“The book depicts the Temptation and Fall not as the source of all woe and misery, as in traditional Christian teaching, but as the beginning of true human freedom something to be celebrated, not lamented. And the Tempter is not an evil being like Satan, prompted by malice and envy, but a figure who might stand for Wisdom.” (Statement by Philip Pullman on the publisher’s web site at http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/author/qa.html )
The message of the third book in this trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, en’t pretty. My grammar en’t gone, either. I am merely mimicking the speech of the books’ heroine, Lyra, whose poor grammar is vexing throughout the first book, and it becomes absolutely grating on the nerves by the third one. Aside from her bad grammar, Lyra’s propensity to lie, her defiance of morality, her trance states in reading the alethiometer (which continue in this last book), and her role in overthrowing the Kingdom of Heaven combine to make her a rather unlikely heroine for a children’s book. Lyra, along with Will (a young friend from another world), and her soul companion, the daemon Pantelaimon, have adventures that climax into nothing less than restoring paradise lost.
Pullman manages to infuse the well-written trilogy with enough tender emotion, adventure, and heroic deeds to beguile young readers for whom the books are written. And therein lies the danger: The message of these books is wrapped in a colorful, appealing package, much like poison hidden in a piece of candy.
The Angels: Twisted Views from the Edge
The second book, The Subtle Knife, left the reader with Will being guided by two rebel angels–Baruch and Balthamos (Pullman’s rebel angels want vengeance for Satan being cast out of the Garden). In the beginning of this final book, the reader learns that these two male angels are deeply in love with each other; and later, when Baruch dies, Balthamos mourns for him to the point of nearly losing his will and strength to live.
These angels explain to Will that although most angels were never men, some were, like Baruch (Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass: His Dark Materials, Book Three [NY: A Del Ray Book, the Ballantine Publishing Group, 2000], 15). However, Lord Asriel, who is Lyra’s father and the one leading the war on the Authority (God), is told that the chief angel of the Kingdom of Heaven, Metatron, was at one time the biblical Enoch. Enoch is presented as one who would institute a permanent inquisition far crueler than any before in history (334). In contrast, the Enoch of the Bible is one “who walked with God” and whom God found to be pleasing, so that he was taken directly up to be with God without experiencing death (Genesis 5:22-24; Hebrews 11:5).
Metatron is also depicted as lusting for Mrs. Coulter, and he tells her that when he was Enoch he had several wives, but none as “lovely as you” (The Amber Spyglass, 356). He also tells her that he lived for “sixty-five years” and then was taken by the Authority to his kingdom. Once again, biblical ignorance is exposed. Pullman apparently did not read past Genesis 5:21. Verse 22 tells us Enoch lived 65 years and then had his son, Methuselah; after this, Enoch lived another 300 years, while fathering other children before God took him up. In verse 23, we are told that Enoch was on earth for 365 years. Furthermore, the Bible records in Genesis 4:19 that Lamech, the son of Methushael, who lived before Enoch, took two wives; but there is no record that Enoch had more than one wife.
The notion that men become angels or can die is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Since the Bible clearly teaches that men and angels are separate from each other, it is difficult to understand why one who is writing against the Bible would insert some things that reveal such an ignorance of it.
While Metatron, the angel who serves the Authority, is evil, the rebel angels are the story’s heroes who aid Lyra and Will and others in the fight against God. Once again, the author seems to be turning good into evil and evil into good. Xaphania, a rebel angel, tells Serafina Pekkala, the witch friend of Lyra and Will, that the “rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.” (429). The view of rebel angels as keys to wisdom goes back to the Gnostic tales of Lucifer as an angel of light attempting to bring wisdom to man, but being thwarted by a cruel and petty God. This belief is called Luciferianism and is found not only in Gnostic beliefs (whose earliest writings date to the second century, after the canon of Scripture was completed), but also in the New Age and in contemporary Satanism. This does not mean Pullman holds to these ideas, but he is making them a core philosophy of the books.
Pullman’s God and Good and Evil
The main theme of this third and final book of the trilogy is the great war on the “Authority” and the Kingdom of Heaven, a theme which was escalating in the second book, The Subtle Knife.
The Authority is presented as a God figure and is even given the biblical names of God such as: “the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty” (28). Balthamos tells Will that the Authority is a created angel who declared himself to be God, and later this is repeated to Mrs. Coulter–Lyra’s mother (188). Could this be Pullman’s actual view of the biblical God? If this Authority was a mere pretender or false god, as many reviewers have contended, then it would follow that a true God would be revealed somewhere in the story; but a true God is a being to whom the books never allude. In fact, the book has just the opposite view: There is no God–and the God in whom men believe is a fake.
Mrs. Coulter wonders where God is and refers to God speaking with Adam and Eve in the Garden; then she states God withdrew from man (293-94). She seems to ignore the account of man’s disobedience to God, and how sin broke the relationship between man and God. She continues pondering God as the “Ancient of Days” in the biblical book of Daniel, and she speculates that maybe this means God is “decrepit and demented, unable to think or act or speak and unable to die, a rotten hulk;” and if so, wouldn’t the “truest proof of our love for God” be to find Him and “give him the gift of death?” (294)
“Ancient of Days” in the biblical context actually has nothing to do with being chronologically old, but instead, it is a title that refers to God’s eternal nature. Although technically it means “advanced in days,” the term also suggests “dignity, endurance, judgment, and wisdom” (Holman Bible Dictionary, http://www.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?number=T329). Another source states, “In contrast with all earthly kings, his days are past reckoning” (http://dictionary.die.net/ancient%20of%20days). Putting Daniel’s vision together with the vision of the Apostle John in Revelation, this title can be seen as a foreshadowing of the vision of Christ in the latter book (For a good exposition of this title, see Fr. Steven Ritter, “Who is the Ancient of Days?” http://www.stmaryofegypt.org/library/who_is_the_ancient_of_days.htm). This is another one of numerous examples of biblical ignorance in the book (other erroneous views are expressed, such as believing that fallen angels can repent and salvation is by works; 415, 419).
Despite the war on the Authority as a theme, the death of the Authority, which comes a full 100 pages before the book’s end, is not the climax and is treated almost as a minor event. Will and Lyra find the Authority in an enclosed litter (a covered and curtained couch used for carrying a single passenger; Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary) that had been carried by angels who fled or were killed. The Authority is “demented and powerless,” mumbling “in fear and in pain,” and had “no will of his own” (366). It is useful to note here that Will’s name is surely not accidental, especially contrasted here with the Authority’s lack of “will.” Since one of Pullman’s themes is that the Church suppresses free will, it is not surprising that one of the main characters rebelling against the Authority is named Will.
As Will and Lyra help the Authority out of the litter, he vanishes into the air as a result of having insufficient substance to sustain his existence (this is not explained, although the book implies that this is perhaps the result of Will and Lyra leading the ghosts –the dead — out of the world of the dead). Mrs. Coulter’s musings on God’s decrepit state are verified by this incident. Oddly, Will and Lyra are seemingly completely untouched by their witness of the Authority’s death, and they turn to other matters almost immediately.
The former nun, Mary Malone, tells Will and Lyra the story of why she left the Church. She does this because a dead woman told her to “tell stories” (386); Mary Malone did not question this at all, which is rather ironic given her defiance of God. Why believe the voice of an unknown dead woman and yet question everything else, including Christianity? Mary tells Will and Lyra she realized there was no God, “no one to punish me for being wicked,” and she recounts how she removed her crucifix and threw it into the sea (397). Later, Mary declares, “the Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all (393).” She confides to Will and Lyra that she thought according to how the Church told her to think (398), which is yet another apparent misunderstanding on Pullman’s part regarding Christianity, the church, and the Bible.
Lyra asks Mary if her disbelief caused her to stop believing in good and evil. Actually, this is a very good question. Perhaps Pullman is expressing a view that morality exists even apart from belief in God because Mary answers that she decided “good and evil are names for what people do, not what they are” and that good is helping people while evil is hurting them (398).
But this only begs the question: What standard does Mary use to determine good and evil? Pullman would have the reader believe God is not necessary for the concept of good and evil; but if there is no absolute standard for good and evil, then how does man determine what is good or what is evil? If the standard is purely cultural or personal, it becomes relative and, therefore, meaningless. Furthermore, the power of the individual or the culture to determine right and wrong becomes another authority in and of itself, but perhaps with less accountability. It seems Mary Malone has not thought this one through.
Death, the World of the Dead, and the AfterLife
Heaven is a “lie,” and the dead go to a bleak, gray place full of sorrow–a “prison camp” set up by the Authority (29, 286). Lyra and Will travel to the world of the dead where Lyra hopes to free her friend Roger, who died in the first book when her father (Lord Asriel) was creating a bridge to another world.
Despite this grim place of the dead, death is personified and presented as a “devoted friend”–a companion who is close to you throughout your life–who then taps you gently on the shoulder, very “kindly” says, “Easy now, easy child, you come along o’ me,” and travels with you in a boat across a misty lake to the land of the dead, and then leaves you (232-33; 238). While a person is alive, their death companion can “hide in a teacup. Or a dewdrop. Or in a breath of wind” (269). One dead girl even misses her death companion (269).
Will and Lyra succeed in entering this world, and after some perilous encounters, they lead the ghosts (dead people) out. Lyra finds the ghost Roger, and Will meets up with his dead father–the shaman who was killed in the second book. This groundbreaking exodus of ghosts from the world of the dead means that in the future, all those who die will be able to leave this place once they enter after death. But this escape from the world of the dead does not mean that the dead get to live again, nor do they even have a ghostly existence in the land of the living. Rather, the dead dissipate into the atmosphere and become part of the atoms of the material world (333). However, left unexplained is the fact that some ghosts, such as Lee Scoresby and William Parry (Will’s father) speak and take actions as ghosts in the outside world, and a ghost army joins in the fighting in the war (324, 347-51, 371-73).
The dead exult that they will be “alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was” (287). This theme is repeated by the deceased Lee Scoresby who, looking forward to reuniting with his dead daemon Hester, happily tells Lyra he will “drift along the wind and find the atoms that used to be Hester, and my mother in the sagelands, and my sweethearts,” (344, 373) as though dissolving in the atmosphere into a million-plus particles allows one to find and commune with other dead personal beings who are also mere scattered particles. There seems to be small comfort in this concept. Moreover, how can a ghost with no material substance, as they are depicted in the story, become material again?
Despite the logical contradictions and obvious drawbacks of this view, Lyra excitedly tells Will at their parting at the end of the book that after she escapes the land of the dead, “I’ll drift about forever, all my atoms, till I find you again” and “We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in the clouds and those little specks of light…45). Of course, living in mud, revolting looking insects, or weeds, is not mentioned, as though atoms can be choosy. Furthermore, if one has dissipated into atoms, there is no longer a whole, recognizable person present, much less an intelligence, which renders this perspective a piece of poetic nonsense. This fanciful notion about the atoms finding each other is much harder to accept than a belief in God, which, at least, has evidence. But sadly, perhaps this scenario is the best that someone who does not believe in God can muster.
Love in the Afternoon, or Paradise
The second book made it clear that, in order to undo the mistake that caused the loss of the first Paradise, a new Eve would be necessary. The prophecy was that Lyra is this new Eve, and she fulfills this role in the third book. However, Lyra’s role as the new Eve is based on the mistaken premise that Eve was the cause of sin (60). Although Eve was deceived, Scripture clearly states that Adam is held accountable for the first sin (Romans 5:12). Adam is the one who had directly received God’s commandment to not eat from the forbidden tree, before Eve was even created (Genesis 2:16-18), and Adam is the one to whom God first calls after Adam and Eve have disobeyed (Genesis 3:9).
Ex-nun Mary Malone is to play the role of the tempter/serpent, and she does this by telling Lyra and Will a story of sensual desire and love in her life when she was younger, which she compares to finding treasures in China (393-97). Will and Lyra hear this while all three are in a world Mary has found; she tells the children, “snakes are important here. The people look after them and try not to hurt them” (390). This undoubtedly is an allusion to the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Mary’s words arouse something in Lyra; this is evidently a sexual awakening, although Lyra is only 12-years-old. Later, acting on these feelings, Will and Lyra kiss passionately and declare their love for each other: Will kisses “her hot face over and over again, drinking in with adoration the scent of her body and her warm, honey-fragrant hair and her sweet, moist mouth that tasted of the little red fruit” (417). Undeniably, “the little red fruit” is meant to evoke the forbidden fruit in the Genesis account. Knowing they must part, because their daemons cannot live long in a world in which they were not born (Will, who has no apparent daemon in the first two books, discovers and sees his daemon after returning from the world of the dead), Lyra later tells Will she wants to “kiss you and lie down with you and wake up with you” every day until she dies (445). The pair are described rather lasciviously as “saturated with love” and as “lovers” (421, 447; also, see 431).
Such language and descriptions are entirely inappropriate for the children for whom these books are aimed, not to mention being tasteless for characters ages 12 and 13. Yet due to a mistaken belief that somehow God and Christianity are against physical love and sexuality, this carnal scene apparently becomes necessary, at least in Pullman’s eyes, to reverse the loss of Paradise. Pullman evidently has not noticed that God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” before the Fall (Genesis 1:28). Sexual relations were natural and encouraged prior to the serpent’s temptation.
Will and Lyra’s acts of love cause the Dust–the particles that fall from above and were associated in the trilogy by the Church with original sin–to reverse their flow out of the world. The Dust is actually like a life force, necessary for all living things (403-04, 421, 433), and is renewed by “thinking and feeling and reflecting, by gaining wisdom and passing it on”
(440). The Amber Spyglass of the title is a device crafted by Mary Malone that allows her to see this Dust, and she is the one who realizes its leakage out of the world has been almost completely stopped by Will and Lyra (421, 428). There is still leakage of Dust out of the worlds and into the windows that have been opened between the worlds, and these windows must be closed. This is one reason why Will and Lyra must part and not see each other again. The other reason is that their daemons cannot survive long in another world. (One window will be left open for escape from the world of the dead.)
Lyra and Will decide they each will go to the Botanic Garden in their own worlds at the same time every year so they can be as close as possible, even though they are separated by their worlds. It cannot be accidental that this should happen in a garden, since in this third book, God has been eliminated so that the Garden, or Paradise, can be regained. Ironically, in the real world, it is God, of course, who created the Garden and who will restore it.
From Kingdom of Heaven to The Republic of Heaven
Characters in the story who fight the Authority allude to building a “Republic of Heaven,” although no clear details are given as to what this means and how it will be done (325, 437, 465). But before the Republic of Heaven could be built, the Kingdom of Heaven had to be overthrown. When Lyra returns to her home at Jordan College after the success of the rebellion, she discovers the power of the Church has decreased, that “more liberal factions” are in power, the General Oblation Board (an agency of the Church) was dissolved, and the Church’s “Consistorial Court of Discipline was confused and leaderless” (458). These changes are a result of the Authority’s death and the victory in demolishing the Kingdom of Heaven.
The only clues as to how this Republic of Heaven will be built are that people must study, work, and think, and become “cheerful and kind and curious and patient” (440, 464). These actions will replenish the Dust and lead to building this Republic.
Is the reader to conclude that since the Kingdom of Heaven is gone, people will magically become good and altruistic? This seems to be Pullman’s point, but this can only be possible if man is basically good and unselfish. Pullman has made the mistake of equating freedom from God’s authority with the ability to be truly good. However, history imparts a different tale. Utopia after Utopia has failed due to man’s weaknesses, selfish nature, and affinity for treachery. There have been numerous rulers with no belief in the biblical God who brought only destruction and death in their wake (Nero, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, and others; see Dinesh D’Souza, “Atheism, Not Religion, Is the Real Killer,” http://www.tothesource.org/11_29_2006/11_29_2006.htm. A more accurate view of humanity is portrayed in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which demonstrates that man’s desire for power is matched only by his corruption upon obtaining it.
Having reversed much that God says is good into evil and having called good what God has declared evil, the trilogy’s end–two children prematurely initiated into sexuality, a Garden with no God, and the task of building a Republic of Heaven dependent on sinful men–is a cheerless prospect, indeed.
The concept of this Republic of Heaven can be a platform for discussing the book with Pullman’s fans. Turn the books’ premise back on itself. Questions to ask might be:
How would people in the Republic of Heaven determine good and evil?
What standard would be used for this? Would belief in God be allowed?
Who would rule in the Republic of Heaven, and how would this be determined?
Is dissolving into atoms after death something to look forward to?
Where do Lyra and Will get their strong sense of justice and injustice?
Carried out gently and with sensitivity, these questions can lead to amiable discussions and opportunities to share biblical truth.
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