At the start of The Amber Spyglass, the third volume of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, Mrs Coulter has Lyra hidden in a cave a doped up to stay asleep. She knows about the prophecy about Lyra facing a great temptation like Eve in the Garden of Eden. As usual with the main adult characters Coulter’s motives are unclear and remain shaded for most of the book and even when she does make up her mind the explanation seems a bit unsatisfactory who someone who was so patently evil for most of the other two books.
Baruch and Balthamos, the mostly invisible gay angels, inform Will that he must travel with them to hand over his Subtle Knife to Lord Asriel, so The Authority can be murdered. The Authority is essentially a decrepit God character who has rescinded control of reality to the Metatron – a big scary angel not a robot in disguise.
With the help of disposable character Ama, Will ignores the angels and instead rescues Lyra. Iorek Byrnison the bear turns up again, looking for somewhere for the bears to live like the mammoth and that sloth thing in ‘Ice Age 3’ because the rift in reality has melted all the ice (like they do), and Lord Asriel sends a couple of Lilliputian spies, the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia to defend Lyra and Will from the troops of the Magisterium.
Lyra, Will and the little people on their dragonfly mounts travel into the Land of the Dead, cutting the connection with their dæmons in their quest to release the ghosts from their captivity (Will apparently has a dæmon but can’t see it – go figure). The scene is reminiscent of ghosts in hill that help Aragorn in the Tolkien’s ‘The Return of the King’, but let’s not go there.
The scientist Mary Malone, from the previous book, travels to a land populated by diamond-shaped sentient creatures called Mulefa, who ride around on wheels. The wheels are nutcases from giant trees that would dwarf redwoods. The ecosystem is rather silly and a little reminiscent of the work of sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card. Malone’s climbing abilities are shoe-horned in to assist the story later on when she crafts the titular amber spyglass (not as impressive as either of the two other titular objects) and climbs up a tree to see what’s happening to the dust. There’s some ineffectual boat-like birds that seem to be a real danger to the Mulefa and then amount to nothing as if forgotten by the author.
Lyra’s mom and pop i.e. Lord Asriel and the Mrs Coulter (who has miraculously decided she’s not so bad after all and would like to be a good mumsy and help Lyra’s fight against the Magisterium) destroy the Metatron and in doing so make the ultimate sacrifice (box ticked for the Story Writing 101). An assassin sent by the Magisterium to kill Lyra or Mary fails miserably. He’s another throw away character.
The Authority dies with a whimper when his protective crystal carriage crashes after an attack by cliff ghasts who decide to get in on the action due to a rumour of great treasure. Lyra and Will are there to witness this but the significance is perhaps lost on our young heroes and probably most young readers too.
Will and Lyra find their way out of the land of the dead and are happily reunited with their dæmons, fall in love and then have to accept that they must live apart in their separate worlds. So they get their rewards (another box ticked for Story Writing 101) but then have them rudely taken away from them by the author. Spoilsport. So no real happy ending kids. “That’s life get used to it,” Pullman seems to be saying.
I’m in danger of alienating a few followers here but I’m not going to curb my enthusiasm for honesty just to be polite. For me ‘The Amber Spyglass’ was too long, unsatisfying and frankly boring in places. I much preferred the second book of the trilogy and overall the comparisons Pullman doesn’t want us to make, to the likes of C. S. Lewis (because he is too religious) and J. R. R. Tolkien (because he doesn’t tell us anything about human behaviour), seem unfounded; not because of any intellectual argument made by Pullman, but because he just isn’t a patch on these great writers.
I have learned that in the conclusion of this award-winning trilogy Pullman finishes his inversion of John Milton’s epic ‘Paradise Lost’ commending rather than condemning humanity for original sin. I guess this explains a lot, because for me it varied between a writer trying far too hard to be clever and a feeling that I was missing something.
I am not a big fan of organised religion and if I’m not a Jedi then I am an atheist. So don’t misinterpret this little mini-rant as a knee jerk reaction of a closet Christian. This mini-rant is pure and simply aimed against someone who has read immensely well and embarks on something that is essentially a piece of children’s writing with a hidden atheist agenda. In this case in opposition, albeit perhaps inferred rather than stated, to the work of C.S. Lewis whose work I enjoyed as a child but did not recognise as a Christian allegory until informed adulthood.
In this sense Pullman is just as bad as C. S. Lewis. Give me Tolkien every time. Tolkien was mates with C.S. Lewis but didn’t much like his writing (because of the hidden agenda) and has categorically stated that his tales such as ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are not allegorical in any way at all. They do however entertain far more than Pullman’s essentially unoriginal story (if it is simply based on flipping Milton and ‘the church’ the bird).
Pullman has thrown together a lot of iconic elements into The Amber Spyglass such as angels, witches, none-bipedal evolution, parallel worlds, free will versus predestination etc. His wide reading is not under any doubt. Evidence of it oozes almost embarrassingly from the pages, the quotes from other authors really don’t help the story, and to me it feels like Pullman gets smugger and smugger as the story reaches its conclusion. And what a rather unsatisfactory conclusion it is. I’m a Stephen King fan so I can recognise a flat ending when I see one.
“But in other posts you commend Philip K Dick for his allegorical science fiction tales!” I hear you chunter. Well there is that. My defence? Dick never comes across as a smug English professor preaching an ideology to kiddies.