THE AMBER SPYGLASS
by Philip Pullman
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Amber Spyglass is the final volume of Philip Pullman’s multiple world trilogy “His Dark Materials.” The final installment in the story of Lyra Silvertongue and Will Parry is practically as long as the first two parts taken together. In this book, however, Pullman must finish lining up the disparate elements of his war between humans and Heaven, document the war, deal with his individual characters and their problems, and bring everything to a satisfactory resolution.
Pullman has set an ambitious task for himself in The Amber Spyglass, and although he mostly succeeds, there are areas in which he does fail. Although it is clear that Pullman’s characters have an ultimate goal, that goal, and their discussions about it, are lost in the various tangential goals the characters set for themselves. Furthermore, in an attempt to make Lyra into a messianic character, Pullman adds convolutions to an already complex plot. What is interesting, in a series which has previously demonstrated an anti-deistic and organized religious outlook, is that Lyra activities mirror those of Jesus, most notably her descent into the Land of the Dead is reminiscent of Jesus’ harrowing of Hell.
Although Lyra and Will’s journey into the Land of the Dead seems tangential with regard to the plot, it is a focal point of the novel in terms of theme. In addition to drawing a direct comparison to Jesus, it equates the existence of dæmons to the concept of the soul more explicitly, as Pantalaimon is not permitted to accompany Lyra into the Land of the Dead. Will, and others who do not have external dæmons, however, lose something internal which Lyra does not upon entering the Land of the Dead.
Pullman’s characters antipathy toward the Heavenly Host extends to the Earth as Lords Roke and Asriel and King Ogunwe attempt to bring about a Republic in Heaven and on Earth, despite what that would theoretically do to their own rank. In fact, many of the characters’ attitudes which have been pervasive throughout the trilogy seem to have become reversed in The Amber Spyglass. Perhaps most notable is Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter’s reactions to their daughter, Lyra.
At the beginning of The Golden Compass, Lord Asriel seemed to dote on Lyra whenever he had the opportunity. In The Amber Spyglass, he indicates an antipathy towards his daughter which seems to equal the feelings of Mrs. Coulter towards children. In The Golden Compass, Mrs. Coulter was portrayed as a conniving woman whose only care for her daughter was to make sure that Lyra did not mess up her plans. In The Amber Spyglass, Pullman attempts to portray her as a doting mother, but his pervious depiction of her as a schemer makes everything she says and does suspect.
The Amber Spyglass is actually at its strongest when Pullman leaves his characters and their problems behind and can focus his attention on the theology and cosmogony of his world. While this is the underlying theme throughout the series, in The Amber Spyglass it truly takes center stage. On top of the dark theme of child abuse which carries over from the earlier books, this dense discussion removes the series from the juvenile level it began at and moves it firmly into the realm of adult novels.
Pullman’s story and prose ramble as he both attacks Christianity and the Church and uses the religion and its practices to form the basis of his novel. As befits such a dark series, Lyra and Will do not necessarily live happily ever after once they have achieved the goals Pullman set for them and figure out where they belong in a world which sees everyone, from Lyra’s parents to Will’s father, wanting to use them as pawns in a larger game.
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