In This Review of His Dark Materials, Part Three
A Glimpse Into the Abyss and Beyond
With brilliant craftsmanship and awe-inspiring creativity, book two of His Dark Materials, The Subtle Knife, channeled the story in innovative and startling directions, guiding us, step-by-inexorable-step, to events that, like a meteor, launch us into book three, The Amber Spyglass.
The Amber Spyglass opens with Lyra deeply asleep in a cave, watched over by Mrs. Coulter. Mrs. Coulter has experienced an unanticipated change-of-heart. A sea change that defies her understanding, muddles her clarity, challenges her priorities, and alienates her dæmon—a change that does not, however, prompt her to question her methods, for it is she who ensures that Lyra remains deeply asleep . . .
Will, on the other hand, is joined by Balthamos and Baruch, who are angels. Unlike most depictions of angels, Balthamos is surly. He complains. He disparages Will in acidic tones for his requests and choices. He finds changing into a bird to pose as Will’s dæmon to be “unspeakably humiliating.” The reader must adapt to the idea of such characteristics being attributed to a heavenly being—Mr. Pullman breaks the rules, but he does so without irreverence. Simply creativity.
Balthamos and Baruch hope to persuade Will to go with them to Lord Asriel. They believe if they bring the knife bearer with them Lord Asriel will be more inclined to believe the information they desperately wish to impart.
Eventually, at Will’s insistence, Baruch departs to search for Lyra and when he returns they are discovered by another angel who summons the Lord Regent, Metatron, who serves “The Authority.” The Authority is not God. All names ascribed to him as such are names or titles he gave to himself. Nonetheless, The Authority wields great power and he has bestowed much of that power upon Metatron, who has become an angel of immense might: avenging, passionate, and obedient.
…The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—those are all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves—the first angel, true, the most powerful …The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie …
Balthamos and Baruch are understandably terrified of Metatron and during his initial appearance he narrowly misses killing Will. More important to Will than narrowly escaping death is that Balthamos and Baruch tell him about the world of the dead, which is where people go when they die. To their dismay, Will wants to go there even after they clarify that the world of the dead is a prison camp The Authority established in the early ages. Will remains adamant about visiting because after they help reunite him with Lyra, he is convinced he must go there to find his father.
“And what happens in the world of the dead?” Will went on.
“It’s impossible to say,” said Baruch. “Everything about it is secret. Even the churches don’t know; they tell their believers that they’ll live in Heaven, but that’s a lie. If people really knew…”
Lord Asriel now resides in the Adamant Tower where he enacts his various schemes and plans to destroy the Authority. Using, among others, creatures called Gallivespians as spies.
The spy captain was called Lord Roke. He was striking to look at: he was no taller than Lord Asriel’s hand span, and as slender as a dragonfly… It was his custom to sit on the table, and his manner to repel anything but the greatest courtesy with a haughty and malevolent tongue. He and his kind, the Gallivespians, had few of the qualities of good spies except, of course, their exceptional smallness: they were so proud and touchy that they would never have remained inconspicuous if they had been of Lord Asriel’s size.
Lord Roke describes his companion on this journey, the Lady Salmakia, as “a very skillful agent.”
…“There is a priest whose dæmon, a mouse, she approached in their sleep. My agent suggested that the man perform a forbidden ritual designed to invoke the presence of Wisdom. At the critical moment, Lady Salmakia appeared in front of him. The priest now thinks he can communicate with Wisdom whenever he pleases, and that she has the form of a Gallivespian and lives in his bookcase.”
Lord Roke and Lady Salmakia use cunning, great skill, and unique and deadly weapons to successfully infiltrate the complex and often sinister activities of those seeking to manipulate matters towards their own ends. Through their unique methods, Lord Roke and the Lady Salmakia learn how important Lyra is, and how perilous her circumstances.
During Dr. Malone’s solo journey, she meets gentle and intelligent creatures called Mulefa—creatures neither she nor anyone else has likely ever seen before.
…she thought it was a herd of wheeled animals. But that was impossible….They were roughly the same size as the grazing creatures, but leaner and gray-colored, with horned heads and short trunks like elephants’…and she suddenly made the connection….The wheels were seedpods. Perfectly round, immensely hard and light….The creatures hooked a claw through the center of the pods with their front and rear legs, and used their two lateral legs to push against the ground and move along.
The Mulefa welcome Dr. Malone into their world and during her stay she learns how the Mulefa live and communicate. She also learns how matters surrounding Dust are impacting the Mulefas’ very survival.
The Amber Spyglass
Being a scientist, Dr. Malone begins to search for a way to observe Dust, which she refers to as shadow particles and the Mulefa refer to as “sraf” and observe quite naturally. After experimenting with various materials, Dr. Malone creates a “spyglass” that consists of amber-colored lacquer she has shaped and hardened into two square sheets. When these sheets of hardened lacquer are coated with a film of oil and then positioned in a precise manner, she is able to see the golden sparkle of Dust. When she announces this to the Mulefa, they are immensely grateful for this discovery because they can now show her how she might help them.
It turns out the “wheel-pod” trees the Mulefa rely upon for their survival have sickened and are dying out. They tell Dr. Malone that compared to the rhythm of their lives she is “swift and immediate, like birds, like butterflies” and it is this swiftness they hope will be their saving grace.
…You can see things that we cannot, you can see connections and possibilities and alternatives that are invisible to us, just as sraf was invisible to you. And while we cannot see a way to survive, we hope that you may. We hope that you will go swiftly to the cause of the trees’ sickness and find a cure….And we hope you can do so soon, or we shall all die.
Simultaneous to Dr. Malone’s experiments and important discoveries, the panserbjørns rejoin the story when a sleuth of bears attacks the wharf of a small town because the men will not sell them fuel for their ship. When Will arrives, he immediately challenges the leader of the bears to a fight. If the bear gives way to Will, the fighting must stop and the men must sell fuel to the bears. Gaining everyone’s agreement, he then uses the subtle knife to outmaneuver the mighty bear by carving his helmet into a pile of metal fragments. Recognizing the superiority of Will’s weapon, the bear yields.
Will then asks if he might join the bears as they travel upriver. The leader agrees and then asks to see Will’s knife. Will says he will only let a bear he can trust see it and then tells him that he is looking for Lyra and that Lyra has a friend amongst the panserbjørns named Iorek Byrnison, whom he knows he can trust. The leader tells Will that he is Iorek Byrnison and after examining the knife closely, Will and Balthamos join Iorek on his ship.
The Gathering of Forces
While Will manages his journey towards Lyra, Lord Asriel’s gyropters journey towards their great opponent, the Church. The Gallivespian spy, the Lady Salmakia, has infiltrated their domain and discovers that opposing disciplines within the Church have set aside their differences and pooled their knowledge and resources, with their primary objective being to find Lyra first.
After Will has explained to Iorek Byrnison that the purpose of his journey upriver is to find Lyra, Iorek Byrnison says he and his sleuth of bears will help him. So Will, Balthamos, and Iorek find the cave where Mrs. Coulter is hiding Lyra. Will gains an audience with Mrs. Coulter and afterwards forms a plan to rescue her with the assistance of Ama, a young girl from the village who has been bringing food and supplies to the cave.
The Meeting of Forces
While Will and Ama seek a way to secret Lyra away from Mrs. Coulter and her ever alert dæmon, the pursuing forces come together. The roaring engines of Church zeppelins approach the vicinity of the cave with searchlights sweeping the ground in all directions. Lord Roke and the Lady Salmakia whiz through the air on their Dragonflies, searching for the cave entrance. Gyropters carrying Lord Asriel’s forces sound overhead as they arrive in great numbers.
When the forces from both sides have landed troops, Mrs. Coulter gains control of the situation within the cave with the use of a gun. Her allegiance regarding who wins the conflict raging outside has clearly changed and while she and Will calmly discuss the life and death circumstances they are facing, Lyra wakes up just moments before the Gallivespians arrive.
Using the weapons they so expertly wield, Lord Roke and the Lady Salmakia wrest control away from Mrs. Coulter.
The golden monkey and Mrs. Coulter were both utterly motionless. Her face was distorted with pain and fury, but she dared not move, because standing on her shoulder was a tiny man with his heel pressed against her neck, his hands entwined in her hair; and Will, through his astonishment, saw on that heel a glistening horny spur and knew what had caused her to cry out a moment before.
A Captivating Close
From there, the story progresses with the contained chaos and breathless momentum of rapids on a swift flowing river. To share more of what happens next would spoil the adventure. However, were I required to choose a word to describe the closing of events in the final installment of this series, I believe captivating would be one of my top three choices, along with astounding and unpredictable.
One is drawn forward with anticipation; feeling immensely curious and perhaps breathless. We know matters will resolve, we just don’t know how. We trust the pieces will fall into place, and they do. And as they do, characters reveal hidden depths, creating that exquisite conflict of both loving and hating. Fantasy and reality blend and overlap as they have throughout and culminate to form an altogether realistic conclusion that maintains the sparkle of stardust nonetheless.
It takes a wordsmith of great skill to use a single, carefully placed word to make a unique concept entirely believable. It takes a wizard of creativity to write a story that convincingly takes place both within and without of the world we know; to reweave beliefs about God into theories that simultaneously respect those beliefs while challenging them; to reimagine the northern lights as a gateway to other worlds; to appropriately capture the essence of various societies both real or imagined; to render the human soul as an incarnate being . . .
As I reexamined portions of these books, I found myself smiling or chuckling or even gasping at times when I imagined what a potential reader might make of what happens here . . . or here . . . or here . . . There are so many surprises and subtleties! Mr. Pullman has applied an exquisite attention to detail that leaves no loose ends. No point or part of the story niggles at you afterwards because it remained unexplained. In a story as multi-faceted and multi-layered as this one, such an achievement elevates a work of fiction to a work of art.
Sense of Adventure
I believe any person who enjoys a sense of adventure, anyone who lives young-at-heart, anyone who simply welcomes reading books that are extraordinarily well-written or just thoroughly entertaining will appreciate and love Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. They present a wonderful, unpredictable story whose parts fit together with the precision of a puzzle. Descriptions and characters are woven into the fabric of the story like brilliant splashes of color or vibrant new patterns. And dispersed throughout are thoughtful insights into the always complex and changeable human condition.
Mr. Pullman’s words explore, like curious fingers, untouched corners of the imagination and offer wise insights into the nature of people. When we finally set the last book down, we do so with a gratifying sense of completion. We do not feel fooled by his unique distinctions, we feel enlightened. At times it seems almost like those mysteries we sometimes sense hovering just beyond our ability to grasp may, in fact, be attributed to the very distinctions he suggests.
~ Emmie Finch
Titles by Philip Pullman
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