Review: The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (Book 3, His Dark Materials)

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The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman book cover
The Amber Spyglass (2000) is the final part of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The novel picks up on the hills of CittĂ gazze with Will searching for Lyra who, unbeknown to him, is held captive, drugged and unconscious, by Mrs Coulter in another world entirely. Will meets the angels Balthamos and Baruch; a homosexual couple who urge Will to take the subtle knife to Lord Asriel, but Will decides that Lyra’s predicament is of the most importance and, assisted by the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia, two Gallivespian (a race of tiny people) spies in the employ of Lord Asriel, Will manages to rescue Lyra. With Lyra restored, the two protagonists’ plans converge and they agree to visit the Land of the Dead so that Lyra can make amends to Roger, her friend who was murdered in the first book, and so that Will can be reunited with his father John Parry. This is a perilous mission, made all the more difficult by the fact that the Gallivespians insist on accompanying the children, all the time keeping an eye on the subtle knife. Meanwhile, the scientist Mary Malone has crossed through CittĂ gazze and into a world inhabited by Mulefa; a species that travel around on detachable seed pods, which their bodies have evolved to harness. Mary stays with the Mulefa and learns much about their culture. However, whilst the heroes are pursuing their various courses, the Church is moving too. Concerned by the prophecy identifying Lyra as the girl who will commit the original sin for a second time, and provoke a second fall, the Church dispatches Father Gomez to assassinate Lyra before she can fulfil the prophecy. For his part, Lord Asriel is preparing to launch war against the Authority in an attempt to ‘kill god’; a symbolically frail and failing being. As the various plotlines tangle together great shifts are experienced, from the personal to the cosmic, and for Lyra and Will their quest will lead them to places of discovery that they can barely imagine.

Central to the story is Pullman’s belief in free-will and the power of knowledge over repression, and his deep dislike of organised religion. In this context Pullman sets his inquisitive heroes against a church staunchly in opposition to freedom of thought. The idea of salvation through knowledge becomes increasingly powerful and, although their adventures are fantastical, Will and Lyra survive them not by relying on fate – a mystical guiding light – but by knowing truth from fantasy: it’s knowledge that saves them. Throughout the series Pullman inverts the idea of the fall, and turns it into a positive and transformative process, which enlightens rather than corrupts. In The Amber Spyglass this come to a head with Mary taking on the role of tempter, here the enlightener, by describing her own sexual awakening, and transferring the significance to Will and Lyra – it’s their sexual awakening that saves the world(s).

By re-working the idea of original sin, Pullman not only champions knowledge but also brings in the idea that the ultimate goal of childhood is sexual experience, which leads to adulthood. Indeed, despite being a series in which children hold the key to salvation, His Dark Materials, places far greater emphasis on adult knowledge than childhood intuition. As The Amber Spyglass concludes there are multiple instances where Lyra is shown the fragility of her childhood ways and the value of hard-earned knowledge, and equally, adults are relied upon to provide the young protagonists with vital information and assistance at key times throughout the series. For Pullman then, adult consciousness is the ultimate state.

Interestingly, although he champions free will, Pullman gives his protagonists few options at each juncture and this creates ambiguity around the idea, and points to a determinism of sorts – if not biblical then biological. Equally, although Will and Lyra experience the sexual awakening that for Pullman represents the passage into adulthood, they return to roles as dependent children at the end of The Amber Spyglass.

In terms of pure storytelling, the plot begins to fragment and is far less coherent on a surface level than the previous books. Too much of the novel is spent away from Will and Lyra, and is preoccupied with theological points. Here Pullman’s vast imagination opens its wings and creates a glorious, rich universe, but the breadth of this creation is sometimes to the detriment of the plot. Some of the larger issues are not fully explored, whilst other, smaller, issues are discussed to the level of minutiae. The Mulefa take up too much space in the narrative – though they embody many interesting, evolutionary and cultural ideas, they are simply too conceptual to be dwelt on for so long. However, the fragmented plot makes an important point in that Will and Lyra come to understand that their quest is not linear, without a neat beginning and end, but instead is a multifarious and ongoing struggle, representative of life and the noble struggles that protect and preserve things of value. For all the deep thematic writing, it is the characters that hold the explosion of ideas together. One becomes incredibly emotionally-invested in Will and Lyra’s story and the end is heartbreakingly sad, particularly for a junior book. Most importantly, Pullman’s characters are flawed; Lyra is a liar, Will is a murderer – there is no sentimentality about children, and this makes the characters wonderfully easy to relate to on an emotional level.

The Amber Spyglass is bigger and more intense than the previous books in the trilogy, with Pullman’s philosophy and imagination taking over. That Pullman manages to explore vast existential themes and draw on quantum physics and the thoughts of Milton and Blake, amongst others, whilst delivering an accessible and digestible story for younger readers is some achievement. Yet for all its vast themes, the trilogy doesn’t offer an answer to the big questions; it simply offers a way to approach the unknown with courage. Pullman maintains that good stories must have their foundations in truth – an opinion echoed by the Harpies – and so his trilogy deals with the fundamental truths of the human condition, difficult or troubling as they might be for young readers. Perhaps the bleakest, but at the same time most life-affirming, idea is represented through the ghosts’ fate as they leave the land of the dead: there is no promise of a glorious heaven, instead their forms simply dissolve – Pullman clear that there is nothing beyond death, and insistent that to live in the moment and not defer the realisation of one’s personal heaven is the most perfect mode of existence.

As the culmination of the series, The Amber Spyglass is broad and at times there are too many plotlines. However, the themes are sensitively drawn out, and the trilogy itself is an example of intelligent, exciting, and engaging junior fiction. Young readers might not appreciate the full richness of the books, but will undoubtedly return to them again and again as they mature. Undoubtedly His Dark Materials sits at the pinnacle of contemporary junior fiction: truly a modern classic.


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