Thursday, 9 December 2004

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife (1997)

Edition: Scholastic, 2001
Review number: 1278

The scope of the His Dark Materials trilogy widens in this second novel, which is set in three worlds, including our own. The Subtle Knife also introduces the second of the two protagonists, Will Parry. Like Lyra, he is an independent child, in his case because his father was an explorer lost on an Arctic expedition when he was a baby, and his mother has become barely able to function after years of stress. When he discovers that her paranoid fantasies have a grain of truth, and then accidentally kills a man who attacks them, he has to flee, and ends up in another world where he meets Lyra. He has his own quest, to find his father, but it becomes clear that, for a time at least, their purposes will be parallel and that in some way Will will be key to stopping the forcible removal of the souls of children that motivates Lyra.

While the background remains interesting, the faults of Northern Lights seem magnified here. Will is just as poorly animated a character as Lyra is, and the story really lacks the spark of excitement that would be needed for it to really take off. This is made worse by the splitting of the narrative into two; I can see why the book is organised like this (the purpose of the lesser thread, which is mostly very tedious indeed, is to prepare the ground for a surprise in the other), but it does make the novel drag. I suspect that if this had been the first novel in the trilogy, few children would have bothered to read it. (Mind you, I get the impression that this is a series that adults rave about as a fantastic children's trilogy but not one which is really a great favourite with young readers.)

It is in the latter part of the novel that Pullman's controversial twisting of Christian theology really begins. As it appears here, it is basically a reversal of how orthodox Christianity looks at the universe - the side that a Christian would call good is here about regulation and conformity; while the traditional "fallen angels" want to bring freedom and happiness to humanity. This is hardly a new way to attack the Christian religion, particularly as it is based on an institutionalised version of Christianity that has little to do with what the Bible actually says (and attacking it is really a version of what is known as a "straw man" argument - demolishing a misrepresentation of an opponent's position). Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh has a similar message, and that was written over a century ago as an attack on the hypocrisy of the Victorian church. And yet this trilogy has generally been singled out for praise, as though every book that children could read before Pullman began writing were putting the same point of view as C.S. Lewis (whose Narnia stories are, incidentally, better written and more fun.) Christianity is an irrelevance to the majority of people in the West today - there are far more interesting targets that could be attacked truly controversially, from the cult of celebrity, to cultural imperialism, to the morality of today's capitalism. There is no reason to start fighting our grandparents battles over again.

Considering the amount of praise I have heard heaped on this series, it has proved immensely disappointing. I will probably eventually read The Amber Spyglass, but I'm certainly not holding my breath in anticipation.

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