Dark matters

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife
Scholastic 2001 (1997)

What were these mysteries? Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others? (Chapter 4)

The sequel to Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights is as much a roller-coaster of emotions as it is a cauldron of ideas. After Lyra Bevilacqua discovers that nothing is as she thought it was and ends the first volume walking into another world in the sky, we find ourselves at the start of The Subtle Knife in our own world, with a fatherless boy anxious for the safety of his mother.

The contrast in scene-setting between the two novels was shocking to me when I first read this: Will Parry’s sense of isolation arising from awareness of his mother’s vulnerability has burdened him with a responsibility that shouldn’t be given to anyone his age; and when intruders break into his Winchester home and one — after being pushed — trips over the cat and falls to his death, Will is forced to go on the run. Having previously left his mother safe with his former piano-teacher, he arrives in Oxford; here he sees an odd square patch in the air, a window into another world.

And so it is that he finds himself in Cittàgazze, an oddly deserted Mediterranean-type town with a few children running loose, and where he comes face to face with Lyra and her daemon.

Jacob wrestling the angel, by Gustave Doré

As the novel progresses we start to understand how intertwined their lives are destined to be and to grasp that their roles have to be of their own realising and choosing. And all the while circumstances and adversaries are closing in on them.

I’d forgotten just how complex, involving and resonant this instalment was: it’s complex in the plotting, entanglements and moral challenges it offers up; it’s involving in that we develop strong emotional attachments to many characters and firm antipathy to others; and it’s resonant because almost every page thrills with overtones it’s possible to detect from history, from legend, from myth and also, distressingly, contemporary events. As the witch Ruta Skadi explains to her sisters, the nature of what was going on in her world involves

… things I never had seen, cruelties and horrors all committed in the name of the Authority, all designed to destroy the joys and the truthfulness of life. (Chapter 13)

The Subtle Knife follows threads left trailing at the end of Northern Lights. How is Lyra’s ability to ‘read’ the alethiometer not only special but crucial to the mystery of Dust; how does Asriel’s blasting a hole into a parallel world affect the climate of his own world; what are the roles of the Texan Lee Scoresby and Serefina Pekkala in the continuance of Lyra’s destiny; and why should Marisa Coulter, Lyra’s estranged mother, still be not just mistrusted but feared?

The tone of this second volume is largely dependent on the character of Will who is introverted and serious where Lyra is gregarious and lively. Will sees his task as ‘taking up the mantle’ of his missing father, and this determines that his primary quest will be to find John Parry who, as we find out, has also entered another world. The intensity of a boy on the cusp of his teens as depicted here may have drawn from Pullman’s own feelings about his father, a military man who’d been awarded a posthumous medal but who may not have quite been the hero he was lauded to be.

Will discovers that the mystery of his father’s disappearance takes a back seat when he and Lyra visit the Torre degli Angeli in Cittàgazze. This is where he is destined to take ownership of the subtle knife, an object as significant to events in all worlds as Lyra’s alethiometer. But there will be a cost.

Libraries of books have been written about Pullman’s worlds in His Dark Materials, but it needs little research to spot overtones of many other stories in the weave of his tale. The four-storied tower at the centre of much of the action recalls other towers, including that pictured in traditional tarot packs; Will’s wrestling with a mysterious cloaked figure on a mountain parallels Jacob’s tussle with an angel in the Old Testament; and the Cittàgazze philosophers who opened up windows to other worlds without closing them are reminiscent of Pandora’s jar or box in Greek mythology.

Along with many new figures we are introduced to Dr Mary Malone in The Subtle Knife, a researcher into Dark Matter at Oxford University. Her entry into the action will prove to be a catalyst for the eventual outcomes in The Amber Spyglass, though for now she seems secondary to our focus on the two young contrasting protagonists; but through her we find what precisely links Dust or His Dark Materials (in Milton’s phrase) with astrophysicists’ concepts concerning Dark Matter.

In the meantime we revel in the dark nature of Pullman’s imagination. While talking to Lyra, Mary Malone part quotes Keats’ idea of negative capability, expressed in 1817:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously. I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

In other words, the creative imagination should have no bounds: it should inhabit all worlds and other people’s skins without being enslaved by its own narrow worldview. This doesn’t of course stop the author from pointing out what’s all too evident, from climate change to authoritarian regimes, and that comes out strongly in this engaging novel.


As with Northern Lights I have plenty more to say about The Subtle Knife but I shall leave that for later posts

10 thoughts on “Dark matters

  1. It’s so tempting to give up the book I’m reading and start reading these books again instead, I’ve forgotten so much of the second and third volumes especially, however the review pile calls. So I shall read your posts instead for now…

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    1. Thanks, Annabel, hope I capture some of the magic you remember in these commentaries! I meant to get on with these last two before The Secret Commonwealth came out but it’s hardly surprising other things got in the way. Still, it’s there on my shelves for when I’m ready…

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  2. This was one of the series where I started out reading the first book to my son and he took it and read the end and all the rest himself. So I didn’t get to reread the whole thing. I mean to before long …

    I know I thought the first two books are brilliant but I was disappointed by The Amber Spyglass. I wonder if I’ll still feel the same way on a reread.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How frustrating to get so far with a reread but brilliant that your son wanted to finish it himself! That’s so satisfying when someone you care about is enthused by what moved you.

      I was not so much disappointed by The Amber Spyglass as a little confused, especially by Mary Malone’s time in the world of the mulafa. I’m hoping this read will give me a better perspective on what Pullman’s trying to achieve here. Maybe two decades on I’ll have read and experienced a bit more, enough to appreciate all the nuances of the third instalment which I must have missed first time around!

      I really enjoyed the recent BBC/HBO coproduction and hope they’ll manage to finish the second series for broadcast at the end of the year, despite the inconvenience of a global pandemic…

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      1. I am always happy when he likes a book enough to finish it by himself. I wish he would start more books by himself, but I figure this is better than nothing. I’ve done a ton of partial rereads this way … some of them I do finish on my own as well, but oftentimes I’m distracted by other things and never get to it.

        I do hope they will finish the TV series, what could be better to watch at a time like this?

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        1. I really do hope the lockdown doesn’t impact too badly on its planned release around the Christmas period, but it is as it were in the lap of the gods.

          I don’t see any of our younger grandkids long enough to start stories like this with them, but the older ones are proficient enough readers, some more bookish than others! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I await your reactions when I post more discussion about it!

      By the way, I approved the introduction of incidents from The Subtle Knife in the first HDM series, plus the use of people of colour / BAME actors for characters whose ethnic identity Pullman either doesn’t specify or even, as in the case of Will and Lord Boreal / Sir Charles Latrom, gives different physical descriptions for.

      The scriptwriter for HDM, Jack Thorne, also co-scripted Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child which ruffled certain feathers when a Ugandan-born actor played Hermione Grainger. (Similar feathers were also ruffled when Guinevere in BBC TV’s Merlin series was played by Anglo-Guyanese actor Angel Coulby.

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  3. buriedinprint

    I likely mentioned this when you were rereading The Golden Compass/Northern Lights, but I’ve been meaning to reread this for ages and, like Annabel, now I really really want to simply snatch it off the shelf and push all the other current reads temporarily aside (as good as some of them are too). It’s a wonderful testament to a book’s power that it’s equally/more satisfying when one revisits and I’m sure, just from the few allusions you’ve mentioned here, that I would get more out of this sequel on another journey through it. (I would have been much more attentive to plot, for obvious reasons!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The story is great and that’s so important, but it’s the little details that gives it character and depth, I feel. Anyway, if you’re still dithering I’m writing a couple of follow up posts which may help you push TSK closer to the top of your pile!

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