Mark Reads ‘The Subtle Knife’: Chapter 2

In the second chapter of The Subtle Knife, we spend time with Serafina Pekkala as she rushes to find out how to save Lyra after Lord Asriel’s bridge to another world is opened. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Subtle Knife.


I’m realizing that this series would be a great project for someone to take on as a mini-series on HBO, Showtime, or AMC. It’s too unfortunate that New Line agreed to make this movie and then gutted the results, as we’ll probably never see a proper adaptation of this trilogy on film in our lifetimes. Of course, it’s great that we have the books, and I don’t want to diminish that at all. Reading through chapter two, I simply thought how entertaining this could have been with a proper script that respects the narrative so far. Over on Mark Watches, I’ve made it rather obvious what a huge fan I am of ensemble casts that shift narratives between those characters. Shows like LOST and The Wire (and much more recently, Game of Thrones, which is an obvious testament to George R.R. Martin’s work) had such rich storytelling because the writers built entire worlds around single characters, and they were allowed the chance to spend time with these people. That’s what made them so original in that sense.

I guess I’d never thought about The Golden Compass in that way because the shifts in the narrative focus were so short. Maybe Pullman didn’t think he’d keep his readers’ attention if he had done it too much in the first book, but I really respect that he devotes an entire chapter to another character and not once does he switch to Lyra’s view. Hell, if you think about it, Lyra’s perspective has been given maybe 1% of the book in terms of space. For me, it’s a more rewarding experience when reading a book; I get the chance to spend emotional time with other characters and helps fill out this universe a lot better.

So this is Serafina’s story, and by returning to the first universe, Pullman also gives us the chance to learn more about the devastating affects of Lord Asriel’s actions. “Atmospheric disturbances” are responsible for an immediate change in weather, and Serafina, her witch companions, and Lee Scoresby are blown miles away, and no one is quite aware what has happened in Svalbard or with Lord Asriel. All that Serafina knows is that, as she flies north, she is certain that the light coming through the Aurora is from another world.

We get confirmation that a pack of witches were on Mrs. Coulter’s side (probably those that attacked Iorek and Lyra in chapter twenty-two) until they discovered what Mrs. Coulter was doing. Serafina agrees to help out a captured witch whose dæmon tells her all of this, and through this, there is a whoooollle lot of info-dumping. Info-dumping is necessary in mythology-heavy stories like this, and with a world so uniquely detailed and with a complicated political landscape just as this, there’s going to need to be a lot of dialogue to reveal this information too. There are, certainly, some tropes or devices that I am not too keen on, even if they’re necessary to tell the story. If you followed me during Mark Reads Harry Potter, you’ll recall that I started getting rather irritated with Rowling’s insistence on having characters overheard crucial information that the reader needed to know. I knew it needed to happen, and with a setting like Hogwarts, there was surely going to be a lot of shenaniganry in all of those hallways and passages.

I’m not setting this up to say that Pullman is necessarily off-the-hook for the things he chooses to repeats, but more so to state that when dealing with tropes and such, I’m looking for subtle changes in context to help keep things fresh.

Now, I’ve just used the word subtle in an unintentionally unfortunate way, because while this chapter features a scene of the main character overhearing a very necessary conversation, the way in which it is framed is really…well, it’s not that subtle to us. After Serafina waits for Mrs. Coulter to head back inside of the boat (UGH I CANNOT FIGURE HER OUT), Serafina knows that whatever this woman is going to talk about, she needs to hear it. Knowing that there is a witch being tortured below deck, Serafina resolves to do something that is quite risky, dangerous, and draining for a witch: use magic to make herself appear unseen.

I’d never thought that magic could exist in this world, but once I give it just a second’s thought, why hadn’t I expected this? Witches can fly with cloud-pine; they can separate themselves from dæmons; they don’t feel cold, they can pull balloons and they live for hundreds of years. Magic seems pretty far down that list. But this is not like an invisibility cloak; it’s more like a perception filter from Doctor Who. Serafina is actually visible, but no one notices her. To make it even more interesting (and all the more suspenseful), this magic is tied to an extreme amount of concentration, which means that it leaves Serafina vulnerable.

This is the sort of context that makes this technique interesting.

It’s clear that, for the first time, we’re meeting some of the more important members of the Church or the Magisterium. (I don’t think those terms are interchangeable, are they?) There’s a Cardinal and some clerics, as well as the only woman in the group, Mrs. Coulter. To add to the weirdness of it all, there’s another man attempting to read an alethiometer in the room, but he clearly requires the use of a set of books in order to read it. Obviously, my brain is wondering: Why is it that Lyra is able to read the alethiometer so naturally compared to those who have studied it for years?

As I said before, there is a deluge of information sent our way through this conversation.  The group’s primary concern seems to be this witch’s knowledge of a prophecy concerning Lyra. Gone are both the pseudo-affectionate tones Mrs. Coulter used with children or the bizarre adoration we saw her express to Lord Asriel. Here it is just pure anger and hatred and out of everything, this feels the most natural for this character. (That’s not to suggest her conversation with Lord Asriel was anything but genuine, for the record.) As the clerics and the alethiometer man (named Fra Pavel) inform Mrs. Coulter about Lyra’s uncanny fulfillments of the witch prophecy, as well as the rumored expertise she has of the alethiometer, you can feel Mrs. Coulter’s patience melting away rapidly. I’m not ready to write off Mrs. Coulter as a pure antagonist yet, but I can’t deny that I fear this woman’s anger. It seems she possesses such a unique power that is derived from her fury, and when she gets angry, I don’t trust her.

Unfortunately for the Cardinal, he continues to be a bit to vague for Mrs. Coulter’s comfort, still dancing around the issue of what the prophecy is regarding Lyra, only able to say that it “places on us the most terrible responsibility men and women have ever faced.” Look, even I am irritated at this point. JUST SAY IT, DUDE. Mrs. Coulter can’t handle this coy behavior and she erupts with anger at the whole group for insinuating that she must know something about this, and SERIOUSLY SOMEONE JUST SAY IT.

It’s too much for Mrs. Coulter. I feel she’s generally a rather patient person (as one must be to be as manipulative as she ultimately is), but she pretty much loses control when Fra Pavel tells her that even if they have to rely on the alethiometer to learn what the prophecy is, it’s not going to be timely enough. So she announces that it’s time to go ask the witch herself.

I understand that there is little that might frighten or upset a witch. Pullman has written the witch characters, particularly Serafina, to be beings that don’t react or behave in the ways that humans do. Even when I think about the extreme sadness and heartbreak that Serafina conveyed to Lee Scoresby back in The Golden Compass, she didn’t speak of it with a matching tone in her voice. Everything is just a fact of the universe. Witches live lives that are enormously separate from what we experience as humans. This is why it frightens me that Serafina is so nervous on these pages; the fact that she needed a few seconds to “compose herself” in order to move into the room with the witch is a telling sign. She does not trust these people at all, and not just because they are torturing a fellow witch. It’s much deeper than that, as if she is in the presence of a malevolent force.

It’s then immediately clear what that force is: Mrs. Coulter and the Church. We’ve seen their brutality in Bolvangar, but Mrs. Coulter references “a thousand years of experience” when telling this witch how much suffering she is about to face. And then she simply breaks one of the witch’s fingers. JUST LIKE THAT. As the witch screams and Mrs. Coulter warns her that if she doesn’t answer, she’ll break another finger, the witch agrees, begging her to stop. Mrs. Coulter demands an answer and before the witch can say anything, another finger is broken.

UGH. I DON’T LIKE THIS. This witch starts sputtering about how the witches new Lyra’s “name” before anyone else did, but not her actual name, but the “name of her destiny.” Which….what does that even mean? There’s a name to it? I DON’T GET IT. Neither does Mrs. Coulter, who is growing even more impatient at this ambiguous talk. However, Serafina knows that she cannot simply stand there and watch a witch get tortured, so, to my surprise, she moves in as close as she can and draws her knife. The witch continues, and she says something that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever:

“She is the one who came before, and you have hated and feared her ever since!”

WHAT IS THIS SORCERY. But….but….WHAT???? How can Lyra have come before??? SHE IS ELEVEN YEARS OLD. Oh, this is going to get worse from here on out, isn’t it?

The moment where Serafina kills the witch out of mercy is a gnarly scene, but I wanted to talk more about the way that Pullman treats gods in this book. It seems that there are systems of gods for different creatures, and that it’s not mutually exclusive for them to all exist at the same time. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything like this, and I think it’s kind of neat. There seems to be a Christian God as well as the set of gods that the witches believe in, of which Yambee-Akka is one of them. (Actually, do the witches believe in goddesses instead? Since they are all women, wouldn’t the witch gods also be women? DEEP THOUGHTS IN MARK’S HEAD.)

I don’t know if this necessarily means anything to the story as a whole, but I also wonder if there are sets of gods in other universes and if they’re real as well.

Anyway, it seems that the Cardinal is either dead or badly wounded by one of Serafina’s arrows, another is dropped on her way out, and then she’s gone, out and safe in the fog with the information that she needs. Oh, and this:

But there was one thing she knew for certain: there was an arrow in her quiver that would find its mark in Mrs. Coulter’s throat.


A bit disoriented from the experience, Serafina discovers she can’t use her normal sources of knowledge in nature because of what Lord Asriel did. Ripping a hole in the universe has upset the entire balance of nature, so Serafina knows she’ll have to depend on humans even more if she’s to find out what’s going on. We find ourselves in Trollesund again and Dr. Lanselius is back once more. From him, the political intrigue grows even weirder and more dire: The Magisterium is apparently assembling an army. And not just any army, but one of ZOMBIS. (Zombis referring to mindless people who have had their dæmons cut away in this case.) Oh, lord, this book is going to be a mess of horror, isn’t it?

Dr. Lanselius directs Serafina to Lord Asriel’s servant, Thorold, out in Svalbard, in order for her to figure out what it is Lord Asriel aims to do in the parallel world. As she travels there, more of the north is in disarray, including cracks in the ice and “stirrings in the soil.” Animals don’t travel in natural patterns, geese can’t fly straight, and when she arrives in Svalbard, Thorold is locked in battle with cliff-ghasts. Essentially, the entire Arctic Circle has been thrown into total chaos. Did Lord Asriel know that this would be a side effect of creating the bridge to the alternate world? I actually imagine that he didn’t, but he doesn’t seem to have the foresight to care how this affected other people. He’s bent on destroying Dust; why does he care if he destroys his own world in the process?

That actually goes hand-in-hand with what Thorold reveals to Serafina during her visit. Unsurprisingly, Lord Asriel has an intense hatred of the Church. LIKE WE DIDN’T EVEN  GET THAT ALREADY. I’m not sure that Thorold is being literal when he says it’s “death” to challenge the Church, but I get the sense that Lord Asriel likes being an antagonistic to this world power. He has a “rebellion in his heart,” initially against the Church, but Thorold insists that Lord Asriel is after something far larger than that: HE WANTS TO DESTROY GOD. So, that seemingly senseless prediction I made back in chapter twenty-one of The Golden Compass is not all that absurd anymore.

The thing is…is it true? I don’t know what to believe anymore. We haven’t found out if Dust is good or bad, where it comes from, or if it actually has anything to do with original sin. How can I believe that Lord Asriel is right in believing Dust comes from an actual God?

Knowing that Lord Asriel has the possibility to further disrupt this world, Serafina returns to her fellow witches and Lee Scoresby. I must admit that this does seem a tad familiar. Obviously, Lyra is not around at all, but the witch council does feel a lot like the Roping meetings from chapter eight of The Golden Compass. The witches are democratic and reasoned, like the gyptians. (If anything, the witches are even calmer than the gyptians were.) The witch council has a very specific hierarchal organization and, like the Roping, each witch gets a chance to honestly and practically voice their concerns. It’s not boring, per se, but it does feel a tad repetitive.

On the upside, we are introduced to Ruta Skadi, queen of the Latvian witches and one time lover of Lord Asriel. She is a woman who is ruthless in her lack of pity and shocking in her beauty, and her presence adds another wrinkle to what the witches eventually decide. Having discovered what was really happening in Bolvanger and with the Magisterium, Serafina leads the discussion on what to do with Lyra, who has clearly fulfilled every part of the witches’ prophecy so far. Ruta is the first to speak up, and it’s obvious what she wants to do: go to war against the Magisterium. Like Lord Asriel’s talk with Lyra, Pullman’s writing for Ruta is far from subtle, and I do understand that he’s essentially putting forth an idea that is immensely hard to swallow. It seems the main sin of the Church in this book is their control of bodily autonomy (in terms of a specific grievance). Ruta, however, has a general complaint about the concept of churches in general:

“That is what the Church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.”

An argument steeped in generalities is a poor starting point, and while I will elaborate on much more specific incidences, I wanted to address this idea first. Obviously, I don’t know what churches are in this alternate world and it could very well be true in this fictional universe that the churches do obliterate “good feelings,” whatever those are. Even so, this book doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it feels like Pullman himself is certainly creeping through on this. The thing is…I don’t want general complaints about the Church. I want to know why they are a Thing That Should Be Fought Against.

That being said, if you give this statement personal context, it’s not hard for me to feel there is some slight theological truth relevant to (again) specific situations. In my case, my years spent in the Catholic church most definitely came close to what Ruta is talking about: I was taught to hate and fear the things that actually made me feel whole and make me feel good, and that was a disorienting, confusing, and frightening time in my life.

When a glance at an attractive guy would send me into a deep, shameful despair, something was wrong with a system that put that into my brain. I was told to fear sexual feelings. I was told to fear masturbation. I was told to fear anger, to fear the vast majority of music that had gotten me through an abusive childhood, I was told to fear the rage that came with being abused, I was told to fear wanting affection, I was told to fear presenting myself as anything other than a straight dude, and I was told to blame myself for being bullied.

That’s me. That’s not you. And I get that, and I get that the context of our experiences with God or Catholicism or god or religion or anything are always our own, and they belong to no one else and they should represent no one else, and yet…it bothers me. I suppose it’ll always bother me. But if anything, I want specificity to these things. I want to talk about experiences and theology and, to be honest, I’m a bit tired of the indolence that comes with talking about religion.

I like that Lee Scoresby himself is not at all concerned with the theological battle that might be raised; instead, he’s more concerned with Lyra’s safety. He tells Serafina that he’s going to go find Dr. Grumman, who he believes is still alive, in order to find some mystical object that protects anyone who holds it. Serafina asks Lee scoresby if he has ever married or had children, and he replies that he hasn’t, though he understands why she would ask that:

“…that little girl has had bad luck with her true parents, and maybe I can make it up to her. Someone has to do it, and I’m willing.”

Bless your heart, Lee Scoresby.

Thus, the future is set: Serafina will lead twenty-one witches, plus Ruta, into a parallel universe. Ruta will seek out her old lover to learn of his true intentions, and the witches will do something they’ve never done before.

Good lord, this book is setting up one fascinating adventure.


About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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182 Responses to Mark Reads ‘The Subtle Knife’: Chapter 2

  1. Mauve_Avenger says:

    Witch geography time (because I'm weird like that):
    In an edition of this book that I regretfully don't own (a special 10th anniversary one, if I remember correctly), there's a short list of some of the witch queens and their clans. Ruta Skadi, who's described as the Queen of the Latvian witches in this chapter, is called the Queen of the Lake Lubans witches in this edition, Lubans being a lake in eastern Latvia. Looking them up online, all of the clan names listed that correspond to real-world places come from lakes in Eastern or Northern Europe. (Apparently witches love lakes.)

    The witch's daemon at the beginning of the chapter said it was from the Taymyr clan. Taymyr is the name of a peninsula that juts out into the Arctic Ocean (sort of separating the Kara Sea and the Laptev Sea), just east of the Yenisei River. It's also the name of a gulf that sits on the coast of the Taymyr Peninsula, as well as a river, island, and lake in the same general location.

    The tern daemon also mentioned that a few renegade witches from Volgorsk may still be helping the Oblation Board. There doesn't seem to be any real-world version of this name, but I would guess that it might correspond to the Volga River, or (given the witches' apparent penchant for settling on lake shores) perhaps one of the reservoirs on the river, like the Gorky or the Volgograd.

    There are only two witch-clans listed in the tenth anniversary edition of this book for which I couldn't find real-world names, neither of which are mentioned in-book: the Lake Umalese clan and the Navia clan. I'm guessing that the Navia clan might correspond to Lake Norva in Finland or Lake Narva in Russia/Estonia, but have no idea whatsoever about Lake Umalese.

    • notemily says:

      I love this stuff!

    • littlehobbit says:

      I’m from Latvia and Lake Lubans is a gorgeous place. I have no problem imaging Ruta and other witches there. Especially since there is lot of mythology about witches from Vidzeme’s (translated as middle earth from latvian :D) region. Looks like Pullman did some research.

  2. Inseriousity. says:

    I'm not a religious person but I do like to set aside two differences in religion that I do think people tend to generalise: the institution and the people. The institution is the "official" doctrine and dogma and when spreading your ideology, that can lead to "controlling, destroying, obliterating every good feeling" but the people are so much more diverse than that. They follow the religion but they don't necessarily follow everything within that religion. I think people tend to mix the two together.

    I find it just as bad an atheist ramming their views down people's throats than a religious person ramming their views down people's throats. That is my opinion on religion in general.

    This chapter just made me wish I could fly 🙁

    PS. Just reread this book and didn't notice it before until someone in here mentioned it but there are certainly a lot of 'Presently' in there!

  3. Hanah_banana says:

    I really like this chapter. It is as you say a massive info-dump but because Pullman is a genius of writing it doesn't feel like an info-dump. All the things people are saying, all the information we discover, none of it seems unnatural or bizarrely placed to help out the reader.

    All of my knowledge of religion comes from a vaguely Christian childhood in which I was christened and went to lots of CofE schools in which we sang hymns and had prayers every day but never really went to church and then in my teenage years I subsequently decided that religion didn't make any sense and I was probably an atheist but that religion was really, really fascinating and so now I'm studying it at uni. Which means I have a very odd, academic perspective of religion. I know about the wonderful things and the terrible things which have happened to people and the world because of religion, but I've never really experienced any of them myself. Which makes it quite hard to discuss deep ~feelings~ about religion because, well, my ~feelings~ are all entirely academic and logical and don't come from any especially emotive place other than "this is what I think because reading about it and having religious friends and being on the internet has led me to thinking this". And whilst reading and researching are very cool and wonderful and important things to do, I can't help but feel that they are obviously no substitute for personal experiences. So basically…I don't really know about to approach the sorts of theological discussions these books raise. Religion is such a difficult topic to discuss anyway – nobody is entirely ambivalent or unbiased and all sides are easily offended and I just do not know how to discuss it at all.

    Basically this whole comment is kind of meaningless, but I feel like I have achieved some internal understanding from my little ramble and that's good right?

    In other news – Lee Scoresby ILU please marry me and carry me away in your balloon. <3

    • stellaaaaakris says:

      I had a similar experience. I was raised Catholic, my mom taught my brother's catechism class, and I still go to Church most Sundays because it's important to my mom. However, I no longer believe in the Catholic Church (maybe a different Christian religion would be more suited for me, but I never really got the chance to explore them – another problem I have with religion). But I think the history of religion is fascinating. One of my majors at college was history, but we just had a general history program. I chose to focus mostly on the Holocaust, which also meant I studied the Jewish religion a lot, including how it interacted with Christianity and Islam. It was so incredibly interesting. But I guess unlike you, I still feel pretty comfortable talking about the more theological topics since I do still believe in God. But my arguments are also based and influenced by history, which a lot of the people I discuss religion with are unaware. Let's just say I get into a lot of debates in my head with the priests and their weekly sermons.

      Just thought I'd add to the rambling comments that result in personal internal understanding, if nothing else! 🙂

      • theanagrace says:

        I would like to add my own rambling experience with religion, if I may?
        I was baptized, and raised Anglican, which I tend to describe to people as 'Christian Lite' because while I had heard many things about other Christian denominations, there seemed to me that Anglicanism was a lot more easy going. I wasn't taught about saints, or confession, and the descriptions of (particularly) Roman Catholicism seemed a lot less relaxed. I've always felt comfortable having a personal relationship with my idea of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, or what have you. I never felt pressured by my parents or my church community to toe a certain line.
        That being said, I stopped going to church when I was about 12, so I could participate in more activities with my Air Cadet squadron. I don't regret that. I feel like my distance from any particular church has given me a chance to look around at the world and at religion and make my own way. I still believe in God, but I do have trouble believing in many things people do in God's name. I don't call what I have religion anymore. I call it spirituality. I love learning about other religions and even about agnosticism and atheism, and I think there is no reason why people with different beliefs can't be friends and get along. (okay, that sounds pretty sappy to me right now, lol)
        So, anyways, I think everyone should approach their wonder of the world and life and the universe in whatever way works best for them, whether it is religion, spirituality, science, something entirely their own, or a combination of any of those. /end ramble

        • viyamusic says:

          You know, your last comment struck a chord with me because although I have always considered myself a Methodist in my personal beliefs, I've recently been starting to do research into the Universalist Unitarian Association which values religious tolerance, aka: you can come here and feel safe believing whatever you want to believe while searching for universal truths. So for me it's like, I still believe everything I believed as a Methodist but am okay with you believing whatever you want to believe as long as it empowers you and helps spread love in the world. My personal experiences with spirituality are just as valuable as yours. You might be interested in that the same way I am.

          That being said, I get frustrated when Pullman does so much generalizing because he doesn't seem to care about separating the people from the institution.

        • t09yavorski says:

          Sappy can be cool. i'm a little sad I never experianced the Kumbiah (sp?) camp sing-along.

          When it comes to discussing religion I am a bit unique I supposed. 'Til I was 14 I went to church everytime with my family (Roman Catholic) and spent most of the masses reading the gospel's and readings instead of paying attention. I also am a bit fan of when religion comes up in history and I know quite a bit about religious origin stories. This lead me to the idea that either everyone is right or no one is, so I wont even try to pick one. But knowing all that I do I am also able to discuss from multiple points of view (best with Catholic and Unbeliever) convincingly.

    • eleniel says:

      Personally, I am super interested in an academic take! Just because it's not as personal as that of a person who has lived with religion doesn't mean it wouldn't add to the conversation and be really interesting. And sometimes having something explained in academic terms can help someone make sense of their personal experience (this has happened to me, but with sexism rather than religion). Do share!

    • EmmylovesWho says:

      I feel similarly academic about it, even though we were weekly Church going Catholics and went through Communion and Confirmation and all that jazz.
      Then at the age of about 17/18 it was no longer mandatory for the kids of the family to go, and many of us stopped attending Mass nbd.

      I feel academic about it because I was never told not to do something because of religion. I think, in our family and in other cases it was a cultural thing as well as a religious thing, the way that nationality is an identity- you don't really choose it, and even if you are lapsed forms part of your background. Also, my parents were pretty chill about it.My dad will call himself a Catholic but doesn't believe in souls. Still, he is a Catholic. A religious one. IDEK.

      Religion and society is weird.

    • Kelly says:

      From my perspective-I was raised Catholic….and I mean, REALLY Catholic. College was my first experience with a non-Catholic education, and there was no leeway whatsoever when discussing church teachings in school. If you didn't agree with Church teachings, you failed religion class. Most kids in my school never even bothered to think that there could be other perspectives out there and those of us who did, well we learned to keep our mouths shut. And that's the kind of Church/Magisterium that I always interpreted Pullman as writing about. Especially since in Lyra's world, it seems like the Church has a far greater influence in secular affairs than any religion (save maybe Islam in certain countries) in ours. if that's the case, I can understand why Ruta Skadi speaks of it in general terms and why Lord Asriel is determined to kill God. Still-their characters are both presented as blunt, no nonsense types that DO deal in generals. For most of the people in Lyra's world the Church doesn't seem the tyrant that Ruta and Asriel see. Characters like Mrs. Coulter are more than willing to work within Church laws, and for most, I'd assume that the Church is at most a mild annoyance in their daily lives.

      Other than that….well, I want to wait till you finish the series to discuss religion and the way Pullman presents it. But I do want to say it's fascinating to me how he weaves religion and spirituality into his book, especially considering his personal beliefs. I mean, an atheist talking about souls (to pull from TGC) I'm sure the religious freaks who never think for themselves must have had a heart attack reading that, but I love that it shows that atheist beliefs aren't as black and white as most people believe.

    • Hanah_banana says:

      I have been away from the computer all evening so I missed everyone's comments earlier, but I just wanted to say that I love that my comment has turned into story-share time. 🙂 I think it's really awesome, everyone sharing their experiences of religion – spiritual or academic – and what perspective it gives them. It's so, so fascinating and thank you all so much for sharing, upvotes for everyone!

      Also I had a crazy brain moment when I said I don't know how to discuss religion at all – I can discuss religion (thank fuck or my degree would be going up in smoke!) but only on a more general level. I can have the most epic of discussions/arguments/rants (which it is depends upon the topic and the person I'm with!) about Christian doctrines of salvation or theodicy or any of the big ontological arguments, but when it starts becoming personal, how religion is for individuals on a more mundane and day-to-day basis apart from the big questions we can't answer…that's when I find it hard to talk about. I realise I probably didn't need to clarify that, but I just re-read my post and I felt I was misrepresenting myself so I figured I'd correct myself.

      Also if anyone has anymore stories of their religious backgrounds (or lack thereof!) please keep sharing, I am loving reading them. 🙂

    • xynnia says:

      Hooray, it's religious storytime! I've loved reading all of your stories about personal experiences with religion and I'd like to add my own slightly strange, very rambling account. I agree most with theanagrace in that I just wish everyone of different religions, spiritualities and world views would get along already and realise that no-one can be 100% certain when it comes to the mysteries of the universe, so they should all just shut up and sit down. x3 As a rather off-topic side note, I've been writing this Road to El Dorado fanfic (of all things) in which I created a universe in which gods and goddesses of all different mythologies and doctrines (including Christianity) exist equally in one big Heaven. Rather like what Pullman seems to be doing with his world in a way. I've had massively positive feedback about it (even though I really need to update!) and it seems to be by far my most popular fanfic, disproportionate to the small size of the RtED fandom. I wonder what that says.

      Anyway, on to my own story. I've been born and raised a Church of England/Anglican Christian, and I still regard myself as one, but I've drifted away from the Church over the last couple of years and am a lot more uncertain about my beliefs than I used to be. My parents moved away from the church where I grew up and knew everyone, and I don't really feel like I'm a part of their new church. I live at uni now anyway and I've found a great church there, really friendly and welcoming, but I'm out of the habit of going every Sunday and most weekends I'm visiting my boyfriend in London anyway, so… my attendance is still very sporadic. There's also a Christian Union/Bible study group every Wednesday evening at my college, but I've been avoiding it even when I do have time to go, because I don't feel too comfortable there. I just can't seem to muster up the extreme enthusiasm for my religion that they all have, and there's far too much talk of evangelising for my liking. Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy with my own beliefs for the most part and I won't hesitate to tell people what I believe in and discuss it with them, but I just don't have that "IT'S AMAZING JESUS IS ALIVE GOD LOVES US TELL EVERYONE!" mentality. Maybe it comes from being born a Christian instead of experiencing that miraculous moment of conversion.

      To be continued…

      • xynnia says:

        So instead of other Christians who are passionate about and confident in their faiths (since they make me feel rather inadequate), the people I most like to spend time with and discuss religion with are sceptical, disillusioned Christians a little like myself, and open-minded agnostics or atheists who are willing to accept and appreciate my views even if they don't share them. Basically anyone with whom I can go, "That's interesting; I never thought about it like that before. But what about…"

        I'm not majorly disillusioned, mind, because I'm still sure that God exists and I've experienced proof of it in my own life; and I also believe that Jesus Christ was His Son who came to earth to die for our sins, so I guess that makes me a Christ-ian. But I take issue with anyone who believes that one religion or doctrine has all the answers. Do they really think that's possible? I most like the analogy used by my R.E. teacher in years 7 and 8, who told us about the parable of the ten blind men and the elephant, and then likened it to religion; everyone has a different bit of the 'elephant' (God), and each person is convinced that their bit represents the whole, but no-one is able to see the entire being, the entire picture. I also take issue with certain aspects of Christianity. It's not the dogged fanatics that bother me, since I know that other religions have those as well, and within atheism there are also those who are harsher, more unyielding and less reasonable than others. It bothers me more when people assume that those voices represent the whole of Christianity. But I don't agree with my religion's stance on homosexuality for one thing. It's ridiculous and unbelievably damaging, and I don't feel I need to elaborate on that because I'm just repeating what almost everyone knows. I also don't like that my religion tells me I can't be with my atheist boyfriend, because I believe that God brought us together and how can that be a bad thing? And I absolutely hate how religion teaches that having sex outside of wedlock is a sin. That mentality is also incredibly damaging, and I would know. It's caused me enough problems.

        So in a way I regard myself as taking time out from the Church in order to sort out what I really believe in. I kind of envy my self of a few years ago for having such conviction in her faith, but even then, really, I had my doubts. In the last few years I have also got into a thing called apologetics, which is not about saying sorry but about giving a good argument for your faith. (It's nice to know that the random religious arguments I get into on the internet actually have a proper name!) I want to be able to show people that faith does not equal irrational belief, and that Christians are not just wackos who think that an invisible dude is looking after them, but people with beliefs as justifiable as any other. I don't like the general perception of atheists as being more rational, logical and scientific than those who practice a religion, and this ties in with my dislike of the general opinion that religion and science are completely incompatible. In general I would just like to change the way that a lot of people view Christianity, which is an as outdated, irrelevant joke or else some kind of a cage that people try to lure you into with cakes and friendliness, and then slam the door and force you to conform to their squeaky-clean moral practices. And don't even get me started on Richard Dorkins. The man might be a learned scientist but how can he claim to have written a book – and one so full of holes at that – which can 'convert' someone into an atheist in a single reading. What an egotistical idea. How could anything ever be that simple? Which is why it upset me (to drag this ramble finally back in the direction of Mark's post) that Philip Pullman puts his support behind such a book. I have so much respect for him, as an author of some of the most fantastic books I've ever read, but I guess his personal beliefs lie in a realm very different to my own. Kind of like another world. X3

        • theanagrace says:

          Wow, it's like you are me, but more eloquent. I agree wholeheartedly with what youve said here, especially the second half (except the Richard Dorkins part, bc I've never heard of him. I'll have to go Wikipedia him later).
          Also, where can I find your fanfic, because it sounds awesome! That is, if you want to share 😀

        • echinodermata says:

          Uh, Richard Dawkins has converted people with The God Delusion (among other of his books). There are over 40 pages on his website full of letters people have written to him about how he changed their life.

          Say what you will about him, but he has converted people. With The God Delusion. Perhaps not in a single reading, but with (the help of) his book all the same.

  4. blis says:

    witches have the coolest names. that is all

  5. priellan says:

    I find it interesting that you bring up the fact that Pullman only used generalities here. I have a lot of issues with Pullman's writing concerning religion, and I was wondering if you were going to gloss over some of them because you enjoy the books so much, but I'm glad you're being honest with your opinions and not saying "amazing author I don't care". (I'm a bit of a new reader can you tell)

    I can't wait to see what you have to say about his writing in future chapters; I enjoy being able to see books from your perspective, since it's quite a bit different from mine, and it's nice to see opinions from someone who embraces these books instead of immediately hating them like most people I know do.

  6. Mauve_Avenger says:

    "It’s clear that, for the first time, we’re meeting some of the more important members of the Church or the Magisterium. (I don’t think those terms are interchangeable, are they?)"

    They're pretty much interchangeable, as far as I know. I think it was said that after the Papacy was abolished, all the courts and councils that made up the other parts of the church grew bigger to replace it and became collectively known as the Magisterium.

    Also, a general question: I know that there are radio and theatre versions of the first book at least, but are there also adaptations of the other two books, or adaptations that encompass the series as a whole?

  7. Jamie S says:

    I don't think this is the first time Serafina feels fear, I just think it's the first time we're inside her head. I'm sure she'd appear as calm and aloof as always, if we were watching from the outside. But I really love that this chapter gives us a much more intimate view of her character.

  8. redheadedgirl says:

    The thing that struck me the most in rereading this chapter is that Asriel wants to destroy God, and the Church (and I do think the CHurch and Magisterium are the same-ish. The Magisterium is the bureaucracy that grew up in the abolition of the Papacy. This is explained in chapter 2 of TGC) the Church is desperate to stop him. So desperate that they will raise up an army.

    Which sort of implies that they don't think God can defend himself. I mean, he's God. God is supposed to be all-powerful, that's kind of the POINT. You'd think that an institution surrounding an all-powerful God would be like, "…yeah, good luck with that." and let the poor fool go off to do battle with diety.

    But they don't.

    Instead they mass everything they've got to go after Asriel. Why? Are they more powerful than God? Do they think they are more powerful than God? That's…. a pair of disturbing thoughts.

    • Noybusiness says:

      They are really insecure, aren't they?

    • Brieana says:

      That's a really good point.

    • FlameRaven says:

      I think the Church is terrified more of Asriel's audacity at challenging their ideas more than anything. It's not that they don't think that God can't defend himself, but the problems that Asriel's attack causes: if HE can make a challenge on such a grand scale, what's to stop anyone else from attempting this? Basically, Asriel has completely rejected the Church and all its ideas in one amazingly grand gesture. While probably no one else is going to outright say that they're going to kill God, Asriel's example might inspire others to reject the church and its ideas in many smaller ways. The Church cannot abide this kind of challenge to their doctrine, and so they have to crush Asriel completely and utterly to make sure no one else even thinks of challenging them.

      • hummingbrdheart says:

        <img src=""&gt;

        [Image description: The glorious Catherine Tate applauds, smiles, and nods knowingly.]

      • Fantastic comment. Makes me think that calling God "the Authority" is appropriate because they sound like a very authoritarian institution: top-down, hierarchical, controlling.

      • flootzavut says:

        Hmmm yeah… either way though, it makes me think they are insecure on some level. If they were so sure they were right and sure of their power, they would assume that crushing him would be easy… at least that's how the logic in my head seems to figure it out lol.

        Of course it could be argued that they are just THAT totalitarian that they won't abide any misconduct… thinking about it, there are a fair few dictators around who were paranoid to the point of getting rid of their allies if the ally seemed too popular, so maybe I shouldn't be applying my logic to these people…

    • MichelleZB says:

      That's sort of another point about religious people, who are often really defensive about God. Really, you'd think the guy could handle himself.

      • majere616 says:

        That's exactly how I feel about blasphemy. I mean if God really finds it that objectionable wouldn't He/She DO something about it?

      • hymnia says:

        If Christians try to stop people form mocking God, it's probably more out of concern for the people than for God.

        • muzzery says:

          In that case they are just showing an arrogance presuming their beliefs are undeniably right and aren't even accomodating for the person's potential belief that God is a fictional entity.

      • flootzavut says:

        Just IME, but the less defensive people are usually those who actually BELIEVE, rather than feel the need to continually convince themselves and others. I don't know how else to put it. People who are defensive are often, again in my experience, defending themselves and their own view of God because they are afraid. People who are trying to "let God be God" and get to know him, not put him in a neat little box, are usually less defensive.

    • hpfish13 says:

      Well, if you look at their previous actions, the church in these novels doesn't really have a lot of faith in God. Flat out, if God designed their universe (I'm not sure if this is ever stated as fact in these books), then he designed people with daemons, with dust, etc. and the church is trying–through their own human efforts–to change all that because they've decided it is evil. They've consistently been shown as relying on their own methods throughout the first novel, so I'm not really surprised that they are doing the same thing again.

      • flootzavut says:

        ^ OK I would have done much better not to attempt to explain myself and just waited till I got to your post and said "yeah, exactly!"

        But even having posted, I guess I can still say "Yeah, exactly!"

      • Partes says:

        I feel the idea that trying to enforce (through violence) a certain interpretation of the Bible and a lack of faith in God are connected is a leap in logic, imo of course. This neglects the role that standard bigotry plays in the Magisteriums hatred, rather than just religious faith itself. Pullman has written this Church, after all, as a dictatorship, one which is trying to enforce its moral agenda on the rest of humanity. A lack of faith in God and oppression do not neccesarily go hand in hand, so I think that idea dilutes a point that is being made here: hatred can, has been and always will be perpetuated by those who believe without question that they are morally superior to all others. It's the product of both arrogance and insecurity.

        It's not that they don't have faith in God; it's that they are arrogant enough to associate that faith with a personal right to enforce their creator's decrees, rather than leaving judgement up to him. This is something that nearly all religions have been guilty of at some stage or another.

        Unless you were referring to faith in its literal definition rather than it's alternative religious one, in which case disregard the above as incoherent rambling. 😛

    • I like that God has a name: the Authority. That sounds badass. Is that unique to Lyra's world?

    • flootzavut says:

      I think it shows a distinct lack of faith doesn't it?

      In my experience, it's usually those who are least certain of what they believe (any religion or none) who are most likely to lash out at those who disagree… like I say, just my experience. As such I think it's a pretty realistic depiction.

      (There's loads of interesting things that could be talked about in reference to this point, of course, in terms of the whole trilogy, but shhh, spoilers!)

  9. blis says:

    Mrs. Coulter is so scary! She seems to enjoy hurting others. Is this another way for her to get that sense of power she so desires? The witch already agreed and there she is breaking yet another finger. Seriously the only thing that scares me more right now is that damn golden monkey.

  10. Patrick721 says:

    In light of Asriel's ambition, I have a macro.
    <img src=""&gt;

    yikes, that's a bit big, isn't it?

  11. Laurel says:

    Major info dump chapter, this.

  12. monkeybutter says:

    I’m not sure that Thorold is being literal when he says it’s “death” to challenge the Church

    I think he is. Lord Asriel was about to have a death sentence come down on him for heresy in the last book. As for why the Church should be fought against, that was the subject of the entire last book. I understand what you mean about Ruta Skadi basically preaching in Pullman's stead — it's very heavy-handed — but she's also a character sympathetic to Lord Asriel, who has decided to go kill God (because, I dunno, damn the man), and she wants to join him. A leap of logic from the Magisterium committing intercission and other churches (religions) mutilating the genitals of children to all churches are evil is extreme, but that's just what Lord Asriel is. The far more even-handed Serafina Pekkala decides to go in search of Lyra, not join Ruta Skadi and Lord Asriel on their crusade. So, it could be Pullman preaching through Ruta, or it could just be a passionate character leaping to conclusions .

    And did I miss a previous description of Serafina Pekkala, because here it says she has fair hair, but I've always imagined her with wildly curly red hair similar to what Merida in Brave has. I think I've been stereotyping red hair = witch.

    • Mauve_Avenger says:

      I was surprised at Serafina Pekkala having blonde hair in this chapter, too, even though the first book describes her as being fair. There was an Ian Daniels illustration in a book I had that came close to my image of her (tall, pale skin, green eyes, straight black hair with a single-strand wreath of small red flowers), but from the description in the books she apparently looks a bit more like this (image also by Ian Daniels), which is how I imagined the young witch Juta Kamainen to look.

      Re: Ruta Skadi, I also have to wonder if perhaps Lyra's world has a history with witches that's similar to our own (Mrs. Coulter mentioned a thousand years of perfecting torture methods, and there must have been someone subjected to that), or if the witches are worried that this would be the next step in the Magisterium's plan. John Faa mentioned in the last book that there are rumors of the Magisterium reinstituting the Inquisition, and if that were to happen it seems unlikely that the witches would be left alone.

      • theanagrace says:

        That is pretty, but I've always seen Serafina with black hair too, and this was also the first time I noticed the fair hair. :S

    • Jenny_M says:

      Agreed. I took the death to be literal threat as well. Plenty of people have died for defying an authoritarian body before, and that's what the Church represents in this world.

    • BradSmith5 says:

      Yeah, I keep thinking Sarafina is green, like the witch in "Wizard of Oz." I'm a bad, bad stereotyper. 🙁

    • notemily says:

      LOL at "because, I dunno, damn the man". I love picturing Asriel as a teenage punk bent on ~rebellion.~

  13. frogANDsquid says:

    Serafina Pekkala has the greatest name of all time.

    Moving on, i find it interesting that Pullman calls many characters by their full names, its always Lee Scoresby never just Lee. Or in The Golden Compass it always seemed to be ( correct me if im wrong ) Billy Costa and not just Billy. Just something i noticed.

    At first i thought it was Serafina Pekkala first name and last name, but now hearing of other witches i think they all have have two “first names.”

    • rumantic says:

      That's a good point actually, since they are all female, would their surnames be passed down the female line? Serafina Pekkala mentioned marriage in the first book, but implied that most witches marry several times during their lifetimes, so if they used the human tradition of taking the man's surname, that would be a lot of names they'd go through. Perhaps they don't have surnames at all.

      • theanagrace says:

        Did she say they married? I only remember them speaking about their relationships with mortal males as their lovers. I remember Serafina saying she would have given up being a witch to be Farder Coram's wife if it was possible, but it wasn't. (Giving up her witch-ness, I mean)
        Also, I can't see Serafina Pekkala or Ruta Skadi giving up their names for a mortal human's name. 😛

    • Danni says:

      I can't remember where I heard it, but apparently Pullman discovered the name 'Serafina Pekkala' in a Polish(?) or some other European country's phonebook. So some lucky person in the world has one of the greatest names to ever grace the pages of literature. So jealous.

  14. MichelleZB says:

    Pullman's commentary on churches doesn't really bother me. Why? He's right. A lot of organized churches *do* try to control and repress the normal feelings of their congregation, and make them feel like there's something wrong with them. And we're all so busy respecting people's religious freedom that we don't object nearly strongly enough. Of course people have the right to believe what they want to believe! But that doesn't mean that *institutions* should have the right to marginalize people in the manner that they often do. Let's stand up for our fellow citizenry and tell churches to CUT IT THE HELL OUT.

    I mean, if I went to one of these fundamentalist churches, they'd probably be very nice to me. Why? Because I'm a young white woman, married, pregnant with my first child, and planning to take time off work while my higher-earning husband supports me. My life just worked out this way–I didn't do it on purpose to be "righteous"–but apparently I fit into many churches' narrow "okay" zone. They'd be even nicer to my husband, because, let's face it, men are even cooler than women.

    But how would they treat my gay cousin?

    You've been very kind, Mark, in saying that your experience at church wasn't necessarily everyone's experience, but of course it wasn't. Why? Because you're gay, and many churches feel like, for that reason, that gives them the right to bully you and be cruel to you, even when you were a child. NOT OKAY.

    It makes me pretty angry, how gay kids in specific are treated in many churches, and I don't think my anger is bigotry against religion. It is righteous anger, that rises out of the protective feelings I have for a marginalized group. And I think it's an anger that needs to be voiced. A lot.

    I anticipate a lot of comments from people who are going to yell at me, saying: but my church is nice! My church isn't like that! Don't lump us all together! Well, I'd like to say that I've been careful to say "some churches" and "many churches", so I'm not lumping every church together. And I've been very careful to talk about churches, not specific people's individual beliefs.

    BUT, more importantly, more loudly, I'd like to say exactly what Dan Savage says: Don't Tell Me, Tell Them.… Don't tell me that your church accepts gay people. TELL THE OTHER CHURCHES WHO DON'T. Tell them they're wrong about religion. Tell them they're bullies. Stand up for your gay cousins and sisters and uncles and friends and tell the bigot churches to SHOVE IT. Don't tell me.

    I'm cheering Asriel on if he's really trying to end this madness.

    • Jenny_M says:

      Oh my gosh, yes, this. Every group, whether religious, political, or other, has their fringe element. It drives me absolutely bonkers when people try to distance themselves from the extremists, as opposed to trying to stop them from spreading hate or violence or discord. Don't claim, "I'm not like that!" Instead, claim, "I'm actively working to stop that."

      • MichelleZB says:

        I totally agree, though I will add: we must be careful about calling these types of churches "fringe elements". They are not fringe in terms of numbers of congregants.

        There a lot of churches that bully homosexuals, and these include churches with the most members in the US, such as the Catholic Church or the Southern Baptists. These churches are hardly considered "fringe" by most people's standards.

        • Jenny_M says:

          You're totally right, I was just being a little PC and not wanting to offend anyone by lambasting their particular church. But having been raised going to an evangelical Christian school, I definitely agree that they are no minority, and some of the things I heard out of my teachers' mouths make my skin crawl.

    • lovelyhera says:

      I am so with you on this one – it's fine for you to have your beliefs, but when you try to impose those beliefs on me, i'm going to get pissed. So I'm not allowed to get married because you're religion says I can't? Bullshit. Regardless of what you might think, i'm not trying to turn you gay or destroy your marriages so stop trying to turn me straight and destroy/prevent mine!

      So yeah, basically – not religion itself, but the institutionalized beliefs and systems that arise out of religion and attempts to (and often succeeds in) exerting power over everyone, not just their personal flock.

    • eleniel says:

      Don't tell me that your church accepts gay people. TELL THE OTHER CHURCHES WHO DON'T.

      I love this. And yeah, the line in question rang true to me, as far as my experiences with Christianity and Catholicism goes.

    • cait0716 says:

      Agree with everything. I tend to agree with most of what Pullman says about the church, which is a big part of what I like about these books.

    • jenesaispas21 says:

      This is one of the best comments I've read on this site. I agree with it wholeheartedly. While I understand the believer's instinct to be defensive, the force we're defending against is the bigot and not the messenger. Well put.

  15. KvotheCase says:

    I adore this series. It appeals to me on a deeply personal level, for exactly the same reasons it has caused such controversy. I love the way Pullman addresses theology, morality and philosophy in a fantastic setting-and I admire his brave accusations of the church. I feel so lucky to be able to sit and read these books when 200 years ago both Pullman and his supporting readers would probably have been sentenced to death for heresy.

    I'm Irish and the primary school I went to was very religious, as are most of the schools in the country. The church retains its strong connection with the schools… And its control over them. I have no particularly horrifying anecdotes, but we had Christian ethos presented to us as the iron truth. I remember being told, aged five or six, that God loved us more than our parents. I think that's an awfully presumptuous thing to tell a child. I remember being told by a young priest that being baptized was like getting a lift in a helicopter to your destination, while being unbaptized was like having to walk- really, what the hell?

    I watched my classmates prepare for their Holy Communion and later their Confirmation, and I know for a fact that I, as an observer, gave more thought to those sacraments than they ever did. I came to be intensely grateful that my un-religious parents hadn't seen fit to baptize me.

    Then, last year, a lot of secrets came out. The news was full of stories about nightmarish child abuse, physical, emotional, sexual. It was all people were talking about. And the church had quite a fall from grace. Priests lost so much respect. People began to distance themselves. The clergy no longer held as much power.

    And there you are. There's your result. Teach young priests that sex is immoral and an embarrassment, tell them they can never partake in sexual feelings, and they become sick. These suppressed feelings began to fester. And things go terribly, terribly wrong. Give the church power over schools, communities and families, and things happen that are almost too horrendous to think about. Blind eyes are turned. People are scared to stand up to them.

    So I, though I am an atheist, do not think there is in anyway anything inherently immoral or bad about the idea of the Christian God. But the Church itself has proven itself more than unworthy of a place of power and respect in our community. Which is why I believe religion should be something private and personal to each person, practiced at home or in groups, unchallenged but not given any special place of power.

  16. Vikikiwa says:

    And now you can see where the controversy really starts. My issue with this is the generalization of all churches as bad.

    Personal backstory: I'm pretty much atheist raised Catholic There wasn't any big moment or traumatic event which made me atheist, it's just, at some point, I came to think it wasn't terribly likely there was a God. I guess my experience is different because in Ireland I've never know someone to try justify their prejudices with religion (the blatant homophobia here…). Of course the Church has done terrible awful things here and if you'd gone to Catholic school ( most schools are catholic) here you're pretty much not allowed to be non-Catholic but still…

    There are many many many churches in many many many religions and there's considerable diversity in opinion, morality and actions within those churches so to label all of these as bad and 'controlling' seems, well, inaccurate to say the least.

    There's alot to like in this book but the strawman argument he's trying make will always annoy the fuck out of me.

  17. knut_knut says:

    I was also raised without religion (my dad's side of the family is Catholic but he no longer believes in their faith and my mom is Shinto/Buddhist but they decided to raise me and my sister without religion at all) but I had no concept of religion at all until I was well into middle school. I think it's great with people are spiritual, but I can't forget how HORRIBLE kids were to me in middle school and high school because I wasn't religious and was therefore a Satanist. WAT. It's sad that a few horrible people can ruin one's perception of religion or religious people 🙁

    • pennylane27 says:

      My Dad was baptised at birth, but he says it doesn't count because it was done without his consent. That's why we weren't raised in any religion. And it's weird, because my grandparents weren't religious either, but baptising one's children was something that you kind of had to do back then or something, it was traditional.

      And I was lucky, no one ever called me a Satanist (now I can't stop thinking about My Immortal and dying from laughter), because I went to public schools and there is no preaching of any faith there.

      • flootzavut says:

        In the UK (can't speak for anywhere else) getting your kids christened or baptised is a frequent thing even for those who never go to church and if challenged would say that of course they don't believe in God.

        Bit like getting married in Church, something that often couples do who have no intention whatsoever of going to church ever again (except to get their kids christened of course, and possibly for their funerals) and have no view that marriage is anything except a legal bit of paper.

        To be honest it has always seemed a bit odd to me. I can't imagine say, if I lived in Saudi Arabia, that I would want to get my wedding blessed by an Imam just because that was "what you did", but for a lot of people weddings, some sort of baptism, and funerals, are just these things you "have to do", and have to do in church, even if you have no beliefs in what is being done or said whatsoever. I have no idea what it's like in the US or elsewhere, but it's not infrequent in the UK.

      • knut_knut says:

        my dad went to Catholic school up until he went to college and it did nothing but drive him away from religion.

        haha, being called a Satanist wasn't so bad at first but I was in middle school and ~FULL OF EMOTIONS~ and it got to me eventually 🙁 I went to a public school too but I guess that didn't stop anyone from preaching their faith

    • drippingmercury says:

      My parents raised me without religion, also. Neither of them are atheists, but I knew I didn't believe in god even as a child (still not sure how I came to that conclusion, I wish I did).
      In second grade I told a classmate that I didn't believe in god, and he replied "Oh, you're JEWISH?"

      And thereafter I was "the Jewish girl" despite my attempts to explain otherwise.

      • t09yavorski says:

        I think I understand how he came to that comclusion but that is pretty dissapointing. I understand that puplic schools arent supposed to discuss religion and that part of history isnt studied until later but the fact that mistakes like that are made, is one of the problems with how kids are brought up in relation to religion.

        • drippingmercury says:

          Obviously, this varies widely from state to state and even school to school, but what's frustrating is that, in my US public school experience, teachers DO discuss and even push their personal religious beliefs. They'll have Christmas and Easter parties in the class, the choir sings Silent Night at assemblies, and science class is full of little asides about "what they have to teach" versus "what's true"… but nothing is ever actually TAUGHT about religions, their histories, their tenets (especially non-Christian religions) until High School, if ever. There's kind of a general normalizing of Christian beliefs, but a taboo around explicitly teaching about any religion because "public schools can't teach that, separation of church and state, we'd get sued." For me, the line of separation of church and state was breeched when I had to write a foreign language paper about what I did for Easter, not when reading selections from the Quran, Bible, or Bhagavad Gita in a world history class.

          I think education on world religions is very important for a well-rounded, tolerant individual and therefore should be taught to everyone. The difficulty is finding a teacher who can adequately instruct about religions without inserting their own beliefs into the matter. Given how difficult this was for many of my own teachers to manage even when discussing secular topics… eh. Probably better they aren’t trying to teach about religions.

  18. Kira Wonrey says:

    I remember when I first read this chapter. I loved the witches! They’re so wonderful.
    At that time, I was 13 or 14, I don’t know… (and I’m just 16 years old now. I have such bad memory)
    My family was very religious, but they’ve never cared about what kinds of books I read… Anyway, I found amazing that someone wanted to KILL God. Just like that.
    Even with everything that happens at the end of The Golden Compass, Asriel was one of my favourite characters, and I think this made me like him even more.

  19. xpanasonicyouthx says:


  20. tchemgrrl says:

    So, here's a place where I came away thinking that the whole "Pullman's the atheist CS Lewis!" thing was a bit overstated. On one hand, you do have people speaking ill of the church. On the other hand, the church's greatest enemy seems to be Asriel, and he just possibly destroyed his own world (based on the weather patterns and stuff we're seeing already) to bring them down, and is a total jerk in general. So it's not like the anti-church faction has any higher ground. Killing God isn't being shown as something we should all aspire to–it's the work of megalomanics. The folks who are held up as the most admirable so far– Lyra, Farder Coram, Iorek, Lee–don't work for the church and aren't on the church's shitlist either.

    The thing is…is it true? I don’t know what to believe anymore. We haven’t found out if Dust is good or bad, where it comes from, or if it actually has anything to do with original sin. How can I believe that Lord Asriel is right in believing Dust comes from an actual God?

    This is a thing I had a really hard time with when I read the book (but am having an easier time of upon the reread, with the 20/20 hindsight YOU ARE UNPREPARED). We've been told a lot of different things by a lot of different people, and just about everyone seems to have lied at one time or another. It's hard to overwrite the whole previous plot over and over again with "none of that was what you thought it was." It's frustrating!

  21. cobaltazure says:

    One of the things in this chapter that most excited me was the confirmation that there are other churches besides the Magisterium. This is the third time that I've read His Dark Materials, and this time around, I've taken on the mission of hunting for any signs of religious diversity I can find in Lyra's world. That mission actually came out of a desire to fit myself into this world somehow. On my first two reads, I assumed that doing that would be impossible, because I'm Jewish and the Church in this world doesn't tolerate any dissent. But this time, I didn't want to dismiss any possible connection I might have to this world so easily. Just because people in power try to erase the existence of the Other doesn't mean that the Other is not there. So this boils down to two questions: Can I find myself in these books, and does it change anything if I do? I don't know if it will change anything, but it's at least worth trying to find myself in the story.

    Granted, this mention of another religion seems like a throwaway ("not only is the Magisterium horribly controlling, but there's genital mutilation going on in Africa as a result of religion, so 'every church is the same.'") Like people have pointed out above, Ruta Skadi's (and possibly Pullman's) logic has taken a few extra unsupported leaps. On the other hand, churches and other religions actually do horrible things to people, including their own believers. These statements aren't completely unfounded.

    I take the view that religion is a good thing up to the point where it stops giving you hope and starts making you fear. If religion provides room for you to be yourself and be happy, then it doesn't have to be a bad thing. If it becomes all about fear, destruction of knowledge, and breaking fingers, then yes, toss it overboard.

  22. muzzery says:

    I think it's important to establish that Pullman isn't having a go at religious people. If he thought they were all bad, he wouldn't have the Gyptian protagonists say prayers. The point he is making is that the people who in control and with power are the ones who are bad. These institutions, such as the Magisterium, are guilty of trying to control and are completely intolerant, because to be tolerant would be to forsake the power they have amassed. It's a MUCH more complex message than simply: Religion is bad. He's making the point that powerful organisations put themselves first, and to maintain power they control, and if they cannot do that, destroy. He's not saying this is a fault exclusive to organised religion, it's just that organised religion and the church is the institution that is relevant here. Every institution with too much power fears losing it, and losing relevancy, no matter what or who they represent.

  23. I hate how spoilers get in the way. 🙂

    I can see where you're coming from; thanks for the explanation. I'm still sorting through my response, but I think we're coming at the text from different angles, and that's where my confusion lies. Which is okay! I will think more about it.

  24. hazelwillow says:

    I like your comment, and I personally think Philip Pullman is responding from a similar place. I remember Frank McCourt's book 'Tis talking about how he had to overcome the ingrained guilt he felt from the way he was taught (in a very Catholic school system).

    I do think religious or spiritual community can be important and very positive. It's more complicated than a black and white, either/or situation. It just needs to be done *right*, and I think that a way to do religious community that guards from the abuse of power is to have it be not a big powerful institution, and to have it truly be freely chosen by its participants. I should add that my experience of religious community is mostly in the Unitarian Universalist church.

  25. On a completely different note from my religious fumblings above: Pullman uses both "vivid" and "passionate" in describing Ruta and Juta (and hey, their names are so similar, too). Is that bad writing, or do you think he intended to indicate a similarity between them?

    I have to believe that his editor would have pointed it out. But then, same could be said for the "presently"s, so I'm not sure. There are descriptive similarities between Ruta and Asriel as well: passionate, proud, powerful, pitiless, with some dark coloring. It's such a facile way to link characters; maybe it's just me overthinking it. 🙂

  26. hazelwillow says:

    This is one of my favourite chapters, especially the scene on the boat. I love the witches. And I love Serafina Pekkala. I recognize that it has a purpose in the narrative, which is to build suspense and drop hints about Lyra's "destiny", but that doesn't bother me. All chapters should have a purpose, and while eavsdropping is a common trope in Harry Potter, it's not even common enough in this book for me to label it a trope here.

    Re: your thoughts about gods. Doesn't it say that Yambe Akka is a goddess (something like "Yambe-Akka was the goddess that would come to a witch when she was going to die")? That's what's in my memory, anyway. Maybe that's from the Golden Compass, when Yambe Akka is mentioned the first time?

    And, Mark, you already saw Yambe Akka in this chapter. She came to the goddess in the guise of Serafina. Now, I don't want to argue how literal vs metaphorical this is supposed to be. Everyone reads things differently, but to me the question of literal vs metaphorical is beside the point in this case. It works that way symbolically in the story, at least for me. 🙂

  27. lossthief says:

    So here's a bit of a grievance I have with this chapter, and with Pullman's writing in general. For the most part, Pullman does a good job of Showing rather than Telling, however there are several cases that have popped up to me, one of them being in this chapter, where he feels the need to tell us something along with showing us.

    At the end of Ruta Skadi's speech, we're graced with this bit: "Ruta Skadi spoke passionately…"

    REALLY, she spoke passionately during that long speech about how much she hates the Church? Who'd have guessed. I was under the impression she was reading from a bed-time story.

    I know it's something small, and in the grand scheme of things doesn't matter, but when an Author tells me something like that, rather than letting the dialogue speak for itself, it really annoys me. It would be bad enough if he had just prefaced the speech with it, but he tells us it afterwards. Why?

    • BradSmith5 says:

      Doesn't matter? DOESN'T MATTER!? Every lazy bit adds up! If you take all of the irrelevant pieces scattered around they can equal pages and pages of wasted material! And in an ongoing series that content could equal a whole chapter––shoot, a whole book! An entire book of adverbs! Oh, terrible lament!

    • muzzery says:

      Of course, it's nowhere near as bad as JK Rowling, who insisted on every second word being an adverb.

  28. hazelwillow says:

    I assembled a mock anthology of "witches in children's literature" last year for a course I took in publishing, and I included an excerpt from this chapter of the Subtle Knife. I had to write an introduction to this mock book and I thought people here might be interested in what I wrote about this chapter. It's just a take on the work, from the point of view of an anthology containing news takes on the trope of witches (especially from the point of view that authors nowdays are re-telling witch stories with an awareness of how the concept of witches has been used to make women's power negative, or to oppress women, historically).

    Here it is, edited for spoilers:

    "The excerpt chosen for this anthology may not seem extraordinary to a reader immersed in Pullman’s world, but taken in the context of literature about witches it provides a radically new take on a terribly old scenario. The scene depicts a witch who has been captured by a group of religious officials, who are torturing her for information. What the church officials don’t know is that another witch is standing at their elbows the whole time –she has worked magic to make herself “unnoticed.” When the tortured witch prays for death, her invisible sister answers the prayer and provides relief by mercifully killing her, taking on as she does so the (symbolic?) role of “Yambe Akka,” the witch’s Goddess of Death. The scene carries overt echoes of the witch trials of our world, the officials forcibly reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition; the scene reads like a reminder of the brutality of the witch trials, but one in which the witches are ideologically triumphant. It is the detail of Serafina "smiling happily" as she appears with her knife that makes her suddenly the most powerful figure in the room; her act of mercy and sisterhood, and most of all the magical idea that she, the witch’s peer, is able to momentarily "become" a god-like figure who answers her fellow witch’s prayer, is an ideological slap in the face to the watching, monotheistic Inquisition. Because of this, the scene’s ending carries a tone of triumph. In the metatextual context provided by the anthology format, the reworking of old historical tropes that are at work here become prominent and powerful."

    I'm aware this is a reading from a very specific point of view. I'm not even sure I agree with myself. But anyway, I thought it would be a relevant addition to this chapter's discussion. 🙂

  29. Wang Fire says:

    In The Golden Compass, Pullman restricted his criticism of the church to background noise. The Gobblers were technically a branch of the church but the real force cause of the plot throughout the book was Mrs Coulter. In this one chapter, though, the gloves have come off.

    And if Thorold is right about Lord Asriel, it's going to go into overdrive. The legendary expolits of a badass hero seemed a little ridiculous when we heard them all in a short span of time but now it is far more interesting background that helps to make the direction his character has taken credible. Grand ambitions and an ability to make what he wills happen are a scary combination. It'll be fascinating to see where his character goes.

    I like that, even as this chapter picks up where the last book left off, it really feels like we've entered a new chapter in the saga. The Golden Compass was the story of one girl's journey to unknowingly fulfill her destiny. The Subtle Knife is building up a larger narrative where more people are important and multiple universes are affected.

    • flootzavut says:

      "The Subtle Knife is building up a larger narrative where more people are important and multiple universes are affected."

      I think that is really well put and speaks to the strength of this book as the second part of the trilogy.

  30. redheadedgirl says:

    Dan Savage has his good points (he was the catalyst behind the "It Gets Better" movement), but he has a lot of problematic issues, as well. He has moments of misogyny, transphobia, fatphobia…. Like all people, he's not perfect. He's not perfectly awful, but has awful facets. I listen to his podcasts because he does have a lot of good things to say. But I know a lot of people have a lot of problems with him.

    • Ellalalalala says:

      Speediest ever reminder that all idols have feet of clay! I thank you 🙂

    • MichelleZB says:

      I don't see the misogyny or transphobia. He's always seemed to be a fair, rational person who has a lot of understanding for humans and their relationships. I know he's been accused of being an asshole, but… I just don't see it.

      I'm an avid listener of his podcast and reader of his column and blog. I think he's a big softie.

      • echinodermata says:

        If you missed it, redheadedgirl posted some links further down the thread I would recommend taking a look at.

    • Partes says:

      Could you give examples of these transgressions? I feel like those are very serious claims to make without supporting evidence, and to put them out there without proof isn't fair, as it paints a very hateful picture in my mind of him due to the severity of these accusations, based on someone else's interpretation of his words. I haven't seen enough of him to form that much of an opinion, but what I saw I liked.

      Links? To all three?

      On topic: Michelle, your post was fantastic. I'm a bit lltp and everyone's already given around the praise I would have, so I'll just say I agree with your points.

  31. Patrick721 says:

    Wait, what?

    I should probably watch the Sound of Music.

  32. hummingbrdheart says:

    Note: this got edited a lot. I posted, and then rethought, and then left out a word. So. yes.

  33. crimsongirl says:

    I figure that is part of free will. God isn't going to force you to do anything. It's all about your choices 🙂

  34. @sab39 says:

    I think that Granny Weatherwax in Discworld has the same kind of invisibility power, so by the time I read this book that kind of magic was second nature to me, and I already intuitively considered it to be natural "witch magic".

    • Ellalalalala says:

      Ach, another hole in my education! I've just started my first Terry Pratchett (well, second – I read 'Diggers' when I was a kid and loved it, though as I never read 'Truckers' it didn't make much sense to me) so hopefully I can start plugging some gaps in my knowledge!

      And somewhere along the way, I should really, y'know, study n stuff.

    • flootzavut says:

      I don't remember in detail Granny having it, though would not be surprised, but I do know Death's granddaughter Susan does it.

      ETA: I agree it's good to be able to discuss the more controversial aspects of the books without (as yet, and long may it stay that way) any bloodshed.

      • notemily says:

        AND SUSAN! Susan is the best at it. I forgot about that scene where the headmistress of her school calls her in to talk and has to write a note to herself that says "You are talking to Susan Sto Helit. Try not to forget it." AND THEN SHE FORGETS ANYWAY ahahaha I need to reread some Discworld.

        • flootzavut says:

          Oh yeah! I LOVE that scene. Susan is one of my favourite characters, she's so badass and so kind of practical and down to earth at the same time. Also love it when she TALKS LIKE THIS.

    • notemily says:

      Totally, me too! Granny Weatherwax does a lot of magic based on what she calls "headology." She uses the placebo effect at one point, I'm pretty sure, giving someone a mystical potion made of "sucrose and akwa" to cure their ills.

      • flootzavut says:

        Yep, also she clearly has some idea of chiropracty/osteopathy, as I'm sure one of her "sucrose and akwa" patients also gets a knee in the back and his shoulders tugged around… by accident, of course 😉 Genius!

    • flootzavut says:

      Doesn't a "not your problem" field appear in the Hitch Hikers books at some point? Which is along similar lines and I always thought very clever and funny.

      I'm sure there's another example as well but I am struggling to remember.

      I actually really like the way that for Serafina it is clearly a huge effort and somewhat risky, it adds to the weight of her decision to use it.

  35. I just saw Gaiman speaking in my town, and he read from American Gods (for the tenth-anniversary celebration), and it was pretty fantastic. I could listen to him foreeeeever.

  36. Ditto! I like how respectful and thoughtful everyone's being, and I'm learning a lot.

  37. flootzavut says:

    Anyone who wonders whether God has a sense of humour need only look at the giraffe or the duck billed platypus. Anyone who tells me a God who is God of creatures like that doesn't have a sense of humour, I look askance at.

    Speaking for myself: I don't like to be *irreverent*, but I do also believe God has a sense of humour and that that is one of the ways humans reflect God.

  38. flootzavut says:

    Anyone who wonders whether God has a sense of humour need only look at the giraffe or the duck billed platypus. Anyone who tells me a God who is God of creatures like that doesn't have a sense of humour, I look askance at.

    Speaking for myself: I don't like to be *irreverent*, or as you say malicious – I don't like my beliefs to be disrespected, and I would try not to disrespect others' beliefs (even those I consider ridiculous) – but I do also believe God has a sense of humour and that that is one of the ways humans reflect God.

  39. muzzery says:

    Although I have to say Mark, I did chuckle grimly when you said you wanted a reason for why these people should be fought against. Eh…did the entire last book just completely escape your memory? Did you forget the fact that the Magisterium were eager to murder and main, to torture and intimidate and blackmail, that they had complete control over every single aspect of life and carried out heinious acts of evil, execution, suppression and persecution in order to maintain their power?

    • Kiryn says:

      I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that Mark was responding with that particular statement to Ruta/possibly Pullman stating that ALL churches are bad. I think Mark was saying that he would need reasons and to be actually shown that EVERY religious institution in the series is bad before he can fully agree to this statement. If that makes any sense at all, which it might not.

    • MichelleZB says:

      I seem to dimly recall this.

  40. Vikinhaw says:

    Maybe I'm wrong about Pullman making a statement about all churches and it may be the character's POV but it might not be.

    With respect, the readers do not know that it's only the character's opinion. The book doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's wrote to be read by people here, in this world, who are going to make connections between the things in the book and the things in the world. People will assume the comments about these things in the book are actually comments on things in this world. This is how social/political commentary often works in sci-fi and fantasy. If a writer doesn't want a reader to do this they should be careful to point out that it's only the character saying it.

    I'll say this: I do like this book. I have it high on my shelf and recommend to everyone but sometimes it feels like the book just stops so Pullman can complain about things.

    • t09yavorski says:

      Pullman has said (on the homepage of his website in fact), "…I'm not in the message business; I'm in the “Once upon a time” business."

      I know that he has put some of himself into his books but that doesnt mean that what he writes is meant to be interpreted as truth, whether universally or in his own mind.

  41. dbmacp says:

    I think a lot of the true tyranny of Lyra's world's Church has to do with the fact that there is no other Church, thus, no need for Reformation and no need to incorporate or consider new and different ideas.

    And quite possibly the fear that humans have of passion and anger and their own selves would seem barbarous to a witch who lives by those passions.

  42. Partes says:

    Well that's intensely dissapointing. Thanks for speaking about this, I'm not sure where I would have heard otherwise. Yikes.

    Those are isolated incidents, though, and on the whole he has a pretty good track record. At least, I thought. Still, what a shame. :/

  43. echinodermata says:

    I was gonna add biphobia to the list, but it's covered in the second link.

    Thanks for these.

  44. TRVA says:

    Dan Savage is arrogant, forthright, cynical, and a bit of a jerk. He says what he thinks, and he often doesn't worry about who will be offended.

    That being said, he doesn't advocate that the people he criticizes/insults are less than human or deserve to have their civil liberties taken away.

    He deserves criticism, as does any person who has influence. But he is writing in a field where no one can completely win, everything he says is scoured by people actively looking for a violation of the current trend of Queer Theory.

    As an advice columnist he tailors his advice to the letter writer he is addressing. This sometimes leads him to make statements about the letter writers specific situation that don't apply to the community at large. His abrasive style is one of his selling points, it keeps the content of his advice engaging and interesting, while still allowing him to dispense information that in other hands might come off as incredibly dry.

    With so many people actively working to limit the rights of people in the queer community, particularly in politics and religion, it seems strange and counter productive to me that so many people focus on Dan Savage. While he is a person with influence, he isn't a person of political power. I wish the Queer community would focus on those who do have the power to limit their rights, when they've been dealt with we can tackle the small things.

  45. Moonie says:

    I scroll past all of these lovely, intelligent, giant paragraphs of discussion in the comments…
    …and all I can say is

  46. Kelly says:

    Also the Church in Lyra's world is far more powerful and involved in secular affairs than religions in our world. Witches at least, as well as characters like Mrs. Coulter and Lord Asriel, are well traveled and intelligent, and there has been no mention of any other organized religion (yes, the witches have their own gods and beliefs, but it doesn't feel so much like a religion as it does spirituality) Combined with the fact that the only way Mrs. Coulter has to achieve power is to marry well or work within the Church's authority, and the fact that the head of a college has to be concerned about financially backing lord Asriel because of what the church might do to him in retaliation, i think it can be assumed that the church in Lyra's world is as domineering as Ruta and Asriel say. We have no idea how powerful (or weak) a religion may be in Will's world or the world that he and Lyra now find themselves in.

    I think the problem with knowing before you read these books that Pullman is atheist is that there can be a tendency to jump to the conclusion that he's the kind of atheist that is going to try to force his beliefs down your throat, which is annoying whether it's an atheist or a religious fanatic. The cool thing about the parallel worlds storyline is that he can create a world that shows how dangerous a centralized church with unlimited power can be, and how that can affect the actions of a guy like Asriel. In our world for example, Asriel might have been a father of the American Revolution rather than fighting to bring down a tyrannical Church. Now I don't know anything about Pullman's beliefs other than that he IS an atheist, but the face that he's already introduced the concept of souls and how they relate to the human condition seems to me that he's the kind of guy who can appreciate and explore other people's beliefs rather than unequivocally bashing them, which is a far more interesting way to read these books than assuming it's just a tirade against religion wrapped up in a fanciful story.

    • Vikinhaw says:

      Well I don't assume it's just 'a tirade against religion wrapped up in a fanciful story'. These books are among my favourites and I like them, just not every single aspect of them. I found out the controversy after I read the book and re-reading it, some parts of the book seem like the author, not the character, is complaining about a highly generalized version of the church. That is what I have a problem with.

      • kelly says:

        i apologize-I didn't mean to imply that you, or anyone here, is assuming that Pullman wrote 'a tirade against religion wrapped up in a fanciful story'. Clearly that's NOT the case since we're all here having amazing discussions about religion and Pullman's take on it. I actually meant it to be taken as a knock against the people who didn't read the books, but heard about Pullman's beliefs and that he touched on religion in these books and assumed the worst. Those are the kind of people who also burned the Harry Potter books because they dealt with witchcraft and made TGC movie into something totally different from the book.

        I think you're right in that it's pretty much impossible for an author to COMPLETELY divorce his own feelings from what he's writing. Every author has an agenda, and part of Pullman's in these books was to address religion and its influence. But as I said, the use of parallel worlds is not only brilliant because it's a fun sci-fi twist but also because it allows him to present scenarios in which religion has developed in different ways and comment on the good in most religious beliefs as well as the bad. In Lyra's world, organized religion has been shown to be all-powerful and tyrannical, and i think that is where you really do see Pullman's dislike of religion. But we've also seen examples where Pullman's beliefs seem to coincide with things that most religions consider paramount, such as the importance of the soul. That's all I want to say because otherwise I'll get too spoiler-y, but I LOVE that Pullman is able to both attack the worst parts of organized religion while putting a glow on the best parts. In a fanciful story. 🙂

        The most important thing to think about for right now, I think, is that the characters who might SEEM to be speaking with Pullman's voice (Ruta and Asriel) are not really the most sympathetic or moral. Asriel is very clear that he believes religion and God to be the Most Evil Things Ever, but he did just murder Lyra's best friend to pursue his own agenda, and it's hard for me to see Pullman choosing to push his beliefs through Asriel's words and behavior. he chose Lyra to be a protagonist-with all her brattiness, lies, and cockiness- and most authors live through their protagonists. And Lyra's understanding of everything that's going on is very incomplete at this point. she knows that the Church is incredible powerful and that a lot of the people she knows believe it to be tyrannical. she knows that Pan-her soul- is good. She knows that her father hates the Church and her mother has chosen to work within it, and that both think that Dust is bad. She knows that both of them have used intercision as a way to get rid of Dust, so (as she said at the end of TGC) she believes Dust must actually be a good thing. Based on all that, we have a very fuzzy picture of what Pullman is saying about religion other than the soul is a good thing and anyone or anything attempting to destroy a soul is bad.

        • Kelly says:

          Also, just thought of this, I LOVE that the one character who has made it his mission to destroy God actually believes that there IS a God out there for him to find a kill. That's some pretty cool commentary there

  47. MichelleZB says:

    Dan has defended himself many times against these type of accusations–I think, successfully.

    I think the second link in specific misrepresents him horribly, and accuses him of making claims he never made. (Where did he say that all bi men are married to women, for instance?) Here's a link for an article he recently wrote about bisexuals that clearly expresses his views:… I don't think he's being unfair.

    This blog poster claims that he is sexist because he's told some women indulge their male partners sexually, within reason. But he tells men to do the same with their female partners–something that blog post doesn't mention. He feels we should all be reasonably accommodating of our partner's needs, and doesn't change his opinions because of the gender of the person he's advising. It's a compassionate, relationship-friendly view, and he doesn't divide it along gender lines.

    I wrote a really long post just now but decided to delete it. Is this the place to discuss Dan Savage's merits? I don't know. But that second blog post accuses him of being a rape apologist, too, which is a really serious accusation and is also patently untrue. You can go read the columns the blog post has linked to and decide for yourself. Also go read the columns he's co-written with trans porn star Buck Angel and decide for yourself how transphobic he is:

    Dan's done a lot of good work this year with his It Gets Better Project, and he's, I think, saved a lot of relationships with his compassionate advice. He's always dogged by accusations of assholery but… even with those links, I just don't see it. If the blog posts above were accurate representations of his writing, he'd be a huge douche, but I've read everything he's written and they just… aren't.

      • MichelleZB says:

        Oh, another one. Okay, I'm not sure how I ended up the Dan Savage defender here, and I really probably shouldn't write another long post. I have, however, read your whole link.

        The blog poster takes Savage to task for urging bi people to come out if they can. She takes issue with that idea, and says she doesn't read a lot of Savage's stuff, so she doesn't know if he also tells gay people the same thing.

        Well, he does, a lot. He feels that the more people that come out, the faster society will learn to accept LGTB people. He has cautioned against coming out in situations where there is a reasonable fear of violence, however.

        Okay, but that's all.

        • bashful says:

          I'm disappointed that you read the whole link but only comment on one aspect.

          The part I'm most angry about in Savage's post is that he is not accepting people's stated sexual orientations as is. Doubting someone when they say they're bi perpetuates a culture that pretends bisexuality doesn't exist. And as addressed by the post, that's much closer to what "invisible bisexuality" means than bisexual people being out of the closet.

          And telling gay men that they're better off not dating a bi man is in fact offensive and just saying "I'm not bi-phobic" doesn't magically make things better.

          • bashful says:

            second para should end with "in the closet," not "out of."

          • MichelleZB says:

            I'm sorry I only commented on the first point. I was reluctant to continue because I am fully aware that I am most likely becoming very tiresome in my defense of Dan Savage, who doesn't have much to do with Phillip Pullman or religion.

            I guess my response to what you've written is that Dan never says bi people don't exist. He does admit to expressing doubt when a gay teenager says they're bi because of his lived experience of having said that himself at that age. I understand how people could have a problem with that. But, if it's any comfort, he does assure us that he doesn't tell the teenager any of that, and is content to just wait and see how the kid grows up.

  48. sabra_n says:

    Offhand, another (fluffier) example I can think of is the Dresden Files universe, where the Christian god exists alongside Odin, and other gods are probably active, too.

  49. Brieana says:

    I think Serafina's invisablity is more practical than Harry's. Harry had to dodge crowds of people when he went to Hogsmeade, but here, someone just stepped around her.

  50. drippingmercury says:

    Dan Savage is also really awful about rape survivors and PTSD:

    • MichelleZB says:

      I'm sorry, but Dan's not being horrible here. A woman, a survivor of sexual assault, is suddenly triggered by sex with her husband and can't have sex with him anymore. She can, however, continue to have hot, frequent sex with her boyfriend. This eventually makes her husband uncomfortable and hurt (she uses the words "breaking my husband's heart"), and he asks her to stop seeing her boyfriend. She says she can't, and seeks permission to stay in her marriage and cheat, knowing it is hurting her husband. Dan won't give her that permission, and tells her that she should either leave her marriage, or, if she wants to stay in it, leave the boyfriend and deal with the husband trigger.

      It's not unreasonable advice. Everyone knows that in an open relationship, if your primary partner asks you to break it off with the pieces on the side, you must do it to preserve your relationship's stability. I realize these situations are difficult to negotiate, but you have to be at least a little considerate of your partner's feelings when you've opened things up. Dan's not saying she must immediately have sex with her husband, but that she should be respectful of his hurt feelings and stop leading him on in such a heartbreaking manner. And I don't think that's too much to expect from someone.

      I don't want to keep derailing this thread by defending Dan Savage from blog post after blog post, but I genuinely feel he is being misrepresented. I hate bigotry, too–as I hope you can see from my other posts! I just think Dan is usually fair to the people whom he advises.

      • drippingmercury says:

        “Awful” was probably a poor choice of words on my part, but I feel he was incredibly nasty to someone that has just gone through a traumatic event and is now clearly deeply emotionally conflicted wrt her relationships, and he calls her SELFISH and not a decent human being when she asks for guidance. And his guidance is “get your ass in therapy” and get over it. That’s pretty jerktastic. She IS trying to be considerate of her husband’s feelings, but she has her own self to worry about, too.
        I take issue with your “Everyone knows…” statement. That may be the case for many open relationships, but not all. (Also my wiki-brain immediately supplies such things with a [who?] these days ;)).
        Dan Savage does some good things, but he’s also a stellar example of how someone can be a massively privileged jerk while doing so.

        • MichelleZB says:

          Okay, I am willing to amend my "everyone knows" statement. Blanket statements like that are bound to be inaccurate and it was silly of me to write it.

          I'll say instead: in most healthy open relationships, when the primary partner requests the other partner back off from their secondary partners, that request is respected in order to preserve the stability of the primary relationship. It is at least likely that the woman who wrote into Dan's column had such an agreement with her husband prior to her problems.

    • notemily says:

      That's appalling. I know he has this philosophy of "being married/in a relationship means you're obligated to make the effort to have good sex," or something like that, but to suggest that a rape victim should just get over it is… horrible.

      • MichelleZB says:

        That is NOT what he suggests.

        • notemily says:

          Well, it seems to me like he's saying "your husband's needs are more important than yours, even when you have recently gone through a traumatic event and he hasn't." If she wants to go to therapy, it should be because SHE wants to deal with the trauma and heal from it, not so she can keep having hot sex with her husband.

          I take issue whenever someone says "you have an obligation to have sex with this person," because in my opinion nobody EVER has an obligation to have sex with anybody.

          • MichelleZB says:

            I've read the column over and over now, and I just can't find the part where he tells her she has an obligation to have sex with her husband. He never says that. He does say that she should be considerate of his feelings, and stop leading him on emotionally. I don't think that's too much to expect.

            She seems to be saying, "I was sexually assaulted six months ago, and now I don't want my husband anymore. But I still love having wild sex with my boyfriend and rubbing it in my husband's face! He's asked me to stop having sex with the other guy because it's breaking his heart, but I just don't want to. Is that okay?" Am I missing something here? That's at least a little inconsiderate. The husband seems to be willing to give her time and space to recover from the trauma, but it's not an unreasonable request that she do it without having blissful sex with another man in front of him. So she should honour that request OR break up with her husband for the other guy OR risk being called a jerk by Dan Savage.

  51. notemily says:

    Oh and for those who would like a transcript, it's here, and this video starts at the sentence "So yeah, and the Romans went Christian and then we had Christianity for about 1500 years" and ends with "I would have succeeded if it wasn't for those pesky God and Jesus fellows!"

    As a follow-up, here's "Cake or Death" done with Legos.

    [youtube rZVjKlBCvhg youtube]

    (Transcript at the same link as above, starting with "But you can't do that in Church of England, you can't say, 'You must have tea and cake with the Vicar, or you die!'" and ending with “Thank you for flying Church of England, cake or death?"

      • theanagrace says:

        Oh notemily, you're my favorite! I love Eddie Izzard, especially everything he's done, lol. Whenever I go out to see my parents and my dad is playing with his bee hives, I like to yell 'I'm covered in BEEEEEEES!' but no one gets it.
        (also, apparently BEEEEEEES is in my iPad auto correct if you type enough e's)

  52. notemily says:

    There are a lot of interesting things about gods in this chapter. First of all, we have the idea of God–the Christian God–being KILLED, which is like… what? How can Lord Asriel actually go to the place where God is and kill him? How does that work? I guess if he can go to another universe, he can go to Heaven or wherever, too. But CAN a supposedly all-powerful God be killed? And how would you kill a god?

    (Growing up, I always saw God as a metaphor, not an actual physical being. Like, I could get behind "God is in everything," you know? Or even God as a being of pure spirit, or as an unfathomable being that humans could not hope to understand. Not so much an actual God with a physical presence. I'm surprised Pullman would go that route.)

    But then later in the chapter we have Ruta Skadi's story about killing tiger gods and taking their teeth. So my question is: were those tigers actual gods? Because if so, we have a precedent for god-killing. On the other hand, maybe they were just regular tigers that were worshiped AS gods.

    Thirdly, we have the scene where Serafina kills the other witch in an act of mercy. The witch calls "Yambe-Akka, come to me!" and Serafina steps right up and smiles, because she knows that's what Yambe-Akka would do. Serafina, at that moment, IS the goddess of death. I find that very interesting.

    Another unrelated thing that I find interesting is the fact that the witches' prophecy about Lyra specifically mentions "the circumstances of her birth." I'd like to see exactly what it said about that. It can't just be that she was born from adultery, because there have to be tons of kids who fit that description. Does it mention her father's fight with Mr. Coulter?

    Anyway, today I realized that Mark Reads is the best book club ever.

    • flootzavut says:

      "Thirdly, we have the scene where Serafina kills the other witch in an act of mercy. The witch calls "Yambe-Akka, come to me!" and Serafina steps right up and smiles, because she knows that's what Yambe-Akka would do. Serafina, at that moment, IS the goddess of death. I find that very interesting."

      Me too! I have nothing to add but yes, I found that moment really intriguing and interesting – as well as rather moving.

  53. @GalFawkes says:

    Don't forget his latest in rape apologism and victim-blaming, with Bristol Palin:

    But a LOT of supposedly progressive folk are being disgusting about that story. Yay rape culture!

  54. MaggieCat says:

    Because the witches we've seen so far (mostly Serafina, to be fair) have tended towards being calm and dispassionate even while speaking about painful subjects, at least when they're not being tortured by Mrs. Coulter? That's why it felt relevant to me, anyway.

  55. Michael says:

    I haven't posted here much, but I felt the need to chime in here. People have mentioned in other comments the difference between hating a church and hating a religion, and I think it's very important to take note of that here. I think almost everyone can accept that the fact that an institution has done bad things does not mean people who are affiliated with it, or believe the same things it espouses, are bad as well. For every Westboro Baptist Church, I like to think there's at least one person who is a little more…well, polite, for one. Sane, for another.

    While I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that the Catholic church (and most churches) have done terrible things, I think the same could be said of almost any large organization of people. Religions tend to take the spotlight for their hypocrisy because…well, because they're the ones claiming to be the best, and people like to see them taken down a peg. On the whole, I believe most religions are at least /trying/ to make the world a better place, and most of the instances of things going badly (such as the church's history of castration) are a result of individuals stepping away from or misinterpreting the true goals of the religion on question.

    So, yeah, lost track of where that little diatribe was going. As Mark said, religion is incredibly personal. However, I /do/ feel safe in saying that "obliterate every good feeling" is an overstatement. I don't think anyone could honestly argue that nothing good has ever come from churches. That being said, churches pull a lot of stupid, ignorant, and hateful shit sometimes, and deserve to be called out on it. I read this book as a young Christian, and a lot of the allegory earlier on went over my head. As I continued to read it and it became more obvious the anti-religious views Pullman was espousing, it made me very uncomfortable–I had never really been faced with such direct opposition to Christianity in what I had read before. Now, I am still a Christian, but a bit older and (hopefully) wiser. I hope to take another look at this series and try to see how I enjoy it and process it from a new perspective, and whether or not it is possible to enjoy it while not agreeing with its sentiments.

  56. flootzavut says:


  57. Stephalopolis says:

    Lots of info here in this second chapter. I couldn't help but think about how I wanted to get back to Lyra and Will 😛

    I can see waging war on the Church (in this book) as a good thing- if they back it up with specifics (cutting daemons, cutting organs, making zombis, torturing) not generalizations (they are bad), however….. I think Lord Asriel's plan to "destroy God"– if that is indeed what he's planning on doing– is taking it a bit too far. You can fight the institution without destroying the belief system– or so I choose to believe. And with the witches taking his side on it, and Lyra being on the opposite side; hopefully Serafina will run into Lyra and get her side of the story before anything too catastrophic occurs.

  58. Kelly L. says:

    What's interesting to me is that towards the end of TGC when Lyra tries to give Lord Asshole the alethiometer, he waves it away and make a reference toward it being useless without the books. I wondered then if that's how other people Who Are Not Lyra had always used them… this chapter kind of confirms that, which makes it all the more interesting that she CAN, so easily and without assistance. Hmm.

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