The Amber Spyglass - Philip Pullman

The Amber Spyglass  - Philip Pullman

OK, well, I didn't realise this before, but The Amber Spyglass is really quite weird.


The third in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, it follows Will and Lyra on a journey to the land of the dead and beyond as they become caught up in Lord Asriel's almighty, audacious war on heaven and the angel who calls himself the Creator. It's strange for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that none of the principal characters really seem to have any clear sense of what they are doing. Will and Lyra aren't trying to fulfil some grand quest like destroying the One Ring or getting rid of eternal winter; they just want to say sorry to some old friends. Mary Malone (the Dust-studying physicist from The Subtle Knife) has no clue why she is wandering across the worlds; she's just doing what the I Ching tells her to. Iorek Byrnison has no idea why the world is changing around him; he's just trying to help his people survive. And our principal villian, Mrs Coulter, lies and deceives so compulsively that probably not even she knows what her final goal is, let alone the reader, and this is even after finishing the novel.


All this makes for a read that is at once aimless and purposeful: from the point of view of the characters, it is a story in which people try to make their way in a multiverse of random chances, of powerful forces beyond their ken shaping their lives in strange ways, in which everyone just tries to do the right as they see the right, as King George V put it in The King's Speech. But from the point of view of the reader, and of the writer, it's a story in which all those strange chances, those small choices, weave together to shape the fortunes of all the worlds, everywhere. For Pullman, wars are fought not by vast, homogenous companies of horsemen rallying to one banner in the service of Truth and Justice and Right, but by individuals who make their choices based on a range of factors and principles, none of which are necessarily worse or better than any other. Unless you're on the side of the Church, of course, in which case every single deed is at best misguided and at worst downright creepy.


And this brings me to one of the things that makes me slightly uneasy about this trilogy, but especially this book. Now, I'm not a Christian, and I tend, broadly, to agree with Pullman's stance on Church control and its suppressive nature. But. Is this not as evangelical and as preachy as C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia are often said to be? And yet I've never seen anyone reproach him for it. Blasphemy, yes. Heresy, yes. Book-burnings, yes. For some reason, atheists and agnostics are quite happy to point loudly at Narnia and say "THIS IS BRAINWASHING! PROTECT YOUR CHILDREN!" without noticing that Pullman is in fact doing the exact same thing, on the opposite side of the argument.


Of course, this is a story, not an essay or a philosophical argument, but it's just a point that interests me, and it may be as much a comment on our culture as it is on Pullman's writing.


Whatever else it is, The Amber Spyglass is certainly ambitious, featuring as it does a hellish world of the dead, a culture of alien intelligences, quantum physics and falling in love. I do, however, have a question: Can anyone explain to me exactly what is the link between Will and Lyra's discovery of mutual love and the return of Dust to the universe? There's some woolly talk of pebbles diverting streams and whatnot, but I get the impression Pullman has simply written himself into a corner somewhat and can't think of any other way to make love Save the Day (as he so clearly wants to). Also, the last chapter reads a bit like Pullman has drawn up a list of possible objections to Will and Lyra's forced separation and attempted to answer them all, with the result that, despite Angel Xaphania's assertion that the whole universe wants them to stay together, it in fact seems that the universe is against them in every single possible way. Will raises the point that not all the windows between the worlds need closing because not all were made by the knife and so not all will let Dust out, to which Xaphania replies, "Ah, but if you thought there were any left you would go looking for them and WASTE YOUR LIFE." Well, Xaphania, why don't you just show him where they are? That is a solution, surely?


Anyway. I actually really enjoyed The Amber Spyglass. I loved the more philosophical tone we get, the questions of free will and responsibility and knowledge and experience it raises, and the story is, truly, a good one. And if it is, in the end, perhaps just a little too ambitious for its own good - well, I think I can forgive that.