In the twenty-third chapter of The Amber Spyglass, Lyra and Will discover that leaving the world of the dead is going to be a lot more difficult than they ever imagined. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Amber Spyglass.
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE: NO WAY OUT
Oh, I don’t like you, chapter title. I don’t like you one bit. Why do you have to tease me???
There’s so much packed into chapter twenty-three that I honestly felt overwhelmed by the time I reached the end of it. There are too many things I needed to react to! There is so much information to process! And then I am full of joy and excitement and sadness and conflicting emotions! I overuse the exclamation point!
But at least this chapter starts off with a bittersweet reunion between Roger and Lyra, something I would never have expected could even happen again in this series. Roger is dead. The Subtle Knife confirmed it. And here he is, rushing to hug Lyra, but he can’t, because HE’S A FUCKING GHOST. That’s why I call this bittersweet. It is so amazing to see them back together in a way that isn’t a cop-out of his death, yet the lack of the ability to be physically affectionate just CRUSHES me. I’m a hug fiend and this would kill me and break my heart beyond repair. I mean this sentence alone:
They could never truly touch again.
Just makes me want to give up forever. Yet Lyra persists, trying to appear as strong and joyous as she can. And I actually like that idea in terms of how this world works. Even during such a reunion, it’s still hard to be happy, and it’s so prescient to be that the world of the dead sucks all figurative life out of your system. It requires a forced, conscious effort to feel anything that isn’t despair and misery. These sort of details help build a world just as much as the physical details.
I just can’t deny how touching their reunion is, their willingness to be responsible for their actions, the constant desire on Roger’s part to find any sort of comfort in Lyra’s presence, the validation of his belief that Lyra would find some way to save him, Lyra’s emotional admission to leaving Pan behind…oh god, all of it is too much for my heart to handle.
Of course, I feel the worse for Roger because…well, he’s dead. That’s a lot worse than what Lyra has gone through. We learn just how awful it is when the purpose of the harpies is fully explained:
“You know what they do? They wait till you’re resting–you can’t never sleep properly, you just sort of doze–and they come up quiet beside you and they whisper all the bad things you ever did when you was alive, so you can’t forget ’em. They know all the worst things about you. They know how to make you feel horrible, just thinking of all the stupid things and bad things you ever did. And all the greedy and unkind thoughts you ever had, they know ’em all, and they shame you up and they make you sick with yourself…But you can’t get away from ’em.”
JESUS CHRIST WHYYYYYYYY. I got the sense that these beings existed specifically to shame people for what they had done that did not match up with what the Authority had in mind for humanity, and I think Pullman is trying to casually draw a parallel between how shame is used in Abrahamic theology. And it’s a topic that is remarkably familiar to me.
I’ll elaborate on that in a second. I might be overreacting to something that is either small or inconsequential, but nothing else in this chapter frightened me quite as bad as Lyra admitting to Roger that she knew there was a prophecy about her. I do feel a bit shaky in my understanding of the prophecy, and I think I’ve never questioned its existence more than now. I liked the idea that Lyra could not know the prophecy because it could not come true if it violated her free will/agency, but now I’m not at all sure what sort of function that it provides. I was sort of bothered by Lyra’s admission that she knew the whole time that there was a prophecy about it, because it just seems brought up at the last minute. Well, to be fair, Lyra had A LOT going on in her life and it wasn’t at the forefront of her concerns. So I do get that, but now I’m just lost. How much do I believe about what I’m told? If Lyra really does learn of the prophecy, does that mean it doesn’t come true? She also believes that freeing the dead is the actual “important” thing she needs to do, when we know it’s not. So, by a technicality, has she not learned of the prophecy?
AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH I AM SO CONFUSED I UNDERSTAND NOTHING.
Well, I do understand what happens next, and I’m grateful that it essentially made my cry out in joy. The Gallivespians ask Will what he’s going to do, and he very plainly states that he’s going to cut a window into a new world, and take the ghosts of the dead with them.
“This will undo everything. It’s the greatest blow you could strike. The Authority would be powerless after this.”
“How would they ever suspect it?” said the Lady. “It’ll come at them out of nowhere!”
HOW AWESOME IS THIS? Lyra and Will weren’t even thinking about the war in Heaven and they are going to do something that will leave the Authority “powerless.” Okay, I can’t say I really understand why this would happen, but I like the idea that Will and Lyra are inadvertently fighting this war without exerting the slightest bit of effort to do so. It’s just natural to them!
Still, it’s not going to be possible to pull this off if they can’t escape from the world of the dead, and Will concerns himself with trying to find a way out with the subtle knife. Unfortunately, we learn that every single layer and window that Will can find seems to open underground. Which…I guess that makes sense! If Will could find windows that opened high above the ground, it’s reasonable he’d find the opposite. I even like the idea that the land of the dead exists “under” the earth in this sense. I mean, I don’t like that it genuinely seems like there’s no way out, but it’s a fascinating concept.
Not seeing any other way around it, Will tells Lyra he’ll have to use the knife to probably cut a tunnel if they get stuck, but it looks like they have more pressing things to deal with. From the way Pullman describes it, what little life Will and Lyra have is being sucked out of them. Will looks ill and his hand has started bleeding again (OH GOD WHY IS THIS HAPPENING). With the harpies returning (and with more than ever before, according to Chevalier Tialys), Lyra does something that to keep the ghosts occupied until the harpies arrive. Aside from them begging her to tell them of the world which she just came from (which many of them had forgotten about), there’s no real reason given aside from Lyra’s sympathy, leading me to believe it simply comes from her heart.
She tells a story. Only this time, it’s not the lie that she told the people in the suburbs of the dead, or the one she tried to tell to the harpies to get in. Using Roger as confirmation for a lot of the details, she tells these ghosts about her life. I love it because it’s a chance to remember where this whole trilogy started, and I can’t forget how vibrant Lyra’s life was at Jordan. It reminds me why she is the girl who is here, telling this entrancing tale to the ghosts of all existence, because she represents life and all the fine, great details that make up the world.
So you can imagine my shock to learn that Lyra, the ghosts still silent around her, gained a new audience: the harpies. They are not shaming Lyra, or anyone for that matter. When Lyra furiously asks No-Name why she’s not attacking her, No-Name confirms what I suspected before. The Authority put the harpies in the land of the dead to see the worst in all souls, to torment them for these actions, and to gain power and respect through the process. No-Name reveals that they know Lyra is going to try to lead the souls away from this place, and, knowing their purpose has been eradicated by an eleven-year-old girl, the harpies will hold nothing back.
I must say that by this point in The Amber Spyglass, my irritation with the Gallivespians, Tialys in particular, has pretty much vanished. And I think that’s intended on Pullman’s part, and even Will himself remarks earlier in this chapter that he has grown to respect and cherish these two. Chevalier Tialys steps up to offer the harpies something better than they have. Seriously, WHAT COULD YOU POSSIBLY OFFER HARPIES? The first clue comes when No-Name admits that she did not attack Lyra because her story was the first bit of positive nourishment she had ever experienced. All they have known is wickedness, and Lyra gave them their first taste of what the world is like.
And so Tialys offers up a proposition: every soul drifting into the land of the dead must be offered the chance to tell the story of their life, to offer up the good and the bad. YOU WOULD THINK THIS WOULD BE THE DEFAULT. I’m still interested in the reasons the Authority set up this place to begin with, personally. But it seems obvious at this point that this was merely a receptacle for all these ghosts, a dumping grounds in a way, and that the Authority had nothing to do with these souls once they got there.
Seriously, though, Chevalier Tialys helps create a TREATY with the harpies. That is ridiculous. I mean that as a compliment, but it’s just so astounding to me. He negotiates a way for the harpies to keep their honor and their purpose, and to give the ghosts who come here a more fair and just chance to tell their story and be guided out of the world of the dead.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The harpies were going to help Lyra and Will open a window to escape the land of the dead. Almost as if Pullman predicted my very next question, one of the ghosts yells out an important inquiry: So, dudes, what the hell is going to happen to all of us when we leave? A MIGHTY GOOD QUESTION, SIR. Will the worlds be flooded with ghosts? Will they disappear like their dæmons?
Nope. Not even close:
“When you go out of here, all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your dæmons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that looks like. But your dæmons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just a part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you, I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”
Now there’s something I could believe in. Does this change the nature of Dust? Is Dust simply the particles that make up every life that has ever existed? It’s not just rebel angels, is it? It’s experience and knowledge. Why wouldn’t they be attracted to acts of invention and ingenuity? It’s the most lively thing imaginable.
I think that, largely, Pullman is a fairly subtle writer, even if the events that happen in these books are hardly the same. But I cannot deny that the two arguments presented by the martyr and the monk are…well, the opposite of subtle. I enjoy them, and it is sort of necessary for the story to take shape, but it was sort of like when Mary mentioned being a nun a few chapters ago. I get it, but it made me smile and think, OH YOU. I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE.
Still, it was important that someone offered up the idea that heaven was a lie, that they were ALL lied to their whole lives, and that what Lyra just told them is a better option than staying in nothingness. I think it’s even appropriate that it is a martyr who says this, someone who died for their belief in the Authority and now feels betrayed. At the same time, I think it would have been weird if no one countered this. So, again, I get why this is here.
But seriously, does the monk actually believe what he is saying?
“But the Almighty has granted us this blessed place for all eternity, this paradise, which to the fallen soul seems bleak and barren, but which the eyes of faith see as it is, overflowing with milk and honey and resounding with the sweet hymns of angels. This is Heaven, truly!”
Either he’s deluded himself or–more interesting–he is actually telling the truth. How fucked up would that be? I’m inclined to believe the former, though I still want to know why the Authority did all of this. For Lyra, however, this monks words frighten her. What if she is wrong? She can’t properly gauge such things without Pan at her side, and Will rushes to defend her choice to her.
In terms of imagery, I cannot imagine anything more powerful than that of Will and Lyra, leading millions of ghosts of beings from every universe (INCLUDING THE MULEFA!!!) on a journey to escape the world of the dead.
“Have we almost done it, Will?” Lyra whispered. “Is it nearly over?”
He couldn’t tell. But they were so weak and sick that he said, “Yes, it’s nearly over, we’ve nearly done it. We’ll be out soon.”
Be still, my heart.
If you are just aching to discuss the many spoilery things that this chapter and others I’ll read this week, BridgeToTheStars is hosting a conversation about THE WORLD OF THE DEAD and you should probably go hang out there with other His Dark Materials fans. You still have a chance to enter the contest BTTS is hosting in conjunction with me to give away a signed copy of The Amber Spyglass!