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0263 | The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman

Context: While I read this, I was provided with an opportunity to strip the varnish and refinish an oak table in our living room. I thought it looked pretty good.

And so I finish the last book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Strangely, I don’t remember the phrase “his dark materials” appearing once in any book so I’m none the wiser there. Pullman’s a writer with an agenda and, as The Amber Spyglass comes to a close, that agenda comes more and more to the fore. Overall I was disappointed with the series. There’s no doubt he can tell a story but there’s no way he even comes close to the seemingly effortless narration of Tolkein or Lewis, writers he’s often been compared to.

The Amber Spyglass picks up straight where the last book, The Subtle Knife, leaves off. If you haven’t read the previous two books, you’ll find a lot of it bewildering so don’t do that as very little is explained from before.

Now, you expect a third book in a trilogy to fulfil all the prophecies in the other two. To a certain extent this is achieved. But I found Pullman’s themes of dust and parallel universes just weren’t developed enough as they could have been. In fact, I think it needed a whole other book to really do it justice. This is a shame because I think Pullman’s got some good points to make about the church and religion and how they can stifle the freedom that Christ has for us. But, like oh so many non-Christian writers, they fail to distinguish between Christ and relationship with him and church and religious affliation to that. Again, this is a shame despite some very interesting ideas about the origin of the being us Christians call God.

One interesting insight into what Pullman is all about with the trilogy comes from the very last line (see below). But by finishing the book that way, he leaves hanging one major question which is assumed throughout the book and is nowhere dealt with: why should there be a heaven and no supreme being? There are other questions that need answering too. Why is a republic better than a kingdom? It may look that way to a humanist but, in time, republics will seem barbaric too.

Pullman seems to start out from the premise “God is bad.” Why so? In the book, when a being decides he will call himself God and deceive everyone into worshipping him, this is a bad thing. And even traditional Christianity would agree with that. We call him Satan. Pullman’s point is that this usurpation of authority and totalitarian wielding of that is a bad thing. I agree. But this supposes that there is an Authority there in the first place… in His rightful place, perhaps? It’s not a watertight argument at all for me. Maybe some of you can shed some light on Pullman’s point here.

Storywise, I found it drifted all over the place and gave the impression that Pullman was trying to tie up all these loose ends of story that he had lying around from the first two books. There’s a visit to the world of the dead but it makes no real sense as to why they have to go there. There are spectres but what they are and why seems vague. There’s predictions that the Knife will be used to kill the Authority. But this never happens. And there’s all sorts of weird stuff with Will and Lyra and daemons that seems random to me. And Mary Malone’s role, despite her being a main character, seems peripheral throughout. There are so many worlds and scenes and angels and witches and ghosts and stuff that it’s hard to know how they all relate to each other and tie together. And don’t even get me started on Dust and where and why it’s flowing and what windows are all about and stuff… there’s just waaaaaay too much that you just have to read and say “Oh, okay, if you say so.” There’s no natural “Yeah, that makes sense.” to any of it at all really.

Glad I’ve read the trilogy now though but there were very few parts when I got lost in the story as I did with Narnia or Middle Earth and forgot about the metaphors. For me, the metaphors overpowered the story and characters and kind of cluttered it all up really, leaving it with little of the subtlety that I’ve come to expect from Lewis or Tolkein.


In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with melt-water splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below.


“The republic of heaven,” said Lyra.


Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement
Read more about how I come up with my ratings

2 comments… add one
  • Melissa 1 July, 2010, 4:32 pm

    I think you did a fantastic job reviewing this. I remember reading it a few years ago and having a similar reaction. I was so caught up in the action and interesting elements in the first 2 books that the 3rd seemed so forced. I felt like I was being preached at without him ever fully explaining his point. The story had so much potential and he abandoned it to try to tell everyone that “God” was bad. Anyway, great thoughts on it.

    • Arukiyomi 1 July, 2010, 5:50 pm

      thanks Melissa, for your kind comment. Glad to hear that someone else sees this the way I do…

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