don’t consider this an atheist book, when I read it as a young teenager, a budding atheist if you will, it lent credence to my beliefs that I could have a moral system that wasn’t based off an organized religion and that I was a moral person as an atheist.

SK: I mean how did the church come about anyways if people didn’t naturally have a moral compass?

Audience 2: Exactly.

HD: With the church thing and the sexuality thing, one thing I noticed is that the message about sexuality was generally positive. But they also show the flip side of it at the end of the first book, with the creepy stuff going on between the demons, between Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter.

AM: You’re saying that you didn’t think that was hot?



HD: No judgment here, but it was a little weird, especially given that it’s a young adult novel. The stuff that happens with demons, you’re like, “Whoa, what’s going on there?”

SK: What about when Lee Scoresby dreams that he’s flying with another man’s demon?

HD: That’s pretty hot, right?



HD: But at least in terms of the scene I was talking about, it’s just sort of how sexuality can become corrupted through the church. And shows that sexuality is a good thing except when you’re told not to. When it becomes forbidden it can become sort of a dangerous thing. But not because sexuality is bad but because forbidding sexuality, inhibiting it in this sort of theological-ish way is harmful.

AM: I just read that as repression makes the naughty stuff hotter.



AM: It’s like it becomes next level.

HD: I know a lot of Catholics who ask me, “So how do you atheists get your rocks off if you’re not guilty?”


Audience 3: Looking at the responses of this panel, it’s clear that this book offers a lot for people who are looking at, I guess, really diverse lenses…which I guess is pretty…I myself…almost exclusively hard science fiction so I’m not too familiar with….demons and fantasy, but I am with those in hard science fiction, and I did enjoy the series because there are a lot of hard science…where there are, the author is explaining these otherwise metaphysical phenomena physically such as the use of dark matter to explain certain phenomena…

RB: Entanglement particles.

Audience 3: I found this very accessible.

AM: It’s very much not like a high fantasy approach. It’s, I guess you’d say, almost like a Harry Potter in that it’s pulling the real world a lot more extensively than high fantasy does. But it’s almost not fantasy, I don’t think. It’s like religious fan fiction plus…



AM: …plus science. It’s like scientific fan fiction I guess. Which is awesome. That is a compliment from me. I guess you have the bears, which are a fantastic element. You definitely have fantastic elements, but because of the way they are presented, they read as scientific.

RB: One of the things that leaped out at me [?] in the movie was that Ian McKellen got another chance to cry “Fly you fools.”



Audience 4: [ellipses where inaudible] I read Pullman’s novel, then I read about Pullman…I started reading…and truthfully didn’t like it at all. Then I…The Golden Compass comes out…and I think I don’t like them for the exact same reasons. One…how Pullman talks about how he doesn’t like allegorical books…there’s a difference between writing a story…and writing a story that’s trying to push …and I don’t like the…stories because I think the religious background is pushing too much…too much an allegory…

RB: Laura Miller wrote a fascinating book about the Narnia books called The Magician’s Book, in which she argues that coming back to the Narnia books as an adult, having abandoned them when she realized they were pushing religion and resenting that very much, she discovered there’s a lot more to them than religion, there’s a lot in the Narnia books for someone that’s not interested in religion to get. And when she re-read them as an adult, she found that she loved them all as much as she had as a child but in a somewhat different way.

AM: I’m a huge atheist and I enjoyed the Narnia books as a child and I don’t feel like I can’t read a fantasy story that has elements in it taken from biblical literature.

Audience 4: [ellipses where inaudible] It’s like I said…Pullman talks about the…allegory…and–

AM: I don’t think the stories work only on the level of allegory.

Audience 4: [ellipses where inaudible] …push a particular view point…from my experience…

RB: It’s doesn’t make it an allegory, though, necessarily.

Audience 4: I think Narnia very much is.

RB: No it isn’t. It does push a viewpoint, but it’s not an allegory.

SK: And there’s a lot of very successful books that are allegories, pretty much all of Discworld.



AM: I don’t think that having a point of view makes a book unenjoyable if you don’t have that same point of view necessarily. I can read Orson Scott Card’s work even though he’s a virulent homophobe.

Audience 4: [ellipses where inaudible]…the thing is…between the two books…opposing points of view and I don’t like either one…

AM: I don’t think a book is necessarily–

Audience 4: [ellipses where inaudible] …I think they’re both…an ax to grind..

AM: I disagree.

HD: I like axe grinding. Bring it on.

CS: It’s a valid point of view, and if they don’t float your boat, they don’t float your boat.

Audience 5: So I just wanted to ask a different question, that I just thought of. If Mrs. Coulter is the embodiment of the influence of the church, then what is Asriel…because he’s also someone we should like …aspire to be, clearly. And he wants to do the same thing that she does. It’s for a different set of reasons. Is he kind of supposed to be reason gone too far, and she’s supposed to be religion gone too far?

SK: I sort of read it as sometimes scientists will do things just because they can but not necessarily because they should. It kind of always reads to me like that. He never stops and steps back and thinks, “Should I do this now?”

AM: He has no personal moral framework, really.

HD: He doesn’t really care about anything other than just doing it because he can, pushing it as far as he can, that’s his only motivation–not only, I’m not going to make an absolute statement here–but it seems to be his primary motivation.

AM: He’s supposed to be a Nietzschean superman, that he’s the embodiment of that Nietzsche idea, and so part of that is that he’s almost lifted fully from the works of Nietzsche and put into this book as a person, and there’s some interesting debate about whether he is meant to be an angel that chose to be in human form and that’s how he’s been working on the things so long. He’s meant to be, I think, the idea is that science is not the opposite of religion. Philosophy is the opposite of religion. And he represents science with no philosophy, no humanism.

CS: I guess I just saw him as the character whose sole goal was to remove the influence of the authority, which is what embodies the power of the organization that he was opposing. So he understood… personally I think he knew he was the villain of the piece from the outside if he were to step back. He’s the martyr that has to do what must be done.

SK: But I don’t know. He doesn’t always seem 100 percent against the church. He’s against it, but you would think that if that was his end goal, he would be doing more specifically against the church and less science.

CS: I think he was willing to use them for his own ends. I think everything that he let the church do, that was furthering his goal. They had resources that he could use as long as he played the game enough to have access to those items. I think he had his own goal. He was undermining the team he was working for the entire time when he was working with them. So I.. I see him as an embodiment of free will, the novel as a whole, he is the free will gone too far, or the free will that is set against those that would be followers. He wants to wake them up.

HD: It’s not necessarily just the Magisterium he’s working against; he’s really working against the authority. So if you could use religion to kill god, if you’re Lord Asriel, that’s basically what you are doing. He’s using whatever tools are at his disposal to get at ultimately what he wants to oppose.

AM: Does the book really ever explain why he really wants to kill god?

SK: I might just be imagining it but I thought it was because he can or see if he could.

CS: I felt that he just felt that having an outside influence on the free will of others to the level that the organization of religion was doing was morally wrong. He wanted to remove that outside influence. I think he wanted to free everyone from the slavery that they were under.

RB: Let’s get another back there.

Audience 6: I thought that both Asriel and Coulter were meant to be the embodiment of corruption, when people feeling like what they are doing is for the best for everyone, and yet they very clearly harm other people in their path to get things done. Like Coulter when Lyra or whatever was about to be sliced from Pan, she stopped it. She was like, “That was horrible,” but she kept doing it to other children. So on some level she knew what she was doing was wrong, so she was selfishly willing to prevent her daughter from going through that but not all the other children. They both probably understood that what they were doing was wrong because similarly Asriel, when he thought Lyra was sent to him towards the end of book, he was like, “No, not you. I didn’t ask for you.” Neither of them wanted to do the horrible things that they were going to do to their own child but then would do it to other people’s children. Because–

HD: And they’re both sort of willing to do what it took to get to where they wanted.

Audience 6: But not really what it took. They’re willing to do what it took so long as it didn’t harm their own interests or their own progeny.

AM: I got the sense that Asriel totally would have killed Lyra.

Audience 6: Eventually, but he didn’t want to.

AM: He didn’t want to, but he totally would have. That’s the impression I got from the book, and that’s why he’s so upset, because he was still going to do it regardless. But, there seems to be a difference between the two of them. In that Coulter’s goal is just power for herself and Asriel’s goal was external. He needed to do this to one child for one specific purpose versus her just doing it experimentally to lots of children. Because she could.

Audience 6: But in terms of the overall goal, Asriel was causing the deaths of tons of people. So…

Audience 7: [ellipses where inaudible] As to motivation, I think he was faced with empiricism versus [inaudible]. There are things that he saw and knew…that you’ve already said “No…this isn’t the case. That’s kind of a classic…science and religion.

Audience 8: I guess I’m speaking about…long term society. I read the books. Asriel is an angelic name; it’s a reference to an actual angel in a Christian war. I guess it would make sense that Asriel could be a fallen angel. A fallen angel has no moral framework. He’s not bound to that. He questions god; he actively rebels against him…in that mythological sense…it feels like it all kind of works…But it’s been a long time since I read the books. So maybe I’ve forgotten something.

HD: It’s like asking “Why does Satan go bad?” Ultimately at least from what I understand of Christian theology, and I think it’s even more in the forefront of Muslim theology, so I might be a little skewed on this, but ultimately Satan’s crime is arrogance. It’s thinking that he was better. And so Asriel falls under that to some extent, I think.

Audience 9: You mentioned [inaudible[ at some point…I’m at least somewhat familiar. There is a character…and he and Asriel are very similar in one way. Asriel wants to kill god in a way that, he wants to see how far he can go before he goes a little too far. In the same way…the Hogfather his ultimate goal was to kill death itself. The reason being he was a professional assassin. He wanted to see if he could attain the highest goal, doing death itself. In that way I think they’re very similar because Asriel is an extreme authority figure the say way that…however intimidating well respected in the assassin’s guild. So as a result they both are trying to see “How far can I use my influence to get what I want, what I want done, what I believe is right to do before someone turns the tables and I become the victim, the one who is prosecuted.” So I thought that was an interesting parallel because those books are very unrelated in a lot of ways but at the same time there are these characters…and Asriel that almost coincidentally seem to coincide with each other very well. So that was what you were talking about why he would want to kill god, it’s not so much attacking his authority as a test of his own power. If that makes sense.

SK: I agree with that. I didn’t think about that before. That’s pretty cool.

AM: There’s a… go ahead.

SK: I was going to say, I can’t remember the character’s name, from Equal Rights, but the main character from that always reminded me of Lyra.

HD: Oh, Tiffany Akin?

AM: No. Equal Rights is the sorcerer, the girl who’s a sorcerer.

SK: The female witch, the female wizard.

HD: Right. What was her name? Does anyone remember her name?

SK: I remember she’s from…

HD: Tiffany Akin is way later.

AM: She was in the Tiffany Akin books

HD: She kind of, sort of quasi mentors Tiffany Akin. I just really love Tiffany Akin.

AM: There’s a part in the book where the witch go to Asriel’s world and is relaying what she saw. She says “He must have been building this for centuries and centuries” and that’s sort of the biggest clue that Asriel is not just human, but an angel who’s chosen to take human form. Because the idea is that his world has been building for so long that there’s no way he could have done it in one human lifetime. That’s sort of the interesting thing, that’s in the background there, that in the choice of name for him and just sort of subtly hinted at throughout. That’s an interesting thing that the book doesn’t really take any time to explore but is certainly in the book.

HD: There’s two things though. Angels are implied at least with the two angels that are partners. There are people who have died, so they’re not some special thing. Maybe not all angels are but–

SK: I’m not going to be able to pronounce their names; Baruch was a human that died. The other one was not. He was a consciousness. He was a consciousness that fell in love with Baruch when Baruch was alive.

HD: So it’s like ‘Which one is Asriel?” We don’t know. And then the other thing is, so angels can impregnate people? That would be my question… I’m like “Okay.”

RB: That’s based on biblical reference.

HD: Oh yeah, no definitely. The Old Testament, there was…

Audience 10: Then what does that make Lyra?

RB: Yes, but he is using the bible.

Audience 11: I just want to say that you can enjoy a book even if you don’t agree with the point they’re trying to push. I mean, Pilgrim’s Progress, I don’t care for that point of view. But I enjoyed reading the story because of the creativeness.

HD: I love The Screwtape Letters.

RB: In some ways everything that we’ve talked about–does god exist, is god a good person–is irrelevant. What floods out of the novel is love is good for people. Now if you disagree with that, you would not enjoy the book.



HD: Although I like the fact that it promotes that but at the same time …spoiler alert… it’s really old now so you can’t get mad at me. The book ends on pain of separation. But it sort of says even though there’s a lot of pain associated with separation, love still is a good thing, even when it’s that painful. I don’t know if you cried, but I did.

RB: There’s a cliché from Tennyson’s poetry that he could have quoted but he didn’t. “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” and it sounds silly now because it’s quoted so much. But all the same.

CS: Well that was the first thought that crossed through my mind when the realization came to me that the reason Dust settles on individuals when it does, you’ve reached the point where your love of another person has caused you to reach that pinnacle where you now sacrifice yourself for that other person. When the Mulefa finally can fit the seed wheel, they love that seed wheel, they care for that seed wheel, and that seed wheel is now the most important thing in their life. Lyra and Will, their demon [inaudible] and the Dust beings that settle on them when they would sacrifice for one another and, so yes, the love conquers all. Love is the most important thing there is, I think, the most important message in the end of the Amber Spying Glass.

SK: But I think there’s also a side of knowledge and awareness to it as well.

CS: Yes.

SK: Not only love but being aware of the love and being aware of the power of the love and how it affects you.

CS: And that’s where Dust being defined as a conscious atom or whatever, that’s where that aspect comes from. Because if it was just random space debris settling and then it wouldn’t matter, but it’s conscious and aware. There’s an awareness of that that makes it all happen. I thought it was awesome. I didn’t see it coming either. So it was a nice surprise when all that came. I was like “Whoa.”

Audience 12: I also think that it’s supposed to… Children will sacrifice themselves all the time. Abusive family’s children throwing themselves between parents who are fighting, that happens. But I think it’s supposed to be an awareness of what that sacrifice actually means and an understanding of mortality. And not only understanding that mortality exists and what it is but that you are still willing to risk your life and die for another person. I think maybe that’s what it was supposed to be.

CS: Oh yeah, really high level.

HD: I really like this conversation. I felt like that, that element of Dust, isn’t clear from the beginning. At first I thought this is just a puberty analog. When you hit puberty, Dust settles on you, clearly that’s what that is. Then it complicates as it goes. Which I think was just fantastic.

SK: It reveals very slowly. I love the entire buildup of it in general. The fact that you read the first book and you’re just “oh, okay, demons.” And then you see the boy without a demon, you automatically are repulsed and then you’re like, “Oh, wait.”



Audience 13: I have a [inaudible] question, the opposite of Dust settling…kind of represented [inaudible] …being older…we’re not open to all the possibilities…

CS: The church has indoctrinated you.



AM: Lyra loses the ability to read the alethiometer, which I guess I could see how you could read that that way. But the idea is that as a child things come to us naturally, but they don’t have anything, and it’s the things that we work hard at that have meaning to us, and so she’s going to work hard to learn it again, and it will mean more to her at that point because rather than being a gift, it was achieved. I think that rather than saying ‘”Dust is bad,” that’s saying that “growing up is difficult but worth it.”

SK: And in general when your demon settles, kids are constantly, they don’t know who they are yet. Around when you start to become an adult, that’s when you start to really have chosen your character. And your true nature sort of comes out. So I think that’s also like the Dust is settling on you, like your demon has stopped changing because you’re sort of becoming you. You had a million possibilities, but now you are you.

Audience 14: Wasn’t there, I’m straining to remember this, but didn’t she go to that town with all the shadows and stuff, and wasn’t it when their Dust settled on them, that’s when they got eaten by those shadows?

AM: They weren’t considered delicious enough until they had Dust.

SK: ‘Cause they wanted the awareness.

HD: The Dust was like salt.



RB: Let’s get your comment.

Audience 15: I just wanted to mention–it’s been a while since I read the book too–but speaking of your demon settling, after the Dust settled on them, and talking about coming into who you are, I, until just this conversation, realizing at the beginning they flat out point that Pan specifically chooses to be the stoat [?] more often so there’s that implication that yeah even though you try to figure out who you are there is some relevant nature to that…

AM: But he doesn’t end up passed out, right? He doesn’t end up as–

Audience 15: Like that was kind of the…

RB:  Same family of animals though.

Audience 15: Yeah, and that was the implication, in my mind, that you have a nature that can change through what happens, there’s…

SK: You’re saying that there’s a sort of a leaning.

Audience 15: Yeah. We are all born with a personality. We aren’t…

AM: One thing that I struggle with in the book that’s related to that is the idea that your personality is static. That your personality when your 13 is your personality through life. So I wonder if Pullman’s universe would allow for someone to have a personality change when they got older. You hear stories about people who get hit in the head and have a total personality that… would their demon change? Would they wake up, they used to be an otter and now it’s, you know…

CS: I think in that world, I wake up, I see that have an otter for demons, “Oh my character must have been this,” so I think that their amnesia cases are going to be much more closer to their personality.



CS: Because they can look, “oh spot check.”



HD: I don’t know, if your demon really is a function of your personality, which is brought up by your brain, if you get a brain tumor or hit on the head or something, I’d imagine your demon would change. Because it is a physical–it’s not a supernatural magical thing in that universe.

SK: And in general people change over the years. Look at all the people that have gotten tattoos when they were 18 and then regretting it later. I mean, your personality changes.

Audience 15: Is it your personality though or is it your experiences informing you and changing the way that you approach them.

SK: Well…

HD: Yes.



AM: It’s implied that it’s something innate. I guess personality, the argument there would be–

RB: I don’t remember where I read this, but someone said “We all think of ourselves–we all feel that we have free will, that we can change, but our friends look at us and say, “that’s so you.”



Audience 16: I was wondering how much that the demons themselves affect how people view themselves. It’s one of those things, all the servants always have dogs of some sort, how hard would it be to wake up every morning and see your dog demon and then be like “I’m going to go do something completely different.” Because you could see your demon, and be, this is who I am. How much does that form the personality after the Dust settles?

AM: The book acknowledges that that is the reality that people, that it’s to help people know themselves. So in the book it’s presented more like it helps people. It’s a self-knowledge gift, but it can certainly be interpreted as a limitation. But at that point, the idea is that it would reflect your personality enough that it wouldn’t limit you. [inaudible]

CS: Something I would say is that the culture in which you are raised influences your beliefs, and regardless of us being Western culture, Christian, Lutheran, atheist, Buddhist, we have similar traits and similar world view; it’s only on the minutia that we have differences. And so I would say that their culture, where you wake up every morning and you see your demon and you’re taught that this is who you are, love who you are, be who you are, that you wouldn’t want to rebel against that.

RB: It’s easy enough though if you’re a dog. But I do wonder how Sir Charles Latham feels about being a snake.

SK: Well, and then there was the story of the sailor whose demon chose to be a dolphin, and he didn’t really like sailing, but he had to become a sailor because his demon had settled as a dolphin.

HD: Yeah, I wondered about that guy. It–

SK: It sucks.

HD: That actually made me really uncomfortable, because are you saying you have some sort of intrinsic personality thing that you don’t want to be but you have to be anyway? It’s kind of an upsetting thought, that you are invariably pulled towards a destiny whether you want it or not.

CS: I think it goes back to the point I made earlier that there is a path that you are supposed to walk, and I think that was Pullman expressly stating that in a way that was not expressly stating it, saying that if you have a path chosen for you, regardless of if you want it, you will walk it. So that was the second time that because Lyra’s story, she is destined to be the second Eve. In that particular case, that person was expressly set to be a man of the sea.

SK: And also there’s… Sorry.

AM: If free will is over, should your demon still settle?

CS: Or is free will now won?

RB: Let’s get the comment there.

Audience 17: I was going to ask about the dog things because it’s not so much like the universe or god or whatever has chosen who you’re meant to be, so it’s like society has chosen for you, who you’re meant to be. What if you were a servant then you woke up one morning and you’re like, your demon was like a giraffe.



Audience 17: Would you still be a servant or not, and then there’s the whole, most people have a demon of the opposite gender, but they were…would that be some sort of way to signify what people think of them?

CS: It’s not expressly stated, but in that particular issue, since you said that that’s a rare case, I assume that he’s not going to talk about it in the book anywhere else. I think that they were probably homosexual.

HD: I thought they might be Trans.

AM: I thought they were Trans.

[Talking over each other]


SK: That’s what I thought because I figured if it’s a rare case, it’s not really–

AM: It’s really not that rare in the whole book.

CS: It depends on your world. For that world it might still be statistically–

Audience 17: If someone would look at you and see your demon was the same gender as you, would they discriminate against you? Because you were like homosexual, because–

RB: Sounds like they don’t discriminate on that basis in that world.

AM: It’s explicitly innate, so it’s like having a big nose or something; it’s not your fault in the way that we can construe sexuality as being a fault, without that manifestation.

RB: Let’s get the hand up there.

Audience 18: Piggybacking off the “it’s your society or culture,” I think it’s pretty important to note that at least Lyra’s world is very hierarchical, and it reminded me of when Gandhi was basically saying “Hey you guys should all respect the caste that you’re born in ‘cause that’s kind of the plan.. yeah.” Which is easy for him to say because he was one of the higher ones anyway. But I think if they were in a society that was a little less solidly class separated, then maybe people’s being a dog wouldn’t be, so maybe it would be like “Hey, sure, I’m loyal. I’m not obedient, I’m loyal.” And so that would be a different interpretation of what each animal means.

CS: I still wonder if the breed of dog affects the things because we saw the soldiers all had canine as well, the Tartars were all wolves because they are specifically aggressive soldiers, but it seemed to be implied and, I want to say, expressly stated somewhere else servants and soldiers tended to have dogs.

Audience 18: In that world, but if a dog meant something different in a different culture, then–

AM: Like China, would the Emperor have been a Shih Tzu.

SK: I think in general it’s, a lot of times, I think about it, “Dog, dammit,” but if you think about it, dogs are really happy when you’re just “Oh man thanks.” You’re like “Aww.” So maybe these servants are just really satisfied with their jobs. It’s not a crap shoot. “Ah man, I pulled the short straw.” Maybe they are genuinely happy like that and that is awesome. And that is what they’re meant to do. They’re satisfied.

CS: We have to remember we’re coming at it from our cultural outlook in reading the book, and we have to step into their world to say, do these characters appear happy with their lot in life? And since we don’t see anyone complaining about their lot in life, we have to assume that in that culture, that is expected and completely normal.

AM: And if a child of a servant had a crow demon, they would probably get an education, because it seemed like their nature. It seems in some ways it makes it easier to appropriately find paths for people and have an external marker of what their path, what would make them happy. How great would it be to have a demon and be “Oh. So that’s what I’m into, that makes me happy, so I should pursue that.”

Audience 19: I think that it’s safe that someone with a dog demon would be more likely to dedicate their efforts to a group effort because they’re a pack animal. So we, even the entire lovely volunteers that help out at CONvergence, probably have dog demons.



CS: Mine would be a wolf.



HD: You know, that is a good question, that’s a fun question if you know someone, if you meet someone, and they’ve read The Golden Compass. So what would your demon be?

AM: What would your demon be?

CS: There actually was, when the movie came out, a website where you could go in and answer a whole bunch of questions and it would give you–

SK: There’s like seven choices.

CS: Umm. There was actually quite a few.

AM: It’s like picking your paternus.



CS: There were certain questions that seemed to be the key triggers to get things, but most people I know came back with either a lynx or a dog. A couple came back with a spider, but there were a number of things there, but there were seven common ones. I agree with that.

SK: I think probably some sort of big bird.

HD: I’d probably be a penguin. Awkward everywhere except in certain areas.



CS: Mine in reality would be a raven.

RB: I guess I would go with a cat.

AM: I have no idea. That’s a terrible answer.

Audience 20: Care to [inaudible] golden monkey.

AM: It’s going to be a golden monkey.



AM: But kind and generous.

RB: Let’s get that comment there.

Audience 21: On the subject of stratification, would a British audience find this a more familiar situation than Americans might? Or at least Americans might be aware of?

HD: Probably. I mean, I don’t know if modern Britain is quite as stratified. There is more of the explicit history of “this is the servant class, this is the not servant class.” You might be on to something there.

CS: The setting being England and Oxford, I would say there’s a decent chance that, yes, the history, the concept of stratification is going to be, it’s a more recent history. They still, I feel like they still, while not expressly the way it used to be, there probably still is a little bit of that feeling. That your economic class feels more like a cohesive group there than it does here. But again I’ve never lived there. I can’t really speak to that. It’s an interesting question.

HD: I’d say here when we talk about class, often race comes into play. And it sort of complicates the discussion in a way that it doesn’t quite in Britain.

RB: I think we’re out of time.

CS: We’ve got three minutes. One more question then we’ll–

HD: Speak now or forever hold your peace.

Audience 22: I just wanted to bring up how you were talking about how demons are going to be the personality representation. There all seem to be some intrinsic kind of…part of the soul. For instance, when the children were being experimented on, their demons are becoming completely separated from their bodies, from their beings. If you think about it, it’s kind of the way of assimilating a being through a single mind… For instance, religion, he seems to be spitting in the face of religion, because what he was doing was applying that “train them young and separate them and make sure they learn the correct way.” Think about the boy who was caught in the fish shack. He was trying to cling to something that he could barely remember because it was something he had never really encountered. He had been torn away from his demon at such a young age that he knew there was something missing, but he wasn’t sure what it was. In a similar way, religion plays that role, because what happens is that they incorporate you to a single mind with a set of rules, a set of sacrifices you must make in order to attain a higher mind, a higher being. And as a result that sacrifice can sometimes be so harmful it’s detrimental to your health and well being. So it’s just kind of interesting how you mention the personality, because I always thought of it being something more related to a soul, the depth of mind [inaudible].

SK: I think I used the word wrong. And then there was the adults that had been severed. They were completely dead.

AM: They all also had dogs.

HD: I saw demons as almost like your passion or your drive or what motivates you to be alive in the world.

SK: Yeah, like your spark.

HD: That’s a good word for it.

CS: So closing wrap ups. Start at the end.



SK: I thought the series was such an interesting way of putting, yeah it was a vehicle for putting out an idea, but it also used the multiple universes theory more accessible, and like a lot of other higher theories, a lot more accessible to young readers and portrayed it in a way that was really easy to understand.

RB: I’m grateful for the panel for making me say, “Oh, now I have to re-read them.”

HD: Re-reading it was so amazing after 6-7 years and I can’t wait, in a decade I’m going to read it again, and it’s going to be awesome again.

CS: I very much enjoy reading anything that makes me step back from the thought process that I have been mired in and reflect on why I make the decisions I do, what could I change about myself, how do I reflect myself in the greater world. I’m a big fan of the series, and I highly encourage you to read them.

AM: It’s fantasy for really smart, well-educated people, fantasy that will encourage you to become a well-educated person. There’s a lot to be said for a book that embraces physics and complicated philosophy of theology and says “I’m gonna explore these in a way that’s part of this really great compelling story about this girl and her world.”

CS: Thanks for waking up and joining us.

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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  1. Maybe because I’ve had the advantage of reading the books well into my adulthood, but I always thought that the message in the series was pretty clear.
    Coulter and her lot wanted to firm up the Kingdom of Heaven by making everyone ignorant.
    Azrael and his bunch wanted to go to another world and build the Republic of Heaven.
    Lyra, at the end of the book, and with great clarity, says that neither of those can work. All we can do is try to build the Republic of Heaven wherever we are right now.
    As for whether it’s an atheistic book or not, that depends on what you mean. I can write a work of fiction about gods and angels with the intent of mocking their fundamental lack of logic and I would call it an atheistic book, only because it espouses that religion and gods are nonsense.

  2. Overall, I enjoyed the books, but I really felt that the climax was anti-climactic. Perhaps I misread it, but it seemed that the pivotal moment, the moment that saved humanity in several universes, the moment that lead a scientist to follow her gut through various universes while being tracked by an assassin, the moment that would not have happened if the scientist hadn’t provided an example for the protagonist… was… a thirteen-year-old girl getting her first crush, on a boy with whom she had literally traveled through hell and back.

    What? The most important thing that Lyra did wasn’t changes the rules of the afterworld or killing God or anything else unique and heroic? It was that she fell in love, and all the multiverse’s Dust changed course as a result??

    I really hope that I missed something, that the moment was more interesting than that, because otherwise that was a really dumb thing for the universe to hinge on. As though she would have never fallen in love if not given the template by the scientist. What?

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