In the tenth chapter of The Subtle Knife, Lee Scoresby confronts Dr. Grumman about his knowledge of why the world is falling apart. And shit. gets. so. real. If you’re intrigued, let’s all flail about while reading The Subtle Knife.
CHAPTER TEN: THE SHAMAN
Continuing from how I started yesterday’s review, this is a wonderful place for Pullman to move on to another character and, given what we’ve learned since chapter eight, it’s a way to re-contextualize the information we’d just internalized. I keep talking about how fun it is to be completely confused, and I’m still maintaining that position. It’s not even a matter of figuring out the plot anymore. Now I am confused about the motivations of the characters and the mechanizations of the worlds we are moving through.
But I’ll get to that in a bit. For now, we’re dropped into Lee Scoresby’s world, and the effects of Lord Asriel’s bridge to the stars have sent the Yenisei River area into utter chaos. It provides the first half of my confusion because I was initially very upset with Asriel’s careless act: He’s rendered such destruction in his own world and he cares not about what he’s done. He’s off assembling the troops for his alleged war against the heavens and in the meantime, the damage here continues to spread. Does he not care if his own words is destroyed in the process? Is his mission that important?
Lee doesn’t have time to think of such things, though. He has a singular goal in mind: to locate the tribe that Grumman belongs to. (Oh, and by memory. What a badass.) It takes him three days (!!!!!) to finally reach the rock that signifies the location of the tribe. Along the way, though, the journey is full of the physical signs of the upheaval of the natural world. There’s been no talk of it, but I wonder if the progression of these things will increase or slowly go away. I can only imagine they get worse from here on out.
Lee makes his way into the village to speak with the Tartars present, and I really love that he doesn’t just barge in and demand to speak to someone in charge. Lee’s a respectable man, and he treats the Tartars in this village with the respect they deserve from an outsider. After Lee wins the favor of the headsman, he asks to see Dr. Grumann, and the headsman’s reply perplexed me:
“We have been expecting you,” he said again. “You have come to take Dr. Grumman to the other world.”
Aside from being an outright confirmation that Grumman is not only alive, but right here, it’s one hell of a weird thing to say right off the bat. Obviously this tribe has knowledge of other worlds, so that doesn’t surprise me. By why are they specifically waiting for someone to take Grumman to another world?
That is a mystery that is not kept one for very long, as Lee is quickly introduced to the Shaman of the tribe, Dr. Stanislaus Grumman, who is very much not dead and not beheaded as Lord Asriel claimed. The two sit and Lee relates the entire story of how he came to seek out Dr. Grumman, ending by asking why Lyra seems to be so important and why he is to be taken to another world.
I cannot believe it was sitting there right in front of me. Dr. Grumman reveals that the nickname given to him by the Tartars–Jopari–is simply their pronunciation of his real name.
I mean HOW DID I NOT SEE THAT. SERIOUSLY. John Parry disappeared at the precise moment that Dr. Grumman seemingly appeared in this world and all of the pieces matched up! IT WAS SO OBVIOUS OH MY GOD THIS IS AMAZING. Now we have two characters–Lord Boreal and John Parry–who have been living lives in each others’ respective universes. THIS IS SERIOUSLY SO GOOD I MAY NEVER WANT TO READ ANOTHER BOOK AGAIN.
But John Parry is not done with his surprises. To explain to Lee what drew him to this place, he presents the man with his mother’s Navajo ring. It is so shocking and confusing that for the first time in the entire series, Lee is actually frightened, which in turn frightens me. This man is as solid as a rock in terms of his inner fiber. How the hell did John get that ring? (This is actually completely unexplained, isn’t it? Parry insinuates that he has some powers as a shaman to just “bring” things to him. I don’t think Pullman will leave this thread hanging, personally.)
It’s a continued archetype in the His Dark Materials trilogy that the characters speak as plainly and as openly as imaginable. I am going to start desiring that in other books I read, I can already tell. John Parry simply lays it all out on the table: He accidentally wandered from his world into Cittágazze during his expedition twelve years ago, just after his son was born, and lost his two companions to the Specters. He managed to find his way into Lee’s universe, and it’s here we learn that those from other worlds who travel to this universe GET DÆMONS. Confirming that every person has a soul, it seems that dæmons appear once you enter this universe. Seriously, can you already guess what I’m thinking? HOW CAN I GET TO THAT UNIVERSE. I want a dæmon so badly!
John continues to explain his life in this world to Lee, elaborating on his time spent learning as much as possible about this world, and in doing so, he learns of Dust. I’m just going to quote this section because it’s what made me bring up what I did in the introduction:
“I see from your expression that you have heard the term. It is frightening your teologians to death, but they are the ones who frighten me. I know what Lord Asriel is doing, and I know why, and that’s why I summoned you here. I am going to help him, you see, because the task he’s undertaken is the greatest in human history. The greatest in thirty-five thousand years of human history, Mr. Scoresby.
“I can’t do very much myself. My heart is diseased beyond the powers of anyone in this world to cure it. I have one great effort left in me, perhaps. But I know something Lord Asriel doesn’t, something he needs to know if his effort is to succeed.”
And it’s at this point that all of my thoughts on Dust and Lord Asriel’s war unravel. (That’s a good thing. It’s challenging my thought process.) We know that Lord Asriel is going to wage the second war in the heavens, which I can guess means some sort of revolt against God himself. (Assuming this is the Christian or Abrahamic God, at least for the purposes of discussing this.) Asriel is bent on discovering the source of Dust, and, given that he wants to locate that and then destroy it, it seems to lend credence to the idea that perhaps Dust is not some good, moral force in the universe. I know that we’re meant to think that Lord Asriel is a horrible villain, and even after what I say here, I will refuse to forget that he murdered Roger in order to get where he is. But what if the Magisterium is actually right about what Dust is? What if it is the very notion of sin, the very idea that all of us are doomed from the start for the actions of two people whom we never even knew?
We keep hearing the number “thirty-five thousand.” I’m taking it that Pullman is going to actually do something completely different than I expected. He’s not going to say that God is not real. Rather, he’s going to propose that God is indeed real, and that it actually is a moral decision to resist and destroy Him. Or him. Or it? Whichever pronoun is appropriate.
The thing is, John is presenting this reality as something that is deeply important for humanity, and I can’t possibly believe that it’s for an evil cause. That certainly adds yet another layer of depth to Lord Asriel. He now seems like a deeply flawed, prideful person who might actually be trying to save every universe that has ever existed. Still, we’re missing a gigantic piece of the puzzle: Why should there be a war against God?
John does reveal what it is he knows that Lord Asriel does not: that three hundred years ago, philosophers in Cittágazze created a tool called the subtle knife, and this knife is integral to Lord Asriel’s success. So, in a matter-of-fact tone, John states that Lee will fly him into Cittágazze, they will find the bearer of the subtle knife, and that bearer will assist Lord Asriel in the war against the heavens.
good holy god WHAT!!!!!
So now John’s OWN SON is absolutely a crucial part of this unbelievable, absurd plan, one that fills me with NEVERENDING EXCITEMENT for the future. Lee, always the pragmatist, asks for just one thing in return: the protection of the subtle knife for Lyra. It’s charming and touching that after hearing all this, Lee thinks of that brave, fierce little girl and wishes for her safety. To me, that is a sign of utmost respect, a gesture of pure altruism on his part. Lee, whose been quite the reluctant skeptic throughout this, is coming around to the idea that he’ll play an important part in whatever battle is on the horizon.
Well, it’s not quite that easy, I suppose:
“But I warn you: the bearer of that knife has his own task to do, and it may be that his doing it will put her into even greater danger.”
WELL, OKAY. We had such a good run of straightforward, no bullshit talk. What the hell does this mean? What task will Will Parry have???
The mysterious, otherworldly shaman agrees to do whatever he can to assure Lyra’s safety, and then he begins the process of bidding his tribal family goodbye. His head surely spinning, Lee navigates his way back down the river towards the port. Upon arriving there, they discover that things just got a whole lot more complicated: the Imperial Guard of Muscovy, an army controlled by the Magisterium, has taken control of literally every supply they might possibly need for the war effort. The Magisterium is going to war in the new world, ostensibly to oppose Lord Asriel’s force. Knowing he has to move quickly, they rush to where Lee’s balloon was left, only to find that it was already requisitioned by the army. Finally, proving that every once in a while I can figure things out, Lee uses the Magisterium ring he stole from the Skraeling to bluff his way into getting his balloon released and stocked with supplies. I AM A MASTER COMPREHENSIVE READER. Actually, no, I’m not, since I totally missed that Jopari = John Parry, but allow me this rare moment of victory. There’s a bit of trouble when Lee does try to cast off after packing up properly, as only half of the men cast off the balloon on time; the other two are reluctant upon the appearance of armed guards who order the balloon to halt. Unfortunately, only one man actually releases his rope, and Lee has to witness the fourth man clinging on foolishly before falling to his (apparent) death far below in the water.
But it’s still a success: John Parry and Lee Scoresby fly on to the north, ready to pass into a parallel universe to find Will Parry and Lord Asriel. Shit is going to get so much realer from here on out.