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.
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