Worlds apart

Gliffaes Country House Hotel walled garden © C A Lovegrove

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

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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).

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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

18 thoughts on “Worlds apart

    1. I don’t aim to persuade in these posts, more to expand views in the way that a screen goes from a 4:3 ratio to 16:9 or even 21:9. Do you remember the cinema experience of when the ads and coming attractions finished and the curtains suddenly drew apart for the main feature? That’s what I’m attempting: if it persuades as well as enlightens so much the better, but we all have our personal tastes to consider, don’t we? 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Annabel! It’s not an exact parallel, of course, but as they’re both portal fantasies in which the protagonists set off from Oxford I thought there might be some, ahem, subtle influence there, though I wouldn’t press it.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Your discussion of polar portals reminded me of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, where the protagonists follow in the footsteps of Arne Saknussemm. Of course, Verne was just writing an adventure yarn, so it’s missing the layers you found in Pullman’s work.

    As a side-note, I’ll never forgive Pullman for Lee Scoresby’s death. It felt like the Death Star had destroyed another planet. I had to put down the book for weeks, I was so angry. I understand why Pullman made that choice, but I wish he’d found a way around it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I must have speedread that particular Verne as a kid, Lizzie, as I have vivid memories of travellers going through caverns — not, I hasten to add, improved by a later acquaintance with the Disney film with Doug McClure and its cavalier approach.

      I also read a couple of Edgar Rice Burroughs Pellucidar stories based on the Hollow Earth theory, one of which even had Tarzan venturing there, possibly through a tunnel. And more recently I read a YA novel based on the same concept called — what else — Emilie and the Hollow World (

      Yes, Scoresby’s death was a shock to my system too, and doubtless to many other readers. I think that his prequel novella starring Scoresby and Iorek Once Upon a Time in the North ( was his way of making some sort of amends for Scoresby fans.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Doug McClure? I only remember Pat Boone and James Mason + a nordic guy with a duck. And Arlene Dahl! Whenever I fear my mind is gone, it can pull stuff like that out of nowhere. All is not lost. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ooooh, well you did warn me that there would be spoilers! I managed to avoid them in the body of the post, skipping over where necessary but I blundered straight in with the comments! More fool me! But you continue to draw me into reading this series, Chris. One day it will happen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ll have forgotten all the spoilers, Sandra, by the time you come to this series because you’ll be so involved with the characters and stories you’ll only remember the spoiler when it’s happening!

      But better get a move on: not only is the last of the second trilogy due within the year or so but an unpublished novella, Serpentine is due to appear later this year to join the other spin-off HDM novellas Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I sometimes feel like there’s a librarian or bookshop owner glancing at their watch as they wait to lock up but I’m desperate to choose another book or spend the rest of a gift voucher — and then the clock strikes the hour! We desperately need Hermione Grainger’s Time Turner to gift us those extra hours and days…

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think many of us were at the very least bemused by that third volume, but I do hope I’ll manage to get more of a handle on it this time — at least I’m looking forward to the challenge now that I’ve left some time elapse!

      Liked by 1 person

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