“Tell them stories”

The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman,
Scholastic Children’s Books 2001 (2000)

“Tell them stories. That’s what we didn’t know. All ths time, and we never knew! But they need the truth. That’s what nourishes them. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, everything. Just tell them stories.”
— Injunction given to Mary Malone by a freed ghost, chapter 32: ‘Morning’

The magnificent conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy is rich, complex and even more satisfying the second time around. Its richness and complexity perhaps told against it at a first acquaintance, confusing some readers while thrilling others for its challenging concepts. And what concepts Pullman adds to his many-worlds scenario and varied beings: intention craft, targeted bombs, a world inhabited by the ghosts of the dead, diverging evolution, and a conflict of apocalyptic proportions.

At the heart however of this novel is love — between heavenly beings, mother and daughter, human and dæmon, and Will and Lyra. But holding up that beating heart, sustaining it, is the age-old imperative: stories. And not just any old stories, but stories that represent or reflect truth.

The basic structure of the trilogy retrospectively helps explain the focus of The Amber Spyglass: if Northern Lights was about Lyra and The Subtle Knife added Will as a protagonist, then this third instalment makes a lot more of Mary Malone who had what seemed like only a brief role to play in the second. There are also a lot more worlds coming into the picture: besides those of Lyra’s, Will’s, Cittàgazze, and the Republic of Heaven there are others, the chief of which is the Edenic world of the mulefa, a species of intelligent life form, and a world that will see the fulfilment of the Lapland witches’ prophecy concerning Lyra.

When the novel opens everything is in the balance. Lyra is held in a drugged sleep in a cave by Marisa Coulter who in her newfound maternalism has become extremely protective of her daughter, conscious of the Magisterium’s malevolence towards Lyra. Will, who had seen his missing father killed before his very eyes just at the moment of discovery and recognition, now has a new quest: to find and rescue Lyra. Mary, who has had her intellectual world upturned at the same time as her job has been terminated, disappears into the world of Cittàgazze and on into a world even more alien. And over and beyond it all the forces of Lord Asriel are heading for a showdown with those who would control everything more tightly, a conflict which will reveal the true nature of the Authority.

It’s impossible to summarise this intricately plotted novel without giving away spoilers, nor would it be desirable. But it is possible to hint at the ideas and themes that Pullman draws into his narrative. There are the biblical references such as the hierarchy of angels, the Hebrew Hades known as Sheol, the Garden of Eden; beings from classical myth, namely the harpies; elements from Christian myth such as the Hallowing of Hell; and of course Pullman explicitly cites inspiration from Milton’s Paradise Lost, from William Blake and other texts quoted as chapter headings.

The central myth is of course the Temptation in the Garden where the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is located, and the author is both explicit but also subtly allusive about its relevance to his story. He is careful to point out parallel events playing out almost simultaneously: the drama of Lyra and Will and Mary in the world of the mulefa is shadowed by the altered roles of Mrs Coulter and Asriel and Metatron at the Abyss.

And when one gets over the shock of talking bears, flying witches, Liliputian beings riding dragonflies, angels who were once human, and intelligent creatures who have physically adapted to riding wheels, then there is the author’s poetic language and creative imagination and intellectual curiosity to wonder at and enjoy. What’s heartwarming is that while The Amber Spyglass is the culmination and conclusion to His Dark Materials it’s not the end of Pullman’s unique Creation; and the stories he tells us are quintessentially true.

As is usual this review will be followed in time by a series of discussion posts in which spoilers will abound

22 thoughts on ““Tell them stories”

  1. I definitely need to re-read the whole lot! I remember not enjoying this one as much as the other two on a first read back when – and I had problems with the mulefa – they were one species too far for me at the time – maybe I’d be kinder to them on a re-read. I’ve loved all your posts on this wonderful series of books.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The mulefa were a stumbling block for me first time round too, Annabel, but this time round they seemed not only more appropriate but almost essential. As an example, you remember the dispensation in Genesis that Adam was given, that he could, even should, name all the creatures in the Garden: but here it is the mulefa who name themselves and Mary who has to learn their language. Another thing: the oil from the trees in their world finds an earthly counterpart in The Secret Commonwealth which I’m reading just now, and its connection with Dust is somehow crucial to Pullman’s worldbuilding.

      So, yes, do reread them because, in this case especially, hindsight is a wonderful thing! Glad you’re enjoying my meditations on the series. 😊


      1. Yes, that was me in a nutshell. I had loved this series so much–I gotta go back to hunt down your other posts!–but the mulefa really threw me for a loop. I guess I’ll need to reread them myself for an analysis. The weaving at work in Pullman’s story-world truly knows know equal.


        1. I read somewhere that the mulefa were born out of a discussion which Pullman had with his son, imagining how such creatures functioned, what they physically looked like, what their dispositions were like, the landscape they lived in (presumably based on that of Zimbabwe, where his father was once stationed). I had a better emotional understanding of the part they were to play on this reread, and of course was less thrown by their reappearance.

          I think readers wanted to be more focused on Lyra and Will — just as they were flummoxed by the absence of Lyra at the start of The Subtle Knife with the spotlight solely on Will for the opening chapters. Until one takes on board Mary’s role as tempter this instalment must at first seem just a mess.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Ah! I love this idea of bringing the imagination of one’s children into one’s own creativity process. If I could ever capture the lightning of Bash’s creativity in a bottle…oh, I’d cherish it. Yet I’d hate to use a storytelling element that is rightfully his. Sigh. Ah, what will the next ten years create!

            Someone recently commented on my latest about how when we have our expectations before the story and those expectations are disrupted, we tend to go all negative in our response. That fits in perfectly here with what you’re saying about Will and Lyra. It strikes me now that this was one of the reasons I loved Jones’ approach with the Howl “trilogy” or the Chrestomanci books: the primary protagonists of one book were rarely the primary protagonists of the next. The blending of old and new characters never felt forced and let the story-world grow without losing those initial threads that had wrapped around readers in the first place.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I sense that DWJ disliked the idea of sequels (or the odd prequel) being as it were ‘more of the same’, and though I’m not the only one to be slightly disappointed that Howl and Christopher Chant didn’t feature more prominently in their respective series (except perhaps the latter in The Pinhoe Egg) I appreciated her consistent approach because it meant she was constantly exploring new ideas and approaches.

              When one of our grandsons was little I used to walk him to school and back and we played a game of storytelling — walking gingerly past giants’ castles, hacking through jungles, following clues etc, with ideas being batted to and fro. I treasure those memories.

              Liked by 1 person

            2. Aw! And I hope your grandson remembers those stories, too. What a treasury, indeed!

              I do believe you’re right–I know somewhere in her essays she mentions that a story is done at the end, and didn’t like going on and on and leaving things hanging. Yes, more with characters like Chant and Howl would have been a scream, but then we’d miss out on the new characters we met instead. A fair trade, I think! 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  2. I could barely get through the first one, but that was when it first came out. You have inspired me to give them another try, well, at least THE GOLDEN COMPASS. Maybe I am in a different, more open place these days. Thank you, Calmgrove. ~Janet

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Janet, I’m glad you appreciated my critique of the final instalment in this series — I can only say how impressed I remained second time around! Pullman’s writing and the concepts behind his storytelling aren’t to everyone’s tastes, and that’s perhaps as it should be, so I wouldn’t press you to reconsider against your own inclinations.

      All I’d add is that, given the weird state the world is in now, and so many people’s propensity to believe the most ridiculous and dangerous lies and conspiracy theories — alien visitations? autism caused by vaccinations? skin colour a measure of intellect and worth? — I’m more than happy to suspend disbelief over spirit animals or windows to many worlds for the time it takes to read the books. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Crazy times. If I can fall in love with Tolkein and Pratchett, surely there is room in my imagination for Pullman. Sometimes I think I go through moods. Second chances are always worth giving.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Moods and emotions are important to acknowledge, I agree; and after a long lifetime of reading I’m glad that some gain in maturity has allowed me to appreciate works my younger self couldn’t or wouldn’t! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  3. For world-building, I’d put Pullman on a par with Tolkien, but for sheer writing skills and layers of complexity, Pullman wins hands down. And yet — this may be why I’ve read LOTR at least 25 times, and Pullman just twice. Sometimes, the familiar is the balm I need.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You review reminds me why I loved this trilogy! The first time I read it I was a Christian and read with some trepidation since I wasn’t supposed to be reading books like that. I think I will reread it now I am no longer of that persuasion and have no more fear of “stories with truth in them”. Thanks for these reviews, I’ve very much enjoyed your insights.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hooray! Thank you. 😊 Interestingly, despite being raised a Catholic I’ve been an atheist most of my life and so can read HDM from both sides of the argument about whether or not it’s anti-religion.

      To cut a long discussion short it’s more than clear to me the series — if it’s about any one aspect exclusively — is about authoritarianism, religiosity without compassion, superstition and institutionalised cruelty where the means justify the ends: in this case, all that Magisterium stands for, aided and abetted by the Court of Consistorial Discipline (don’t those very words send a shudder down your spine?).

      On a slightly lighter note, I scheduled a review of Lyra’s Oxford for tomorrow, and found a lot of it rather neatly anticipates The Book of Dust. Having now finished The Secret Commonwealth, with so many loose strands untied, I’m eager to see where it all ends!


  5. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

    I read HDM a long time ago and I *think* I remember enough to follow your discussion posts, but I guess I will find out! I liked them, but I was never a huge fan. I’m pretty sure I read The Amber Spyglass around the time it came out (which was before I read Tolkien). Pullman doesn’t do much for me on a sentence-by-sentence level – not like Tolkien at least. (off-topic but: weren’t you going to review the Gormenghast books? I loved Peake’s writing but I didn’t quite love the books as a whole. I’d sooner reread Peake than Pullman, though.)

    Lizzie: “more complex than Tolkien” I don’t see it, but maybe there’s something I’m missing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The third part of the HDM trilogy certainly brought a mixed response from readers, Beth, and I confess that it’s taken a reread for me to appreciate it more than I did the first time around. I can’t speak for Lizzie but for me the way the language is used here is different from Tolkien’s: the latter was deliberately archaic where Pullman, while not exactly ‘modern’, was aiming for a different effect: gone are the portentous phrases, but awe and mystery take their place as seen through the eyes of the central trio. It’s like comparing an illuminated manuscript with a Turner painter and declaring one better than the other—I just can’t see it.

      I’ve read and discussed the first Gormenghast book, but just haven’t got round to the second as soon as I would’ve liked, Beth, sorry! Hopefully soon.

      Liked by 1 person

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