Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Book Review: The Amber Spyglass

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman*****

At the end of The Subtle Knife, Lyra was kidnapped by Mrs. Coulter, who we find at the beginning of The Amber Spyglass has turned against the Church and fled to a remote mountain village where she is keeping her daughter in a drugged sleep in order to “protect” her. Will, accompanied by the angels Baruch and Balthamos, insists on rescuing Lyra before he will take the subtle knife to Lord Asriel. After a harrowing escape from Mrs. Coulter and now accompanied by Lord Asriel’s tiny Gallevespian agents, the two determine to travel to the land of the dead to find Will’s father and Lyra’s friend Roger, which will test their courage and strength of will more than anything they have been through so far. Meanwhile, Mary Malone, the physicist and ex-nun who helped them in the previous book, finds herself in another alternate world, where evolution itself has taken a different turn and a conscious species called mulefa has developed.

In the course of the book we will go with Lyra and Will to the world of the dead, at the entrance of which she will be forced to make the great betrayal foretold by the witches and others; witness the final battle between the forces of Lord Asriel and those of the Authority as well as Lyra’s parents’ final grand gesture on her behalf; and end up in a quiet field in the world of the mulefa as Lyra and Will make a momentous discovery that sets the history of Dust (and consciousness) on the right path again.

The Amber Spyglass contains many mature and disturbing themes that parents might want to discuss with their children, such as the nature of death, whether the Authority is really God Himself or only some people’s warped, twisted idea of God, and the fact that sometimes we must give up what matters most to us in order to live a full life. Pullman doesn’t pull any punches or shoehorn his story into a conventional “happy ending,” and of course it’s hard to imagine any of the greatest romances becoming an everyday life together with screaming kids and arguments about the car. The main ideas that this series communicates to me are: 1) True stories are “nourishing,” as No-name the harpy puts it, “truth” meaning much more fact; 2) Keeping promises and keeping faith with individuals is more important than “saving the world” – in fact, that may be what saves the world. 3) We must live in the here and now, whether or not we believe, as Pullman does, that there isn’t anywhere else. (In Judaism we are told that we will have to account to God after our deaths for the things we didn’t enjoy during our lives.)

A major theme of this particular book seems to be cooperation, as time and time again people who start a relationship in mutual distrust come to respect each other and work together for a common good. The society of the mulefa has been accused by some of being like a hippie commune. However, in addition to being a different species which may not have some of the violent impulses that seem to be part of human nature, it could be argued that because they only have one prehensile appendage, a trunk, instead of two hands, the fact that they need to cooperate in order to do many of the things that we can do alone may have caused nature to select for tolerance and the ability to get along.

I feel that this entire series would be perfect for teenagers who are wrestling with their own doubts about the role of religion in their lives, although it should be pointed out to them that Pullman’s almost uniformly negative Church is a fictional one and that most of the best qualities that his characters possess are also valued by most or all religions in their truest forms. I also feel that this book, in particular, can only really be appreciated after at least one rereading, as it is much deeper and more philosophical (to quote another Amazon reviewer) than the first two.

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