In the third chapter of The Subtle Knife, Lyra comes to learn just how difficult her journey to find Lord Asriel and Dust is going to be. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Subtle Knife.
Well, this isn’t going to be easy.
CHAPTER THREE: A CHILDREN’S WORLD
I actually enjoy that Pullman is setting this up to be an awfully complicated situation because….look, Lyra has just walked into a parallel universe with absolutely no plan at all, aside from going to a university she hopes exists. That’s it. That is her only plan. We know that Lyra is an adventurous, tenacious young girl, but the problems exemplified at the end of chapter one are blown wide open now. Lyra has no clue what she is doing, and if it weren’t for Will Parry, things would be a whole lot worse than they already are.
At the very least, though, she’s trying. She makes her own omelette the next morning, burns it, and feels nothing but pride for having done this herself. (I like that Will declines a Lyra Omelette, choosing to have cereal instead.) It’s very Lyra, when you think about it: she insists on finding a way to do things precisely her way.
I’m glad that Lyra and Will are so upfront with each other, too, because they don’t beat around the bush. It’s annoying to me when people are placed in bizarre situations in science fiction / fantasy and they don’t ask questions. These two, instead, quiz each other out of curiosity. Where did they come from? Where are they now? What did they experience when they moved into this universe? We know that Lyra spent days in some sort of fog. DAYS of fog. That alone sort of creeps me out. Where the hell are they where there’s fog for days and no other people?
On top of having to worry about that, Pullman starts seeding Lyra’s new major problem: She only knows the way of her own world. I like that there’s a huge basis on the meaning of words, and as someone who obsesses over such things in various ways, it’s actually rather exciting to see how language differs between the two of them. What is experimental theology for Lyra, who has lived in a world where the Church runs everything, is physics for Will. Anbaromagnetism is electricity. Electrum is amber. Words differ, sure, but that’s the least that these two have to worry about. Because despite that Lyra has been in this world for three or four days and has not seen a living soul anywhere, the two of them suddenly hear a child talking. And two basket-carrying kids, both with red hair and nowhere near enough alarm for what’s going on, come walking right up to Will and Lyra. To add to my utter confusion they ask, in procession, if Will and Lyra are from “Ci’gazze” or “Sant’Elia.” I thought maybe they were speaking with thick accents and these weren’t meant to be the names of other cities, but then, when Will asks where the grownups are, one of the kids replies:
“Didn’t the Specters come to your city?”
Great. GREAT. This is not going to be anywhere near easy. We learn that this city is called Cittágazze and that this parallel world has almost nothing at all in common with either Lyra’s or Will’s. As Will and Lyra learn more about this world from the two kids (Angelica and Paolo), it all just sounds like nonsense. There was a giant fog storm and when it cleared, the city was full of “Specters” and the grownups can’t go near them? I DON’T GET THIS. So, only children can’t see Specters? Is this like dæmons, I thought, but in reverse? Certainly that could be an explanation, but then that doesn’t make sense either. Angelica says that when the Specters arrive, they get to “run about in the city,” as if the grownups are too occupied to care otherwise.
“Well, when a Specter catch a grownup, that’s bad to see. They eat the life out of them there and then, all right. I don’t want to be grown up, for sure. At first they know it’s happening, and they’re afraid; they cry and cry. They try and look away and pretend it ain’ happenin’, but it is. It’s too late. And no one ain’ gonna go near them, they on they own. Then they get pale and they stop moving. They still alive, but it’s like they been eaten from the inside. You look in they eyes, you see the back of they heads. Ain’ nothing there.”
The girl turned to her brother and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt.
“Me and Paolo’s going to look for ice creams,” she said. “You want to come and find some?”
Only if that ice cream comes with A FUCKING BILLION HUGS. oh my god OH MY GOD PLEASE TELL ME THAT THIS IS NOT REAL. That is one of the most terrifying things I have ever read. Oh christ, you all, Steven Moffat ain’t got SHIT on this. brb nightmares for the rest of my life.
So, as I understand it, Will and Lyra are in Cittágazze, and the children they just met live in this universe where grownups are always in fear of the Specters. Well, none of this is at all what I thought was going to happen in this book. Which makes me wonder….is Pullman actually going to take us into universes beyond these? I mean, I would adore that, but it might be hard to pull off and keep track of.
For the time being, though, Lyra and Will are concerned with dealing with the jarring experience of traveling between worlds. Will hears Pantalaimon speak for the first time, which has to be just one weird thing piled on top of another. Still, I have to admire how much Will is just willing to accept all of this without any sort of disbelief. I mean…true, he just traveled into a parallel universe. I suppose for him, virtually anything is possible at this point. But Will is a practical person, and he knows he’s got a task in front of him that needs far more attention than worrying about a talking dæmon:
He’s got to make it so that Lyra doesn’t stand out in his universe.
As I said in the opening, I’m coming to adore this set-up so much specifically because it is so complicated, and it must be said that Pullman’s attention to detail is what makes this all so mesmerizing. He doesn’t ignore the fact that it’s the little things that matter in this surreal situation. Lyra has come form a world where nearly every culture has variations from what she’s known, and it would have been disingenuous had Pullman ignored that small things, from showers to washing one’s hair to dressing, didn’t show us how Will and Lyra were so different. For Will, though, he’s leaving the safest place in the world in order to help Lyra, and he’s worried that her obvious anachronistic behavior and dress is going to give them up. Of course, he does threaten to kill Lyra if she messes it up, and she believes her. That’s nice. That’s a nice thing to say.
And so they set off to camouflage Lyra in the best way possible. Lyra, unsurprisingly, is a bit resistant to some of the things that Will suggests, such as the aforementioned hair washing, or having to wear trousers. The also get to see more of Cittágazze in the process, and Will is unsettled by how ancient it all seems, from the crumbling cityscapes to the odd patchwork construction of the buildings around them. They make it to the spot where Will climbed through into this universe, locating the “window” in the fabric of the world. Will instructs Lyra on how to cross over and a new problem presents itself: Lyra is not used to CARS. And I can’t believe I never once picked up on that during my read of The Golden Compass, but I don’t recall a single mention of a car once in that book. In my head, I’d just assumed this world was set in the past, maybe the mid 1900s or something; but at the time, I didn’t know this book was about parallel universes. Why would I have looked for such details?
Out of everything Lyra’s been presented with, this is certainly the worst of them all. Most of us have lived our lives with cars being a part of them, even if you’re someone like me, who has never owned a car in his life. Lyra, on the other hand, is spooked by the sound of cars themselves, as she’s able to hear them through the window. Will does his best to prepare her for the other side, instructing her how to get to the center of the city, assuming that she’ll make it through just fine. She pops through the window and Will peers through the window to see if she’s made it through all right.
AND LYRA GETS HIT BY A CAR. WHAT THE HOLY HELL.
In hindsight, it is eerily sensical for this to happen: Lyra has no concept of what cars really are and it stands to reason that she’d have no way to judge when it would be safe to cross the street and avoid them. It’s details like these that make it so easy to slip right into the story and immerse myself in this imagined tale, but at the same time, CHRIST LYRA CANNOT CATCH A BREAK. She has now traveled into a second universe, after already having to deal with some mysterious fog and days without good food or human contact, and as soon as she steps into a new world, she is hit by a fucking car.
Poor Lyra. Poor, poor Lyra.
Thankfully, aside from being bruised and scratched, she’s not seriously hurt. But, again, this chapter is about compounding difficulty. Lyra was hit by a car, and there are witnesses. They can’t just walk away, and if Lyra is questioned by anyone about the accident, how can they be sure that she’ll be able to conceal herself and not give away the fact that she’s not from this world? (I had a scary thought during this section, actually. Panatalaiman had take the form of a wasp, and I wondered what would happen if a police officer arrived and tried to swat Pantalaimon away and touched him and how revolting that would be to Lyra. But I’m glad that this doesn’t happen because THERE IS ALREADY ENOUGH GOING ON.)
Will decides to craft a story about Lyra being his sister and living “around the corner” so he can get them away from the accident as quickly as possible. I could not help but laugh at Will’s fake name, Mark Ransom, because it is so clearly a fake, but at least the kid is trying. They both manage to escape from this disaster by giving a convincing false address, and it makes me realize that, in a way, Lyra and Will do have this in common: they share an ability to be remarkably crafty when they need to be. In her own world, she’s like Will is here, and that adds another fascinating layer to this chapter, since we haven’t seen Lyra face this much awkwardness before.
Even though it’s a fake relationship to act as a disguise, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Will seems to take Lyra on as a younger sister. I’m getting the feeling that the bulk of this story is going to focus more on Will than on Lyra, and I’m honestly okay with that. I like that Pullman is exploring this new dynamic so completely. It’s hard being able to deny the sense of nobility that Will operates under as he gets money for Lyra and helps to get her to her ultimate destination. He doesn’t insult her or shame her when she starts to be overwhelmed by this world’s Oxford, either. He knows he is doing a good thing by coming back from his safe place to help her out.
But the chapter does end on Lyra and I feel like Pullman is driving home the importance of this final message. The experience of traveling to Oxford University in this universe does not provide the sense of calm or catharsis that this young girl was looking for. Instead, it’s all full of confusion and terror. She’s disorienting by seeing streets she knows that she has spent days exploring, and then seeing this pseudo copies filling her vision. Her plan has now unraveled, for if this is not the same world as hers, it stands to reason that maybe the people she needs aren’t here either.
This is going to be one hell of a journey.
As a note, we are doing a liveblog for The Golden Compass over on Mark Watches on Saturday. Join us!