I promised I would return to some of the themes I alluded to in my review of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife. Even more than with Northern Lights, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy, I feel that Pullman has interwoven literary and visual motifs into his narrative though most of the time we are deeply concerned with the characters involved and the excitement of a pacey plot.
But I’d like to emphasise that what follows is mostly speculation on my part, a personal response to what has struck me most during this reread and not necessarily what the author had originally intended. As has been pointed out to me by another more scholarly blogger, this is a manifestation of what academics call reader response theory: proposed by Stanley Fish, the controversial theory suggests that meaning isn’t inherent in the text but in the reader’s own mind, the text being only like a blank screen onto which the reader projects whatever pops into their mind.
Make yourself comfortable then, as the movie’s about to start.
Let me start with the foursquare tower situated in the old town of Cittàgazze, the Torre degli Angeli or Tower of Angels. Here resides the last of the city’s guild of philosophers, Giacomo Paradisi, Keeper of the Subtle Knife, though in the story a young man, Tullio, has taken it from him. Pullman, who knows that names have meaning, hasn’t chosen these names without thought: Giacomo’s surname suggests the Garden of Eden, with himself as the angel with the flaming sword guarding the gate. In keeping with the trilogy’s reversal of mythical chronology, Will Parry is not only given the knife to create portals to new worlds but also instructed in the means to close them up. Tullio’s Italian name (from the Latin Tullius, ‘he who leads’) implies that this is what he’d like to be, but this will not prove to be the case.
What is the significance of the tower? Here I am reminded of the second book of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings which was entitled ‘The Two Towers’. The Torre degli Angeli recalls to me Saruman’s tower Orthanc, in Isengard. Here Saruman has his headquarters, where he hopes to subvert Frodo’s quest, and from where he plans to join Sauron in his conquest of Middle Earth. Though Giacomo isn’t a Saruman-type figure, the guild he belongs to was responsible for creating the knife and opening up portals to other worlds which, left unclosed, allowed the despair-producing, soul-devouring Spectres to travel between worlds and devastate the inhabitants.
If Cittàgazze’s tower is like Orthanc, what is the second edifice? Here I fancy we must look to the fortress which we hear from the witch Ruta Skadi is being constructed by Lord Asriel (Chapter 13 ‘Æsahættr’).
“Sisters, it is the greatest castle you can imagine — ramparts of basalt, rearing to the skies, with wide roads coming from every direction, and on them cargoes of gunpowder, of food, of armour-plate… And coming to this fortress are warriors of every kind, from every world.”
Though Asriel isn’t a Sauron figure by any means — nor even a Denethor, Gondor’s steward at Minas Tirith — neither is he without his dark side, as we saw in Northern Lights.
From Laurie Frost’s guide we know that Pullman was a fan of Brian Aldiss’s picaresque fantasy The Malacia Tapestry (1976) which featured a Venetian city by the Illyrian sea (based on Dubrovnik, the ancient Croatian city of Ragusa); clearly Cittàgazze was inspired by Aldiss’s concept though I can’t at the moment recall any specific tower in that novel which equates to the square Torre degli Angeli.
I also wonder if Pullman had the image of ‘The Tower’ from the Tarot cards in mind when writing this. I’ve used card XVI from the 20th-century Rider-Waite deck to illustrate this as it includes some details that may have inspired the writer. First there is the foursquare structure, as in the novel; then there is a crown structure at the top which may echo the “wood-and-glass structure like a little greenhouse” in the novel. There is of course no lightning striking the tower in The Subtle Knife but later, when Lee Scoresby’s balloon is being pursued by zeppelins the shaman Grumman calls down lightning to set them alight. Tullio at one point falls through the glass onto stairs below but not like the figures falling from the tower in the tarot card.
Now, the knife itself. The aged cliff ghast calls it Æsahættr. Though translated as ‘god-destroyer’ the suffix hættr might be better rendered as ‘dangerous’ if in Old Norse, or ‘hazards’ if in Icelandic. In our world the Æsir were the gods of Norse mythology, so maybe Æsahættr is Pullman’s made-up ghast word for ‘god’s danger’: this looks forward perhaps to its function in The Amber Spyglass. Here, however, I want to look at its other functions — as door-opener and heavy burden.
Of course one wouldn’t normally want to use a knife to open doors, yet that’s precisely what Æsahættr does: by gently feeling with its point Will is able to slip the edge between particles of air to cut open a window or portal to a parallel world. Conversely, he has to use his fingers to pinch the edges of the portal back together, presumably a bit like crimping pastry at the edge of a pie dish. It’s not an exact parallel but I am reminded of traditional wooden Suffolk latches, once principally used for sheds and farm buildings or internal cottage doors.
The two types were thumb latches and string latches, but I remember reading that either an index finger or a wooden latch ‘key’ could be pushed through the hole on the outside of a door to lift the inside latch. Sadly I can’t locate this particular reference but the mention of a finger latch ‘key’ takes us to Will’s horrific loss of his ring and little fingers on his left hand. This savage mutilation by Æsahættr of the appointed knife bearer seems not only absolutely horrendous but senseless — until we dig a little further.
First, deliberate mutilation of fingers has apparently been practised for centuries, if not millennia, as truncated fourth and fifth digits have been noted from prehistoric cave stencils of hands. One might speculate that they represented that a rite of passage had been passed because the practical problems that would arise from not having an efficient grasp can be imagined. Yet there is no doubting that there is a symbolic aspect to Will’s deformities being sustained by the knife. What is it?
Could it be a variation on the mark of Cain? You’ll remember that in Genesis Cain was described as a murderer — the first — a description that the alethiometer gave Lyra when she first met Will. Nobody knows what this mark is though Jean Daniélou suggested that early Christians were branded or tattooed with a tau cross on their foreheads — tau being the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet, like Greem omega — and this may have been to mark them out so that, like Cain, they would be restless wanderers and the mark would prevent strangers from killing them. Curious logic though this is, Will’s disfigurement may be a visible mark that he too is a murderer as well as someone with a special dispensation, due to his being the bearer of the cross-shaped knife and the opener of doors into other worlds.
There is another sacred aspect to Will’s injury. Frodo in The Lord of the Rings was the self-appointed ring-bearer, a burden that became harder and harder the closer he got to Mount Doom. It was what permanently affected him so that, like Bilbo’s retirement to Rivendell, he too was to leave his mundane life and go to the Undying Lands in the West. Will’s burden is the knife, and throughout the second half of his journey in The Subtle Knife the stumps of his two fingers continue to bleed profusely, meaning lost blood and greater fatigue; this scapegoat aspect is familiar from other creeds and cultures, of course, and Will has taken on this role whether he will or no. Of course, Frodo loses the third finger of his right hand in The Return of the King, removed by Gollum in his fatal attempt to secure the Ring.
It’s not until the chapter entitled ‘Bloodmoss’ that his wounds can be salved, but that isn’t to be till he has wrestled on a mountain with a man who has an osprey daemon and wears a feather-trimmed cloak — the shaman Jopari, who is also his father John Parry. I was very struck by the resemblance of this incident with Jacob wrestling the angel in Genesis 32: 25-9:
And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he [Jacob] said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?
I don’t intend to go into the theology of all this — mainly because I neither know nor care — but I do want to draw attention to common factors that Pullman the atheist was choosing to include in this description of Will’s bittersweet completion of what he saw as his primary quest. Neither Jacob nor Will know who it is that they’re wrestling, because it is night; both receive an injury (though Will’s came about at the Tower); both antagonists are associated with feathers and wings (though Jacob’s opponent in Christian iconography is depicted as an angel). You will notice too that Pullman’s own silhouette illustration resembles post-medieval iconography of the encounter, whether by Delacroix or Doré.
There are other points about The Subtle Knife that I want to explore, not just Pullman’s purloining of biblical imagery, but as this reader’s response has already been far too long I shall leave them for another post or two.
Jean Daniélou, Primitive Christian Symbols. Translated by Donald Attwater. Compass Books (1964), chapter 9 ‘The Taw Sign’.
Laurie Frost, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: the Definitive Guide. Scholastic (2007).
Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife. Scholastic Press (2001).