In the fourteenth chapter of The Subtle Knife, Lee Scoresby and John Parry face a difficult challenge on their journey to find the bearer of the subtle knife. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Subtle Knife.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN: ALAMO GULCH
John Parry and Lee Scoresby are an interesting pairing, and I like that Pullman has stuck such disparate characters together in this ballon. And despite that Lee is never quite sure what is going on, or what sort of secrets that Parry has hidden from him, he still presses forward with his dependable, sensical dæmon at his side. I think that this chapter, more than any other, shows us how deep and true the relationship is between a dæmon and their companion, maybe even more so than Lyra and Pan.
Pullman brings us back to these two balloon travelers, who have travelled into Cittágazze and will soon head towards wherever Parry thinks the bearer of the subtle knife is. (This is still unsaid.) It’s a real testament to Pullman’s talent that he can give us the experience of yet another character entering Cittágazze for the first time, and not one bit of it seems repetitive and boring. For Lee, it seems to be just the beginning of the strangeness of his journey with the shaman, and he looks up the ruined city with shock and confusion. Even though he has the absolute least interaction with the place, he is the most jarred by what he witnesses. In the process, we’re given a huge chunk of information from Parry about the Specters. Lee is able to see them, being an adult, and he frantically asks Parry what those things are. The answer Parry gives is also a huge clue to what this book is about:
“The Specters feast as vampires feast on blood, but the Specters’ food is attention. A conscious and informed interest in the world. The immaturity of children is less attractive to them.”
IT’S LIKE A LIGHTBULB WENT OFF IN MY BRAIN. There it is, the real difference between children and adults, and the reason why Dust and the Specters have such a varied response. We’ve known this was all tied to age, but what Pullman is doing here is using the point of human knowledge and experience as a way to create a physical phenomenon. If Dust are the rebellious angels, then perhaps they’ve been waiting all of this time to show humanity the truth about the world, through a conscious and informed interest, in order to get them on their side. It seems to suggest that this book is going to be about the fight to keep an informed interest in the world, instead of the opposite. That would mean the Magisterium wishes to keep people in the darkness of immaturity forever by severing their dæmons.
It’s a fascinating concept, and given what I went through as both a non-denominational Christian and a Catholic, it makes me think about the veneration of children within large sects of Christianity. In Catholicism, we were taught that children are born into sin, but cannot be held accountable until at least the age of seven, and it’s drilled into our skulls how precious and perfect and ideal children are in God’s plan. Even Jesus himself was described to me in terms of youthful veneration: his innocence was childlike and his goodness was as we were born. And let’s just accept that as true for the sake of this: I don’t want to be a child anymore? That may be a simplification of the whole thing, but not only did I have a shitty childhood that was not virtuous and joyous and innocent, but things are a hell of a lot better now! I like knowing about the world, even if it most of it is awful and enraging! I enjoy having experiences, negative and positive. Hell, the more I have, the more fulfilled I feel. I think it’ll be interesting to see how much further Pullman takes this idea.
Lee and John continue flying through the city, and we get some more of that Southern sass of Lee’s, who is baffled that Parry doesn’t think they should land to help anyone else. He makes a remark about his ignorance of Parry’s ideas of how they should help, adding in a dig at the man’s apparent inability to fly, despite Lee being told Parry had the gift of flight. Parry’s reply, that he can fly, since he clearly summoned Lee and is flying right now, made me chuckle. But it also made me wonder what sort of powers that Parry possessed since becoming a shaman. Pullman doesn’t take long to answer it when Lee and Parry realize they are not alone in the skies of Cittágazze. First, Lee spots another balloon and before he can ascend high enough, a flare is sent streaming into the sky, and they know they’ve been spotted.
It’s here that we actually get to see Parry use his weird shaman powers. I feel like Lee’s request for a “stiffer breeze” is almost just an aside, as if he doesn’t expect the man to actually bring one by. Except then the man goes into a trance and then Lee feels a breeze just moments later. Um, that is awesome? He’s like a silent air bender. Unfortunately, any hope of outrunning the other balloon is shot to hell when Lee spots four zeppelins in the distance.
So begins one of two ridiculously tense moments in chapter fourteen. (What, that’s like….the twentieth such moment in the whole book? Christ, this book is just non-stop.) I think most, if not all, of this chapter highlights what Lee is actually good at, and how Parry must place his faith in Lee’s ability to fly the balloon properly. As Lee maneuvers the balloon towards a set of mountains nearby, he notices that something else has arrived behind the balloon and the zeppelins: a vicious cloudbank that rains dark green. And right before his eyes, Lee watches a zeppelin go down when a flash of lightning strikes it.
GUESS THE SHAMAN IS INDEED WORKING HIS MAGIC, RIGHT? Like…HOLY SHIT. That is so awesome! Of course, it would have been too convenient if Parry was just able to take all four of them down at once. However, I’m glad Pullman shows us how exhausting and draining this, that the act requires a whole lot of energy on Parry’s part. Lee, knowing this, decides that it’s no longer time to worry about the zeppelins; he needs to get his balloon landed safely and hidden before they are spotted entirely. Lee does manage to land the balloon even better than he hoped, but I honestly expected something terrible to happen. We’re almost to the end and anything could happen at this point, so I started getting nervous. However, Lee proves yet again that he is a masterful flyer, and the two manage to find their feet on solid ground after a little bit of work. It seems, though, that some camping is in order, as they can’t go anywhere with zeppelins overheard searching for them. Lee manages to get the gasbag out of sight and the two spend the night hiding from the zeppelins.
I actually had to read the dream section that comes next twice. I flat out did not understand what I’d read the first time around, so I returned to the beginning of the segment to try again. I think it’s purposely a bit vague, but the general idea is that Parry’s uncanny shaman powers involved him entering Lee’s dreams in a way to give him a glimpse of what he can do. What was so confusing to me was the fact that Lee was dreaming about something that was happening at that very moment. So when he awoke after images of a burning shaman, a Specter controlled by John, and watching a Specter suck the life out of the pilot of one of the zeppelins, I thought, SURELY THIS IS ALL JUST A METAPHOR FOR WHAT LEE IS GOING THROUGH.
NOPE. NOPE. For Lee wakes up to see the flickering remains in the distant forest that most certainly belonged to the zeppelin that crashed into the mountain. Meaning that John Parry can control the Specters into doing his bidding. Holy shit, y’all.
Lee’s fourth dream shows him how John was also able to control (or at least summon) a group of birds to attack the third zeppelin. I really enjoy that Pullman doesn’t deprive of us the weirdness and the exhilaration that Lee feels in his strange, dream-bird form either. Which makes me wonder…what exactly was John Parry doing to make this happen?
I suppose that’s not important, and I definitely enjoy the strangeness of it all. It’s clear that this is not at all what Lee expected to happen when he swore to protect Lyra, and he even brings up the idea of leaving, especially since he certainly isn’t comfortable with so much death going on around him. But Hester reminds him that there are more men coming. “Survival first, morals later,” she says.
That survival thing she’s referring to? Yeah, John Parry wakes up and informs Lee that the remaining zeppelin is going to ignite the forest with napalm in order to kill them or flush them out into the open. As the rush to leave, it’s actually kind of sad to me that Lee is forced to leave his balloon behind because I’ve come to associate him with flying. Stuck to the land, it’s almost as if he’s a different person. His job as an aeronaut is so intrinsic to his character.
It became clear to me what a disaster this chapter would become fairly quickly. From Pullmans description of the animals fleeing a fiery death, to the sheer impossibility of escape, to the realization that they’ve basically walked into a trap, it felt like the obvious was about to come: The two of them would be captured by whomever was flying that last zeppelin. (I mean…it has to be the Magisterium, right? Who else could it be?) The only hope is reaching a narrow passageway in the mountains before they are spotted. The two rush as quickly as possible, but Parry’s exhaustion from his night of spiritual warfare slows them down, so much so that Lee must admit that disaster has struck: They’ve been spotted.
What happens here is unbelievably harrowing, and as the Tartan soldiers descend on a ladder, Lee is faced with a choice: Give his gun to John Parry and turn himself in, or allow John Parry to escape and he’ll face the soldiers himself. As they move to the shelter of the gulch and Lee’s made it clear he’ll choose the latter, he asks but one thing of John Parry: Is what he’s doing going to help Lyra or harm her? When John replies that it will help, Lee makes sure that Parry knows exactly what he means:
“Because, Dr. Grumman, or John Parry, or whatever name you take up in whatever world you end up in, you be aware of this: I love that little child like a daughter. If I’d had a child of my own, I couldn’t love her more. And if you break that oath, whatever remains of me will pursue whatever remains of you, and you’ll spend the rest of eternity wishing you never existed. That’s how important that oath is.”
Oh, Lee Scoresby. You fill my heart with such a fierce sense of joy and respect.
It is with this that Parry departs and the title of the chapter, “Alamo Gulch,” suddenly rings truer in my head: This is Lee Scoresby, the lone Texan, up against an army of twenty-five. He’s outnumbered. He thinks back to the games he played as a child, re-enacting that battle, and knows it is no longer a game anymore. His first shot? He takes out the port engine on the zeppelin floating overhead.
The battle that takes places here filled me with dread and doom while giving me such an intense love for the character of Lee Scoresby, the man who had vowed to protect Lyra and was now crouched behind a rock with twenty-five armed soldiers set to open fire any minute. Lee’s thoughts briefly wander to the beauty and passion of his hare dæmon, to how he is connected to Lyra in some way he cannot understand, and the first shot rings out. The battle commences.
I thought that the title of the chapter was a clue to Lee’s stand against the Tartan soldiers and would act only as a reference to how outnumbered he was. Even when he discovered that a bullet had clipped his scalp, I thought that Lee surely had the upper hand as he continued to drop those blue-shirted soldiers.
And then he is shot in the shoulder. It doesn’t stop him, only gives him a brief pause, but then something happens that made me realize that maybe this chapter title was a lot more literal:
Then there was a long silence. Lee fumbled in his pocket and found some more bullets. As he reloaded he felt something so rare his heart nearly failed; he felt Hester’s face pressed to his own, and it was wet with tears.
I didn’t even know that this was something a dæmon could do, and a fresh wave of terror washed over me. This is bad. This is really bad. Hester apologizes for telling Lee to steal that Skraeling ring, which got him into this mess in the first place. When Lee tries to respond, a second bullet pierces his left leg, and then a third hits his head.
I’m not even going to hide this: By this point, I had tears in my eyes. This could not be happening. Lee was a rock. He was solid and dependable and his skill with a rifle was not matched by anyone else. Hester reminds Lee that Serafina gave him a flower to use to summon her if he needed her, and I held on to the tiny shred of hope that she would find a way to help Lee in this moment of desperation.
She doesn’t come. Another bullet lodges itself in Lee’s chest, and three shots later, the second to last man is dead. Lee is sprawled on the ground, his hare dæmon telling him there is just one man left, one man heading back to the zeppelin, and there is but one bullet left in his gun. So Lee does the only thing he can: he shoots the zeppelin overhead, which erupts and then crashes in flames, killing those who are left of the Tartan regiment.
This couldn’t be it. Where was Serafina? Lee remarks that he wishes these men didn’t have to die, and that he didn’t have to die either.
She said, “We held ‘em off. We held out. We’re a-helping Lyra.”
Then she was pressing her little proud broke self against his face, as close as she could get, and then they died.
No. Nope. It still hurts. I am not okay with this. And I am going to sob myself to sleep for a week. Just…..FUCK. I must have cried for five minutes straight, just spread out on the sofa in my apartment, because this man was not supposed to die. I thought that John Parry would certainly perish before he saw his son, and that maybe Lee would be tasked with telling Will what he needs to do. That’s what I thought would happen once the zeppelins spotted the two of them.
I just feel awful. Completely awful. Lee will never be able to express how much he loved Lyra to her face. Just…my god, this is terrible.