In the thirty-seventh chapter of The Amber Spyglass, I should stop predicting anything because everything is wrong and worse than I could have ever imagined, but I should have expected this, but whatever, HOLY ME CLOSER, TINY DANCER. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Amber Spyglass.
CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN: THE DUNES
I was close, but still so far from the mark. As I spend more time thinking about what I just read, it starts to make sense, and I start to appreciate it all, despite how much it hurts. For this is a story about how we must experience life, all it has to offer, all the possibilities of the human condition, and how to shed those things that prevent us from living.
Will and Lyra’s love is more emotional than sexual, though there is a part of it that is the latter, and I believed that chapter thirty-five was the Temptation and the Fall. I believed (mistakenly) that all that was left was some sort of resolution to tie up the loose ends and send our characters off on their way. I wasn’t even close, because now we see what devastating choice Lyra is faced with, and why it will affect all of the worlds, and why she could never know what her “destiny” was.
Lyra’s temptation? To choose a limited life of love with one person, or to sacrifice that in order to save everyone else.
It’s no surprise that this chapter opens with Will and Lyra exploring the physical world around them, almost as if they’ve forgotten their missing dæmons, enamored by their bodies, their hearts, their minds. It’s a constant acknowledgment of the natural world and how humans are connected to it, and I adore that this is how Pullman introduces what comes right after this. Yes, it does make it more difficult to stomach, in a way, but it’s honest. Isn’t that what this trilogy is about? Not lying to ourselves? The quest for truth?
And it’s truth that Will and Lyra find on that beach, at the foot of the sand dunes. Pantalaimon and Kirjava return to their humans, both in the form of birds, Will overjoyed that he can finally see his own dæmon. God, that joy is so short-lived, and it makes the opening of this chapter so much more crushing to me. It’s made worse by the constricting feeling of satisfaction that Will feels when his Kirjava returns to him, one of the few things in his life that he would remember clearly and plainly sixty years later.
But it takes Lyra only a few seconds to realize that while their dæmons are coming back, it’s not for a happy reason. She knows Pan is distressed, and it’s not long before Pan and Kirjava launch into their lengthy story of what they’ve seen and experienced (which thankfully is not summarized a second time for us), desperately trying to get these two to understand that things are not okay. GOD WHAT ARE THEY GOING TO TELL THEM.
When Kirjava brings up Dust and how it was flowing away, I knew that this was inherently a bad thing, and Mary’s chapters with the mulefa showed us this. Dust mustremain in order for life to remain. But Lyra and Will’s awakening stopped this! Well, partially, at least. Right? Right?
“Every time we made an opening,” said Kirjava–and again Will felt that little thrill: She’s me, and I’m her–“every time anyone made an opening between the worlds, us or the old Guild men, anyone, the knife cut into the emptiness outside. The same emptiness is down in the abyss. We never knew. No one knew, because the edge was too fine to see. But it was quite big enough for Dust to leak out of it. If they closed it up again at once, there wasn’t time for much to leak out, but there were thousands that they never closed up. So all this time, Dust has been leaking out of the worlds and into nothingness.”
No. NO. NO. YOU CANNOT MEAN THIS. NO. NNNNNNOOOOOOOO WHAT THE FUCK.
“Every opening,” Lyra said in a whisper.
“Every single one–they must all be closed?” said Will.
“Every single one,” said Pantalaimon, whispering to Lyra.
“Oh, no,” said Lyra. “No, it can’t be true–”
“And so we must leave our world to stay in Lyra’s,” said Kirjava, “or Pan and Lyra must leave theirs and come stay in ours. There’s no other choice.”
I want to crawl under my desk right now and never leave. I am filled with such an unending sadness, and this is the third time I’ve read this chapter. It gets no easier. It gets no less painful. And worst thing of all? The more I think about it, THE MORE SENSE IT MAKES. The warnings about the subtle knife. The Guild. The careless holes left open. The warnings about dæmons from John Parry. It all fits, as much as I don’t want it to.
And Lyra cried aloud. Pantalaimon’s owl cry the night before had frightened every small creature that heard it, but it was nothing to the passionate wail that Lyra uttered now. The dæmons were shocked, and Will, seeing their reaction, understood why: they didn’t know the rest of the truth; they didn’t know what Will and Lyra themselves had learned.
They had learned to love one another, to love themselves, and to love the world they lived in. And it was all about to be taken away.
I’ve seen a familiar reaction passing through the A Song of Ice and Fire fandom that describes what people have done when they got to certain parts of the various books: they throw the book across the room, hide it under a pillow, ignore it, and do anything they can to distance themselves from it. I got up and walked into the other room, and then walked outside into the courtyard of my building, and I could feel the angry tears just hiding behind my eyelids. This was not what I wanted to read, and this is not what I wanted from the ending. But after a few minutes, I was able to calm down, and I found myself back at my desk, back at the book, and I continued reading. Maybe there was a loophole. Maybe there was an exception. Maybe there was hope.
And that’s exactly what Will and Lyra try to do. Between grief-filled sobs at this epiphany, they try to dissect what John Parry told them, about how a dæmon needs to be in it’s own world in order to survive, that Will’s father lasted only ten years before getting sick. They pose the idea of leaving just one window open instead, but Pantalaimon insists that this is not possible. And I must admit that in any other context, I would have burst out laughing at Kirjava response to Lyra demanding to know how the dæmons came upon this knowledge:
“An angel told us,” said Kirjava.
I mean, we’re at a point in this book where this is not at all a weird thing to say. And Lyra even resist this. How does the angel know? Why can’t they just leave one window open OR just open and close a window every time they want to see one another? That seems like a good compromise to me!
But nope. Because of the Specters.
“Well, we found out where they come from,” said Kirjava. “And this is the worst thing: they’re like the children of the abyss. Every time we open a window with the knife, it makes a Specter. It’s like a little bit of the abyss that floats out and enters the world. That’s why the Cittágazze world was so full of them, because of all the windows they left open there.”
“And they grow by feeding on Dust,” said Pantalaimon. “And on dæmons. Because Dust and dæmons are sort of similar; grown-up dæmons anyway. And the Specters get bigger and stronger as they do…”
Well, that’s it. There’s no way out of this. christ, Specters are ABYSS BABIES. Oh my god, thinking about Cittágazze and the edges of the window, and Iorek’s words about the knife’s intentions…it makes so much sense, and yet I dearly wish it wasn’t true. Because thus begins one of the most depressing, dejecting, and harrowed reading experiences for the entire trilogy, right up there with leaving Pan behind on the shore, right up there with reading Lee Scoresby’s death. It is so touching and painful to read Lyra offering to come to Will’s world, knowing he just found his dæmon, knowing he must find his mother, knowing that whomever chooses to come to the other world will only last a decade before passing away. The thing that I like about this–and why it doesn’t seem forced or unnatural–is that it gives us an example of that pure love that isn’t jaded or cynical that we might feel when we were younger. I hate using the world “childish” because of the negative connotations, but I like the idea that this is the purest, most irrational form of an emotional connection, one that allows a person to insist that surviving just a decade more in order to be with the one you love is totally reasonable.
Will is quick to rebut that, though:
“Ten years…That’s nothing. It’d pass in a flash. We’d be in our twenties. It’s not that far ahead. Think of that, Lyra, you and me grown up, just preparing to do all the things we want to do–and then…it all comes to an end. Do you think I could bear to live on after you died? Oh, Lyra, I’d follow you down to the world of the dead without thinking twice about it, just like you followed Roger; and that would be two lives gone for nothing, my life wasted like yours. No, we should spend our whole lifetimes together, good, long, busy lives, and if we can’t spend them together, we…we’ll have to spend them apart.”
Oh, no, I’m definitely not crying at all. No, my eyes are red because it’s windy, and there’s a lot of dust around, and I was just like…blinking a lot, so no, I am totally not crying at all. No tears. NO MORE TEARS.
But do you see the message coded right into this? We must live full lifetimes in the way that gives us the fullest experience. Will gets this right off the bat: what’s the point of enjoying ten years if the rest of your life is miserable and wasted? Yes, this is also a plot point referring to John Parry’s words when they first left the land of the dead, but I get the sense that Pullman wants his readers to take away this idea, that life is ours and ours alone to live, and we should do what we need to in order to enjoy and appreciate that.
Simultaneous to this, chapter thirty-seven deals heavily with children growing up, and the first sign of that comes with the heart-wrenching realization that Lyra can no longer read the alethiometer. With the change that came over her when she discovered the emotional and physical joy of her own body, she lost that natural, intuitive state that allowed her to slip into reading the alethiometer. I didn’t understand it at first, but it took a moment of thought to realize that it’s a way of showing how some things disappear with childhood, and are replaced by others. (At least, that’s how I interpret it.) It is something to be distraught over, though, so I understand why Lyra is so upset about this fact. When Xaphania shows up just minutes after this, it is explained much better.
“You can read it by grace,” said Xaphania, looking at her, “and you can regain it by work.”
“How long will that take?”
“But your reading will be even better then, after a lifetime of thought and effort, because it will come from conscious understanding. Grace attained like that is deeper and fuller than grace that comes freely, and furthermore, once you’ve gained it, it will never leave you.”
Okay, so it is spelled out a bit, but it’s there. The whole stress of this trilogy is on conscious understanding, on the idea that this sort of knowledge is the most important thing in our lives. For the characters in this series, it’s a summary of the experience of fighting against the Authority, who fought to extinguish this very thing. Conscious knowledge and understanding is at odds with some forms of thought who don’t want others to know things about our world and our lives and our bodies. Obviously, from the things that I wrote about during this series, I have an intimate experience with having a group of religious authority figures work their hardest to get me not experience life as I wanted to. I know I say it often, but it bears repeating that this is obviously what my life was like and not yours, but I always want to make sure people understand why I feel so strongly about all of this.
The presence of Xaphania, by the way, certainly helps Pullman to explain a lot of this idea, and it is one of those more expository bits of dialogue, but I’m okay with it because it’s coming from a goddamn angel. What better being could there be to be all explain-y about this all? Dust, as the angel explains, only exists around consciousness, around beings who understand the world they live in and continue to do so in order to create more of it. By assuring that the worlds they live in continue to upkeep this (through the concept of the Republic of Heaven), there could be enough Dust created to leave just one window open.
While I initially believed that this was the loophole that I wanted for Will and Lyra, Lyra is the first to realize that they must sacrifice their own happiness again in order to leave one window open: the window that is allowing the dead to leave their world to become part of the universe. THEY WERE SO CLOSE. One window, and they chose to give that window to everyone in all of eternity for all time instead of taking it for themselves.
No, seriously, Lyra and Will are incredible people, and it hurts even more to read of Will’s endless anguish at realizing he was going to be alone again. Oh, could there be a passage that hits closer to home for me than this? The idea of feeling cosmically alone, the rage at knowing that you might have to have this your whole life…I would really be repeating myself at this point. You all know this already!
But even amidst all of this, I’m happy that Will and Lyra are still looking towards the future, ready to accept the uncomfortable reality of their lives in order to do best for the greater good. Like the same final moment with his father, Will rejects the notion of a destiny. He doesn’t want to know what he has to do to build the Republic of Heaven because then:
“…I’ll be resentful because it’ll feel as if I didn’t have a choice, and if I don’t do it, I’ll feel guilty because I should. Whatever I do, I will choose it, no one else.”
I love this blatant rejection of deterministic futures. I love the poetic parallel to Will’s father. And I love that this is a message in the book, that our lives are whatever we make it, not what we are told they are.
I think that I also enjoy how much I feel for these two, despite that I have absolutely no frame of reference for it. Unlike a good 90% of this series, I have no personal stories to relate to this idea of young love. I SWEAR THAT I AM NOT TURNING THIS INTO ANOTHER SOBFEST OF MINE. What I’m trying to say is that despite all of this, I still get that this is a story that represents that sort of pure love that lacks the cynicism that might come with the love between adults. It feels real to me, and it feels genuine, and from what I know of the idea, most of my friends and my own twin brother describe this in the same way. They’re but twelve years old, sure. I get that this might be weird for some folks, but I like the larger idea that there’s this collision between emotional love and physical realization of one’s own body, and at the very least, I know that it was around this age that I started to come to some of the same thoughts.
At the same time, Pullman presents these two in such a ridiculously cute manner that I don’t think this is all terribly sexual, even though there is kissing, hand holding, and other bits of physical affection. You can see this in the way they tease each other about the first time they met, arguing about who liked who first, and what that experience was like. It’s in these moments that something I’ve been waiting for the entire series happens: Lyra’s dæmon settles.
Pantalaimon was now an animal whose name he couldn’t quite find: like a large and powerful ferret, red-gold in color, lithe and sinuous and full of grace.
OMG WHAT IS HE.
“A marten,” he said, finding the name for Pantalaimon, “a pine martin.”
“Pan,” Lyra said as he flowed up onto her lap, “you’re not going to change a lot anymore, are you?”
“No,” he said.”
“It’s funny,” she said, “you remember when we were younger and I didn’t want you to stop changing at all…Well, I wouldn’t mind so much now. Not if you stay like this.”
OH MY GOD I FUCKING LOVE PINE MARTENS NONE OF YOU REALIZE HOW OBSESSED I AM WITH THEM i mean seriously:
But Pullman doesn’t stop slaying us with the bittersweet joy of this moment:
Will put his hand on hers. A new mood had taken hold of him, and he felt resolute and peaceful. Knowing exactly what he was doing and exactly what it would mean, he moved his hand from Lyra’s wrist and stroked the red-gold fur of her dæmon.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I AM FEELING SO MANY THINGS RIGHT NOW !!!!!!!!!!!!
With a racing heart she responded in the same way: she put her hand on the silky warmth of Will’s dæmon, and as her fingers tightened in the fur, she knew that Will was feeling exactly what she was.
And she knew, too, that neither dæmon would change now, having felt a lover’s hands on them. These were their shapes for life: they would want no other.
So, wondering whether any lovers before them had made this blissful discovery, they lay together as the earth turned slowly and the moon and stars blazed above them.
This all has to come to an end. I wish it didn’t have to.
New banner this week, and make sure to check the full image that it is cropped from. Additionally, this week’s final spoiler discussion thread on BridgeToTheStars is up.
Even better, BTTS is running a new contest for September: Ask Philip Pullman a question! Make sure to check it out.