Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife
“I thought it was heaven when I first found it… And all the time it was full of Spectres and we never knew…”
The Subtle Knife is the second book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It is the sequel to Northern Lights and precedes The Amber Spyglass, which concludes the series. The events centre around a young character, Will, who leaves his mentally ill mother with a friend and sets off to find his father, who was lost on an expedition when Will was a baby. A number of threatening individuals are also looking for Will’s father, and when Will accidentally kills one of them he finds himself on the run from the law and his victim’s sinister associates. He escapes through a mysterious hole in the air and into the parallel world of Cittàgazze and meets Lyra, the central character from Northern Lights. She is on a mission to find out about mysterious ‘Dust’, and together they help each other, discovering that their missions are linked.
The first aspect of this book that must be mentioned is its primary world opening. Northern Lights is set entirely within a secondary world, with no part of the action taking place in the primary world. This makes Northern Lights a work of high fantasy but because its sequels include primary world characters who move into secondary worlds, the His Dark Materials series as a whole is a work of transitional fantasy. The book includes an author’s note, detailing this attribute.
THE SUBTLE KNIFE is the second part of a story in three volumes, which was begun in NORTHERN LIGHTS. This volume moves between three universes: the universe of NORTHERN LIGHTS , which is like ours, but different in many ways; the universe we know; and a third universe, which differs from ours in many ways again. The final volume of the trilogy, THE AMBER SPYGLASS, moves between several universes. [Author’s note to TSK, p.]
It must be pointed out that in dealing with primary and secondary worlds, the use of the term ‘world’, used throughout this dissertation is synonymous with the term ‘universe’, that Pullman chooses to use in this instance. In the books themselves, Pullman tends to describe ‘worlds’. This author’s note is important for several reasons. First, it creates textual awareness by raising the fact that the book is part of a series. Second, it helps to minimise any confusions readers may have, thereby predicting its audience, particularly those who may be surprised that the sequel to a work of high fantasy opens in the primary world. In predicting an audience in need of such assistance, Pullman is aware that his readership will include naïve or younger readers. Thirdly, there is the description of the primary world as ‘The universe we know’, or as ‘our universe’. Although none of the events which take place anywhere in the novel are factual, we are still to consider the primary world to be our own. Nonetheless, although the distinction is pronounced, there are aspects of the texts which allow us to compare the primary and secondary worlds, and to view the primary world from the perspective of the secondary worlds with which we have become familiar, thus allowing for a re-assessment of our own reality, just as we have seen to be the case with The BFG and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. This process of contrast and comparison begins with the authors note. The “otherworlds” are described as being “Like ours, but different in many ways”. This opens the floor, so to speak, for comparison between the worlds, and for the differences between them to be as potent as the similarities.
The blurring of the lines between the primary and secondary worlds is also enhanced by the structure of the series. Traditionally, transitional fantasy opens and closes in the familiarity of the primary world, as is the case with The BFG. We assume that we know all we need to about the primary world, but by examining it from the perspective of the secondary, our opinions of it are altered by the time the novel concludes. Although The Subtle Knife opens in the primary world, the His Dark Materials series opens and closes in Lyra’s secondary world. The secondary world plays the role of the primary world, and vice versa. From the point of view of readers, it is the world with which we have become more familiar. Nonetheless the addition to The Subtle Knife of the primary world serves to remind us of our position as readers in the real world, and allows us to judge the primary world from a new perspective.
Further blurring of the lines between the worlds occurs when Will and Lyra discover that the differences between their dialects are quite translatable. As is the case with Hagrid’s dialect in the Harry Potter series, and the language used by the giants in The BFG, these dialects enforce textual awareness. Lyra, and the characters from her world use the word en’t (e.g., “You en’t really going to poison yourself?” [TSK, p. 197.]) in the place of isn’t, aren’t or amn’t, much as the slang word ain’t is utilised in English, although since the word is used even by people of position in high society, we can assume that it is not considered to be slang. The children Will and Lyra meet in Cittàgazze also have a notably different dialect. They use the word ain as Lyra does en’t and end a great deal of their sentences with “all right?”.
There is also a moment in The Subtle Knife when the contrasts and similarities between our dialect and Lyra’s is highlighted during a conversation she has with Will.
“And anbaromagnetism, stuff like that. Atomcraft.”
“Anbaromagnetism. Like anbaric. Those lights,” she said, pointing up at the ornamental street light, “they’re anbaric.”
“Electric… That’s like electrum. That’s a kind of stone, a jewel made out of gum from trees. There’s insects in it, sometimes.”
“You mean amber,” he said, and they both said, “Anbar…” [TSK, p. 59-60.]
Not only does this discussion on language create textual awareness within the tale it is also a linguistic example of Pullman’s earlier note, that Lyra’s world is like ours in some ways, and unlike it in others. As the tale progresses Will and Lyra discover and note the differences and similarities as they become apparent. In this particular instance it is the sounds of the words they use which resonate with the characters, rather than the meanings, allowing for a consideration of the aspects of language that are heard rather than read. This raises textual awareness, by forcing the reader to stop and consider the sounds of the words in detail. It is left to the reader to establish which similarities and differences Pullman wishes to highlight, a topic I shall return to later.
Another example of textual awareness is Lyra’s alethiometer, a compass decorated with symbols, which a skilled user can ask questions of, which will always be answered truthfully. Lyra is a compulsive liar, in fact the similarity of her name to the word liar, is no coincidence, as a harpy in The Amber Spyglass reminds us when she exaggerates the link appropriately (“She seemed to be screaming Lyra’s name so that Lyra and liar were one and the same thing. ”). [Pullman, Philip; The Amber Spyglass; [London, Scholastic, 2000]; p. 308. The printing in italics of Lyra and liar is another example of textual awareness in the series.] Lyra, in fact is proud of her aptitude for lying blatantly. Her medium for lies is language, naturally. Curiously, she turns out to be something of a prodigy when it comes to the alethiometer. The most learned of scholars in her world study and practice for years to unravel the mysteries of this device, with very limited success, but Lyra has a peculiar gift, and despite being a child, immediately becomes an expert. Yet the truth is discovered in a hieroglyphic manner, as questions are asked and answered when the alethiometer’s needle points to a particular symbol. Lyra refers to this as the language of pictures, and some of it is explained to the reader. “The candle (for understanding), the alpha and omega (for language), and the ant (for diligence).” [TSK, p. 98.] By including a different system of communication, one which is ultimately more reliable than the phonetic alphabet used [In reflection of this even the author’s note is inaccurate, as a handful of pages, 148-150, take place in a fourth world, not mentioned in the note]the reader’s attention is drawn to the very manner by which they are reading, reminding them of their position in the real world. There is even a symbol used to indicate language, further enforcing this aspect of the work. However, just as the reader is reminded of their position in the real world, and as this apparent massive difference between the primary and secondary worlds seems obvious, Pullman mentions some ways in which the worlds are very similar. Lyra is given access to a very powerful computer, which she uses as she would the alethiometer, asking questions and being answered truthfully. However this time the answers are seen written on the screen in English. The alethiometer had strictly been the product of the Lyra’s world, one of the secondary worlds in the series, yet this episode is set in the primary world and includes a computer which can operate as a type of alethiometer, making the worlds seem more similar than they had just a few pages before. To reinforce this similarity, the computer is named The Cave, after Plato’s famous allegory. Plato, of course, was Greek, and the symbol on the alethiometer representing languages is taken from the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.
There is a further aspect of The Subtle Knife which not only serves to further enhance its textual awareness, but also to remind us of the differences and similarities between the primary and secondary worlds. On each page of the book there is a small symbol in the top outside corner. These symbols represent the world in which the events of that particular page are set. For the primary world there is hornbeam tree, for Lyra’s world an alethiometer, and for Cittàgazze, a knife. For the fourth world, there is what appears to be a star. By adding this element, the reader is given a second manner by which they may comprehend the text, reminding them of their position in the real world. It also proves a most useful device for searching out particular passages during re-readings, which further add to the book’s textual realisation [By creating an system whereby the reader can interpret the text symbolically, we are given an example of how Lyra reads her alethiometer, which is hieroglyphical, providing us with further textual awareness in this case.]. These symbols clearly demark one world from the next, allowing us to recognise the differences between the worlds, and to fathom clear boundaries between them. However, as the novel progresses, this demarcation is eroded, as the reader realises that the symbol notes simply the world in which the action occurs at the very start of the page. There are several pages which are set almost entirely in a world contrary to the one symbolised on the page, in fact a world is occasionally entered and left again on a page where it is not symbolised at all. There is no reason to assume that these markers could have been inserted at the precise point on the page where one world is left and another entered, so one is left to deliberate that the imprecision of these symbols is intentional. A particular episode, where Will opens doors between Cittàgazze and his own world regularly, searching for precisely the right spot sees a particular confusion between three worlds. Not only does Will come and go between the two with particular ease, the characters he escapes from in the primary world, Mrs. Coulter and Lord Boreal, are natives neither of the primary world, nor of Cittàgazze, but of Lyra’s world. So here the distinctions between all three worlds are jumbled and confused.
It is also worth mentioning that there are considerable geographic similarities between Lyra’s world and Will’s in particular. Lyra hails from Oxford in her world, as Will does in his, but when Lyra enters the primary world, she is disturbed to see that, although some features in this world are familiar to her, others are alien.
They got off in the city next to an old stone church, which she did know, opposite a big department store, which she didn’t.
“It’s all changed, she said. “Like… That en’t the Cornmarket? And this is the Broad. There’s Balliol. And Bodley’s Library down there. But where’s Jordan?” [TSK, p. 72.]
These geographical similarities extend to beyond the realms of Oxford. We have already seen in Northern Lights that the geography of Lyra’s worlds seems almost identical to our own, with recognisable place names. Russia is referred to as “Muscovy” [TSK, p. 109. Muscovy was a principality, centered around Moscow, which was its capital; it was a forerunner of Russia], obviously derived from Moscow. There are also references to places such as Norroway and Brasil, clearly Norway and Brazil. By highlighting such similarities, but yet such differences, Pullman offers us another reminder of ways in which we may compare the secondary world to the primary world as easily as contrasting it. Also, by having the place names spelt differently, he introduces textual awareness, as the reader quickly deciphers where precisely these places are. This is quite similar to the discussion Sophie and The BFG have when the latter repeatedly puns on real place names.
The His Dark Materials series is rife with intertextuality. Both Northern Lights and The Amber Spyglass have epigraphs, and in the latter work each chapter has an epigraph. Particular reference is paid to Milton’s Paradise Lost and the works of the Romantic poets, chiefly Blake and Donne. The events of The Subtle Knife take place while Lyra’s father, the powerful Lord Asriel prepares for a war, not just with the church of his native world, but with God. In explaining his actions to Lord Boreal, Mrs. Coulter will obviously remind the informed reader of either Paradise Lost or of the mythology on which the epic is based.
Finally Mrs. Coulter said, “Very well, I’ll tell you. Lord Asriel is gathering an army, with the purpose of completing a war that was fought in heaven aeons ago.” [TSK, p. 207-208.]
It is in fact Asriel’s goal to complete the war started when Lucifer and his followers rebelled in heaven, as a scientist named Mary Malone discovers when she finds a way to use a computer to communicate with angels, (“Vengeance for- oh! Rebel angels! After the war in Heaven- Satan and the garden of Eden- but it isn’t true, is it? Is that what you- but why?” ) [TSK, p.261.] This again is in reference to Paradise Lost or the mythology on which it is based.
Mary Malone has already provided us with examples of intertextuality when she explains some of her findings to Lyra. In order for her to be able to interact with Dark Matter, in a far more primitive way than actually communicating with it as she did above, she needs to enter a certain frame of mind;
“ ‘… capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason -’ You have to get into that state of mind. That’s from the poet Keats, by the way. I found it the other day. So you get yourself in the right state of mind, and then you look at the Cave -”
“The Cave?” said Lyra.
“Oh sorry. The computer. We call it the Cave. Shadows on the walls of the Cave, you see, from Plato. [TSK, p. 92.]
Here we have references to both Keats and Plato. The quote from Keats describes the precise state of mind Lyra must enter in order to read the alethiometer, allowing for an instance of interior intertextuality within His Dark Materials. These references to other works serve to remind the reader of their position in the real world. The reference to Plato is taken from Book 7 of Plato’s Republic, which discusses the limits of human knowledge through perception alone. As well as providing an intertextual reminder of the reader’s position, this addition, like the BFG’s critique of human reasoning, addresses mankind’s understanding of their own fallible basis for acquiring knowledge of the world. The awareness of this fallibility is, to an extent what makes fantasy possible. It is also the case that The Subtle Knife explains why we have, until now, had no knowledge of any of the parallel universes, because the only one which was known to anyone other than Will was located in the inhospitable polar region, and the one Will found only appeared when it did because of the epic events of Northern Lights.
The Subtle Knife shares a common feature with Rowling’s Harry Potter series insofar as it has a primary world character whose view of the secondary world they encounter evolves. When Will first enters Cittàgazze he sees it as a haven. It is temperate, deserted and it is as good as impossible for him to be found there. Given that he is wanted in connection with a murder in his native Oxford it is natural that he should feel safer here in the parallel world he has discovered and his initial interpretation of Cittàgazze as a utopia is understandable. However as he learns more and more about this strange new world it transpires that it is far less hospitable than he imagined. Mysterious beings called Spectres attack adults, leaving them without a soul and they become indifferent to the point where they are almost comatose. As a result bands of Spectre-orphans run amok in a chaotic society where their brutal cruelty is unbound. What disturbs Will, however, is not so much the dangers he discovers which are unique to Cittàgazze, as the nastier elements of human nature which he sees there as much as he did in his own world.
“I thought it was heaven when I first found it. I couldn’t image anything better than that. And all the time it was full of Spectres and we never knew…”
“Well I won’t trust kids again,” said Lyra. “I thought back at Bolvangar that whatever grown-ups did, however bad it was, kids were different. They wouldn’t do cruel things like that. But I en’t sure now I never seen kids like that before, and that’s a fact.”
“I have,” said Will. [TSK, p. 272.]
As with The BFG and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Subtle Knife reminds us of the less savoury aspects of the real world by having comparable flaws in a secondary world. In this particular instance, the cruelty that children are capable of is highlighted. However, Pullman’s series focuses on what may be perceived as a particular societal flaw, that of horrendous oppression carried out in the name of religions. In Asriel’s opinion these atrocities, although committed by humans, have been so great as to justify all out war on the deity they worship. Lyra’s world is one ruled by a powerful Magisterium, or church, with a hierarchy resembling that of the Roman Catholic Church of our world. Its sinister agents torture, murder and terrorise with impunity, and in Northern Lights we see how they have been performing barbarically cruel experiments on children, cutting them from their dæmons (in Lyra’s world a certain metaphysical component of the human mind or soul is visible and material in the form of an animal. Children’s dæmons, such as Lyra’s Pantalaimon, can change shape at will. Upon reaching adulthood, the dæmons lose the ability to change and adopt a fixed form, for example Texan aeronaut, Lee Scoresby has a hare dæmon named Hester). In the pages of His Dark Materials, we see nothing but evil and hypocrisy from religious orders:
“That is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy ,obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the church is on one side, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.” [TSK, p. 52]
It is clear that we are being lead to the conclusion that, in our own world, the atrocities that have been carried out by religious institutions, and that continue to be carried out are unacceptable. The didactic element in His Dark Materials, the aspect of the series that has made it so controversial, is this anti-institutionalism. The book is not anti-religious, per se, as it does not definitely present an atheistic reality, but rather criticises the abuses of power that have been carried out by such institutions. This anti-institutionalism extends beyond religious institutions in a parallel universe which we are led to compare to our own world. In Will’s world, the police are seen as hostile and threatening figures of authority, and Will is constantly afraid that his unstable mother will be taken from his care. However, the sinister nature of the religious Magisterium, and the insistence that all churches are innately oppressive and hypocritical is an element of a secondary world which Pullman wishes to convey to his readers as being somewhat less than fantasy in the history of our own world. Although the episodes of the trilogy which are set in Will’s world do not contain murderous and oppressive clerics, there is the character of Mary Malone, a former nun who eventually found her life in a convent to be unfulfilling, on an intellectual as well as on a spiritual level. She tells Will and Lyra in The Amber Spyglass that:
“It gradually seemed to me that I’d made myself believe something that wasn’t true. I’d made myself believe that I was fine and happy and fulfilled on my own: without the love of anyone else” [Pullman, Philip; The Amber Spyglass; [London; Scholastic; 2000]; p. 466.]
Although many religious critics have written extensively against what they perceive as the anti-religious propaganda in His Dark Materials [A review available at http://home.swipnet.se/corbie/English/pull.html
concludes that “The HDM trilogy is anti-religious indoctrination disguised as an adventure story for kids”. This is one of the more moderate of such reviews, as well as one of the minority which seem to have been written by a reviewer who actually read the text carefully. An example of a more scathing review, one which is less well researched and far more emotive, is available at www.amywelborn.com/reviews/pullman.html. It contends that “An artist truly dedicated to “realism” in his depiction of organized religion would shine light, not on inquisitions and heresy courts, but on hospitals, schools, art, literature, scientific knowledge and sacrifice.” ]
, they have largely used very poor arguments and methods by which to voice their grievances, most of which seem to be based on only the shallowest readings of the text. It is the case, however, that Pullman uses his dangers to illustrate the abuses of power that have been carried out under religious pretences throughout human history, and that he clearly wishes to caution against blind faith, presenting a world where individuals largely reach their own conclusions on such matters. By referencing such literary figures as Milton, Blake and Donne, who have also used literature as a means of theorising, criticising and intellectualising aspects of religious belief and practice, and have insisting upon the complexity, rather than the simplicity of such issues, Pullman uses textual and intertextual methods to express this didactic element of his series, the vehicle for which is his utilisation of secondary worlds.