The Golden Compass introduces the reader to a world in which the Magisterium—a version of the Catholic Church—rules nearly everything. This sets up one of the novel's primary questions as being what role the church should have over society. In Lyra's case, this question is explored by simply discovering how much of the world the church actually controls. The Golden Compass situates the Magisterium as a fundamentally corrupt organization that, rather than existing to care for the spiritual wellbeing of people, instead dedicates itself to controlling the flow of ideas and information that could eventually lead people to question the legitimacy of the Magisterium's authority. Thus, the novel questions the general role of religion in society and critiques the undue level of control it can exert over people's lives.
Pullman goes to great lengths to illustrate how the fictional Magisterium will do almost anything to ensure that it gains and maintains power. Throughout the novel, Lyra pieces together seemingly disconnected bits of information—such as the existence of the child-stealing Gobblers, the existence of Dust, and Mrs. Coulter's role as the head of the General Oblation Board—to come to a more complete understanding of the extent of the Magisterium's reach. Lyra learns that the Magisterium has, over the years, created a number of governing bodies and organizations to fulfill all manner of duties, and whenever one of those bodies steps out of line or does something that the Magisterium doesn't like, they can easily cut funding, revoke licenses, and generally act as though they were never involved in the first place. This allows the Magisterium to experiment with a variety of things with few consequences, including their current experiments with the General Oblation Board. Mrs. Coulter and the General Oblation Board are behind Bolvanger, the scientific laboratory in the north, that conducts research into intercision—cutting humans from their dæmons—as a means of keeping children from ever having to experience the full extent of original sin. This is, in other words, an attempt to create a more passive, complacent population. Humans' ability to choose between right and wrong is inherent to original sin, so within the world of the novel, it seems that someone else gets to make those choices for Intercised adults.
The General Oblation Board and its aims are notable especially because it targets the most vulnerable people in Lyra's world—poor people and the gyptians (transient people who live on boats and are modeled after Roma people). While there would certainly be outrage if the General Oblation Board were to experiment on the children of wealthy or even middle-class people, there's little pushback when gyptian and poor children start disappearing and never return. Further, because the gyptians and the poor have little standing in society, there's no real way for them to investigate these disappearances or even discover that it's the General Oblation Board that's taking their children in the first place. This demonstrates how the Magisterium runs on wealth and prestige, while abusing and exploiting vulnerable groups to come up with new ways to expand its reach even further.
The Magisterium also plays a major role in censoring information, especially information that stands to upset its authority. This is most apparent as Lyra gradually learns about Dust, an elementary particle that's believed to be both proof of and the cause of original sin. When the scientist Dr. Rusakov discovered Dust, the Magisterium put him on trial and performed an exorcism. When it became clear that Dust was real, they ultimately censored his work. While the Magisterium eventually comes around to weaponizing Dust and studying it through the General Oblation Board (its research concerns figuring out if Dust and original sin don't stick to children who are separated from their dæmons), Dust is still a controversial subject. This is why the Magisterium orchestrates Lord Asriel's imprisonment by the bears in the north: he wants to take the research further and actually destroy the source of Dust. Destroying Dust and its source would, importantly, render the Magisterium unnecessary for spiritual reasons—the church exists to mediate a person's relationship to the divine and guide them toward mitigating as many of the effects of original sin as possible. Without Dust, Lord Asriel suggests, humans would once again be as Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden: perfect, innocent, and without the need of the Magisterium's mediation. This result would be understandably terrifying for an organization that seeks to obtain and retain as much influence as possible.
Pullman himself has been open about his distaste for Christianity and organized religion. As such, it's easy to read the Magisterium as a fictionalized representation of the real-life Catholic Church and the ways in which, throughout history, the church has discouraged science and criticism that challenges church doctrine. Specifically, Lyra's final conclusion—that Dust isn't a bad thing; rather, it must be good and is essentially what makes humans human—is a wildly heretical idea, both to the fictional Magisterium and to most Christian teachings in the real world. By positioning Lyra in a place where she makes these connections and starts to question the Magisterium, Pullman encourages readers to follow along with a similar thought experiment, thereby questioning religious teachings and the power of religious authorities as a whole.
Religion, Politics, and Control ThemeTracker
Religion, Politics, and Control Quotes in The Golden Compass
Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church's power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The Papacy itself had been abolished after Calvin's death, and a tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium, had grown up in its place.
Lyra was frightened. No one worried about a child gone missing for a few hours, certainly not a gyptian: in the tight-knit gyptian boat world, all children were precious and extravagantly loved, and a mother knew that if a child was out of sight, it wouldn't be far from someone else's who would protect it instinctively.
The Master sighed. In his black suit and black tie he looked as much like his dæmon as anyone could, and suddenly Lyra thought that one day, quite soon, he would be buried in the crypt under the oratory, and an artist would engrave a picture of his dæmon on the brass plate for his coffin, and her name would share the space with his.
Indeed, Tony heard from gossip in pubs along the way that the police were making raids on houses and farms and building yards and factories without any explanation, though there was a rumor that they were searching for a missing girl. And that in itself was odd, considering all the kids that had gone missing without being looked for.
"And the Church in recent times, Lyra, it's been getting more commanding. There's councils for this and councils for that; there's talk of reviving the Office of Inquisition, God forbid. And the Master has to tread warily between all these powers. He has to keep Jordan College on the right side of the Church, or it won't survive."
"Anyway, there's compensations for a settled form."
"What are they?"
"Knowing what kind of person you are. Take old Belisaria. She's a seagull, and that means I'm kind of a seagull too. I'm not grand and splendid nor beautiful, but I'm a tough old thing and I can survive anywhere and always find a bit of food and company. That's worth knowing, that is. And when your dæmon settles, you'll know the sort of person you are."
Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick. A human being with no dæmon was like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny that belonged to the world of night-ghasts, not the waking world of sense.
"I think he's got an entirely different idea of the nature of Dust. That's the point. It's profoundly heretical, you see, and the Consistorial Court of Discipline can't allow any other interpretation than the authorized one. And besides, he wants to experiment—"
"To experiment? With Dust?"
"If he's got Dust and you've got Dust, and the Master of Jordan and every other grownup's got Dust, it must be all right. When I get out I'm going to tell all the kids in the world about this. Anyway, if it was so good, why'd you stop them doing it to me? If it was good, you should've let them do it. You should have been glad."
"When bears act like people, perhaps they can be tricked," said Serafina Pekkala. "When bears act like bears, perhaps they can't. No bear would normally drink spirits. Iorek Byrnison drank to forget the shame of exile, and it was only that which let the Trollesund people trick him."
"She guessed that the two things that happen in adolescence might be connected: the change in one's dæmon and the fact that Dust began to settle. Perhaps if the dæmon were separated from the body, we might never be subject to Dust—to original sin."
"We've heard them all talk about Dust, and they're so afraid of it, and you know what? We believed them, even though we could see that what they were doing was wicked and evil and wrong...We thought Dust must be bad too, because they were grown up and they said so. But what if it isn't? What if it's—"
She said breathlessly, "Yeah! What if it's really good..."