Author: Philip Pullman
Description: This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Warning: Contains spoilers.
The Amber Spyglass is the final volume in His Dark Materials trilogy.
I really enjoyed Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass as it is titled in the US), the first volume of the trilogy. Pullman introducted us to a fantastic world of great scope. It was suspenseful, the presented world was enchanting, and Northern Lights was pregnant with interesting ideas and concepts – that’s why I chose to read all three.
The next one, The Subtle Knife was laborious indeed. Most of what made Northern Lights wonderful was dropped – there was no world building in this volume, the characters seemed stalled and the book was a chore. It was a transitional piece so some of these things might be excused, and I approached the final installment expecting a grand payoff.
The Amber Spyglass is no Return of The King. It’s the ugly baby that came out of Pullman’s imagination and his hatred of religion. The novels is such a tremendous let-down that it’s hard to decide where to start a list of its failings.
Lyra, the cocky and bratty protagonist of Northern Lights disappears almost entirely. Lyra from The Amber Spyglass is almost fullly submissive to Will. Oh Will! What shall we do? Will! Oh Will! Where is the girl who rescued children and planned it all on her own? Here Lyra doesn’t seem to be able to do anything without depending on Will.
The “redemption” of Mrs. Coulter is totally unconvincing. The Grand Evil Lady (who was so great in Northern Lights!) suddenly out of the blue starts loving Lyra. This is just so ridiculously uncharacteristic and unbelieveable. The great villain is reduced to a mere puppet in Pullman’s hands, who seems to have forgotten how to hold the strings.
Not that other characters are handled expertly. Aside from Lyra who was reduced to a dependand sissy and Will, the grand young adult fiction boy-on-a-quest stereotype Pullman introduces more and more characters like the new race of Mulefa, the bug-like creatures. He then goes on a tangent describing their culture, which while interesting doesn’t add much to the plot.
The figure of Father Gomez, who is sent by the Church to kill Lyra is just a cheap way of maintaing tension. He never faces his victim and dies from the hand of a character we believed to be dead several hundred pages previously. His sections are nothing but filler.
The theological questions are never developed. Pullman literally stated in the previous volume that “every Church is evil”, without showing why. He didn’t show how Chuch uses religion to manipulate the consciences of people – we are treated only to Pullman’s version of the Church, which is evil because the author told us it’s evil. Everyone associated with Church is EVIL at a cartoonish level. Mother Theresa has evaporated from Pullman’s cosmos, and took all the good priests along with her.
There’s no conflict inside the Magisterium – no good voices are drowned by the bad ones – because everyone is bad. All of these evils are dressed in the not-at-all veiled robes of Christianity, especially the Catholic Church. These evils are never really shown, we’re just told they are evil. Oddly, there are no evil Muslim priest or bomb-throwing Buddhist monks. In Pullman’s world there is only one religion, and it is THE BAD ONE. As one of the characters says: “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”
Doesn’t sound very convincing.
Curiously, the church seems to have little impact on Lyra’s world. Though Pullman wants to lay all of the evil of mankind on Christian religion and God he doesn’t bother with providing plenty of evidence. The Church does evil things, but it doesn’t get into the way of the Armored Polar Bears who live a godless existence, or the clans of Witches who are into paganism. Neither the Polar Bears nor the Witches seem to be particularly bothered by the Evil church – The Witches seem to love their country, and don’t seem to be forced or isolated by the church. They seem to love the north pole where they live.
Now, in a world dominated by an incredibly powerful religious organization which corrupts everything, one would expect that everyone would be forced to follow the enforced religion and actively participate in its rituals – masses, etc. Religion would be a part of the daily life, as vital as a breath when you practice it, and as deadly as lack of it when your faith is not strong.
In Lyra’s world, NO ONE prays or goes to any sort of religious service. In a world where religious domination is SAID TO BE thriving, I’d expect it to be obvious. If religion is the source of all the evil in the world I expected it to be omnipresent. But it isn’t. Except Pullman said so. So we have to believe him, eh?
Pullman goes on a specific tangent to discuss the very issue of God. God is said not to be the original creator, but the first of the angels to appear. He portras him as some sort of terrorist, who lied about his origins and holds the reins of Heaven in his strong hands. However, it is all told to us; we never see it played out. When God makes an appearance, he is shown to be a demented, old angel which vanishes almost immediately. We are never shown the man behind the curtain, the malevolent presence who is the source of all trouble. We are supposed to accept, that no matter what THIS is TRUE and REAL. Is “God” a sadist? We may never known, we can only accept what Pullman tells us, because he showes his truth down our throats.
The angels are shown as extremely ineffectual. They can’t really hurt anything, which makes us think again: How exactly did “God”, who is just the first angel, become so powerful? There are many more questions about the angels (how did Baruch and Metatron became angels from men, but no one else did?) but Pullman never bothers with them.
Then there is the separate tangent of dr Mary Mallone, a former nun who rejected the Church and all faith entirely because she ate some marzipan and kissed an Italian. Whoa! Maybe if she ate an Italian and kissed the marzipan I could understand the Church denouncing her (the convent would grow slimmer and slimmer) but it doesn’t make much sense. In fact this is some of the poorest reasoning I’ve read in a while. Can’t you believe in God, practive your faith and enjoy the world at the same time? Millions of people do, but Pullman apparently think you can’t. I could understand Mary quitting being a nun, even quitting organized religion because of the “imposed” restraints, but stopping believing in God because of marzipan? This is not a strawman argument, it’s a marzipanman argument, and unfortunately it ain’t sweet.
Mary’s story stirs some tension in Will and Lyra, who suddenly realize that they’re meant for each other (at age of 12 eternal love is serious business, mind you) and the story morphs into a contrived retelling of The Fall of Man, though I don’t understand why Lyra is said to be the next Eve. Of course she finds love (with almost no build up), she gives it up for the sake of the worlds (hers and Will’s). I think she resists the temptation to continue their relationship to help everyone build the new Eden, or the Republic of Heaven, but it’s a tenuous connection at best. Not to mention that twelve year old children suddenly start talking like certain older men. Blah.
This is getting long, so I’ll wrap it up in Pullman fashion. An angel shows up, answers all of the questions and the children return to their separate worlds, promising that they will never forget each other and visit the same place in their worlds to remains as close as possible. In Lyra’s world generous foster parents magically turn up, and she sets up to build a godless existence where people could enjoy themselves as if anything was stopping them before. DOH!
I think that these books had great potential. They could show children the dangers of corrupt individuals who use religion to influence and control people. Unfortunately, Pullman took it all away with his absolute lack of polemic and blatant one-sideness and all we got were some puppets running around and spewing his personal sentiments in this incredibly boring and contrived slog. The guy’s obviously an imaginative author, but his bigotry got the better of him here and I can only wish that Norhtern Lights was a standalone.
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