In the eighth chapter of The Amber Spyglass, Balthamos mourns briefly before devoting himself to helping Will Parry. Will, on the other hand….look, just read the review. Holy shit, this is so good.
CHAPTER EIGHT: VODKA
This chapter is full of victory, but we have to deal with the tragedy before we get to that:
Balthamos felt the death of Baruch the moment it happened. He cried aloud and soared into the night air over the tundra, flailing his wings and sobbing his anguish into the clouds; and it was some time before he could compose himself and go back to Will, who was wide awake, knife in hand, peering up into the damp and chilly murk.
I’m beginning to realize, on my second pass through chapter eight, that I am inherently unable to understand just what this grief is like at all. I lost my father almost five years ago, and I know that sudden, gutting sense of loss. It’s not easy to forget and given the way my sense of memory works, I’m sure I’ll be able to recall that moment over and over again for a long time. I miss my father a lot and I don’t want to belittle my own experience, but Pullman really does a fantastic job of giving us this idea that Baruch and Balthamos truly experienced thousands of years of joy. I have just short of twenty years of memories of my own father, and while many are strong and positive, I cannot conceive of this idea. THOUSANDS.
He couldn’t keep still: he flew up again, scouring the sky as if to seek out Baruch in this cloud or that, calling, crying, calling; and then he’d be overcome with guilt, and fly down to urge Will to hide and keep quiet, and promise to watch over him tirelessly; and then the pressure of his grief would crush him to the ground, and he’d remember every instance of kindness and courage that Baruch had ever shown, and there were thousands, and he’d forgotten none of them; and he’d cry that a nature so gracious could never be snuffed out, and he’d soar into the skies again, casting about in every direction, reckless and wild and stricken, cursing the very air, the clouds, the stars.
Like the experience of Mary Malone walking into a brand new parallel world, I am both innately familiar with this and struck by how foreign it is. It’s eerie how much this sort of erratic behavior modeled my own grief upon learning my father had died, and the next three weeks of mourning, wakes, and funerals. Yet at the same time, this is about a loving, intimate relationship that lasted centuries upon centuries. The sort of emotional base and connection that two beings of this nature must have had is unknowable to me. I can’t picture it, and I can’t imagine how it must feel.
It’s because of this that I’m struck by how incredible and touching Will’s response is to Balthamos’s grief. He gives the angel a measured and respectable tone, one that understands his loss (given that Will had just lost his own father, too), but one that also imparts how important it is for them to continue on. Again, I know I bring this up often, but Will is twelve years old. It’s not that pre-teens can’t be full of compassion or maturity, as they certainly can, but this kid is so full of heart and courage that I just want to reach through the pages and hug him. It’s entirely in character for him as well, and I love how consistent this is. Will’s life with his mother necessitated him to “grow up” earlier than most kids, and he exhibits that maturity in dealing with Balthamos.
It’s clear the next morning that this has had a profound effect on Balthamos, and he agrees to assist Will “cheerfully and willingly,” making sure to honor his fallen lover in the process. (I almost said boyfriend, but I feel weird ascribing our relationship terms to angels. Right???? They’re angels. “Boyfriend” just sounds so human.)
“I failed so many times, but each time his goodness was there to redeem me. Now it’s not, I shall have to try without it. Perhaps I shall fail from time to time, but I shall try all the same.”
“Then Baruch would be proud of you,” said Will, shivering.
CAN YOU HEAR MY HEART SHATTERING ALL OVER THE WORLD. jesus christ, hold me.
A bit of a side note: I really like that it’s unspoken here, but there’s still this implicit acceptance that there still can be goodness and morality in a world apart from God. For any non-believers, one of the most common things we’re asked is how we define our morality without a base to draw it from. Without a god or God or deity, what basis is there to be good? It’s yet another question I sort of despise because it feels like a huge derail most of the time. (I don’t actually mind discussing it in ontological terms, but it’s generally not brought up in that way. It’s usually utilized to distract an argument by claiming that I cannot postulate that something is immoral or wrong because I have no morals anyway. Um…I’ll let you know if I have no morals, okay? Pretty sure I’m a better judge of that than you.)
This is not a world without God, obviously, but these angels live apart from him. I mean…seriously, I know it may be irritating that I’m harking on this, but GAY ANGELS!!!! I know people who would read this and begin to sweat profusely from the very thought. I really hope we get more backstory on how the rebel angels have lived since the Fall, but I imagine that they’d have to have come up with their own sense of a social code or ethics. And isn’t that something that we’ve done anyway? Obviously, humanity has fucked up along the way, but we’ve constantly defined and redefined and adapted our own standards for what is and is not acceptable year after year after decade after century. Are all of these morals purely based on our acceptance of a Christian God? It seems terribly Western-centric to propose those ideas as well.
Will’s own moral sense is pretty rock solid, though, and he never seems to talk about God at all. I mean…look, what Will does in this chapter is so fantastically amazing that I actually cheered when–wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Will and Balthamos make a fine team here in chapter eight, and I’m so glad this sassy angel is at Will’s side. Of course, I’m devastated by the loss of Baruch. That death certainly creates a different dynamic here, and it’s just as fascinating to see Balthamos eagerly changing into a dæmon to help will as it was to see him treat Will with so much witty reticence as before. Here, Balthamos does a fine job of mimicking a dæmon and acting as a translator for Will.
Even before we get to PURE SUCCESS AND BADASSERY, everything here is painfully awkward and tense and PLEASE GET AN ADULT I DON’T FEEL GOOD. Aside from the physical destruction present in the town these two come upon, Will ends up meeting with the local priest and the entire interaction leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
It’s one of those situations where things just feel wrong. And maybe you can’t properly explain why or elaborate to another person the reasons why you feel this way, but Father Semyon makes me feel awful. First of all, I actually felt relieved that perhaps Will had found someone to help him on his journey, but then Father Semyon introduced himself as part of the Holy Church, I instantly thought, “WELL, GREAT. THIS CANNOT END WELL.” But as long as Will kept his cool and avoided sharing too much, he’d be fine. Really, though, who else was better at seeming inconspicuous than Will?
Oh, you’re going to insist that your world falling apart is the Apocalypse, Father Semyon? Oh. Oh, this is going to be really awkward, isn’t it? Are you going to talk about the End of Days? Could you…not? That would be awesome.
Oh. Oh, you’re going to assume Will is perfectly fine just hanging around all day with you and play cards or maybe have an uncomfortable conversation? Oh, you’re one of those people, aren’t you? Oh, this isn’t good.
BUT WAIT THE ARMORED BEARS ARE IN TOWN DOES THIS MEAN WHAT I THINK IT DOES
Hold on, Mark, you’ve got some more awkward talk from Father Semyon:
“They are afraid of the bears. And so they should be–they are children of the devil. All things from the north are devilish. Like the witches–daughters of evil! The Church should have put them all to death many years ago.”
YOU SHUT YOUR DIRTY CHURCH MOUTH, FATHER. I am personally offended that you would speak of the panserbjørne and the witches in such a tone and I will fight you to the death over this. You wish you had beings as honorable and loyal as Iorek Byrnison or Serafina Pekkala on your side. I will find a trout and I will slap you in the face with it.
Also, is this the first real acknowledgment of the devil existing in this series? I don’t think it’s ever been mentioned before, but is there an actual Satan that exists? Will we discover it is an invention by the Authority? I am curious to know such things. DON’T SPOIL ME.
“Now I am going to offer you a little drink, Will Ivanovitch,” he said. “You are young, so not very many glasses. But you are growing, and so you need to know some things, like the taste of vodka.”
;AJKSDF;KLAJSDF AS;DKLFJAS ;DFLKADJSF WHAT WORLD DO YOU LIVE IN WHERE IT IS TOTALLY NECESSARY TO GIVE VODKA TO A TWELVE-YEAR-OLD BOY. I mean, look, let me state this first: I am not saying this because I’m sober/straight edge myself. It’s absurd that I even have to say that, but this is the Internet and you would be surprised how often people yell at folks like myself for even talking about alcohol. Hell, this might be a cultural thing as well, and I’m willing to admit that, but WHAT ARE YOU DOING, FATHER SEMYON. This is SO RIDICULOUSLY STRANGE TO ME. Is this just something you do with people you just meet??? What imperative are you acting on that this MUST happen right now? I do not like this ONE BIT. NOT AT ALL. Oh god, it’s not poison is it?
But Father Semyon drinks a shot of the vodka himself, so I’m assuming it’s safe. Well, the vodka is safe, but nothing about the situation does. This is what I meant by saying this just feels wrong. I can’t place my finger on any specific thing or give you a well-thought out reason for it. He just strikes me as this creepy, over-assuming man who has no business giving preteens shots of alcohol. (Great. Now that awful LMFAO song just popped in my head. SEE? FATHER SEMYON INSPIRES DESTRUCTION.)
After a particularly mortifying hug and prayer session, Will and Balthamos are off to move further along in their journey to find Lyra. For the first time in days, thankfully, they finally discover a chance to make this a reality: they come upon what seems like some sort of battle in a small town. The source of this is a gigantic vessel offshore manned by non-human creatures in armor.
I nearly wet myself with joy. (Actually, that’s not hyperbole. I had to pee really badly while I was reading this section and I refused to take a break. DON’T JUDGE.) COULD THIS BE???? IS IT…OMG IT IS THE ARMORED BEARS. Wait, why are they attacking this village? WHAT IS GOING ON, I UNDERSTAND NOTHING.
“They want fuel. But we have no dealings with bears. Now they are leaving their kingdom and sailing up the river, who knows what they will do? So we must fight them. Pirates–robbers–”
I kind of like that this isn’t some noble cause, per se. They need fuel. They’re bears. With armor. They’re just going to take it. What are you going to do to stop it? Right???
Well, you’ll do what Will does here: You stand up to the bears and challenge one of them to a fight.
I’ll be honest: the technique made absolutely no sense to me when I first read it. Will knows that the bears are his key to finding Lyra, so why on earth would he want to fight them? How does that compute at all?
He could feel the blackbird-Balthamos trembling on his shoulder.
Dude, an angel is frightened, Will. You are not. I concede that you are more brave than I will ever be. And that’s not even a slight at myself! It’s just that Will possess this brilliant ability to face his fear and I’m perfectly fine not fighting an armored bear. Thus I remained perplexed at Will’s bluff. Well…it’s a bluff, right? He can’t actually fight the bear he’s challenged, can he?
He gets the townspeople to agree to sell the bears fuel if he can get this particular one to yield to him; when that bear refuses to fight on the grounds of how BLATANTLY UNFAIR this is, Will demands that the bear hand over his helmet to at least be somewhat evenly-matched. (LOL NICE TRY, WILL.)
That’s when Will–oh, you genius boy–pulls out the subtle knife and slices the helmet. Will just cut an armored bear’s armor. In one second, I face-palmed (at myself, not Will) and realized what Will had just done: he’d ended the battle, gotten the bears fuel, and earned the attention and respect of the bears.
Can I just quote my favorite exchange of the chapter now?
“I want to see that knife.”
“I will only show it to a bear I can trust. There is one bear I’ve heard of who’s trustworthy. he is the king of the bears, a good friend of the girl I’m going to the mountains to find. Her name is Lyra Silvertongue. The bear is called Iorek Byrnison.”
“I am Iorek Byrnison,” said the bear.
“I know you are,” said Will.
I mean, is this just the best book or the very best book. Someone sign me up for marriage, I’ve found my soul mate.