Pullman, Philip. 2000. The Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, Book III). New York: Knopf.

Reviewed 11 November 2000

Amber Spyglass (cover) If you think the fundamentalist weirdos hate Harry Potter, wait until they find (not read, because they never do) His Dark Materials. Pullman's work questions whether an unending afterlife, or indeed any afterlife at all, is a good thing, and presents the radical <SARCASM> new </SARCASM> notion that maybe the Prince of Lies is known to us as Yahweh. Definitely not appropriate for children, eh?

First, ignore the "new" nonsense. It's only a new development to those who've somehow managed to avoid any reference whatsoever to either Pullman's acknowledged sources (principally William Blake and Milton's Paradise Lost or any of the more-recent ruminations on this theme (such as Harlan Ellison's masterful "The Deathbird" from his collection Deathbird Stories or the somewhat obscure and very much underrated 1970 Genesis album Trespass). Then there are such other examples as Voltaire. The key question, though, is not whether Yahweh is (or is not) the Prince of Lies; it is whether Yahweh is known to us as such. That how Yahweh is known to us depends at least as much upon the actions and attitudes of adherants as upon the language of the attributed texts is not just a rejoinder to the fundamentalists; it is central to the novel's values.

Golden Compass (cover) His Dark Materials began, in The Golden Compass, in a parallel-universe Oxford, in which "scientists" are "experimental theologians," and every living person has a "daemon" (not "demon," but "process") that takes an animal form ("animus" being the premedical term for "life-force"). Before adolescence, daemons can shift their forms at will from animal to animal, ignoring conservation of mass-energy and other such inconveniences we know from physics. Also, it is a horrible breach of etiquette to touch another's daemon. The central character, Lyra (later named Silvertongue for her ability to lie convincingly), is fated to make some kind of choice that will bode ill for the existing religious hierarchy—a Catholic church that has never suffered through Reformation. Lyra meets and befriends an armored polar bear, encounters her mother and father (she believes she is an orphan), and observes a boy who has been surgically separated from his daemon (and is thus less than whole). Lyra also can operate the Golden Compass of the title, an instrument of prophecy—and does so with far-greater facility than even men who have studied for years and rely upon a small library of scholarly commentary on the myriad meanings of the 36 symbols on its face. At the end, Lyra steps into another world…

Subtle Knife (cover) The second book, The Subtle Knife, introduced Will, a boy from "our" universe. A murderer. (Well, not legally; at worst, voluntary manslaughter. But that's a minor quibble; kids, and even most adults, wouldn't know the difference.) Will is a boy used to hiding, somewhat in plain sight. He finds a window into another world, where he meets Lyra and acquires the Subtle Knife, a tool that is both the sharpest knife in existence (look at a good dictionary's complete definition and etymology of "subtle") and the means to open those windows to another world (ditto). Lyra is amazed that Will has no visible daemon; all of the other humans she has ever met or heard of who do not have daemons are incapable of much in the way of independent thought, or action, or joy. Will and Lyra find, in this new world, the Specters—incorporeal beings that destroy the daemon of postadolescent humans, rendering them zombies. Will darkly hints that those Specters may have originated in his world; little does he know…

The Amber Spyglass completes this tale. We see battles of angels built upon Milton's vision, assisted (so to speak) by men (and others). We see the tempter in the Garden. Or do we? For this is the prophecy about Lyra that so disturbed the Church hierarchy: that a specific person would tempt her, and that she would make a choice that resulted in the ruin of the hierarchy (and eventual triumph of the angels who had been cast out of heaven over the current tenants to whom the hierarchy owed allegiance). However, the book remains very vague about exactly what the temptation was—although there is a scene in which Lyra gives Will an apple, Mary (the supposed tempter) has nothing to do with Lyra finding that apple, and any "choice" surrounding that incident is almost an accident; the most important choices Lyra makes are in the world of the dead and well after the Fall of the Authority. Or is the temptation the thought of learning that Mary plants in Lyra? If so, it is off-stage, and seems unlikely to be the "choice" of the prophecy. I suspect that the whole issue of "fated choice" is very much like Shakespeare's famous "Exit, pursued by a bear": a device to force the characters, in their own world, to take action.

If there is a weakness in these books, it is in the unremitting evil of everyone in the Church's heirarchy. And it's not a subtle evil, either; it is very much one of ends justifying means, with increase in personal power the most appropriate ends. This even extends beyond the human members of the heirarchy to the angel just below the Authority, who is named as Enoch (which itself bears considerable thought). They are not cardboard characters as such, but they are nonetheless still shallower than they should be.

Two marketing issues remain, one good, one bad. The cover designs and paintings are unusually mature for speculative fiction aimed at any age-group. Too often, cover paintings look like 1970ish Archie transported to a speculative fiction context, with perhaps the only consistent exceptions being Michael Whelan and Bob Eggleton. The full but natural pallette, the soft yet defined edges, and the complex albeit spare scenes are miles beyond the usual garbage. On the other hand, the marketing dorks in this country should learn something from their British counterparts that they clearly have not learned even after having had Harry Potter shoved down their throats: restricting complex books to particular marketing categories due to the age of the protagonists is a serious mistake. Although YA readers—supposedly 12 to 16, but in reality 9 or 10 to 13 or 14—would certainly enjoy His Dark Materials, they will do so on the "cool battle" or "cool adventure" level and miss most of the novel's meaning and joy. Although, if it gets them reading Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, that's not entirely a bad thing.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Excellent.
The major strength of His Dark Materials is that Pullman never condescends, never relies upon allusion for the entire meaning of his complex prose, never answers questions about the core issues of the novel. In the end, the novel emphasizes that neither authority nor Authority is sufficient justification or motivation for any worthwhile action or decision. This is what makes the book really dangerous to fundamentalists—not the surface meaning, which is "offensive" enough (in much the same way as Paradise Lost itself, which remains recommended reading to this day), but the subtext that requires everyone to think for him or herself and accept responsibility for both his or her role(s) in life and his or her actions. If the books remain somewhat flawed as fiction, the flaws are (unlike so much of the dreck published these days, let alone what remains in the slush pile) not central to the books' meaning or theme, environment, premise, or protagonists.

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