In the thirty-second chapter of The Amber Spyglass, Will and Lyra awake to discover that their dæmons seem to be nowhere near them. When they set out to find them, they run into a familiar face. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Amber Spyglass.
CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO: MORNING
Well, this is not what I expected. And that excites me, because I still don’t feel like I can predict where this book will go, and how this series will end.
I imagine that with just over a fifth of this book left, it may have irritated people that Pullman opens up this chapter by stretching out and…well, waiting. Figuratively, of course. But I think that after spending so much time in the world of the dead, in that place devoid of life and joy, and then heading straight into a horrific and absurd battle, it makes sense that these characters would sleep, and that Pullman would explore the details of what it means to be alive.
(Just a heads up, there are some brief mentions of abuse below, as well as a bit of a discussion to the emotional repercussions of being SUPER MAX REPRESSED as a kid, so if this is not something you want to read or deal with right now, I just wanted to give you a trigger warning!)
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a fascination with being outdoors. I spent seven years in Idaho, and I blame this on living there. We had white Christmases ever year. (Is that how you pluralize Christmas? Huh, spell check says I’m right!) I always looked forward to the snow drifts in the backyard, of the hills you could sled down at school, of the way that icicles would form at the end of the roof, hanging over the edge, threatening to fall. I remember distinctly believing that if I didn’t rush under the icicles fast enough, they would plunge down on me and attack.
We were never far from the Snake River, and it was in those early years, before we moved to Southern California, before I knew what God was, before I knew what being gay meant, and long before we were poor, that I was introduced to camping. My parents heaped lots of passive-aggressive scorn on anyone who chose to go camping in an RV. Both of them thought it was cheating, and if they didn’t have children with them, I’m sure they would have considered a tent cheating as well. That river is where I learned to fish, learned what my dad would smell like after a day out on the water, learned what plants to avoid and which I could rush into, and which trees were the best for climbing. I learned about water currents, temperatures, how to ward off mosquitos, how to hide food so bears didn’t come wandering into camp. (Incidentally, the second time I went camping, a bear didcome into camp and merely poked around a bit before scampering off.)
When we moved to Riverside in the spring of 1992, I was eight years old, terrified of change, and was becoming more aware that there was something wrong with me. But I didn’t get a chance to develop a lot of those thoughts for a year or two because of wherein Riverside I moved to. We were at the edge of the Hidden Valley Wildlife Reserve, just minutes away from trails and paths, hiking, bamboo forests, and the Santa Ana River, from animals that were frightening or adorable, and that first year I lived there, I spent a lot of time on those trails with my brother and my father. I know that part of my joy came from the freedom of being outside. Before I realized that my parents were not treating me as other children were raised, I didn’t really have a concept of the bubble they were forcing me to live in. So it came down to something as simple as this: I spent most of my life indoors. Getting to go outside was a symbol of freedom.
It became something a lot more meaningful when the protective parenting got worse, and most especially when it turned into abuse. Being outside was freedom, in the most literal sense, because it was the only place I felt I had agency. I know that may seem like an absurd idea to a lot of you, and I actually have no problem stating that it’s pretty damn bizarre to me, too. And I lived it! But the household environment I lived in for all those years feel as if I was in an experiment in predestination. My life was planned out for me, so even the tiniest of choices did not matter. I had no say in it all.
Those mornings where I tied my running shoes to my feet (we were too poor to afford hiking boots) and set out to the path behind my house are among the few memories I have of my childhood and teenage years that I can look back upon and smile, and that smile is not ironic or painful or coated in shame or embarrassment. I loved the sound the soles of my shoes made as they scraped across the dirt trails. I loved the smell of sagebrush after a few hours in the summer sun. I loved the sensation of space, of spreading my arms out and not feeling constrained by walls, of looking in every direction and knowing that, both literally and figuratively, there was a world of possibility surrounding me.
It gave me hope of escape.
This hasn’t changed at all, and one of many reasons I decided to uproot myself and move to the Bay Area was a desire to be closer to the things about this world that I enjoy. I needed a place with the ocean closeby, with hiking trails only a few minutes away, with neighborhoods dense with trees, with long, stretching roads where I could sit on my bike and enjoy the journey. I was starting to feel trapped in Los Angeles, and I find comfort in the fact that I did the same thing a year ago as I did when I was a kid. I went outside. I changed my geographical location. I found things I enjoyed about being on this Earth.
I think this is why I am not the slightest bit bored with any chapter concerning themulefa, and it’s also why I have such an attachment to how Pullman opens this chapter. Actually, while it is the main focus of the beginning of chapter thirty-two, it’s actually a theme for the entire trilogy: being alive is so unique. There are so many tiny things that one can find about the human experience that are deeply transformational, and even though I’ve had a difficult life, I can still recall those things, those moments of discovery and sensation that still ring true all these years later.
I don’t know that the Church (or churches, rather) in my life ever encroached upon this idea, or threatened its existence, but I also think that’s because I didn’t share this with my church. While I have been known to encourage (read: freak out) my friends to join me on hikes or outdoor adventures, I’ve largely kept this side to myself. So, on a personal level, the dichotomy that Pullman is putting forth hasn’t always applied to me when it comes to my attachment to the natural world, but it’s because I’ve been so protective of it. It’s one of the few things I had growing that made me feel whole. While my parents tried to control the music I listened to, or the books I read, or what I saw on the television, they couldn’t touch my love of being outside.
But I suppose that on a larger scale, I can’t disagree with what Pullman is saying here. The religions that were a part of my life absolutely tried to take away nearly every experience I had that made me feel alive. If that offends you when I say that, I’m not going to apologize for what is my personal truth. If that is not the case for you, just know that I’m not saying what your experience is, but for me, nothing could ring closer to reality for me.
I know that being a person of color and queer plays heavily into that. God was whitewashed. The Bible was whitewashed. Everything was not only very heterosexual, but my very existence was the most supreme state of sin imaginable. (SERIOUSLY, THANK YOU FOR YEARS OF SHAME, CATHOLIC CHURCH.) Which is not to say that you can’t be a queer person of color and be religious, as you certainly can, but I found that any attempt to find my identity, or to seek out the things that made me feel good, came with a heavy dose of both public and personal shame. But why were these things wrong? Why did God make me this way if he was just going to punish my very nature?
I think that is what this comes down to, and why I ultimately support what Pullman is trying to tell me here. While trying to avoid any gross essentialist bullshit, there are things in all of our lives that feel natural when we do them. And of course those things differ from one person to another, but imagine that those very things are forbidden in your life by God and all of the people around you who believe in God as well. It becomes an issue of conflicting identities. Am I a Christian? Will I burn in hell? But I didn’t choose to be gay, and I didn’t choose to be brown. How is that fair?
Seriously, for about ten years of my life, I genuinely believed I was going to go to hell. I once told that to a friend and they instantly laughed in my face before apologizing for the rude reaction. And I laughed it off, and then felt INCREDIBLY DEPRESSED. I believed, for about a decade of my life, that the fact that I thought about dudes in a sexual way condemned me to hell. And of course when you tell yourself not to think of something, that becomes all you can think about.
I suppose that I’ve launched into this huge story because I feel like giving all of you some context as to why I’m drawn to this idea, and I’m really happy that this community makes me feel safe enough to admit such personal things. But even on a theological level, I felt that very idea of Christianity was at odds with who I was, and I was left out from it all. I didn’t fit in and, to borrow an idea from what this book is presenting, it was like my very body was at war with every single idea of God that I could find. And after fighting that battle for years, I simply got….tired.
And that’s perfectly okay.
Thus, I write like two thousand words to describe like…three pages of a book. It happens, okay? I have ~quite a lot of feelings~. But that’s what I adore about His Dark Materials. There are just so many things that I feel about all of this beyond characters and plots. I don’t want to ignore any of that either, though, and there is one gigantically huge revelation right here in chapter thirty-two that I think is important to the trilogy as well.
So I’m not above admitting when a book is getting the best of me, and it is certainly not the first time I’ve proclaimed something like this. Yeah, I don’t understand how Pan can be separate from Lyra. It seems clear that he’s not harmed and he wasn’t left in Lord Asriel’s world, so….he’s hiding? Playing a game? Taking a bath? Actually, I’m okay with that last one, especially since Pullman doesn’t ignore that both Lyra and Will are filthy. And it’s really these little details that help the story, as their condition provides a physical reminder of the journey they’ve been through.
Not wanting to be caught looking at him, she looked the other way at the little grave they’d dug the night before, just a couple of hand spans wide, where the bodies of the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia now lay at rest.
OH, GODDAMN IT. Thanks for the reminder that these characters are dead. But as sad as that made me, I wondered what would now happen with those who died after the door to the world of the dead had been opened? There was still the chance I might see both of these Gallivespians again, so PERHAPS THERE IS HOPE.
But let’s just get to the real shit. The dæmons are missing, and as the two discuss where they might have gone or what might have happened to them, Will spots a possible group of animals in the distance. My first thought was that the kids’ dæmons were doing something important, and that Will and Lyra would soon find out what that was. WELL. NOPE.
Lyra was watching the…whatever they were; they were very strange.
“Will,” she called, “they’re riding on wheels…”
OH MY GOD OH MY GOD A;LDSKJF A;KSDJF ;ASLKDFJ 098W7U IPOSFU;LKJ ;LASDHF ;LK A;LSDKFJ ;LKASDJFAF
They are in the world of the mulefa! HOW. No, I am not even going to question it (yet), because that means Dr. Mary Malone is nearby and…oh god, SHE HAS TO TEMPT HER DOESN’T SHE. Oh fuck, I NEED TO SEE HOW THIS HAPPENS. The sheer joy, though, of Will and Lyra getting to experience riding on the mulefa is just too much for me. I WANT TO DO THIS. Oh god, could you imagine commuting to work on a mulefa? Everyone would make fun of you at first, but you’d be so cool and ahead of your time and thoroughly enjoying every second of your trip.
I just love that even this close to the end of the book, there’s still time to enjoy discovery, and I am glad that these two characters get to have this experience. Of course, I was more excited for the inevitable reunion between Lyra and Dr. Mary Malone. God, those scenes at Oxford seem like they happened so long ago. I was reading that part like…seven weeks ago? That seems like an eternity right now.
I’d also forgotten that Mary and Will had never actually met, and Pullman deals with this by acknowledging how awkward this is for the two of them. I also forgot that Will looks so much older than Lyra, too, and it’s such a rad moment when they shake hands and “a current of understanding and respect passed between them, so powerful that it became liking at once and each of them felt that they had made a lifelong friend, as indeed they had.”
I’m glad that there’s not a rush of words and recapping here when they meet. Mary and the mulefa have the two travelers fed first, and even then, she merely provides answers to them about their questions regarding the world they’re in and how she got there. It’s a sign of Mary’s sympathy because she’s aware that she could overwhelm them at any point. For now, though, she’s glad they are here, and she communicates this to Atal when they fall asleep again.
Atal does bring up a good point. How can Mary be so sure that Lyra and Will are needed? That they’re a part of everything? Mary does her best to convey what had happened, trying to explain the dream she had, and she’s even embarrassed that she is following a dream at this point. But I suppose that all Mary can do at this point is hope. She has to hope that Will and Lyra can help. I can’t figure it out yet, though. How can they do anything at this point?
I got a bad feeling when Will and Lyra are woken up later by an agitated group of mulefa who insist that Mary must come see something they can’t explain. My first thought? Father Gomez had done something to draw Mary out. I expected the worst, but was then surprised when Pullman stayed with Mary’s narration. We were going to find out what it was instead of waiting for Will and Lyra to learn of the aftermath. So Mary travels for an hour to the spot the mulefa needed her to see.
In the side of the hill, just a few yards away, was one of those openings made by the subtle knife. It was like the mouth of a cave, because the moonlight shone into it a little way, just as if inside the opening there were the inside of a hill; but it wasn’t. And out of it was coming a procession of ghosts.
Wait. WAIT. The window Will cut, the field they laid in……HOLY SHIT. HOLY SHIT ARE YOU SERIOUS.
As my brain continued to rupture from being fully unprepared, I continued to read about Mary watching the dead dissolve into Dust. She is shocked and confused, both by the act of watching these ghosts disappear, and by the joy they have on their faces. It’s here that Pullman hands me the importance of His Dark Materials.
“Tell them stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well. Just tell them stories.”
It helps that I just finished Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ, which has a similar theme running through it, but this gives a brand new context to Lyra’s constant storytelling throughout this trilogy. Even if she was lying, she was still telling a story that brought joy, that spoke of what it meant to be alive, that made life better because of the sheer act of passing along those stories.
Pullman has been telling us stories this whole time, character arcs that are tragic and joyous and redemptive. He’s been giving us plot twists that melt our minds and fill us with terror and anxiety. He’s been giving us a fully-imagined world, and that’s his form of lying, just like Lyra, and we are all the better for that lie.
“Tell them stories,” the ghost says. And I think back to how this chapter put thoughts in my mind, acts and behaviors and a history I didn’t get to talk about, and as soon as I read that final line, I knew that even on my part, I was supposed to tell stories, too. Maybe it’s all I’m good at, but you know what? I’m perfectly okay with that.
There’s a spiffy new banner this week (HOW COLORFUL), and here’s the link to the full image it is cropped from. Additionally, this week’s spoiler thread on BridgeToTheStars is up!