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Review of The Amber Spyglass

pullman_amber spyglassstar2 The Amber Spyglass
by Philip Pullman
Middle School, High School     Knopf     523 pp.
10/00     0-679-87926-9     $19.95

Armed with a rare numbered typescript copy of The Amber Spyglass, I’m tempted to roll up my shirtsleeves, light a cigar, splash some Tokay into a glass, and discuss fine points of reason, fancy, and theology before all hell breaks loose — an amusement that, with the publication of the unsettling third volume of His Dark Materials, just may come to pass. Perhaps my yielding to the temptation of a theological colloquy wouldn’t be an unsuitable reaction to The Amber Spyglass. The nature of temptation is one of the book’s most compelling if less explicit themes.

But, readers, here’s a temptation for you. I find it impossible to consider this serious novel without revealing some of its secrets. So if you want to enjoy your first experience of this long-awaited fantasy thriller as a virgin reader, innocent of my plot synopses or interpretations, flag this review and come back to it later.

So: Finally we have the much-awaited conclusion to the trilogy. Adorned with its devastating cover art by Eric Rohmann, The Amber Spyglass delivers much of what was promised in the preceding cliffhangers, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife. (If you need a refresher, you couldn’t do better than to listen to the unparalleled audio recordings of each, available from Random House/Listening Library.) Most of the characters from the earlier books, beloved or bedeviled or both, return to continue their fateful roles in this saga that capsizes — or apocalypsizes — the Book of Genesis for our secular humanist times.

Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, last seen beyond Alamo Gulch in one world or another, are set to escape from the clutches of Lyra’s mother, the fiendish and prevaricating Mrs. Coulter. (For my money Mrs. Coulter beats out the panserbjørne and dæmons as Pullman’s most delicious invention, since Mrs.  Coulter is the least predictable among Pullman’s dramatis personae.) The book rollicks and careers with the narrative gale force we’ve come to expect. Philip Pullman achieves effects that rival the best accomplishments of the earlier books. In any given chapter Pullman offers more sensuous description and narrative brio than are found in most entire novels. A plot summary can sound breathless and ridiculous, but, friends, it can’t be helped. When a novel takes place in multiple worlds, a lot of happenings happen.

In freeing Lyra from the clutches of her mother, Will breaks and helps repair the subtle knife. Lyra, burdened by her accidental betrayal of Roger the kitchen boy, persuades Will to join her in hunting for Roger’s ghost in the land of the dead, whose Stygian murk has never been so fully and hauntingly described. (The book’s strongest scenes are here, as the children wrestle with chthonic mysteries and sacrifice much to liberate Limbo or its like.) On their emergence from the underworld, the children find that the long-awaited battle with Heaven is about to be joined. Assisted by bears, witches, ghosts, and airborne chevaliers from yet another world, the rebel angels make a better go of it this time. The regent of Heaven is the angel Metatron (a name derived from Greek roots that, put together this way, suggest a higher or late-model elementary particle). He is overthrown at last, dashed down into a pit that makes Malebolge in Dante’s Inferno look like leafy suburban sprawl. Oh, and by the way, God dies.

Finally the pace slackens, and with relief we are swept into the sweet temptation and succumbing of Lyra and Will. Yes, the ur-couple of a million million universes falls in love. We can draw the inference that, as the Old Testament might have put it, Will and Lyra come to know each other, though this is discreetly handled and open to interpretation, both textual and theological. The final chapter is all the more wrenching because until now poignancy has not seemed one of Pullman’s strengths.

I’m amazed and relieved to report that the author pulls off most of what he attempts, though I feel the need for more vast depths of time than I have so I might reread the completed saga at once. I want to organize all these worlds in my mind. I want to test the implications of the theology to make sure that they are supported by the contortions of the plot. I trust that many readers, young and old, are going to be left with magnificent questions. The big ones. And why not? — that’s what books are for.

So put another log on the fire and draw your chairs closer and tell me. Is this a book about the death of God or about the defeat of an institutionalized authority unsupported by moral credibility? Can there be such a thing as temptation in a world in which sin has lost its meaning? Is there a creator of all things? The Ancient of Days, unceremoniously spilled from His carriage (caps on the possessive pronoun mine, by lifelong habit), is God but seems not to be the creator; whence, then, did He get His authority? Even in a fantasy, can God be something other than, as Saint Thomas Aquinas defined, “that which all men agree to call God”? Can a novel truly be about religion if spirituality is no more than a physical phenomenon — angels, dæmons, Dust? With the concept of prophecy (as pertains to Lyra particularly) implying predestination, who organized destiny in a universe wherein God is supposed to be senile and ineffectual? Who, or what, propels prophetic fate? And if “the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake,” as a sympathetic character remarks, what are Buddhists and Ismailis and Jains and even soft-tongued Quakers to make of His Dark Materials?

And what is the nature of Dust, really? Do we know? It had seemed to be an aura that surrounds maturing human beings and the artifacts wrought by human consciousness. But in The Amber Spyglass the nature of Dust seems subtly expanded; it now seems related to every physical aspect of every world, including natural forces like wind and the moon, which are exempt from human interference. I’m not sure even now that I would know Dust if I saw it, even with an amber spyglass, the tool Mary Malone uses to examine Dust’s traffic patterns.

As the ambitious series draws to its worlds-shaking conclusions, I sense that despite clear philosophical antipathies, Pullman draws closer to and perhaps derives more from C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy than from the works of Tolkien or Susan Cooper, to whom he has been compared. And Pullman shares a lot with Lewis: a moral ferocity, albeit of a very different order; a bravura ability to conceive and set in motion a huge narrative apparatus; a knack for the invention of species and worlds. (You’ll love the mulefa.) Fusty old Narnia looks awfully tame, even somewhat Disneyfied, by comparison.

I suspect it will take all of us a while to discern the counterpoints and the overtones in this massive symphonic accomplishment. I confess my own moral compass is probably more tarnished brass than gold, my critical knife less than subtle; with my spiritual spyglass I still see through a glass darkly, not through amber. But for the sake of ringing out news about this book I struggle for magnificent metaphors and appropriate adjectives. Pour me some more Tokay and let’s see what we have. How shall we call it? In the end, His Dark Materials is not Shakespearian because, the divinely complicated Mrs. Coulter aside, Pullman’s characters seem to exist in the grip of their fate rather than in defiance of it. Nor can the trilogy properly be called Miltonic, despite the subject matter — the rebel angels battling over Paradise Lost. Milton’s work, after all, no matter how it gets away from him, is driven by devotion. And though it sure rockets along, His Dark Materials is nonetheless not Spielbergian, for (like the J. K. Rowling Pullman must know he’ll be compared to) Steven Spielberg is at heart a Gothicist, and Pullman avoids dread for its own sake. Perhaps the books are more akin to the Enlightenment labors of a Rousseau and a Descartes, even a Defoe. Pullman sets himself a nigh-impossible challenge: to construct an apologia for secular rationality in the form of a fantasy, which is a most seductive and pleasingly irrational form of literature.

In the end, with the mysteries of dark matter resolved, we have only the mysteries of our own dark human selves to contemplate. We close the book with a sigh of elegiac parting. The bears are back tempering steel for their armor, the witches flying about on branches of cloud pine, forging new alliances. Bereft of fantasy and, perhaps, faith, we mortals must resume tempering our hopes for fulfillment and fleeing our fears of disenchantment, twin tasks that circumscribe our days.

Many readers will put down The Amber Spyglass only to pick up The Golden Compass again and begin anew, to see how it all fits. But it may not matter how often one goes back to the earlier books. As Pullman says of God’s demise, we may only find “a mystery dissolving in mystery.” Is this not a workable definition of the sacred? Well, whether Dust is defined or not, in a certain garden Lyra and Will, like all of us, are left alone with the unresolvable question framed best, perhaps, by Shakespeare, from Sonnet LIII:

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions strange shadows on you tend?

Turn the light out as you leave. I’ll sit here in the dark and think a little while longer.

From the November/December 2000 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Gregory Maguire About Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is the author, most recently, of Egg & Spoon (Candlewick), a 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Honor Book, and a forthcoming novel for adults, After Alice. For twenty-five years he co-directed Children’s Literature New England, which he also helped found.

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