The Golden Compass movie coming out on December 7th sure is causing a lot of hullabaloo here in Ontario. (Spoiler alerts!) I am a fan of this series, called His Dark Materials, written by English author Philip Pullman. Here are some quick points about all this.
The Golden Compass is the first of the three books. The title was originally Northern Lights when it was first published in England, in 1995. They've won several awards. There is more at Wikipedia, and at Pullman's site. The sequels are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
The story starts out in a parallel universe, at Oxford. There are many differences with that reality and our own, the most striking that people's souls exist outside their bodies, and are called daemons. (You can view my damon here; there's a little quiz at the movie site to figure out your own. ) The daemons can change animal shapes until a person reaches puberty, and then they stay in one form for the rest of the person's life. They tend to be opposite the gender of their person, (except a few peoples', presumably gay? It is not explained.) The daemons can talk, and it is considered a breach of the highest order of personal space to touch another person's daemon.
The golden compass in question is an alethiometer that the heroine of the story carries. An alethiometer is incredibly difficult to read, and tells a person the truth.
The heroine of the story is a precocious and mouthy girl named Lyra, with her daemon Pantalaimon, who travels to the cold North to rescue her friend who has been kidnapped by a group called The Gobblers. The Gobblers at first sound very much like an old wives tale to keep children near home, and turn out to be very real and despicable.
The controversy in Ontario
Some Catholic school boards are reviewing whether or not to remove the books from the shelves, following complaints, seen in this article in the National Post. All of this is apparently a normal process. For a book that won the Carnegie Medal. For a book that has presumably been sitting in the library for about 10 years. While in review, students have to ask for the book at the desk. And you know how much kids love to ask for stuff from authority figures.
PZ Myers on his Pharyngula blog has brought up the major complaints with the Ontario schools for pulling the books. Namely, why stop there? PZ has his mad on, and takes the issue of censorship on books to task.
My thoughts on the issue
On the face of it, why should a religious school be expected to stock books espousing a different way of living? Easy. They already have the books. I don't know when they got them, but The Golden Compass was published in North America in 1996. It has won awards for children's literature, and the dubious distinction of being singled out by the archbishop of Canterbury as being adequate for teaching about opposing views to Catholicism in religious classes. Why pull them from the stacks now? Because there is a movie and a video game?
Atheism, fantasy and skepticism
It's a strange thing about these books. Are they really atheist in nature? By the end of the series, we do meet the powerful being known as the Authority who tyrannizes the afterlife and started many biblical legends. Is it the all-powerful God? Hard to say. The Authority 'has no clothes' by the end, and very little power above some of the other characters who do his bidding (Metatron) or challenge him (Lord Asriel). Where all these dimensions come from is not discussed in detail.
These books are fantasy. There are plenty of sci-fi elements, like dark matter and multiple dimensions, but also things like witches flying on tree branches and astrology-like predictions from the golden compass itself. It is not as though the books are about Lyra showing the witches that their incantations do nothing without medicinal ingredients, or that she proves that the daemons are just imaginary friends and everyone has gotten carried away. Skepticism and debunking are not present. Attacking authoritative tyranny over life and death are certainly Lord Asriel's goals, but the point of view is Lyra's.
His Dark Materials have magic and adventure, and an unlikely hero triumphing while trying to save what matters most: her friends. Kids should read them if they like, and make up their own minds about talking polar bears, the nature of their conscience, and where the universe came from.
Edit: The National Post, which carried a below-the-fold front page story about all this in the weekend edition, also carried a massive flyer about the upcoming Golden Compass movie. It unfolds into a poster, Chapters/Indigo/Coles will give you movie snack coupons if you spend money in their stores...it's huge. It's great. It flopped out and dominated the other flyers. Nice giant pic of Iorek the polar bear-blacksmith. The Post's story was largely uncritical of the issue, and tried not to come down on either side.