*Philip Pullman. 1997. “The Subtle Knife”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679879250/ref=benhourigan-co20. London: Point. 341pp.*
This is the second of three volumes in Pullman’s _His Dark Materials_ series, and continues the story from _Northern Lights_ (known in the US as “The Golden Compass”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679879242/ref=benhourigan-co20, of which I wrote, in my own notes, on 13 November 2005:
bq. It took me a little while to read this, because my interest in it waxed and waned. It is, to me, at its best when meditating on the nature of the soul, or of animal intuition (as in the scene where Iorek Byrnison asks Lyra to try and trick her), or on innocence and sin. But the intervals between these meditations were too long to sustain my unbroken interest in the middle of a life filled with many distractions. The adventure story parts of the book, while well told and well paced, interested me the least, and formed its bulk. The end speaks of myseries to come and entices me to read on, but I may wait a while. At its best this book is excellent, at its worst it is merely good. It compares favourably to the _Harry Potter_ books in stylistic terms, but is seldom quite as gripping. Its subject matter, however, is more mature, and its philosophy more considered. 6.5/10
The adventure elements of _The Subtle Knife_ manage to avoid the lack of momentum sometimes felt when reading its predecessor. Where _Northern Lights_ focussed solely on Lyra’s quest to rescue her friend Roger from the Oblation Board, its sequel switches between multiple protagonists as they pursue their goals through the parallel worlds opened to them by Lord Asriel at _Northern Lights’_ end. While some readers may find it irritating to be forcibly wrenched away from one engrossing plotline to another one whose appeal is yet unproven, the shifts prevent any one character’s story from becoming boring.
_The Subtle Knife_ is also heavier on the philosophical and theological discursions that were so satisfying in _Northern Lights_, benefiting from having the framework for those discursions already laid down. It also reveals the main goal of the heroes’ activities: to aid Lord Asriel in his attempt to destroy God. Fully understanding how Dust, angels, and even the basic concepts of good and evil fit together in this context probably requires at least some knowledge of (at least) the Bible, Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, and “Paradise Lost”:http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/26, but those without such a grounding might get away with having played the Japanese RPGs “Xenogears”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenogears and “Dragon Quest/Warrior VII”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_Warrior_VII, both of which involve battles against God.
Near the end of the book, Stanislaus Grumman says:
bq. There are two great powers …and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn from one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit. (335)
He and all of the books’ other protagonists are on the side of knowledge and wisdom, against God (referred to as the Authority) and the Church (the Magisterium). Pullman is evidently believes that theistic religions have a solely negative influence on human society, and as a committed anti-theist myself, I approve heartily. When we consider how an earlier classic of children’s literature, “The Chronicles of Narnia”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0060598247/, was, like the rest of C.S. Lewis’ output, an (in this case veiled) exercise in Catholic apologetics, it’s clear that we’ve come a long way forward.
It’s surprising that given all the Christian complaints about _Harry Potter_ driving children to witchcraft, that the blatantly anti-Christian message in _His Dark Materials_ hasn’t received some public criticism. It’s a shame, because Pullman’s books could do with a little of that kind of backhanded promotion.
Though the evangelical nutcases who criticise _Harry Potter_ evidently haven’t noticed (well, actually, there are some Christian-themed reviews of Pullman’s series on Amazon), the later books in that series are cut from the same thematic cloth as _His Dark Materials_, given that both series include the message that it is good and right to rebel against corrupt authorities, be they governments, schoolteachers, or tyrannical gods. Given that many parents and teachers are among “those who want us to obey and be humble and submit” (355), they may not be keen on recommending that children read this book, but every child should (and adults would be well advised to, as well). It will help readers to learn to live their lives for themselves, and comfort those who already have. 9/10