The Amber Spyglass The Amber Spyglass by Phillip Pullman
Publisher: Knopf
Year: 2007
Pages: 560

It may interest you to read the my review of the preceding book in this series, The Subtle Knife

And so ends the (in)famous trilogy by Phillip Pullman. I admit to being rather drawn into the series by this point; Pullman, whatever criticisms you may have of him, writes a mean fantasy novel. The preceding book (The Subtle Knife) had, in good middle-child fashion, left the story hanging on several different precipices all at once, so naturally we all want to see those resolved.

In all honesty, I was a little disappointed with a content and pacing of The Amber Spyglass. The first book in the series had spoiled me somewhat, with its focus on world-building and simple adventure; the machinations of The Subtle Knife had set in motion a lot of iffy story arcs that didn’t get any better in the trilogy’s conclusion—e.g. the fruition (sort of) of the romantic subplot you saw coming since Book 2, the somewhat corny father-son, mother-daughter, husband-wife dynamics that were fine until they got to the histrionic dialogue.

But never mind the plot machinations: needless to say, it’s somewhat standard fantasy fare that is suitable entertaining, especially when you consider Pullman’s audience (remember, these are technically ‘Young Adult’ novels, for grades 5-9). What of all the controversy? The anti-god, pro-atheism propaganda that Pullman has (supposedly) fiendishly written in order to turn legions of unsuspecting adolescents into spiky-haired, misanthropic atheists?

My uncle, in a previous comment, foretold that insofar as he had perused the book, “The climax is the ‘death’ of God. There is no metaphor there; Pullman even refers to God by several other Biblical names.” This is sort of true, but not really. While it is true that the “god” of His Dark Materials could be considered the god of Abraham that we know and love, the similarity goes only so far as the semantic. There are few other literary tropes that enforce such a parity.

Spoilers ahead! Seriously, don’t read if you don’t want to know! Skip past the spoilers.

There is a “god,” known usually as The Authority, who does end up dying. However, he is neither omnipotent and omnipresent; he is, in fact, a powerful angel who took credit for the existence of the universe. By the time of the novel, he is old and decrepit, and ends up dying of his own accord, as well as his younger and more powerful underling, the Metatron. Everything about Pullman’s metaphysics screams “Metaphor!” for the Catholic church. Some things are more obvious, such as the extensive, corrupt bureaucracy known as the Magisterium; but even this godhead seems a metaphor for the papacy, generally an old windbag who takes credit for everything beyond his power. Really, if Phillip Pullman is espousing atheism, why does his fantasy novel espouse the existence of souls and deities and angels to begin with? The basic metaphor for Pullman’s work boils down to self-actualization: just as the adults in the novel consistently fail to respect the children, so religious hierarchies fail to respect the intelligence of their constituencies. It’s a bildungsroman in more ways than one.

OK, done with the spoilers.

My final feelings are that the controversy surrounding the books is a lot of breathe expended over nothing. Perhaps if you’re looking for it, you can distil some shades of truly anti-religious sentiment from the text, but what His Dark Materials ends up being is a typical1 fantasy novel that happens to use existing religious tropes and Judeo-Christian iconography as parts of its plotline. Yes, Phillip Pullman is an atheist (secular humanist, actually); yes, there are some subversive ideas in the books2; no, it will in all likelihood not turn your kid into an atheist. If nothing else, it’s a play on the historical atrocities of the Catholic Church, with which we are all familiar with and properly abhorrent of anyway.

So, what of the novels themselves? Honestly, it’s a bit refreshing to read a fantasy novel whose plot deals inherently with quantum physics. It’s really no secret to say that His Dark Materials is really a trilogy about quantum theory and particle physics that happens to include large battles between mythical beings. I thought this was a rather neat way of doing it, flirting with the genre of ‘sci-fi’ even as one talked about battles of gods. Will a ‘Young Adult’ appreciate such things? Maybe not. Even without my background knowledge, however, I think that His Dark Materials is a pretty good trilogy, and worth the read even without the context of Bill Donohue’s on-camera apoplexy.

  1. I say “typical” insofar as it follows certain archetypes, not insofar as its quality is typical[]
  2. I contend that subversive ideas are necessary for the proper intellectual growth of a child[]
§1959 · January 18, 2008 · Tags: , , , , , ·

2 Comments to “The Amber Spyglass”

  1. Andy says:

    Having admittedly not read the preceding thousand pages of the trilogy, I was not privy to much of the context. But it still seems to me that, regardless of names and specific backstories, Pullman wasn’t really masking his points. Does Pullman hate the Catholic church and their somewhat mafia-like tactics? Sure. But the Catholic conception of God the Father is shared by most Christian religions; it’s their other interpretations and traditions where denominations part ways. So it’s a related but separate idea. Pullman probably *would* think God was only "taking credit" for creating the Universe, making the book’s description fit my notion more. Or at least Pullman would think that if he believed in God in the first place; probably Pullman calls God an "angel" because the prospect of calling God an actual god was too galling to him.

  2. Jamie says:

    Great review, and I think your thoughts are spot on for the most part. Especially how The Authority is an metaphor for organized religion –someone who is powerful and takes control yet who doesn’t really live up to his own reputation. It’s just that given that this is a fantasy book, he actually IS divine. Just not THAT divine.

    What I took away form the series is more along the lines of a exploration of free will and original sin (or lack thereof). The children of Pullman’s world are free –they come and go as they please, immune to the attacks of spirits because they gather no Dust, and even their demons aren’t locked down to one shape. It’s only when they grow out of that innocence and starts to accumulate Dust that things go wrong. The Magistaroium sees Dust as original sin and thus tries to cut it away from children, but it seems clear that it has more to do with true consciousness and the capacity for free will. Kids grow up, take form, become conscious of the world around them, and can do good or ill.

    To me, that’s a much more take on the books than the whole "BWAAAA! He wants to kill God! BWAAA!" thing.

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