Sin is good, because without it we would not be fully human. This was the theme that stood out for me when reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, of which The Golden Compass – in some countries printed under the title The Northern Lights – comprises the first book.
What I love about fantasy in general is that authors are free to create an entirely new world, and then infuse it with themes and ideas that mirror our own dreams, beliefs, hopes and fears. The Lord of the Rings explores the elements of temptation and choice; The Chronicles of Narnia is a story beautifully intertwined with Christian symbolism.
His Dark Materials is no different. On the surface, the story is about the adventures of two children who travel among many worlds, encountering a range of incredible creatures, friends and foes. But there are many different themes threaded into the story. On one level, the story is about the difficulties of growing up, becoming an adult and finding love. On another, it is about rebellion against authority, especially against religion that has abused power.
Pullman has turned the tables in this trilogy with a clever twist, one which has caused much of the controversy amongst Christians. In the story, God – referred to as the Authority – is the villain. The angels who rebelled against God and were kicked out of heaven: they are part of the protagonist camp. The original Fall in the Garden of Eden is seen as a positive event, as it allowed humankind to mature and gain knowledge, like a child reaching the maturity of adulthood.
In the story, the Authority is once again increasing his tyrannical rule among many worlds, mainly through the use of the church (referred to as the Magisterium), and humans are poised on the edge of another great rebellion. Lyra Belacqua, the young girl and main character in the story, has a pivotal role to play in this war. It has been prophesied that she is the second Eve; she – together with her friend – will bring the downfall of the Authority by succumbing to temptation.
But the most interesting part of the story is the mysterious particle called Dust. Symbolically used by Pullman to refer to the concept of sin, Dust is only attracted to adults who have passed the ‘age of accountability’. The Magisterium attempts to destroy Dust, because without it, humans will lose their ability to rebel and will become totally subservient to the Authority. In other words, without Dust (i.e., sin), humans will lose their freewill.
And this last point got me thinking. I’ve heard many Christians stress the importance and positive nature of having freewill. But isn’t freewill impossible without sin? Will Christians become mindless robots when they finally enter the gates of heaven one day, free from their sinful nature? In Pullman’s view, having sin is what makes us fully human, as it provides us with freedom.