Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

This is the second book in a trilogy, the first being the more widely-known The Golden Compass (or The Northern Lights), and the third being The Amber Spyglass.

As I’ve blogged before, I first picked up The Golden Compass because of the negative publicity that began swirling around when the movie based on that book was about to come out--negative publicity from the point of view of the religious folks who felt the book (and the overall series) was a kind of atheist’s take on The Chronicles of Narnia, with the Christian-like characters taking on the role of villains rather than heroes.

I personally didn’t find The Golden Compass egregious on that level--although it was clear seeds were being planted. And The Subtle Knife, as anticipated, really ups the ante.

“Sisters,” she began, “let me tell you what is happening, and who it is we must fight. For there is a war coming. I don’t know who will join with us, but I know whom we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all its history--and that’s not long by our lives, but it’s many, many of theirs--it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse. And when it can’t control them, it cuts them out. Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvangar. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north; I have traveled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did--not in the same way, but just as horribly. They cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls; they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the Church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.”

This is a speech given by a witch queen, trying to convince her sister witches that they should fight in a war against the Magisterium, who is secretly cutting daemons (animals magically paired with people in this fantasy world, and acting as something between their familiars and their souls) away from children so they can be more easily controlled. That’s the surface plot, but it’s not difficult to see the analogy to our world and some of the churches that dominate it riding barely under that surface.

And there are two heroes in this trilogy--characters who knowingly and unknowingly lead the fight against the oppression of the Church. As I discussed more thoroughly with my post on The Golden Compass, there is Lyra Belacqua, still refreshingly a petulant and awkward child, and not, as so often in young adult literature, a protagonist with adult sensibilities dressed up in the guise of an adolescent.

Here’s the best example yet:

“You don’t even know what it is you stole,” Lyra stormed. “You seen me using it and you thought you’d steal it, and you did. But you--you--you’re worse than my mother. At least she knows it’s important! You’re just going to put it in a case and do nothing with it! You ought to die! If I can, I’ll make someone kill you. You’re not worth leaving alive. You’re--”

She couldn’t speak. All she could do was spit full in his face, so she did, with all her might.

Will sat still, watching, looking around, memorizing where everything was.

Sir Charles calmly shook out a silk handkerchief and mopped himself.

“Have you any control over yourself?” he said. “Go and sit down, you filthy brat.”

Lyra felt tears shaken out of her eyes by the trembling of her body, and threw herself onto the sofa. Pantalaimon, his thick cat’s tail erect, stood on her lap with his blazing eyes fixed on the old man.

Have you any control over yourself, indeed. It keeps the reader more engaged, because there just isn’t the fatalistic certainty that Lyra will succeed in whatever she sets out to do.

But Lyra is not the only hero. There is also her father Lord Asriel, not actually appearing in The Subtle Knife, but clearly being set up for the final confrontation in The Amber Spyglass. Here’s a conversation about him between another witch (Serafina Pekkala) and a man who was once Asriel’s manservant (Thorold).

“Well, Lord Asriel has never found hisself at ease with the doctrines of the Church, so to speak. I’ve seen a spasm of disgust cross his face when they talk of the sacraments, and atonement, and redemption, and suchlike. It’s death among our people, Serafina Pekkala, to challenge the Church, but Lord Asriel’s been nursing a rebellion in his heart for as long as I’ve served him, that’s one thing I do know.”

“A rebellion against the Church?”

“Partly, aye. There was a time when he thought of making it an issue of force, but he turned away from that.”

“Why? Was the Church too strong?”

“No,” said the old servant, “that wouldn’t stop my master. Now this might sound strange to you, Serafina Pekkala, but I know the man better than any wife could know him, better than a mother. He’s been my master and my study for nigh on forty years. I can’t follow him to the height of his thought any more than I can fly, but I can see where he’s a-heading even if I can’t go after him. No, it’s my belief he turned away from a rebellion against the Church not because the Church was too strong, but because it was too weak to be worth fighting.”

“So...what is he doing?”

“”I think he’s a-waging a higher war than that. I think he’s aiming a rebellion against the highest power of all. He’s gone a-searching for the dwelling place of the Authority Himself, and he’s a-going to destroy Him. That’s what I think. It shakes my heart to voice it, ma’am. I hardly dare think of it. But I can’t put together any other story that makes sense of what he’s doing.”

Serafina sat quiet for a few moments, absorbing what Thorold had said.

Before she could speak, he went on:

“Course, anyone setting out to do a grand thing like that would be the target of the Church’s anger. Goes without saying. It’d be the most gigantic blasphemy, that’s what they’d say. They’d have him before the Consistorial Court and sentenced to death before you could blink. I’ve never spoke of it before and I shan’t again; I’d be afraid to speak it aloud to you if you weren’t a witch and beyond the power of the Church; but that makes sense, and nothing else does. He’s a-going to find the Authority and kill Him.”

“Is that possible?” said Serafina.

“Lord Asriel’s life has been filled with things that were impossible. I wouldn’t like to say there was anything he couldn’t do. But on the face of it, Serafina Pekkala, yes, he’s stark mad. If angels couldn’t do it, how can a man dare to think about it?”

“Angels? What are angels?”

“Beings of pure spirit, the Church says. The Church teaches that some of the angels rebelled before the world was created, and got flung out of heaven and into hell. They failed, you see, that’s the point. They couldn’t do it. And they had the power of angels. Lord Asriel is just a man, with human power, no more than that. But his ambition is limitless. He dares to do what men and women don’t even dare to think. And look what he’s done already: he’s torn open the sky, he’s opened the way to another world. Who else has ever done that? Who else could think of it? So with one part of me, Serafina Pekkala, I say he’s mad, wicked, deranged. Yet with another part I think, he’s Lord Asriel, he’s not like other men. Maybe...if it was ever going to be possible, it’d be done by him and by no one else.”

Yes, Asriel is clearly the Satan in Pullman’s dark tale, only much more powerful because he is a human Satan and not an angelic one. God, after all, gave humans free will, a blessing he did not bestow on his angelic host, and, in killing God--the Authority--it looks like Asriel will be making Pullman’s ultimate statement on the power of human science over myth and legend.

Should be quite a climax. After all, as Pullman has another one of his characters say late in the book:

“There are two great powers,” the man said, “and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”

Care to guess which side wins in The Amber Spyglass?

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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