“I fought because I had to. I can’t choose my nature, but I can choose what I do. And I will choose, because now I’m free.”
This is kind of embarrassing, because it turns out that I wasn’t actually paying that much attention. I can’t have been, because I didn’t realise how weird it is.
The Amber Spyglass, the third in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, follows Will and Lyra as they escape from Mrs Coulter, visit the land of the dead, and fight in a war without realising they’re doing it, not necessarily in that order. It’s a strange book, partly because it labours under the same kind of aimlessness as The Subtle Knife did: none of the characters (save, perhaps, the ferocious Lord Asriel) really seem to have any clear idea of what they are trying to achieve; the lead villain spends her time apparently oscillating between evil and good; there’s a random woman learning about Dust from a sentient people who look a bit like elephants on motorcycles; and the main narrative action is driven mainly by a child’s desire to say sorry. There’s a war going on here somewhere, a massive one, perhaps the biggest ever, a war between heaven and earth, but no-one’s sure how to win it, or even if they want it to be won. In fact, mostly what the characters are trying to do is just get on with things as best they can.
And all of this makes for a read that is both aimless and purposeful. On the characters’ level, the war is more of a backdrop to the choices they have to make, small choices mostly, born out of random chance or fate or whatever. On the reader’s and the writer’s level, however, there’s a feeling that all those small choices, those strange chances, weave into a vaster tapestry; those choices and those chances make the war. For Pullman, it’s not vast armies drawn up behind standards fluttering in the breeze which are the true fighters, but individuals, making individual choices for their own, often murky, reasons. And yet those cross-purposes all, eventually, manage to pull in the same direction.
I realise this is all a little incoherent. The fact is, The Amber Spyglass is such a big, ambitious book, with such a cloud of nostalgia about it, and such a mythic, fairy-tale quality to its story, that it’s actually quite hard to marshal my thoughts about it. There’s just so much stuff: rebel angels and quantum physics and alien consciousness and theology and worlds of the dead and mythology and love and blasphemy, all somehow stuffed into one fantastical dream-sequence and sent out into the world to confuse young readers for ever and ever. And towards the end, it really does feel like the sheer weight of that ambition begins to compromise the story. I still don’t understand what actually happened at the end: bar some vague narrative muttering about vast rivers being diverted by a single pebble, the denouement looks suspiciously like Stephen Moffat’s favourite trope, And Then The World Was Saved By Love.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good story, and a tragic one, in places. There’s a lot to think about – knowledge and experience and religion and consciousness – and I quite like Pullman’s very humanist world-view (although a little less of the Church-hating polemic would make the whole thing a bit more palatable*). It’s just that there are places where Pullman seems to sacrifice narrative integrity for allegorical significance, which is a shame, because he can tell a damn good story when he puts his mind to it.
*Incidentally, I find it interesting that atheists are quite happy to slam C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series for its Christian polemic without apparently noticing that Pullman does exactly the same thing for the other side. I don’t know what the point of this observation is, but I feel it’s one that needs to be made.