This article was first published on Culturewatch.org
The Subtle Knife concluded with Will and his father meeting just moments before his father is killed (by a witch whose love he had spurned) and the abduction of Lyra from their camp. The Amber Spyglassbegins immediately afterwards with Will finding that he has two new companions, the rebel angels Baruch and Balthamos, who had been following his father until he led them to the bearer of the subtle knife. Will sets out to find Lyra, a journey which eventually takes him to the Himalayas in Lyra’s world and during which he meets up with Iorek Byrnison. Along the way Will and the angels are seen and attacked by the Regent, Metatron – the powerful angel who had been the Authority’s right-hand being but who has now been given full control of the Kingdom of Heaven. Baruch leaves the others to hasten to Lord Asriel with news of the knife and the knife bearer’s connection with Lyra.
Lyra herself is being kept in a mountain cave by her mother, Mrs Coulter who seems to be having a change of heart about the church. By the time Will reaches the cave, Lord Asriel and the Magisterium have both discovered Lyra’s whereabouts and are sending their own forces – Lord Asriel’s to rescue her but the Magisterium’s to kill her. The Magisterium is intent on killing Lyra having discovered that her destiny is to be a second Eve. If she falls as Eve did, they believe, Dust – and sin – will triumph. Will cuts into the cave from another world, but while trying to cut another way out for Lyra, the knife shatters and the children are stuck.
Meanwhile, Mary Malone ends up in the world of the mulefa where she discovers that the strange wheeled creatures can see Dust. Mary makes a device for seeing Dust for herself, and then is urged by the mulefa to find a way of stopping their precious seed pod trees from dying. She discovers the problem is the ebbing of Dust out of the world, but what could possibly change that?
The Amber Spyglass is the final volume of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. Lyra’s story is picked up again two years after the end of The Amber Spyglass in Lyra’s Oxford. The Amber Spyglass is the book in which Pullman’s anti-Christian agenda is most clearly seen. Several critics – and not just Christians –have complained that The Amber Spyglass gets bogged down in philosophical issues, and crosses the line from storytelling into propaganda for Pullman’s atheistic worldview. Peter Hitchens commented in The Mail on Sunday pers-www.wlv.ac.uk/~bu1895/hitchens.htm that after the first two ‘captivating and clever’ books, The Amber Spyglass is ‘a disappointing clunker . . . too loaded down with propaganda to leave enough room for the story.’ In The Times (18 October 2000), Sarah Johnson calledHis Dark Materials ‘the most savage attack on organised religion I have ever seen.’ Minette Marin sides with Pullman in calling herself a ‘godless scientific materialist’, but laments that ‘This third book is frostbitten in parts by the freezing fingers of didacticism; overt didacticism is death to art; the magic of stories is too elusive for moralising’ (The Daily Telegraph, 21 October 2000).
Philip Pullman is the author of almost thirty books and has won several writing awards including the Whitbread Book of the Year for 2001 with The Amber Spyglass. His Dark Materials has sold over 7 million copies in 37 languages.
For more background information and in-depth analysis of Pullman’s books, see Tony Watkins’ Dark Matter: A thinking fan’s guide to Philip Pullman (www.damaris.org/pullman).
- How did you feel during the opening chapter of The Amber Spyglass as we gradually discover where Lyra is and what condition she is in?
- Why does Mrs Coulter have a change of heart? Did you believe her explanation to Will that she was keeping Lyra drugged to stop her running away? At what point – if ever – did you come to trust what she said and did? How would you describe her character?
- In what ways did the angels in this story fit with or go against your ideas about angels? Why do you think Philip Pullman needs angels in His Dark Materials when he doesn’t believe in a spiritual realm?
- Why is the Magisterium so determined to kill Lyra? What are they afraid of? How true to life do you find Pullman’s presentation of Christianity?
- After the knife shatters, Iorek Byrnison is reluctant to mend it. How is the discussion about this an exploration of the ethics of technology? How would you summarise the arguments? Why is Iorek so full of doubt after reforging the blade? Has he denied his bear nature in some way?
- How do Will’s actions with the knife fulfil the alethiometer’s prediction that it would bring about the death of Dust, and also be the only way of keeping Dust alive? The alethiometer tells Lyra that whether the knife does harm or good is very finely balanced and depends on Will’s motives. Which way do you think it goes in the rest of the story?
- Why do you think Pullman makes the death of the Authority fairly anti-climactic after the big build up to this event? What do you think Pullman is trying to communicate through the Authority’s death? Why does he go with ‘a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief’? How did you feel about this scene?
- Do you agree with Mary Malone (and Philip Pullman) in seeing Christianity as a ‘powerful and convincing mistake’? Why/why not? What conclusions does she come to about meaning in the universe? What gives life its meaning for you?
- John Faa says: ‘To know that after a spell in the dark we’ll come out into a sweet land like this, to be free of the sky like the birds, well, that’s the greatest promise anyone could wish for.’ Do you agree or disagree? How is day-to-day life affected by a view of what happens after death?
- How did you feel about Mary’s role as the ‘tempter’, and Will and Lyra expressing their love for each other as a second Fall? What is Philip Pullman suggesting about the Fall recorded in Genesis 3?
- Philip Pullman says that His Dark Materials is about growing up more than anything. In what ways do Lyra and Will grow up? How is Lyra’s character transformed during The Amber Spyglass?
- What values would seem to be important in the republic of heaven (see Xapahania’s conversation with Will and Lyra in chapter 37)? Which of these values do you see as important? Are they enough as a basis for life? How do you respond to the Christian claim that knowing the King (God) is the most important thing in life, and that all true values are reflections of God’s character?