In the nineteenth chapter of The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman shows us why Lyra–and Lyra alone–is the real reason for this whole series. Intrigued? Then itâ€™s time for Mark to read The Amber Spyglass.
CHAPTER NINETEEN: LYRA AND HER DEATH
I know that quite a bit left of The Amber Spyglass, and surely there are larger moments ahead, but what happens at the end of chapter nineteen is a massive emotiona moment for Lyra, one that could only have happened with her character and only after the journey sheâ€™s been through. Itâ€™s a combination of her own selfish desire to get what she wants and her constant struggle with what she thinks is moral and just.
But before we discuss this final scene (and how it made me tear up in this weird mixture of sadness, pride, and respect), there is so much that Pullman gives us about the passage to the world of the dead, and this might be my favorite â€œworldâ€ that heâ€™s given us. Yeah, okay…that might seem rather strange, given how bleak and depressing it is, but are any of you surprised by that? I live for stuff like this!
Itâ€™s all in the details for Pullman, and more than ever before, I feel like I can visualize this entire imagined universe in my mind, from the ruins of the suburb, to the crumbled remains of buildings that once stood, to the garbage that litters the streets. I can see the ghosts rushing through this town â€œlike the grains of sand that trickle toward the hole of an hourglass.â€ Itâ€™s a constant, steady flow of souls into this grey, desolate place. God, I love that image: this place, full of the ghosts of people who just died, still feels empty and vacant.
And yet, the first person they speak isnâ€™t dead, but a man in a â€œtattered business suit,â€ who stops them because like him, they also arenâ€™t dead and are not allowed to pass. When Lyra questions why they canâ€™t go on, he implies itâ€™s rather common for living people to come to the world of the dead by mistake. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? Itâ€™s not like you can take a wrong turn on the way to work and whoops, now Iâ€™m in a world of ghosts. Still, he says that people can go on past the â€œportâ€ to the world of the daed by waiting in the holding area. Oh yeah, they have to wait until they actually die.
FUCKING GREAT. So they all have to stand around and wait to die. What the hell?
So they continue on, the dragonflies and Gallivespians resting on Lyra and Willâ€™s shoulders, walking until they reach the next house, where theyâ€™re told to wait around with everyone else who is in the same condition as they are. What is so remarkable to me is that there does not seem to be the slightest sign or mention of the Authority in this place. In fact, the place seems devoid of Him, whatever that might mean. Was the promise of heaven always a lie? Or are they â€œjudgedâ€ when they get passage to the actual world of the dead?
Thereâ€™s no answer to this now. Instead, Pullman introduces us to new beings who are strangely comforting to me as a concept. As theyâ€™re looking for some place to stay in this shanty town by the ocean, they notice groups of shadowy people standing all around, talking to one another or simply waiting for something unknown. Lady Salmakia remarks that these are not people, nor are they ghosts. When Will asks a group of them the name of where they are, these people-things act afraid of Will, and Pantalaimon starts shivering in terror. Lyra wonders if theyâ€™re Specters, but Will isnâ€™t sure they are, seeing as theyâ€™re not being attacked while being able to see them.
Yet things only continue to get stranger when a man comes out of a nearby house to talk to the group, asking about their travels, but doing so in a way that suggests he fears Will and Lyra. Then he asks a question that, like so many in this book, made little to no sense at all:
â€œDid you see any death?â€
They shook their heads, and the children heard a murmur of â€œNo, no, none.â€
What? Theyâ€™re not dead, so of course they wouldnâ€™t see death, I thought. Will vocalizes this very thought, too, and it makes matter worse.
This is the start of Lyra taking control of the situation, and it is so lovely to see her calling the shots while everyone else obeys, and as weâ€™ll come to see, sheâ€™s clearly the best person to be leading them through the world of the dead. Her lifetime of tricking adults, of lying or acting interested to get her way, suddenly is never more practical or prudent. Thatâ€™s not to say that she is lying to the man standing before her, as she certainly is telling the truth when she explains to him that they come from a place where the appearance of their dÃ¦mons are just as strange to them as are these strange human-shaped figures, and that these differences might be why everyone is so reluctant and fearful around them. It works, unsurprisingly, since Lyra is a master at this, and the man invites her in, and they all see just how full the house is with other people.
And holy shit, the lady in the blankets. HOLY SHIT:
As Lyra looked at her, she had a shock: the blankets stirred, and a very thin arm emerged, in a black sleeve, and then another face, a manâ€™s, so ancient it was almost a skeleton. In fact, he looked more like the skeleton in the picture than like a living human being; and then Will, too, noticed, and all the travelers together realized that he was one of those shadowy, polite figures like the ones outside.
WWWWHHHHAATTTT IS GOING ON?!?!?!!?!?!?! Oh my god SOMEONE HOLD ME, MY HEART IS GOING TO EXPLODE.
I cannot recall a MORE AWKWARD moment in this whole series that isnâ€™t this scene. The travelers are gobsmacked at the appearance of this shadow figure hanging out under the same blanket as this old lady, and for some reason, the same look is giving to the travelers by all the humans inside this shack. No one is willing to ask the obvious, and everyone just sets out to act as courteous as possible.
Peter, the man who let them inside, finally explains why everyone is horrified to see them: They are the first people to ever arrive in this town with their death following them. Those people outside? Theyâ€™re not people-things. They are each personâ€™s death. That thing in the blanket? The womanâ€™s death. AND THEY ARE BASICALLY SNUGGLING TOGETHER.
Much like the concept of a dÃ¦mon, a personâ€™s death is with them every moment of their life since birth, but unlike dÃ¦mons, they can travel to the world of the dead with their respective ghost. Iâ€™m not necessarily terrified by the deaths, but when they all come into the shack and the travelers can see how each is just a pale, drab version of some nondescript humanâ€¦.Iâ€™m sorry. Itâ€™s one of the creepiest things imaginable. You know whatâ€™s creepier? The fact that the woman cooking, Martha, hands the deaths in the shack bowls of stew for them to smell. Because they donâ€™t eat, but the smell â€œkept them content.â€ MY MIND IS SHATTERING INTO A TRILLION PIECES.
Iâ€™d forgotten how much I missed it until here in chapter nineteen, but Peter asks Lyra where they came from, and Lyra launches into one of her completely fabricated (yet entirely fantastical) stories. I think itâ€™s smart of her not to tell them all why she and Will are actually here, or why the Gallivespians are following them, or to share the reasons behind their journey, or the war against the Authority that is building. But even aside from all that, I just love how ridiculous Lyra is, that she gets the chance to be so absurdly silly at a time like this. We simply havenâ€™t seen it in so long, and as she launched into her explanation of how the Gallivespians came from the goddamn moon, I couldnâ€™t help but smile from ear to ear. Bless you, Lyra.
At the end of the story, Lyra lays out her groupâ€™s problem before everyone: They need to find a way across the water. I was completely shocked when the old womanâ€™s death was the one to speak up, and he explains that theyâ€™ll have to call up their deaths, which are apparently kept â€œat bay,â€ a talent that is extremely rare.
I was not shocked, however, when Chevalier Tialys interrupted this, and Lyra knew he was going to protest. After making up one hell of a lie about speaking to moon people, she takes him outside to speak with him. More than ever before, he is outright brutal to Lyra, telling her she absolutely must stop. Well, he doesnâ€™t say it nicely.
â€œYouâ€™re a thoughtless, irresponsible, lying child. Fantasy comes so easily to you that your whole nature is riddled with dishonesty, and you donâ€™t even admit the truth when it stares you in the face. Well, if you canâ€™t see it, Iâ€™ll tell you plainly: you cannot, you must not risk your death. You must come back with us now. Iâ€™ll call Lord Asriel and we can be safe in the fortress in hours.â€
Did this remind anyone else of Lord Asriel? Thatâ€™s instantly where my brain went. Who else thinks that Lyra has no control over her life, that her concerns and desires are always childish and without foresight or thought, that she is nothing more than just a child with immature desires? The truth is that Chevalier Tialys knows nothing about what Lyra has been through in the past year, and how brave, courageous, or brilliant she is. And Lyra makes sure to tell him this, that everything he says is both presumptuous and whatever exists beyond cruelty. Yet Tialys thinks he has some lordship over Lyra, and he acts offended that Lyra should defend herself, and he begins to threaten punishment on her when she explodes.
And itâ€™s here that I sat in awe of Lyra and my heart swelled with pride and respect for her fierce sense of what is good and right.
â€œThen go ahead! Punish me, since you can! Take your bloody spurs and dig â€˜em in hard, go on! Hereâ€™s my hand–do it! Youâ€™ve got no idea whatâ€™s in my heart, you proud, selfish creature–you got no notion how I feel sad and wicked and sorry about my friend Roger–you kill people just like thatâ€–she snapped her finger–â€they donâ€™t matter to you–but itâ€™s a torment and a sorrow to me that I never said good-bye to him, and I want to say sorry and make it as good as I can–youâ€™d never understand that, for all your pride, for all your grown-up cleverness–and if I have to die to do whatâ€™s proper, then I will, and be happy while I do. I seen worse than that. So if you want to kill me, you hard man, you strong man, you poison bearer, you Chevalier, you do it, go on, kill me. Then me and Roger can play in the land of the dead forever, and laugh at you, you pitiful thing.â€
It was the combination of such intense respect for Lyra, of everything in these books leading to this one moment, that caused tears to fill my eyes. Lyra is the true hero of this story, and someone who is just an eleven-year-old girl already understands that it is the greatest sacrifice to be willing to die in order to do what is proper and right. Ugh, I love her so dearly.
And itâ€™s at this exact moment of admission that a voice suddenly arrives behind Lyra, and she turns to face her very own death, who she just inadvertently summoned. Seriously, the dynamic for this scene is so weird and strange, because Lyra, faced with her own death, must lie to it in order to convince it to take her and her travelers to the world of the dead. I mean…does a personâ€™s death know their thoughts too? Or are they a completely separate entity? How does that work?
She does manage to convince her death to take them all, but lead them out of that world. During this entire scene, Chevalier Tialys is using the lodestone resonator, and when he speaks to Lyra, he strangely agrees to go with her, and…look, I donâ€™t trust him. Who did he speak to, and what did they say?
We end chapter nineteen with Lyra, unable to sleep soundlessly, frightened by the prospect of what theyâ€™re going to do the next morning. Theyâ€™re going to the world of the dead. I love this book so much.