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.
CHAPTER TWO: AMONG THE WITCHES
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.