Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife wends a different path from its predecessor Northern Lights in that instead of the reader inhabiting Lyra’s world for the duration one now starts moving from world to world.
The UK editions help us keep track of these different worlds with the author’s symbols in the margins of each page: the silhouette of a hornbeam tree for Will’s world (and ours), a dagger motif for the Cittàgazze world, the alethiometer standing for Lyra’s home world and a starburst symbol for the world in which Lord Asriel is building his fortress, the one intended for the republic of heaven.
Within these worlds representing different spaces in the boardgame of Pullman’s imagination the author moves his pawns and knights, his rooks and bishops, his kings and queens. Inevitably during the game some pieces are removed permanently from the board.
Warning: spoilers ahead
Many of the chapter headings alert us to the world we’re in. ‘The Cat and the Hornbeam Trees’ begins in Will’s world before transitioning to Cittàgazze, while ‘Among the Witches’ takes us briefly back to Lyra’s world before returning us to ‘A Children’s World’ (as Cittàgazze turns out to be, with a pun on Italian gazze ‘magpies’ and ragazzi ‘children’). With the appearance of angels in ‘Lighted Fliers’ we hear reports of the world in which Asriel is preparing for a final showdown but mostly the plotline seesaws between our world and Cittàgazze, with crucial incidents taking place in the latter in chapters headed ‘The Tower of the Angels’ and ‘The Belvedere’.
But, as with Northern Lights, Pullman doesn’t shield us from the finality of death. In ‘Alamo Gulch’ one character whom we’ve invested hugely in doesn’t survive: in Lyra’s world the Alamo has a different significance to that in our world, but it’s the tragic version that plays out here. In ‘Bloodmoss’ another character whom we’ve heard a lot about but with other aliases also dies at a climactic moment, the achievement of a quest that also spells profound disappointment at the point of recognition. Elsewhere the violent deaths of Finnish witches whom we’ve not had long to invest in is as shocking as if we’d followed their story since the beginning of the saga.
To conclude these brief thoughts on structure I’d like to add that The Subtle Knife ends, like Northern Lights, on the threshold of a new world: both thresholds have been accessed at the cost of the death of someone close to the protagonist, Lyra’s friend Roger Parslow (whose ‘intercision’ by Lord Asriel opened the way to Cittàgazze) and Will’s father John Parry (alias Stanislaus Grumman, whose death by his rejected witch lover leaves Will abandoned on the extremities of Cittàgazze, close to the planned republic of heaven).
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Following a review, a discussion of towers, knives and biblical motifs, and another about angels, dæmons and witches, I’d like to finish this post with some thoughts about the principal pairings we meet.
First of all there is Will and Lyra. Their first meeting is inauspicious: they are naturally suspicious of each other, especially over the presence or absence of dæmon. As their relationship develops Will remains his taciturn and cautious self but Lyra, usually more canny and proactive in her own world, often defers to Will — maybe she recognises that what drives him is of a different nature than her own, or perhaps that what faces them all doesn’t require her normal precipitous action but a more collaborative approach.
The second ‘pairing’ concerns Marissa Coulter and Lord Boreal. Their partnership is based on their relationship to the Magisterium in their individual pursuit of power and secret knowledge: in the story that concerns Lyra and her alethiometer as well as the whereabouts of Will’s father, who is reputed to have found a portal to another world. But there is no honour among thieves, and Mrs Coulter’s murderous seduction of Lord Boreal adds another dimension to her manipulative character.
Finally we have Lee Scoresby, the Texan aëronaut and Stanislaus Grumman, the shaman known as Jopari whom Lee has been seeking as someone who may have answers to the city seen in the sky. Together they journey from Siberia in Lee’s balloon towards the north and into the world of Cittàgazze. John Parry’s complex history — as ex-soldier, explorer, scientist and shaman, attested to by his aliases — has echoes in our world: from Elizabethan explorers believing in a fabled land around the north pole quartered by rivers, to seekers after a northeast or northwest passage to China and the Indies, to more recent adherents of a pseudoscientific Hollow Earth theory with an entrance at the North Pole to an inner world, along with mystic celestial journeys made by Finnish sorcerers.
Their mutual respect, and their respective ends, says a lot about how Pullman is able to create characters in whom we as readers may invest sympathy. Even though we learnt a lot about Lee’s qualities in Northern Lights and spent much of The Subtle Knife trying to make sense of the clues we were being offered about Parry’s multiple identities, their deaths have equal impact — comparable to those in Greek tragedy — the more so that we know of their significance respectively to Lyra and to Will.
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I likened the action in The Subtle Knife to a game of chess being played out. Among the many parallels and influences in His Dark Materials (Milton’s Paradise Lost and C S Lewis’s Narnia series, for example) I fancy some connection with Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). I don’t want to push the parallels but there are suggestive images such as an alternative world through a permeable barrier, Alice’s kitten comparable to Will’s cat, key chess pieces being sadly sacrificed as pawns head towards their crowning.
But that final coronation is for a different story.
That concludes my discussion of the second of the His Dark Materials instalment, unless anything significant occurs to me