In the sixteenth chapter of The Golden Compass, Lyra readies the surviving children at the Experimental Station for a mass escape, but when she tries to spy on Mrs. Coulter and learns what else they are planning for the kidnapped kids…..I’m sorry. I can barely breathe. My heart hurts so badly. Just read the review.
CHAPTER SIXTEEN: THE SILVER GUILLOTINE
I’ve been at a loss for words for a few hours now, and these days, words come easy to me. I am lucky enough that writers block rarely comes, and part of that is because this community has made me feel so welcomed to open up about virtually anything, whether it be a personal story or some bizarre tangent my brain goes on or some irritating reference to The X-Files or LOST because apparently I’ve still only seen five shows ever? Whatever, I AM TRYING TO RECTIFY THAT EVERYONE.
That sort of freedom and inspiration as a writer is really rare, and I respect and cherish that. I know that if I have some half-developed thought about character development or unfortunate narratives about marginalized folk or some silly absurdity dancing around in my brain, I can explore that in my review and it’s perfectly fine. And then we can all discuss it and dissect it and work it out and think about media in ways we’d not expected to ever do.
And gosh, that is so fun and satisfying for me. I suppose I sound like I’m tooting my own horn at this point, but this is as much a product of the many wonderful people around here as it is of what I’ve done to build and foster this place.
This is not really a commentary on that. I just wanted to open like this to say that I am not so much stuck in a case of writers block as I am silenced by pure shock. I had an idea what I wanted to talk about nearly one third of the way through chapter sixteen: I was fascinated by the way that Lyra interjects herself into such a dangerous situation out of both altruism and selfishness and how, despite that those are conflicting ideas, they’re actually not mutually exclusive in this case. Lyra truly is helping out the other kids trapped inside the Experimental Station. At the same time, she’s also pursuing her own curiosity when she separates from the other girls to find out what’s happening in the conference room.
That’s sort of a great way to characterize who Lyra is. She’s never to far from her own self-worth and desire even when she’s acting to do something good for anyone else. And that’s not a bad thing at all!
But there was a hint in the beginning of this chapter about what was to come that I only liked because of what it said about Lyra:
Because Lyra now realized, if she hadn’t done so before, that all the fear in her nature was drawn to Mrs. Coulter as a compass needle is drawn to the Pole. All the other things she’d seen, and even the hideous cruelty of the intercision, she could cope with; she was strong enough; but the thought of that sweet gentle face and gentle voice, the image of that golden playful monkey, was enough to melt her stomach and make her pale and nauseated.
At the time I read this the first time, I only really read one meaning into this. While it doesn’t say that Lyra hadn’t been scared until now (we’d seen a few instances where she was), Pullman specifies the fear “in her nature.” What he’s talking about is almost a primal, intrinsic fear in her body towards the very idea of Mrs. Coulter. Nevermind the horror of the idea that this woman is Lyra’s mother: Mrs. Coulter is the personification of the evil, heinous acts being carried out in Bolvangar. What’s so fascinating about that is that since Lyra left Mrs. Coulter’s house early in this book, we haven’t even seen her once. Until this chapter, she is still just a character who hangs over the narrative like a storm cloud. That is some powerful storytelling: the character we are meant to fear the most HASN’T BEEN AROUND FOR LIKE 200 PAGES. Good god, that is amazing.
But now, reading that section again, I know now that it was a subtle hint. It’s a key for the door that Lyra opens when she decides to climb into the air duct system of the Experimental Station to listen in on the conversation that Mrs. Coulter has with some of the top scientists in the building. I hate likening it to a Pandora’s box, as that analogy is a bit tired these days, but I’m lacking anything that describes it better than that. Hell, it almost feels like there’s a bit of a reference to that here:
“It’s just like back in Jordan, Pan,” she whispered, “looking in the Retiring Room.”
“If you hadn’t done that, none of this would have happened,” he whispered back.
“Then it’s up to me to undo it, isn’t it?”
The thought literally did not even enter my head until a few moments ago, but this is exactly like that: Lyra’s desire to expand her own knowledge about the world around her opens up a world of chaos. And she is just about to do that in a way that is going to seriously mess everything up.
It’s like Pullman was teasing me, wasn’t it?
What happens here also slightly disproves what Pullman had said about Lyra, though it’s entirely intentional and not any sort of continuity error. He’d referenced that Lyra was able to cope with the horrors of intercision, and yet now, when she learns exactly how it is going to go down, she finds out she really can’t cope with it.
So. We’ve reached that point again. I can feel my stomach twisting in anxiety right now and knowing the ending of this all, I myself cannot cope with this without feeling nervous. STILL.
I think that I seek out things in terms of movies that make me feel this way. I’m a big fan of thrillers and horror films, but the more you get into both of those genres of film making, the more desensitized you become. I don’t mean necessarily in terms of violence, though that’s a part of it. It’s just that you start to recognize certain tropes, techniques, and narratives designed to unsettle you or make you sit on the edge of your seat in anticipation. (This is not leading to some great point about how CINEMA IS DEAD or anything, for the record, as it’s definitely not.) Over the past year or so, I’ve struggled to find things that scare or frighten me like they used to when I was a teenager. I can’t really pinpoint why I love scary and thrilling shit and I’m fairly content not overanalyzing it. I just love the experience, the way it takes you out of your world, and the way it captures your attention.
But, truthfully, it’s been a while since I found something that physically affected me in the way that I crave. There have certainly been moments in all of the books I’ve read for Mark Reads or shows I’ve watched for Mark Watches that have briefly touched on the idea. I was obsessed with the hour-and-a-half long terror and dread that’s in No Country For Old Men. I think the slow build in The Conversation is one of the most brilliantly-devised narratives I’ve ever seen. There was a time in my life that I recommended 13 Tzameti to any and every person I met because I had never watched a movie that made me nearly throw up from suspense. (Hell, let me recommend that now: Read nothing about that movie ANYWHERE. Do not read the box, do not read a summary, just find it (it’s on Netflix), rent it, buy it, and prepare for 90 minutes of sheer head-fucking existential terror. One of the most intense movies I’ve ever seen.)
SO: Hello, Readers. Welcome to the second half of chapter sixteen, which caused me to:
- Stop breathing at one point for nearly 30 seconds.
- Have sweaty palms
- Jump up and hit my knee on my desk
- Gasp so hard I choked on water
- Walk away from the book for ten minutes before I seriously harmed myself.
- Throw myself down at the alter of Pullman and worship.
The Hunger Games trilogy was certainly quite suspenseful, and Collins is a master of designing plots that lead to a great deal of intensity. But I sort of expected that from the series based on what they are about. This isn’t a criticism at all of those books. I loved them a great deal!
I suppose what I’m getting at is that I did not expect to experience anything like this in The Golden Compass. And maybe it’s that Harry Potter thing again, where I just expected the series to be entertaining and shit, but not emotionally intense to the point where I harm myself. Â The thing is….Pullman is relentless about what happens here. As if all of the revelations about intercision are not enough, he has to then throw Lyra into one of the scariest experiences in her whole life.
But let’s talk about what we learn about intercision here. I don’t know that brain ever wanted to learn more about it; the idea is so horrifying that I was content merely imagining what the process was, so Pullman basically tells me NOPE LOL ALLOW ME TO ENTER YOUR NIGHTMARES.
As the scientists begin to explain the new “separator” to Mrs. Coulter, there’s a throwaway line that I’m not claiming is nothing of the sort:
“With the first model we could never entirely overcome the risk of the patient dying of shock, but we’ve improved that no end.”
“The Skraelings did it better by hand,” said a man who hadn’t spoken yet.
“Centuries of practice,” said the other man.
WHAT THE. WHAT??!?!?!?! Why would other cultures cut away dÃ¦mons? I can’t even imagine what this suggests at this point, but I’m calling it: This will be explained and it will shed light on why the Oblation Board is cutting away dÃ¦mons.
This whole section does give a much better idea of the timeline of intercision, and it saddens me to realize that this has probably been going on a long time. They were able to go through stages of experimentation before they moved to the current mode of anesthesia and an ELECTRIC SCALPEL. God, I hate just typing that.
Even more shocking, we learn the ironic truth that Lord Asriel had discovered “an alloy of manganese and titanium [that] has the property of insulating body and dÃ¦mon,” which has brought them to the production of a new method of intercision. WHAT. And I don’t even have time to process that when Mrs. Coulter reveals that Lord Asriel isn’t just being held captive: HE IS AWAITING AN OFFICIAL DEATH SENTENCE FOR HERESY. It’s the first real batch of talk that suggests this clerical struggle in a more defined way, as whatever it is that Asriel is researching is dangerous enough to the Church that they are considering killing him.
i can’t figure this out help my brain
AND THEN. oh christ jesus take the wheel forever i just cannot do this alone:
“So we’ve developed a kind of guillotine, I suppose you could say. The blade is made of manganese and titanium alloy, and the child is placed in a compartment–like a small cabin–of alloy mesh, with the dÃ¦mon in a similar compartment connecting with it. While there is a connection, of course, the link remains. Then the blade is brought down between them, severing the link at one. Then they are separate entities.”
i can’t. i cannot. I only have one question that I cannot figure out:
I cannot figure out why this is a thing they are doing to children. Don’t any of these scientists know how awful this? I AM SO CONFUSED.
There is a bit more of context when Mrs. Coulter leaves the conference room and Lyra is left to listen to the two scientists discussing Dust. Apparently, Lord Asriel’s definition of what Dust is, is what’s so dangerous to the Church. BUT WHAT IS IT I CANNOT FIGURE ANY OF THIS OUT.
Unfortunately, there’s no time to think. Or ponder. Or wonder. None of that. As one of the scientists expresses concern about Mrs. Coulter’s “ghoulish” interest in intercision, stating that she was “keen to see them pulled apart,” Lyra cannot handle the thought. It’s too much for her and she lets out a small cry as she accidentally kicks out.
I just…..everything from this part is just so hard to read. I was hoping that Lyra would escape. I expected that. I expected her to squirm away and tell herself to be more careful the next time around. I expected her to laugh when she told the story to Billy and Roger.
Instead, horribly so, none of these things happened. She is captured by the scientists, after a particularly violent and bloody struggle with the men, and then:
And suddenly all the strength went out of her.
It was as if an alien hand had reached right inside where no hand had a right to be, and wrenched at something deep and precious.
She felt faint, dizzy, sick, disgusted, limp with shock.
One of the men was holding Pantalaimon.
It is a testament to this story and the way that Pullman has built this world so fully that my instant reaction was such a strong sense of revulsion that I had to step away from the book. Even to me, knowing this is fiction, I felt that this was the most unspeakable act I could imagine. This is pure evil, one of the most disturbing and heinous things I’ve ever read.
Goddamn. not prepared ever.
But that’s what is so breathtaking and horrific about chapter sixteen. After the medical description of intercision disturbs me and the touching of Pantalaimon makes me want to pass out, PHILIP PULLMAN IS NOT EVEN DONE YET. Because in the coming chaos, as the two scientists rapidly discuss what they are supposed to do with this girl, wondering if she freed the dÃ¦mons earlier, the man in charge makes a final decision: They might as well demonstrate the guillotine on this specific girl.
No. No. NO. YOU CANNOT DO THIS. NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO.
…and every second of the way she watched Pantalaimon, and he reached for her, and their eyes never left each other.
Yep, that’s the point where I lost it and my heart was beating and I felt tears well in my eyes because Lyra was completely helpless. It would be too convenient for Pullman to have the gyptians come charging through the door to save her, and I recall her line to Pantalaimon earlier: This was up to her to undo it. And now she is facing the ramifications of that.
It all happens so quick, as Lyra is thrust into the room with the silver guillotine, Pantalaimon desperately changing shapes to find a way to escape, but even that is pointless, as each of the (now) three scientists have a dÃ¦mon of their own, too. Lyra manages to get in a well-timed bite/kick in and manages to pull away and grab Pantalaimon in fear, AND EVEN THAT DOESN’T MATTER.
I just don’t know what would possess these men to do this to an eleven-year-old girl. WHY!!!?!?!?!?!?!?!!?
As the two are separated into the two cages, still connected but knowing this is it, the silver blade slowly begins its ascent, and Pullman does something I can barely comprehend: He saves Lyra in the absolute worst way possible.
By having Mrs. Coulter walk in on the procedure.
Am I glad that Lyra is not a victim of intercision? Yes, of course. But by having this woman “rescue her,” carry her down to a bedroom, and then speak to Lyra in that loving, singsong voice of PURE EVIL, is undoubtedly one of the creepiest things I have ever read.
“My dear, dear child,” said that sweet voice. “However did you come to be here?”
I will simply not be ok. This is the worst plot twist ever and nothing is beautiful and everything hurts.