In the seventeenth chapter of The Amber Spyglass, Dr. Mary Malone finally discovers the mystery behind Dust/Shadows and why it only appeared after a certain point in history. When she does, the mulefa reveal that she has an unknown purpose for coming to their world. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Amber Spyglass.
CHAPTER 17: OIL AND LACQUER
I mean THE ANSWER WAS JUST SITTING THERE. HOW DID I MISS THIS??? I think that is–if I may pat myself on the back just a bit–half the fun of the pedantic method that I use for this process. I’m already thinking about how agonizing it must have been to have me toe right up to the line and not say, “Oh, Dust/Shadows occurred at the exact moment that Eve was tempted and everyone received Knowledge.” I basically danced around it for the past month. IT WAS RIGHT THERE.
I also imagine that quite a few of you (correctly) knew that I would flip my shit at every single revelation in chapter seventeen, most especially the way that Pullman sets up this dichotomy for knowledge and Authority. Oh, and the idea that EVERY SINGLE PARALLEL WORLD WAS TEMPTED AT THE EXACT SAME MOMENT.
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I’ve been enjoying The Amber Spyglass, but until yesterday’s chapter, I sort of felt like we weren’t getting that many HEAD EXPLOSIONS as the first two books, so this caught me completely off-guard. On top of that, I loved Mary’s scenes with the mulefa, but I was starting to wonder what they were for, in the sense that I knew they would relate to complete narrative, but I just wasn’t seeing how.
Pullman takes his time answering that question in this chapter, but even right from the beginning, I got the feeling we’d see a huge development here. If Mary was going to try to see if she could observe Shadows in this world, I imagined we’d learn something new about this alternate universe.
So Mary sets about building a mirror of sorts, inspired by a revealing conversation with a mulefa named Atal about Mary’s experiments in her own world. Like many things here in this universe, I love that Pullman always acknowledges that many basic concepts we take for granted are entirely foreign and strange here. As Mary tries to explain the concept of her research, her lab, the idea behind her experiments, and how she came to discover that these particles were actually conscious, she frets about the possibility that Atal will simply be unable to understand what she’s saying. The scientific method means nothing in Mary’s terms to the mulefa, though we have seen it acted out in a different way among these creatures.
…but Atal surprised her by saying, Yes–we know what you mean–we call it…and then she used a word that sounded like their word for light.
Mary said, Light?
Atal said, Not light, but…and said the word more slowly for mary to catch, explaining: like the light on water when it makes small ripples, at sunset, and the light comes off in bright flakes, we call it that, but it is a make-like.
Make-like was their term for metaphor, Mary had discovered.
It became incredibly obvious to me that all of these parallel worlds developed and evolved and adapted in such stark, varied ways, but we were now seeing that Dust/Shadows/Light appears to be in every world. My immediate question upon reading this: What else do these worlds have in common?
Sraf. That’s what they have in common. Atal explains that this is why the mulefa knew that they could inherently trust Mary. (I did laugh that Atal called her “bizarre and horrible,” and it’s not at all meant as an insult.) When Mary asks where it comes from, and Atal replies that it’s from the mulefa and the oil from the seedpods, a trillion lightbulbs started going off in my head. Apparently, the same thing happened with Mary, who starts to put together all of her ideas regarding the nature of the Shadows. She remembers what Lyra had told her about Dust, that it all has to do with The Fall and Original Sin, and that it all appeared at a very specific point in history.
She said to Atal:
How long have there been mulefa?
And Atal said:
Thirty-three thousand years.
She was able to read Mary’s expressions by this time, or the most obvious of them at least, and she laughed at the way Mary’s jaw dropped.
AHHHHHHHHH ALL OF THE WORLDS ARE THE SAME. But nothing could have prepared me for the origin story Atal tells, giving Mary the reason she knows why there have only been mulefa for 33,000 years. Long ago, a female creature with no name discovered a seedpod, and a visitor arrived once she started playing with it:
She saw a snake coiling itself through the hole in a seedpod, and the snake said–
The snake spoke to her?
No, no! it is a make-like. The story tells that the snake said, “What do you know? What do you remember? What do you see ahead?” And she said, “Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
And then my head exploded a trillion times over. GOD TEMPTED EVERY EVE IN EVERY WORLD. oh my god ads;klfjas as;klfjas;d fas;dlkfjasd;lk asd;lkfjasd ;lfkj as;dlfkjasdkl;fsdjklasfd
What I really like about this scene, though, is that it exemplifies my main problem with the Temptation and the Fall. There’s very little for us to work off of in the Bible, so Pullman does take liberties in giving us the part of the story where the snake speaks to this unnamed creature. (Well, unnamed due to lack of knowledge, which we’ll get to.) But I imagine there’s no other way to explain this state, even if it is metaphorical: without knowledge, the first humans (or creatures in any world) would know nothing. There would be no memory, no history, no future, no speculation, and, most important of them all, no context. We’re talking about theological zombies, in essence, humans without history or learning or foresight or anticipation, who merely drift the earth in some designed paradise of pure boredom.
The story of Eve and the story of the first mulefa are both identical in this sense. God tempts these beings. He does so with the full knowledge that they are absolutely unable to make a decision that is the slightest bit informed, and he then punishes the rest of the future of humanity for this, all the while fully aware that only out of sheer luck would Eve choose not to eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. And I use the word “luck” because Eve (and the first mulefa) do not have the capacity to even have a reason to choose one or the other. That requires knowledge and they have none.
It’s for this reason that Pullman paints the mulefa history as one that is entirely accepting and respecting of knowledge: that knowledge they gained helped them determine how to use the seedpods, how to name one another, and helped them teach their offspring how they were supposed to live as well. In the Bible, the Fall is mankind’s greatest error, and we’ve spent thousands of years believing that receiving knowledge of the world and ourselves was our worst mistake. I feel that Pullman is working towards a moment to explain just how absurd that notion is, but I I also think it’s still relevant 33,000 years later, as theocratic politicians the world round profess the same idea and legislate them into law. Is knowledge our worst sin?
Philip Pullman doesn’t think so, and there’s probably no better example of that than Mary’s construction of the mirror. Like the subtle knife forging scene, I was endlessly fascinated by the process, even if I was distracted by how complex it was and how difficult it was for me to visualize a lot of it. Mary’s mind operates completely in the pursuit of knowledge. She uses the same process the mulefa use for creating lacquer, which has the same properties as spar, in order to create some sort of mirror to view Shadows. Yet even that is a lot easier said than done, and she sets out on the prolonged journey to create this instrument. I like that it’s not something that she sits down and makes on a nice summer afternoon. It takes her days to complete it. She makes mistakes, she fails, but she doesn’t stop. She doesn’t have a silver backing to the mirror, so it doesn’t even work as she intended. She listens intently when Atal explains more about the lacquer’s property, and what she could use it for. She even comes up with the idea of sticking two sheets of glass against each other to see if it makes a difference when she views the world through it.
And through all of this, I noticed something very peculiar: aside from Atal, none of the mulefa cared what Mary was doing. Hell, Pullman even stresses how uninterested they are in her little project and, at one point, even Atal tires of this process. In that moment, when Mary puts aside her little experiment and the two spend some time grooming each other (SORRY THIS SCENE IS SO AMAZING AND AFFECTIONATE UGH I LOVE IT), it all comes together:
She held the two plates a hand span apart so that they showed that clear, bright image she’d seen before, but something had happened.
As she looked through, she saw a swarm of golden sparkles surrounding the form of Atal. They were only visible through one small part of the lacquer, and then Mary realized why: at that point she had touched the surface of it with her oily fingers.
THIS IS SPECTACULAR. Oh god, I would love to see this done on film, to see Mary view the mulefa world through this lens, to see Dust swirling over these creatures, or settling in around those who were older and had conquered knowledge.
Aaaaaannnd then everything gets weird for a bit.
So at last you can see, said Atal. Well, now you must come with me.
Mary looked at her friend in puzzlement. Atal’s tone was strange: it was as if she were saying, Finally you’re ready; we’ve been waiting; now things must change.
I can’t deny how unsettled I was by this, by reading how the mulefa start to assemble, by Atal’s gentle assurance that she will not be harmed, by Mary’s realization that this was clearly planned for a long time. What are they doing? Why are they meeting like this?
Mary is introduced to the oldest mulefa that she’s ever seen, Sattamax, whose cloud of Shadows “was so rich and complex that Mary herself felt respect, even though she knew so little of what it meant.” And Sattamax begins to speak, revealing that the entire group has been waiting for the moment when Mary had conquered some of their language and, more important than anything, could fully understand what sraf was. Having done so, Sattamax says, it’s time for her to help the mulefa.
Oh, Pullman. I was so unprepared.
I’m not sure what it all means, but Sattamax tells Mary how three hundred years earlier, the trees carrying their seedpods began to die. Surprisingly, there are now creatures in this world without Dust, the tualapi are working to destroy the mulefa, and they all desperately need a cure to the sickness that affects their trees, or they will all die.
And this is where Dr. Mary Malone comes in. Mary must come up with a cure, and she agrees. And I’m guessing that this is all directly related to the Authority in some way. If the Gallivespians had human agents of the Authority to deal with, and there’s the Magisterium in Lyra’s world, or the Specters….what is happening in this world to threaten the lives of the mulefa?
But Pullman doesn’t leave us with this happy moment, choosing to give us a brief glimpse at Father Gomez, who is still traveling through Cittágazze, heading towards the mountain where Mary found the door to the world she is in now.