Reading by Ear: The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
read by the author and a full cast

In early high school, a generally abominable time filled with enormous bangs and the genial neglect known as “debate”, I bought myself a nice box set of His Dark Materials, the edition that spells out the name of the series when they’re all put together on the spine. They were (and are—I still own them) so pretty that I dared not take them to school, something I was happy to do with Wicked or Good Omens, which I reread constantly in high school. So I read The Amber Spyglass at night, all tucked into bed, handling the orange book delicately. Of course, it’s been long enough that I only remember the highlights, but it’s a nice memory all the same.

The Amber Spyglass opens with Lyra, captured by Mrs. Coulter in a drugged sleep, as agents of the Church work towards her demise. With the Subtle Knife and help from Lord Asriel, Will manages to free her—only to find themselves bound to go to the World of the Dead, from which no living soul has ever emerged. As Lord Asriel’s forces and the Authority’s forces line up for that terrible and final battle, the true fate of the world lies in two children, and the temptation one of them will ultimately face.

I recently spoke on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas for the current session of the young adult and children’s literature course I took last year; naturally, I went in to speak to the professor beforehand. We got to talking about children’s literature, and His Dark Materials came up. “The last one,” she said, she found “a bit preachy”. Seeing how that was the only other opinion on the book I’ve encountered in years, it stuck with me throughout my rereading… relistening… oh, man, I really need to sit down and hash this one out sometime. In any case, I was particularly attuned for it, and, to be honest, I did pick it up. There’s a moment in the World of the Dead where Will and Lyra encounter a dying animal; Will’s conversation with the Chevalier Tialys sounds like a philosophical exercise more than organic dialogue. But for the most part, no. Mary Malone, the former nun turned atheist scientist, turns out to have the most to say about the Church, but it’s coached as her particular worldview, not a true one. (And her view changes as she and others finally understand the true nature of Dust.) And it’s not like the events of the novel eradicate churches forever and ever—Lyra returns to a world where she will always have to contend with clerical powers. As a kid, I understood that Pullman was talking about organized religion, not religion itself; after all, the Authority isn’t the Creator. It’s a bit Deist, actually. Of course, I was a religiously feral child whose main exposure to religion was a book of world mythology, so I might be a wee bit biased.

But for all that, it is wildly different from the first two books, although it does, in a way, perpetuate and subvert the pattern I’ve noticed in the first two (although here the father figure is the Authority himself). It’s unrelentingly dark—death and violence reign. In the audiobook presentation, Lyra’s dreams of the World of the Dead, where she communicates with Roger, are downright chilling. I couldn’t listen to those parts alone at night, I’ll tell you what. The epic battle has plenty of casualties (including the big one you’ve probably heard about), but the actual focus is on Will and Lyra’s innocent romance, which threw me for a loop. I remembered a grove of trees, but I thought that the battle was the climax of the book, not the romance. In The Subtle Knife, we were introduced to the idea of Lyra as the next Eve, and Pullman takes the chance to retell the biblical Fall as a tale of growing up and falling in love. But even that bright innocence can’t last, as fate requires one last sacrifice from the children (who are no longer children). It’s ultimately a story about growing up, which involves accepting responsibility, loss, and work with dignity and grace. (…go read The Magician’s Book. It covers some brilliant stuff about His Dark Materials.)

Ultimately, however, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Pullman’s worldbuilding is second to none (I just got the bit about “anbaric” and “electrum”!), Lyra is an amazing creation, but as the series hews closer to Paradise Lost (which I’ve not read) and focuses more on the love story, I just lost interest. The thing about audiobooks is that I can zone out whenever I want to, and I ended up doing so as we drew closer to the end and lost that sense of adventure that I really loved about The Golden Compass and parts of The Subtle Knife. In the introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of His Dark Materials, Lucy Hughes-Hallett points out that The Golden Compass is the easiest to love of the three books, and it’s that book I love dearly. But it’s the odd one out in an interesting and thoughtfully crafted critique of religion that just didn’t grab me. Go figure.

The audiobook production remains impeccable, although the voice for Will has changed—it’s jarring at first, but you soon get used to it. In particular, I loved the voice acting for the mulefa, which manages to get across the lyricism that would require a sweep of the trunk to communicate. And the woman playing Mary Malone is fantastic. But, as ever, there’s mediocre music at the beginning and at the end. When will this madness stop?

Bottom line: The Amber Spyglass is both dark and innocent at once, as Lord Asriel’s war against heaven is downplayed in favor of two children going on a dangerous pilgrimage together and falling in love. Despite the impeccable worldbuilding and the amazing Lyra Silvertongue, it just didn’t grab me. If you’d like.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

One thought on “Reading by Ear: The Amber Spyglass

  1. I did not realize that they changed the actor for Will until I re-listened to it recently, but both of them do such an amazing job that I found I didn’t mind. What I minded more was that there’s a different actor voicing Pantalaimon in all three books – it’s not as noticeable, since he gets fewer lines as the series goes on, but I definitely missed Original Flavor Pan in this one. (Although that’s still one of the parts in this book that had me sobbing, even when I knew it was coming.)

    But I think you’re absolutely right that this book is by far the easiest to tune out in chunks. It’s missing the urgency of the story that drives things forward in The Golden Compass (and to a lesser extent in The Subtle Knife). For me, it’s always the Mrs. Coulter/Magisterium/Lord Asriel parts that are the easiest to zone out… get back to Will & Lyra or Mary and the mulefa, already!

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