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