First published on Culturewatch.org
Will Parry’s mother believes that enemies are all around her, watching her every move. And Will is beginning to think that, after all these years, she’s right – there are some suspicious men wanting to know about his father who disappeared while Will was just a baby. Leaving his mother in the care of a friend, Will sets off to Oxford to investigate. While he’s there, his attention is drawn to a cat which then completely disappears. When he goes to investigate, he discovers an almost invisible window into another world. Will climbs through into a deserted town. As he explores a café looking for a room in which he can stay, he is attacked by a girl of his own age – he has met Lyra, the protagonist ofNorthern Lights and her dæmon, Pantalaimon.
Together they explore the town, Cittàgazze, and find that there are only gangs of children living there. The adults have all fled due to the Spectres – beings which feed on the focused attention of adults, sucking the mental life out of them, but are uninterested in, and invisible to, pre-adolescent children. Will takes Lyra through the window into his Oxford (the Oxford of our world, not the Oxford of Lyra’s world). He wants to find information about his father; Lyra wants to find a scholar who knows something about Dust, the mysterious particles feared by the Church of Lyra’s world. Lyra meets a physicist, Mary Malone who is researching into dark matter (the missing stuff of the universe). Dr Malone and her colleague have discovered that dark matter is made of conscious particles. Lyra releases that this is Dust.
While she is in Oxford, Lyra’s alethiometer is stolen by the wealthy Sir Charles Latrom. When she and Will go to his house to demand it back he refuses to hand it over – unless they can bring him a particular knife from the tower in the centre of Cittàgazze. Back in the other world, they creep into the tower to find an adolescent boy waving a knife around in the middle of a room, and an old man tied up on the roof. The old man is the rightful bearer of the subtle knife which can cut windows between worlds. The boy wants it because the Spectres will not go near it. Will fights the boy, losing two of his fingers in the process and so becomes the new knife bearer. The old man teaches Will how to use it before he and Lyra set off to retrieve the alethiometer, and then to search for Will’s father.
Meanwhile, Serafina Pekkala and some of her witch clan are searching for Lyra, while Lee Scoresby the balloonist is looking for the shaman Stanislaus Grumman who knows about an object that will give ultimate protection to the one who holds it.
Will joins Lyra in The Subtle Knife as one of the two main protagonists of Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass). However, The Subtle Knife also devotes much space to the separate stories of Serafina Pekkala and Lee Scoresby.
Philip Pullman has become one of the most significant living British writers. Author of almost thirty books, he is the winner of several writing awards including winning the Whitbread Book of the Year for 2001 with The Amber Spyglass. His Dark Materials has sold over 7 million copies in 37 languages.
His Dark Materials made Pullman the centre of some controversy, particularly in Christian circles, since the Church in Lyra’s world comes in for some stinging criticism, and in The Amber Spyglass ‘God‘ is killed off. Pullman admits that ‘I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief’ (Alona Wartofsky, ‘The Last Word’ in The Washington Post, 19 February 2001). Peter Hitchens, writing in The Mail on Sunday, called him ‘the most dangerous author in Britain’ (27 January 2002).
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).
- What emotions did you feel during the course of The Subtle Knife? How do you feel it compares with Northern Lights?
- What kind of a boy is Will? How has his father’s disappearance impacted on his life?
- How do their experiences of being in an alien world affect Lyra and Will?
- In what ways does Lyra contribute to the theft of the alethiometer? What does she learn from this experience?
- Philip Pullman says that the Spectres express something of his experience of depression. How do they do this?
- Stanislaus Grumman tells Lee Scoresby that ‘the Spectres’ food is attention. A conscious and informed interest in the world. The immaturity of children is less attractive to them’ (The Subtle Knife, p.292). What do you think Pullman is saying about the difference between children and adults with this? How does this relate to what we leant about Dust and dæmons in Northern Lights?
- What do you think Philip Pullman is suggesting about the history and ethics of science and technology through the conversation between Giacomo Paradisi and Will and Lyra? What else inThe Subtle Knife relates to this?
- Why is Mary Malone so astonished by Lyra? Why does she reprogram ‘the Cave’ as Lyra suggests?
- What motivates the major characters within The Subtle Knife? What might Philip Pullman be suggesting through the various motivations?
- Why is Lee Scoresby so intent on finding Stanislaus Grumman? How does the way he relates to Grumman change during their acquaintance?
- How does Philip Pullman portray Stanislaus Grumman’s character? In what ways is he very significant as a character within The Subtle Knife although he doesn’t appear in person until almost two thirds of the way through? Why does he break his oath to Lee Scoresby?
- What does Will learn about himself during The Subtle Knife? In particular, how does his father give Will a new perspective on himself?
- How does Lord Asriel’s presence make itself felt throughout The Subtle Knife, although he never makes an appearance? In what ways does this book revolve around the fathers of Lyra and Will?
- How does Serafina Pekkala gradually piece together what Lord Asriel is doing? What perspectives do the different characters have on his ‘rebellion against the highest power of all’ (The Subtle Knife (Point, 1998) p.48)? What is your perspective on it? The Bible’s position is that all human beings are rebels against God, whether consciously and actively, or unconsciously by default. How do respond to this?