Posted on August 19, 2017
32. ‘The Amber Spyglass’ by Philip Pullman
In preparation for the release of The Book of Dust in October, Philip Pullman’s new addition to the His Dark Materials series, I am rereading the original series, and reliving my childhood. This morning I finished The Amber Spyglass, the final volume in the ‘trilogy’.
The Amber Spyglass is the longest and most complex book of the trilogy. There are many more plotlines to follow as the characters move further apart, but Pullman does an great job of making every thread work together. Often I’d finish a chapter and desperately want to keep reading about that character, but the next chapter would be about somebody else; then by the end of that chapter I’d be disappointed to leave them too. Pullman has an excellent skill of making you care about everything that’s going on.
This book continues to follow Will and Lyra as they journey through different worlds, always doing what they think is right and, without knowing it, fulfilling their destinies. Free will is a knotty issue, and when there are prophecies and destinies things only get knottier, but keeping Will and Lyra oblivious of what they’re supposed to do means that they’re free to choose to do exactly that. They are fiercely moral characters, always doing what they believe is right, even if it comes at terrible cost to themselves. And while a war is waged around them – a literal war between thinking man and the forces of Heaven, no less – we follow Will and Lyra around the outskirts of it. The great battle is secondary to the intimate drama playing out between these two.
I did have some difficulties with the first half of this book – sticking points that I’d either never noticed before, or simply forgotten about. Right at the beginning, I could not work out how Mrs Coulter managed to get so far ahead of Will, who had to travel for days to catch up with her, even though he was only up the hill from her when she started out. I suppose she had a zeppelin or a gyropter somewhere, but it was never mentioned and so it jarred. There was also the question of distance: how did Lyra manage to get, over the course of three books, from Oxford to the Ural Mountains only by walking and riding in a hot air balloon? At the end of the book it’s mentioned that all the tumult has caused the worlds to drift apart, which would explain the great discrepancies in distance, but I must have missed that the first time it was mentioned and it took me out of the story a bit.
Another thing to mention: I always imagined the different worlds as different planets, billions of miles apart, perhaps even in different galaxies, but actually the book is littered with evidence to the contrary. This story is based on a many-worlds theory, where each decision/event causes the world to split, so all of these worlds are essentially different versions of the same one, which went down different paths at various points in history. Maybe I’ve always thought about it the first way because I prefer it – I don’t know.
Still, by the second half of this book I was fully immersed and, of course, there were many moments that nearly made me cry (I say nearly because I never cry at books, so a slight welling-up is pretty rare for me): Will deciding not to tell Lyra that Mrs Coulter was deliberately keeping her asleep in the cave. Iorek saying goodbye to Lyra. Lyra leaving Pantalaimon on the shore (the saddest part of any book ever?). The ghost of Lee Scoresby disintegrating in the moonlight and being reunited with the atoms of his daemon, Hester.
And, of course, the ending. Lyra and Will being torn away from each other almost as soon as they discover that they are in love. In the final paragraph, Lyra sits on a bench in Oxford, knowing that Will will be doing the same in his Oxford, and she listens to bells ringing and a bird singing. As I read that, sitting up in bed, a bird started singing outside my window and the nearby church started ringing its bells.
There’s so much more to say about this book: Mrs Coulter’s complicated maternal feelings, how much I love Mary Malone, all the parts of the story I forgot about and the other parts I was excited to reread – but for now it’s enough that I’ve read it again, and that I still love it, and that I think it’s a book everyone in every world should read.
“Tell them stories.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here. (I highly recommend this hardback edition.)