“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 Bradley, J. Richard Fugate, Voddie 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.


  • yup.

    The daemons always made me think of a Jungian image of a person’s authentic self- the things you are irregardless of your own or others perceptions of you? If you don’t have an authentic self, you don’t have anything to disrupt your performance of what your society thinks you should be.

    But you don’t have a self either.

  • Tedd Tripp and Voddie Baucham….childhood stealers?? Have you read anything by them?? That’s an extreme and sensational claim right there. Makes me wonder if you are just a different type of Magisterium…

    • Of course I’ve read what they’ve written. I’ve researched all their writings extensively and written about them at numerous points.

    • Most of us not only have read and researched these author’s works, we were raised with them. We are very intimately acquainted with their teachings.

    • https://homeschoolersanonymous.org/2015/01/16/the-child-as-viper-how-voddie-bauchams-theology-of-children-promotes-abuse/

      Oh hey, stuff about Voddie Baucham right here on this very site. And literally all I had to do was click “Archive” and scroll. I wasn’t even deliberately looking.

      Any person who teaches that children are naturally defiant, that their wills need to be broken, that they automatically begin rebelling against parent, against teacher, against God from an early age–is wrong about how children work. I and the survivors of bad homeschool practices* had parents who were taught that the evil and willfulness needed to be physically beaten out of us. My father’s words, in a very real sense, BROKE MY WILL. I did not know who I was as a person and could not separate my own desires from my parents’ to decide which things I also wanted and which I didn’t. I was confused inside, because I had been taught not to want anything my parents wouldn’t approve of. I tried to stifle the development of my own intellect in several areas because I believed that “honor your father and mother” meant to NEVER disobey or go against them, even mentally, even in ways as small as “I prefer this style of comforter, not that one.”

      To this day I suffer anxiety disorder and, at 30, am still trying to piece together which parts of me are me and which are the ghosts of my father saying that because he didn’t like some harmless thing, I shouldn’t either.

      Children have minds of their own and there is nothing wrong with that. And most children truly want nothing more than to please their parents. To pretend that they don’t, that they are naturally defiant, is to make having a mind into a sin. And that is a truly great evil.

      * To be clear: Home-schooling itself is not harmful. It is only specific practices by specific types of homeschooling that I am referring to here.

      • Such an important witness, you lived through it. I hope that you are able to know and love yourself.

    • This is for “mommyarrow” a few paragraphs above here- I can state that most of the bloggers and commenters here HAVE read books and watched videos by Tripp and Baucham, and regrettably, they are Magisteriums to the core !! They both sound more like childhood DESTROYERS rather than just “stealers”… it’s plain to see that these guys simply hate children. Deep down, anyone who is familiar with their products-IF they indeed read, or listened to them, gets this. So who would ever take YOU seriously if you defend those two ?? Are you a “Qwiverfuller” and do any of YOUR children defend those two ? I wonder if Odalis Sharp’s kids would defend those two authors !

  • In honor of his memory, Wayne’s Hay House family will continue to share his advice and wisdom in this weekly newsletter, bringing you excerpts pulled directly from Wayne’s published works.

    My friend Buckminster Fuller once remarked, “Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them.” Every child comes into this world in a state of perfection. They are new arrivals in form only; their true essence is as a piece of the infinite consciousness that we call by many names, the most common being “God.” Before they have been exposed to all of the lessons that focus on their limitations, they are a grand source of wisdom and inspiration.

    Article Image

    I have spent many an hour in my lifetime gazing into the wise eyes of newborns and asking them to teach me what I have forgotten because I allowed myself to become “de-geniused” along the way. I take every utterance that flows unedited from the mouths of babes and assume it has something to teach me.

    The reason little boys and girls are often found to express what we adults call “unparalleled ingenuity” when it comes to matters of the soul, is only because they have not yet been hypnotized by the notion of limitations of any sort. They state precisely what they know to be true for them: They are unconcerned with what anyone else has come to believe, or if what they are saying might not be in agreement with what has come to be common knowledge. They speak from a place of certainty about something that they genuinely feel, and then, most frequently, simply go on with life as a young innocent being. It’s as if, for a brief moment, they don’t experience the earthly reality that surrounds them, but rather have this wondrous awareness of their infinite nature, which they feel completely free to express spontaneously.

    It seems to be a universal truth that very young children frequently speak of a connection to another realm, where love, light, and compassion are the dominant themes of their inner remembering.

    Young children are filled with Divine spiritual wisdom. I encourage you to spend as much quality time with these new arrivals as possible. Get down on the floor and be with them at their level, as I have done so often myself. Look them directly in the eye and speak to them not as an equal, but as a student inquiring of a spiritual master. A child who feels safe and adored is much more likely to speak of their own unique inner knowings about the world beyond this physical domain.

    Throughout my life I have always opted for the company of children over small talk from adults. Tiny newborns are intriguing to me, and playing with little toddlers has always brought me so much joy. The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once said, “The soul is healed by being with children.” I believe this is so because children have not yet adopted a set of beliefs about who they are and what is impossible. They live from their soul and, by doing so, remind us adults about who we truly are as well—that is, spiritual beings having temporary human experiences, rather than the reverse.

    — Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

    • Sorry, I did this backwards – the above is a really good piece of advice/teaching taken from one of Wayne Dyer’s books. I copied & pasted it from another site before introducing it.

      I love it as well as your post.

  • When I read The Golden Compass, I read Dust as self-determination, free will, the ability to be a full person in full control of yourself. That it reads as easily as Original Sin should have occurred to me.

    That what reads as readily as original sin can as readily be read as a person being their own… yeah, that helps put a lot into practice, doesn’t it?

  • Read all three books. Pullman’s final attitude is very radical. His base argument proves to be that Dust is good, that people don’t fall from innocence in childhood into sin, but that puberty and sexuality actually both attract ant generate the stuff of the universe, the stuff of life. Reversing a couple of millennia of orthodoxy, he argues that maturing humans don’t fall down into sin but up into a maturity closely bound with sex and a more fixed, less fluid, identity. Very radical and beautiful stuff. So what intercision does is literally kill growth for both the individual and the universe.

  • I loved these books. The “Golden Compass” movie was “meh” and didn’t do well in theaters, so no sequels have been made, and that’s too bad. There was a bit of a Christian smear campaign against the movie, which probably didn’t help. Christians objected because Pullman is a rather militant atheist, and supposedly wrote the Dark Materials series as a humanist/atheist alternative to the Chronicles Of Narnia. I’ll take his books over CS Lewis’ stuff any day.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    This is the first time I’ve seen Pullman’s Anti-Narnia cited in this particular context.

  • Doesn’t Pullman have his two main characters have sex at only 12-13 years old?

  • Cynthia mae Curran

    I heard its mainly a critic of the Catholic Church. I think you can think positive and negative things with Christianity. For example, the salvation Army was helping folks in the 19th century when other people were not in England.

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