The Amber SpyglassFeb 10, 2005 · peterb · 6 minute read
One nice thing about not paying close attention to the bestseller lists is that when books come out in a series, I often don’t even hear about them until all of them are out. That’s what happened this year when I picked up The Golden Compass, the first book in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials cycle.
I’m naturally suspicious of any books that are part of a series, and this suspicion grows when that series is part of a marketing genre (such as sci-fi mystery, romance, and so on). Genre, by this definition, is more about satisfying the psychosexual disabilities of the reader, and therefore guaranteeing authors and publishers a target market, than it is about good writing. A series of books, furthermore, suggests a sort of literary disorder that could be cured by a brutal editor. “Are you such a poor writer,” part of me wonders, “that you couldn’t say what you needed to in a more elegant and concise fashion? If Gabriel Garcia-Marquez could tell the entire history of the Buendia clan in Cien Años de Solidad why do you need an extra fifteen hundred pages to tell a story that is less interesting and less emotionally moving?”
This is of course unfair. One might as well complain that a play doesn’t have music, or a ballet doesn’t have breakdancing. The novel and the serial are essentially different media, and what is a transgression in one may be desirable in the other. I mention my distrust of the serial form only to give color and form to this discussion. In particular: when I mentioned that I was reading the series, the attitude I heard from more than one person was “Oh, yes, the first two books were great. A shame about the third one, though.”
This didn’t fill me with hope. I pressed on, though, and finished all three books. Despite (or because of?) the warning, I liked The Amber Spyglass more than the first two books in the series. I thought it was the strongest of the three. This seems to be the minority position. The reason why is a topic worthy of discussion. Please note I will be discussing details from all the books, so if you want to avoid spoilers, read no further. What Pullman claims he was trying to achieve in His Dark Materials was to write a secular humanist fable. This has been done before, to varying degrees of success. All of Ayn Rand’s works, notably Anthem, would qualify, as would Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, or Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Pullman specifically invokes the not-so-crypto-Christianity of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books as his bete-noir: “it’s propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology.”
The first book in the series, The Golden Compass, opens in an alternate- universe Oxford with a pre-Enlightenment feel. Dons in black robes patrol sconce-lit corridors, preparing decanters of Tokay and discussing “experimental theology.” Lyra, the girl-child protagonist of the story, begins the trilogy living deep in the (not very warm) bosom of theological academia, with her daemon. A daemon is a kind of familiar that manifests part of a human’s soul. Every human in Lyra’s world has one. The story follows Lyra’s awakening and escape from this environment. It is no coincidence that each step Lyra takes towards adulthood takes her further afield from where she began.
Pullman’s description of Oxford is rich and multi-layered. It was his depiction of this world that drew me into the first book. I suspect, in fact, that this is why so many people don’t like the third book in the trilogy. They feel betrayed: they wanted to read more about Church machinations and stern- faced Dons who quote Milton and talk about minor heresies with an aura of gravity. But this isn’t the story Pullman wanted to tell, and it is apparent from the beginning. To dwell on the pornographic flagellations of Christianity is to let the enemy choose the rules of engagement.
Lyra and Will (who is introduced in the second book, The Subtle Knife) are both transgressors. Lyra transgresses by her urgent yet unfocused desire to rebel against any authority, and Will transgresses by repeatedly killing in self-defense. They are both on the cusp of adolescence. To be of this age is to have the constant feeling that, merely by existing, you are violating the rules. Pullman’s portrayal of Lyra and Will rings true to me in this way. His Dark Materials is at its heart about Lyra and Will outgrowing the need for religion. For the third book to focus on the religious cloisters of Oxford would be a real betrayal. Pullman ignores Oxford because it is not relevant to the world the heroes need to create. Indeed, it is fitting that Lyra’s parents, nearly too late, realize that they are morally obligated to deliver their daughter from the Church, rather than to it.
There are things to dislike about The Amber Spyglass. The plot is cluttered, which means that some of the characters are flatter than they should be. He resorts to a deus ex machina worthy of serious eye-rolling to defeat the Right Hand of God by making him really, really horny. And we never find out the science behind “Dust,” or discover much about the biology (or psychology) of the daemons. This is another thing I suspect many sci-fi fans don’t like about the story; they want everything explained in excruciating detail until any mystery is dead. One complaint I’ve heard is “he left too many loose ends.” I disagree. I think he did leave plenty of loose ends. The story is better for his having left them.
There may be some problems, but there is much to love about the book. The characters that Pullman does take the time to flesh out are wonderfully human and compassionate. His depictions of the carefree cruelty of childhood are crisp. He demonstrates the capacity of people to grow and to change in fundamental ways. And perhaps most impressive is his recognition that love and loss (and their children, longing and regret) are painfully and beautifully intertwined. That the trilogy so unabashedly leaves questions unanswered and abandons the faithful to the emptiness of their lives is not a problem with the book: it is a virtue. To wonder about how one resolves the sickness of religion is to miss the point. The book is Lyra and Will’s search for humanity and meaning without God. It is a beacon showing that a meaningful life without God is possible.
_The Amber Spyglass _ accomplishes its task well. Those looking for a different story will simply need to find a different fable.
I like this one.