In the twenty-fourth chapter of The Amber Spyglass, Mrs. Coulter arrives in Geneva, and we begin to learn just how devoted she is to Lyra. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Amber Spyglass.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR: MRS. COULTER IN GENEVA
It is such a weird feeling to read about Mrs. Coulter in the light that Pullman presents here in chapter twenty-four. I think I may be looking at her the wrong way, as I’m always trying to figure her out, as if there’s something hidden or mysterious about her character. But this isn’t like Snape in the Harry Potter series. I think Mrs. Coulter is more about a force changing before our eyes rather than someone with a secret.
I believe that, more than ever, we see how Mrs. Coulter has changed her opinion of the Magisterium, and that it is not an act just for the sake of it. Yes, it took something personal for her to have this epiphany, but it’s still an epiphany. (Wow, she is kind of like Snape in that regard.) So, we watch as she starts to use her ability to manipulate, charm, and beguile those in the Church. And I actually don’t mind, for once. That is a huge change from The Golden Compass on my part. It’s not that I necessarily trust Mrs. Coulter, nor do I believe that she has fully redeemed herself, but I’m at a point where I do believe she means to protect Lyra and subvert the Church and the Authority in the process.
We meet back up with her in Geneva, where she lands the intention craft (which she has magically mastered in the course of twenty-four hours, because that’s totally reasonable and not at all weird) on the roof of the College. What I do admire about the way she deals with what happens here is that she simply walks in. Yes, her and her dæmon do sneak around a bit at the start, but she otherwise walks right in the front door. It’s part of her ingenious plan, really, to present herself as someone working for the Magisterium. She plays the part well, ordering around Brother Louis, the man who comes to see her, commanding him to take her straight to see Father MacPhail. I was completely blown away by how she is both demanding and insulting to those who deal with her, and that’s one of the reasons I believe she has started to despise the Magisterium. Why else would she treat Brother Louis like a servant and call his manner “abject”? She seems to hate everything that these men represent, and actions that may have been received as pious and noble before are now mocked. I worried that Mrs. Coulter would stray too far on to one side of the spectrum, but she manages to keep the President intrigued, attentive, and, most important, willing to believe her.
So she starts to give them as much information as possible (but not enough for them to actually do anything.) Through this process, I discover Lyra has turned twelve. Well. She didn’t happen to mention a birthday before, did she? I mean, granted, SHE IS PRETTY GODDAMN BUSY AT THE MOMENT, and I’m sure she’s lost track of time since she is in the world of the dead.
Mrs. Coulter decides to take an interesting angle as she tells the President about Lyra: she blames the Magisterium for interfering with her plan to keep her away from Lord Asriel. I rather enjoyed her bit about being offended by releasing her daughter to those dirty, dirty men instead of taking care of Lyra herself, and it works well. It does make sense that Mrs. Coulter would do such a haughty, high-minded thing, and she continues to drill home the point. She’d have had Will if they hadn’t interfered. She’d have had the subtle knife. She would’ve kept Lyra asleep to avoid the second temptation. And it’s all their fault for not trusting her. Again, it’s both a believable reason and a chance for her to take out her fury and disgust with these people. For example:
She sipped her chocolatl, which was thin and weak; how like these wretched priests, she thought, to take their self-righteous abstinence out on their visitors, too.
Why else would she think this? The very idea of what these men do now repulses her. But this is not even the worst that she thinks or does. When the President brings up the idea of the subtle knife, telling her that the cliff-ghasts call it the god-destroyer, he asks her if this is Lord Asriel’s master plan. Her response? Oh, the atheist, bitter ex-Catholic in me did not care for the lack of subtlety; I lit up with joy.
“Well, where is God,” said Mrs. Coulter, “if he’s alive? And why doesn’t he speak anymore? At the beginning of the world, God walked in the Garden and spoke with Adam and Ever. Then he began to withdraw, and he forbade Moses to look at his face. Later, in the time of Daniel, he was aged–he was the Ancient of Days. Where is he now? Is he still alive, at some inconceivable age, decrepit and demented, unable to think or act or speak and unable to die, a rotten hulk? And if that is his condition, wouldn’t it be the most merciful thing, the truest proof of our love for God, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?”
Oh, Mrs. Coulter. I never thought there’d be a day when I could say such a thing, but you warm my heart so much. I can’t count how many times I asked myself and others variations of this same question, or made rhetorical arguments about the absence of God in our lives. On a personal level, I was taught that asking for God to prove himself to you was a sin as well, or, at the very least, highly revolting. That was the basis of faith, in essence, that even without God speaking to us or showing us his face, we’d have to believe he was real. I was told to look at the signs, but in my own life, all the signs suggested otherwise. Who was I to believe?
And I think that’s an important thing to recognize, at least in terms of non-believers, wherever they may fall on the spectrum. For every person who told me that the world was full of signs that God was real and loved me so much, I could look into my own life and see the signs that he was not real, or that he didn’t really care all that much about me. The vast collection of experiences when it comes to non-believers, whether they are atheists or agnostics or combinations of those, or something outside of that, is incredibly varied. For me, though, I was hurt by these suggestions to quell my heart’s longing for God to be real. “Look at the whole of creation,” people would tell me, or perhaps they’d tell me to look at the sky or the ocean or the stars at night. These things were impossible on their own, so how else would they fit so perfectly where they belong?
Even if I could conceive those sort of things and accept them, the beauty of the stars or the impossible vastness of the ocean meant nothing to me when I lived in an abusive household with parents who treated me terribly, or when I would go to school and live in fear of being beat up, called names, shamed openly in class, or any combination of small terrors that my life was. I remember bringing this up to my first priest, and he told me not to look at the worst of the world to find God. These people were the most absent of his grace, he’s day, but most of them were devout Christians who otherwise were respected by the community and by the man in the fancy robe before me. So was the priest unable to see the absence of God in these people, or was he lying to me?
This idea of the vacancy of God, as Mrs. Coulter references it dryly here, is at heart of why evangelism, even on a personal, well-meaning level, tends to infuriate me. I generally get along quite well with my many Christian friends, and most know that I love talking about their religion as long as the conversation doesn’t stray towards converting me in any way. But it’s also something that, with most of them, I had to tell them in order to get them to respect me. I find the concept, especially when poorly executed as it so often is, to be rather presumptuous and rude, and it’s because of this very reason: I feel an intense and sometimes even painful absence of God in my life. I don’t want him anymore, even if he was real, but it always hurt me to hear people tell me about the beauty of the world when they failed to acknowledge the ugliness in mine. By failing to acknowledge that reality, even when I told them about it, they were ignoring the fact that my life–my experiences–are not the same as theirs, and that the moon and the stars and any of that “perfectly perfect world” bullshit trivialized my own life.
If God is in your life, that is wonderful. You deserve that happiness and comfort. But he is not in mine, and there is nothing in my life to suggest it. And I’m perfectly happy living that way.
And all of this is not just a chance for me to LOL RANT YELL OMG HERESY, because it actually relates pretty heavily to the text. What we’re seeing here in chapter twenty-four is about interference. It’s about how the Church (or God or even organized religions, in a sense) can inject themselves into the lives of others in the most presumptuous, assuming way possible. After Lord Roke reveals himself to Mrs. Coulter and agrees to keep an eye out for her, he quickly gets the chance to do so. (Side note: He mentions something encased in impenetrable fog. WHAT IS THAT.)
Brother Louis sneaks into the room, and Lord Roke watches as he takes the golden locket from Mrs. Coulter’s neck. Which is totally not weird and suspicious, and is totally done for a noble reason, right? RIGHT? Thankfully, Lord Roke, the badass spy that he is, follows Brother Louis to see why he is creeping around at night.
I was not surprised to learn that Fra Pavel, the President, and Dr. Cooper from Bolvangar were all working together on whatever it was they were doing. I’d forgotten that Mrs. Coulter had put a lock of Lyra’s hair inside, and that’s what they needed. Um…for what?
“We place the hair in the resonating chamber. You understand, each individual is unique, and the arrangement of genetic particles quite distinct…Well, as soon as it’s analyzed, the information is coded in a series of anbaric pulses and transferred to the aiming device. That locates the origin of the material, the hair, wherever she may be. It’s a process that makes use of the Barnard-Stokes heresy, the many-worlds idea…”
Oh. Great. GREAT. So they’ll be able to locate where Lyra is and in what world she is hiding BY A HAIR. Ah, crap. This is awful. Father Gomez is definitely going to find her now, right? But…hmm, he has no way of communicating with these men. How is this going to help?
“The force of the bomb is directed by means of the hair?”
“Yes. To each of the hairs from which these were cut. That’s right.”
“So when it is detonated, the child will be destroyed, wherever she is?”
There was a heavy indrawn breath from the scientist, and then a reluctant “Yes.”
ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME??? They’re just going to BLOW UP A CHILD???? HLKSADFJ; A;LKSDFJ A;LSKJ ;KALDJSF ;LAKSDFJ DF
oh my god WHAT.
Thankfully, Lord Roke has no qualms about waiting for Dr. Cooper to leave the President’s chambers and then stinging him, taking the envelope with Lyra’s hair as soon as he collapses. YES. LORD ROKE, YOU ARE WONDERFUL. He immediately returns to Mrs. Coulter, and all of our hopes are CRUSHED.
“This is only half the lock I cut from Lyra. He must have kept some of it.”
AHHHHHHH WHHHHYYYYYYYYY. Oh, fucking hell, THIS IS A DISASTER. Even worse, just seconds later, the President comes rushing into the room, accusing Mrs. Coulter of harming Dr. Cooper. But honestly, bless Mrs. Coulter forever. I can’t believe I get to say that. She uses her wonderfully manipulative acting skills to give a beautiful performance to the President that all but proves she’s been asleep the whole time, that she is horrified to find that someone stole the hair from her locket, and that she is outraged that the President would allow this to happen. I just love the image of the sputtering Father MacPhail, who is quickly realizing that he is up against the most difficult foe of his life, that he completely underestimated her. So he sends her off to the dungeons, but that’s not the end of things.
She looked wildly around and met Lord Roke’s eyes for a fraction of a second, glittering in the darkness near the ceiling. He caught her expression at once and understood exactly what she meant him to do.
AHHHHH WHY ARE YOU ENDING THE CHAPTER NOW WHYYYYYYY
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!