Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman

And here is the final volume in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, in which we find Lyra and Will moving between worlds with the aid of his subtle knife, still dodging the evil Mrs. Coulter and an assortment of other foes.

Philip Pullman is clearly a spiritual man and just as obviously on hostile terms with the Catholic Church. In The Amber Spyglass, the battle for ultimate control of all worlds -- both those occupied by the living and the dead, by angels and witches and armor-clad polar bears -- is gearing up, and everyone is aligning with either the Church or with the forces of Lord Asriel.  In some strange way, Lyra and Will seem destined to play significant roles in the ultimate war, although they themselves are unsure what it is.  The Church, however, has declared Lyra a second Eve, whose temptation and downfall will envelop the world in eternal sin, and they are desperate to prevent that. And, as they have historically done, the Church authorities find a way to justify her murder. A specially qualified assassin volunteers for the task.
"I propose to send a man to find her and kill her before she can be tempted."
"Father President," said Father Gomez at once, "I have done preemptive penance every day of my adult life. I have studied, I have trained-- "
The President held up his hand. Preemptive penance and absolution were doctrines researched and developed by the Consistorial Court, but not known to the wider Church. They involved doing penance for a sin not yet committed, intense and fervent penance accompanied by scourging and flagellation, so as to build up, as it were, a store of credit. When the penance had reached the appropriate level for a particular sin, the penitent was granted absolution in advance, though he might never be called on to commit the sin. It was sometimes necessary to kill people, for example; and it was so much less troubling for the assassin if he could do so in a state of grace.
Lyra is determined to enter the world of the dead to see if she can redeem her young friend, Tony, who perished in the first book, and Will is keen to see if he can make peace with his father, who died in the second. It is a Chiron-like boatman who agrees to ferry them to the land of the dead, warning them all the while that they will never return.  Most excruciating of all, he forces Lyra to leave Pantalaimon, her daemon, behind.
"Are we dead now?" Will said to the boatman.
"Makes no difference," he said. "There's some that came here never believing they were dead. They insisted all the way that they were alive, it was a mistake, someone would have to pay; made no difference. There's others who longed to be dead when they were alive, poor souls; lives full of pain or misery; killed themselves for a chance of a blessed rest, and found that nothing had changed except for the worse, and this time there was no escape; you can't make yourself alive again."
The world of the dead is a dreary, grey netherworld, guarded by harpies who pounce at the detection of any lies, where shades drift about without aim or hope. Lyra and Will vow to lead them all out of this world and back into the world of the living, where they will simply drift off into the atmosphere in a waft of atoms, just as their daemons did when they died. As they are making the trek out of the world of the dead, however, Will's late father, a shaman, tells them that their practice of moving between worlds will have to stop.  In the long run, he says, we can only live fully in the world that is ours.
"And this is the reason for all those things: your daemon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. We can travel, if there are openings into other worlds, but we can only live in our own. Lord Asriel's great enterprise will fail in the end for the same reason: we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere."
In the end, of course, this means that Will and Lyra, now in love, must part ways and return to their own worlds, their own Oxfords, and all openings between worlds must be re-sealed, separating them permanently.  Lyra has mysteriously lost the ability to read the alethiometer (the "golden compass"), but her mentors at Jordan College tell her that she may now undergo the classical training to become an alethiometrist -- she will learn by study and practice what she had once done by intuition. And there is one final signal that her childhood has come to an end:  her daemon, Pantalaimon, begins to settle into his permanent form, and Lyra is at peace with his doing so. I think the question of Pan's final form had been lurking in the back of my mind from the earliest pages of Northern Lights. When Mr. Pullman finally revealed the daemon's permanent shape, I cheered.  I don't think God could have chosen any better.

I thank Mr. Pullman too for a new word in my lexicon.  His world of the dead is choked with mephitic vapors, from Latin mephiticus, or pestilential.

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