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The Amber Spyglass

Closing the His Dark Materials Trilogy

By Jane Maduram

Staff Writer

Written by Philip Pullman

Published by Alfred A. Knopf


If one somehow managed to throw John Milton’s theology, C. S. Lewis’s writing, and H. G. Wells’s imagination together, the wildly-popular trilogy that would result is His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman. More specifically, the book that would emerge would be the recently released last book in this trilogy: The Amber Spyglass. Based on an eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy, theology, and adventure, it is hard to delegate The Amber Spyglass to any particular genre of fiction; it is unique.

The Amber Spyglass, like the preceding two books, follows Lyra Silvertongue as she searches for her dead friend and works with Will, a boy who owns a knife that can cut openings between worlds. Together, they find out about the mysterious Dust and grow from children to adults. Along their travels, Pullman brings up such exotic inventions as the Intention Craft, a machine directed solely by thought.

Another creation he discusses is the lodestone which, like the prospect of multiple worlds, is explained through quantum physics: “Your scientists, what do you call them, experimental theologians, would know of something called quantum entanglement. It means that two particles can exist that only have properties in common, so that whatever happens to one happens to the other at the same moment, no matter how far apart they are .... When I play on this one (lodestone) with my bow, the other one reproduces the sounds exactly, and we communicate.”

Other things that Pullman creates through the book include the Gallepsians, tiny beings that fly on the backs of dragonflies, and the mulefa, diamond-framed animals that travel on the seedpod wheels of trees fed by Dust.

While the creatures and inventions that populate these worlds are interesting, Pullman pays the most attention to the metaphors and stories hidden within the book. One metaphor he plays with is the idea of the daemon, the animal counterpoint of a person. While the person is a child, his daemon changes shape with his emotions. When the person reaches adolescence, however, the daemon chooses a single shape which generally gives an indication of what the person will grow up to be. A bird, for example, is the typical daemon of witches and prophets. A dog, on the other hand, is the typical daemon of servants. Children in this world spend much time wondering what their daemons, like themselves, will grow up to be.

Pullman seems particularly intrigued by the transition from child to adult, by the loss of innocence. This interest is reflected in the numerous metaphors he creates between good and evil. In the most prominent metaphor, the Church is an institution reminiscent of the time of the Spanish Inquisition, replete with a Consistorial Court of Discipline, a Society of the Work of the Holy Spirit, and an Oblation Board. Lyra’s mother is instrumental in this Church.

Opposition to the Church is managed by Lyra’s father, Lord Asriel, who killed Lyra’s friend to generate Dust and who promises to throw down the Kingdom of Heaven. In its stead, the Republic of Heaven will be created. Lyra herself is portrayed as Eve; the Church in the story seeks to prevent the loss of Lyra’s innocence -- which will somehow recreate the first sin -- by killing her.

Pullman displays a particular fondness for inverting Biblical allusions and, in particular, portraying the difference between good and evil as a distinction instead between wisdom and ignorance. The Devil is a wise female angel named Xaphania. Lyra’s temptor, a former nun, has a PhD in physics. God and the Church, on the other hand, are uniformly depicted as a group of slovenly, fat drunkards or fanatical, thin neurotics. Enoch, God’s dictatorial, carnal regent, calls himself the Metatron (a name that would fit right in with the Power Rangers).

God himself is described taking credit for what he did not do. Pullman states that “the Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty -- those were all names He gave Himself. He was never the creator.” At the end, God ends up to be an incredibly weak and bewildered creature, incapable of doing anything. With the exception of an old priest hurriedly inserted in the final chapter, the forces of good may be summarized by a quote from Spaceballs: “Evil will always triumph over good, because good is stupid.”

While this is an interesting (albeit previously explored) concept, Pullman severely restricts himself by rigidly adhering to classic stereotypes of Christianity. Not only does it hamper the depth and quality of the story, it also makes the fable-like quality of the book evaporate to some degree.

While the whimsical tone of the book is detracted from by the social commentary, The Amber Spyglass is well written. Pullman uses descriptive language well while creating new lands, and he creates vivacious, exciting adventures for his characters while wisely veering away from literary excesses. Plot development can sometimes be foreseen, but as enjoyment in this book is in the journey and not in the end, this is excusable. While I preferred the first two books, The Amber Spyglass will be savored for many years to come as a fitting end to the His Dark Materials trilogy.