“The Golden Compass” And The Breaking Of Children’s Wills

Image source: Fulyasi, “The Silver Guillotine.”

By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator

I recently read Phillip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass, the first book in the His Dark Materials series. The book’s plot revolves around Lyra Belacqua, a young girl on a mission to save kidnapped children from the shadowy Gobblers. The Gobblers are agents of the Magisterium, the equivalent in Pullman’s fantasy-steampunk alternate universe of establishment Christianity. In this universe, all humans are born with daemons, spirits attached to them psychically that take animal shapes. Lyra’s daemon, named Pantalaimon, likes to be an ermine.

When humans are children, their daemons can change from one animal to another in the blink of an eye. But when children enter puberty, their daemons assume a fixed form. This is when humans begin to attract Dust, elementary particles that in Pullman’s world equal the concept of original sin. Pullman pulls this idea from the Genesis story, where, after original sin arguably enters the world because of Adam and Eve’s eating of the apple, it is said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return…”

The Gobblers are stealing children, you find out, because the Magisterium wants to figure out how to prevent Dust from settling on children. In other words, the Magisterium wants to eradicate original sin. So the Gobblers kidnap children and conduct experiments on them: cutting the link between the child and their daemon. As one character in the book, Lord Asriel, explains the idea, “The two things that happen at adolescence might be connected: the change in one’s daemon and the fact that Dust began to settle. Perhaps if the daemon were separated from the body, we might never be subject to Dust.” This process is called intercision. In the novel, direct parallels are made between intercision and other religiously-justified practices in our world that involve the physical mutilation of children, like male circumcision (to “dedicate” a child to God) and female circumcision (to prevent “sinful” sexual desires).

Tragically, the experiments do not go well. Children die excruciating deaths once the link between self and daemon is severed. Instead of Dust-free (or sin-free) children, the Magisterium has the blood of dead children on its hands. But the Magisterium is not willing to admit the consequences of its attempts. At one point in the story, one adult (who knows full well the consequences of the experiments) attempts to convince Lyra they are doing good: “No one in a thousand years would take a child’s daemon away altogether! All that happens is a little cut, and then everything’s peaceful. Forever! You see, your daemon’s a wonderful friend and companion when you’re young, but at the age we call puberty…daemons bring all sorts of troublesome thoughts and feelings, and that’s what lets Dust in. A quick little operation before that, and you’re never troubled again.”

I cannot help but see a parallel between many of the children in The Golden Compass—killed by adults who thought they were creating a more righteous world—and homeschooled children like Hana Williams, also killed by adults who thought they were creating a more righteous world. Hana was an Ethiopian adoptee whose adoptive parents followed the teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl. The Pearls, parenting gurus popular in many homeschool and fundamentalist communities, advocate the breaking of children’s wills, modeling their parenting advice after how the Amish discipline and train mules. The Pearls’ vision of the ideal child is uncannily similar to Pullman’s description of a person without a daemon: “It has no will of its own; it will work day and night without ever running away or complaining.”

Hana’s parents, ostensibly, did not intend to kill her. They merely meant to break her will—because they were convinced by the Pearls that doing so would create more peaceful children. But in finding her will unbreakable, they did kill her. We can argue whether they would have stopped if they knew she was going to die. But they refused to stop until she was literally dead. So what relevance have intentions at that point?

Like Pullman’s Magisterium, people like the Pearls (and others like Reb BradleyJ. Richard FugateVoddie Baucham, and Tedd Tripp) dangle the false promise of happy, controlled, and submissive children in front of parents. They promise not to steal your children. They promise only to improve them, to make them the children God wants them to be. But they leave the broken pieces of hurt children in their wake.

Like Pullman’s Magisterium, these parenting gurus lie. They do steal children—children’s faiths and childhoods. They fail to realize that God gave children wills and children’s wills are good—not only good, but also inseparable from who they are. Yes, James Dobson, even the wills of strong-willed children are good! God made all the children and God saw that they are good. Children do not need to be re-made by adults. Children’s wills do not need to be broken by adults. Children’s spirits do not need to be cut by adults. “Let the children come to me,” said Jesus—and the children were simply loved.

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