My favorite moment in the new film "The Golden Compass" comes as a quiet instance, one where the heroine, Lyra reveals to the band of 'Gyptian' rebels, who have just rescued her, the fact that she has come into possession of this magical instrument. One of their leaders, old Farder Coram is surprised to learn the instrument still exists. He knows of these devices. He thought he knew of them. Most others had been destroyed long ago. The young girl is still learning the instrument, what it does, how to use it.
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It answers questions, the old man explains, but not narrow or ordinary questions requiring only dull and determinate answers. It answers the kind of questions one mightn't even know how to ask, the questions you must "hold lightly in your mind."
The questions you must "hold lightly in your mind."
Right then I remembered why I loved those novels. The books have no shortage of adventure story phantasmagoria (and neither does the movie). They are really quite compelling adventure stories. But the beauty of "The Dark Matters Trilogy" comes in those quieter instances, those lightly held questions.
There have been a few attempts to make "The Golden Compass" more fodder for the culture war. "Isn't that the movie that's against God?" my wife was asked as we packed up the kids for the multiplex. I've come across articles that were critical of the film's producers for soft-pedaling the supposed "atheistic subtext" of the story. For some this was out of some timid fear of controversy, for others this same softening represented some kind of skeptical Trojan Horse being secreted into the minds of our unsuspecting youth. I don't think either side holds the question very lightly.
The first movie makes its departures from the first novel. Events and characters disappear, others materialize. But, in fairness, for the most part these changes seemed genuine in an attempt to shape an ambitious and expansive novel into a concise movie-going experience. I didn't detect much loss of nerve, or subliminal messaging. I was left only wanting the next installment. On that score, the producers should be pleased.
But I didn't start writing this to try a movie review.
I started with that question. I'm not sure if it's still on my fingertips or if its fallen into my fist, but I started writing this wanting to crow a little for that question. I wanted to say that beautiful moment in a pretty good movie seemed like something of a victory -for questions, for curiosity. It wasn't a controversial statement, that question, "lightly held." It wasn't a battle line being drawn. It was just the opposite. It seemed like the kind of moment when both sides in an argument see the flaws in their own case, when the certainty of each fails, when combatants begin to imagine the possibility of peace. That moment, that question, for me, was about a beautiful human quality: seeking -so much more profound than anything we ever seem to find. Seeking, not a stubborn search to confirm what we already claim to know, but an honest, aching, courageous openness.
There's a passage I remember from the novel. Lyra has begun to understand what the compass is telling her. She has learned that this machine doesn't speak in literal language or logically constructed sentences. It speaks to, or more aptly, through something within. She tries to describe this understanding to her friend. She compares it to climbing a ladder in the dark, the way with some small courage we find the place of each rung ...before our feet actually touch them.
I've never read a better description of faith. I'm not talking about the faith of blind certainty or suspended disbelief, not the refusal to doubt or question, not even devotion, but rather I'm referring to the faith that proves itself, at least in my belief system, so much greater, so much larger and holy, so very much more human, that seeking faith -of hope, that reaching into the darkness, that brave climbing.
With that beautiful image of the ladder in the darkness, with the tender grace of an old man's advice to a young child about these questions, lightly held -what with these homages to what it is to be human, it's awfully hard, or perhaps far too easy, to argue that what we have in "The Golden Compass" is some story "against God." Philip Pullman's "Dark Matters" stories do challenge an understanding of God, or what is understood as Divine. These are stories of transcendantly human heroes coming into conflict with a rigid religiosity that assumes the place of God and opts to see what is holy as the denial of what is human.
"The Golden Compass" and each of "The Dark Matters" stories resolve with a crescendo of drama and action, just as adventure stories are supposed to. Who would settle for anything less? Especially at the multiplex? But give me those quieter moments at the story's beginning, the interludes of gorgeously laden conversation throughout, give me those questions, lightly held, those moments when what we understand of God or the Divine and what we know of being human seem to be echoes of the same music, ineffable qualities of the same light. Give me those questions. We know there are answers. We sense we might never find them. Still we try to understand.