The Amber Spyglass

or The Partial Blasphemy Post.

I started the third book of the Pullman trilogy right after I posted on the second one. I read all but 25 pages of it throughout Sunday and then stopped. I could not bring myself to read those final 25 pages, alas. I did so last night.

The reason is clear: the Amber Spyglass, by no means a bad book, is something of a let-down after the previous two. Here, the scope is much narrower and a lot of unnecessary (?) sentimentalism and didacticism enter the discourse; inspiration remains rampant (think wheeled elephants and the old guy in the crystal box — wow) but crass and uninteresting from time to time; wit subsides somehow and all-American ‘family’ values such as loving mum and dad, saying sorry when hurting friends (even if this involves an abysmal bulge in the plot), the purity of baby love (bah!), the irreplaceability of hard work and so on take over; the brilliance of descriptions is dulled by their looser link to the plot and their timidity (is that all the mighty and magnificent Pullman can do when it comes to such a War and with such formidable enemies?).

In the Amber Spyglass, the ‘cunning intertextual background’ I talked about in the previous post comes out on the surface like globules of fat in an ill-conceived fondue with Dutch (instead of Swiss) cheese: we get chapter mottoes, tolkienesque pastoral finales (yuk!), a tolkienesque plunge into a chasm, a space-opera not-so-subtle bomb to end all bombs, all the mumbo-jumbo bits and pieces William Blake would be proud of, sonorous echoes of Homer’s Nekyia and a whole world out of Douglas Adams (although superb compared to anything by Adams) or out of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

The book delectably attacks monotheistic religion, fiercely criticising it as organised fear, lies and repression. I am sure this is going to cause an uproar when it is released in film. The reason there has been no uproar yet, although the book has been around for so many years, is that you still need to be too intelligent to read it and find out all those nasty things it says about, well, religion as lie and repression from top to bottom.

Two last points of criticism: in this final book the fine balance between an adult-oriented narrative of essay-like qualities and an allegory inculcating lay virtue to teens is severely upset at the expense of the former. Moreover (spoiler follows), we learn that the ‘one god’ is a crook (he is not even the creator). And what are his names? Yahweh, the Almighty, El, Father, God, the Creator and so on. Yes: no mention of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate; throughout the book, the ‘Church’ (a Christ-less Catholic Church of Calvinist principles, for it to be as fierce as possible) and monotheism in general are savaged, but no word on (anything that would remind of) Islam. A fair marketing choice, as Judaism and Christianity have always been soft targets (some Jews are even happy to make fun of their own religion, Christians so much less so, but there be many rationalist and atheist Dawkinsian dragons among Christians — so cool); at the same time, a serious compromise of the trilogy’s moral stance and even anguish against the evils of monotheistic religion, as it gives Islam an easy ride.

Let me not be misunderstood: I would not expect a thorough criticism of all religion. It’s a novel, after all. I also believe it is healthy to expose (young) people to attacks to religion, even if such attacks, especially of the brilliance of Pullman’s, would upset them. I just feel that neatly leaving Islam out is the easy and pusillanimous thing to do, especially given the fact that what Pullman criticises the ‘Church’ for (also to include Judaism), Islam has aplenty. Generally speaking, I fear we are entering an age when taking out religion will mean attacking strictly non-Islamic religions, keeping Islam under immunity and thus suggesting it has no share in the cruelty, oppression and manipulation Christianity and Judaism are customarily accused of… This would be a lie. Feelings and thoughts such as the above are also echoed here.

Still, the rest of the third book, characters, story, most of the plot, are of masterpiece grade. I was really enchanted by the description of the Chariot, among many other things, and angels are magnificent in an angelic way (i.e. not too much). All in all the trilogy is brilliant, although it comes a close second to the Lord of the Rings.

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One thought on “The Amber Spyglass

  1. Pingback: Nothing « “… neither reveals nor conceals”

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