In the thirty-eighth chapter of The Amber Spyglass, Will, Lyra, and Mary set out on the final journey. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to finish The Amber Spyglass.
CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT: THE BOTANIC GARDEN
I don’t think I ever expected the reunion between Lyra and the gyptians to be fraught with so much sorrow, but that’s what we’re dealt. I was happy to see John Faa and Farder Coram one last time in this trilogy, and I was reminded of how important they were to everything in The Golden Compass, and thought about how that seemed to happen so long ago. I’ve spent so much time on this trilogy that I barely can recall the experience of reading The Book Thief, and that’s because of how immersive His Dark Materials is. And I love that there’s this huge meeting of characters who I never thought would even meet each other: Will, and Lyra, and Mary, and all the gyptians, and all the mulefa, and all of them spend one last moment with each other before venturing off on their journey back home. Everything has changed for these characters, and Farder Coram is the first to note this when he sees Lyra again. It’s not just that Lyra has grown up, either:
But she looks so hurt, he thought, she looks so frail and weary. And neither he nor John Faa could miss the way she stayed close to Will, and how the boy with the straight black eyebrows was aware every second of where she was, and made sure he never strayed far from her.
Oh god, is Lyra even going to try and explain what just happened? Or what must happen? I can’t imagine her wanting to relate that story again in any way, but maybe it’ll always be a mystery for Farder Coram. Maybe Lyra will never see him again after this trip. I couldn’t escape the constant sense of finality to this all, from the feast and gift-giving ceremony between people of three different parallel universes, to the presentation of the window opened from the world of the dead. This is what these worlds will be like from now on. There is no eternity in the world of the dead anymore, and it’s because of Will, Lyra, and the Gallivespians that it was even possible. The mulefa even plan to plant a grove around it to maintain as a holy place, a “source of joy,” and this is all a sign of how things have changed for all universes. But this joy is mixed in with the sadness of goodbye, and I was constantly fighting the desire to burst out in tears for nearly the entirety of the final chapter of this series. Of course, I don’t want to see these characters go. I want more adventures. I want them to be happy. I wouldn’t mind reading this for ALL OF ETERNITY or something. But it must come to an end, and these people must return to the worlds that they came from.
Mary’s goodbye to the mulefa, Atal in particular, is the first exercise in me telling myself DON’T FUCKING CRY DON’T FUCKING CRY over and over again. I was most heartbroken when Atal tells Mary, “Don’t forget us.” And it’s this small, tiny, minuscule moment, but it speaks volumes to the way that the mulefa have come to cherish what Mary has done for them, and they know they won’t see her again, and it pains Atal to even think of a day when Mary will not remember her experience here. Mary is insistent that this is impossible, and it’s true. How could you forget something like this? The journey home takes two weeks and I actually likedthat Pullman did not dwell long on what happened for those two weeks at sea as they traveled back to Cittágazze. Instead, he tells us more information on what the effects of the closing of the windows will have, that all worlds will return to their proper “place” next to one another, and I was totally gutted by the idea that Will and Lyra’s world would end up right back next to each other:
…Lyra’s Oxford and Will’s would lie over each other again, like transparent images on two sheets of film being moved closer and closer until they merged–although they would never truly touch.
YEAH, THANKS FOR RUBBING THIS IN MY FACE. Oh my god.
The gyptians have their last meal together in Cittágazze before heading home, and there’s no fanfare. They are simply gone. We are left with the three humans and Serafina on their very last journey. Lyra is going to go into Mary and Will’s world to show them one last thing before she returns to her own, and as Will and Lyra walk ahead of the two women, holding each other’s hand for maybe the last time, Serafina wonders aloud what Mary is going to do. I’m glad that Pullman, through Mary, acknowledges that it it’s not going to be easy for Mary to take Will with her, as there will be a billion questions asked, and there are still those men who were looking for him. (Sidenote: They’re never addressed again. Is it safe to assume they ware operatives of some organization–maybe even the church–that was looking to gain access to the other worlds?) While Mary is gracious and kind of enough to offer up every type of help imaginable, promising to help Will out through everything, I was really struck by her final line of reasoning:
“He’ll be the only person in my whole world that I can talk to about this.”
And it’s one of those things I hadn’t even thought about. Aside from Jon Parry, his son, and Mary, who else from that world was even aware of the fight against the Authority, or the existence of many-worlds? It’s not like being in Lyra’s world, where they can all openly talk about such things without looking like fools. It’s one of those things that you take for granted, being able to have people in your life to talk about your experiences, and soon, Mary and Will will only have each other to talk to regarding all of this. I genuinely have almost no complaints or nitpicks about the conclusion of this series, but I must say that the entire section with Serafina teaching Mary to see her dæmon, while touching and conceptually poetic, did feel like it was tacked on to the end here. And I think that’s mostly because it seems to take a couple minutes for her to do it, to reach that same level of concentration that was needed to use the subtle knife or the alethiometer, when Will and Lyra took a long time to get there. Maybe it’s because Mary is an adult, or because of her experience in the mulefa world, that she is able to do it quicker than usual, but it felt weird. STILL. Mary gets to see her dæmon omg omg omg I WANT TO SEE MINE. From here, Mary takes Lyra to the specific place she is looking for: The Botanic Garden. As they head through this world’s Oxford to this garden, I wondered whyLyra would want to go here, and why she would choose this as her last thing to do before returning to her world. And then it’s answered and then everything is too much for me to handle:
“I hoped so much, and here it is, just the same…Will, I used to come here in my Oxford and sit on this exact same bench whenever I wanted to be alone, just me and Pan. What I thought was that if you–maybe just once a year–if we could come here at the same time, just for an hour or something, then we could pretend we were close again–because we would be close, if you sat here and I sat just here in my world–“
oh. oh. Oh, no, I don’t cry ever. No. Nope.
“And if we–later on–” she was whispering shakily, “if we meet someone that we like, and if we marry them, then we must be good to them, and not make comparisons all the time and wish we were married to each other instead…But just keep up this coming here once a year, just for an hour, just to be together…”
Yeah, devastated. In a way worse than Lee Scoresby’s death, worse than Pantalaimon being left on that shore, worse than Lyra’s parents perishing in redemption, worse than the reveal that Will and Lyra must be apart….worse than it all. It’s real. There are no loopholes. Will and Lyra must separate. They must help build the Republic of Heaven in their own worlds, they must seal all the windows, and they will never see one another again. There’s definitely a tree in my eye. The goodbye between these two characters, who I’ve grown to love so much, is unendurable, an exercise in torturing my heart, and even up until the very last image of Lyra, I wanted so desperately for there to be an exception, or a mistake, or a twist, or anything to stop this from happening.
One last kiss, rushed and clumsy so that they banged cheekbones, and a tear from her eye was transferred to his face; their two dæmons kissed farewell, and Pantalaimon flowed over the threshold and up into Lyra’s arms; and then Will began to close the window, and then it was done, the way was closed, Lyra was gone.
I got nothing that I wanted. And I imagine this wasn’t easy for Pullman to write, but it has to happen, and as painful as it is, I don’t feel betrayed by Pullman for having this happen. If anything, I feel that he has the utmost respect for me as a reader, that he trusts I will follow him along, no matter how much I protest, and that I’ll give him the same trust right back to him. Pullman stays in this moment on Will’s side, and I think it’s a fantastic choice, and we feel the rawness of the choice, of the closing of the window, and we suffer with Will as he can’t find the concentration to wrench the knife in a way to break it so that no Specter is ever created again. Unlike the first time he broke the subtle knife, it’s the thought of Lyra and the love he has for her that allows him to shatter the knife in to pieces on the ground. All that’s left is Will and Mary, and there’s a huge part of me that would love an entire book that’s just of the two of them trying to figure out how to live after such a traumatic and empowering journey, of going to see Will’s mother, of finding Will housing, of Mary and Will enjoying each other’s respect over a cup of tea. And this idea stems from the fact that Mary made a promise to Lyra, to Serafina, and now to Will: if he will, she will be his friend for the rest of their lives. It takes Will a second to realize what this means, the idea that he has a real friend, and it’s a wonderful contrast to the opening of The Subtle Knife, when we were introduced to the solitary, lonely Will. He now has a friend.
And so the story of Will and Mary comes to a close. Pullman moves on to the one character who has held this all together, to Lyra Belacqua, the girl who saved every universe by making the correct choice to come home to her world and leave behind the one she loved. As the trilogy began, so it ends at Jordan College. I’m happy that Pullman does not ignore how bizarre this is, that after traveling through multiple universes, it’s just strangefor Lyra to be back at Jordan College. We learn of the rise and fall of the Church in Lyra’s world, all of which happened while she was away, and how Jordan College was just now settling back to its routine of scholarship. Here, at the college, Lyra meets yet again with the Master and Dame Hannah, who are eager to know what has happened to Lyra since she disappeared. In the process, though, Pullman sneaks in one of the most important themes of the entire trilogy. Lyra asks only one thing of the Master and Dame Hannah:
“You have to promise to believe me,” Lyra said seriously. “I know I haven’t always told the truth, and I could only survive in some places by telling lies and making up stories. So I know that’s what I’ve been like, and I know you know it, but my true story’s too important for me to tell if you’re only going to believe half of it. So I promise to tell the truth, if you promise to believe.”
And thus the power of this sort of genuine storytelling is presented to us. And I can’t help but think of my own storytelling from last week, and how true this rings for me, and how the whole thing is rendered innate if one does not even take the chance to believe another person. But it’s got a greater message for the whole book, and it’s a meta-commentary for the trilogy, too. It’s Pullman’s way of saying, “Believe me.” Believe him that he has told this story of the oppressive and suppressive nature of fundamentalist belief, of the opposing sides of religious belief and the quest for knowledge, of the joy experienced by living and how some forms of thought seek to end that. Why even tell the story if it’s all going to be considered a half-truth anyway?
Continuing the theme of personal knowledge and the journey to get there, Pullman gives us Lyra’s future in the most natural way possible. She’s still dejected by the loss of her ability to read the alethiometer, but through the story of Dr. Mary Malone, we’ve seen how a person can come to learn a great deal about anything they want if they give themselves up to the prospect of gaining knowledge and wisdom. As the Master of Jordan College speaks openly about Lyra’s place there and her future, it’s clear that Lyra, who feels lost, must pursue a future of knowledge in her own way. He suggests that it only seems logical that Lyra devote her life to the alethiometer, and learning to do what she once did through intuition in another way. (By the way, I adore that he lies to Lyra and says her father left a large sum of money for her.) Dame Hannah gives Lyra that future, offering her a place at a boarding school in North Oxford, to study under a headmistress who sounds pleasantly just like Dr. Mary Malone (and kudos to my friend Jessica, who pointed out to me that it’s entirely possible that it’s a parallel world version of Mary), where she can begin to study the alethiometer.
As much sadness as there is in this ending, there’s also hope. The end of The Amber Spyglass is whittled down to just Lyra and Pan, as the series started, and I’m grateful for this, as I ultimately care for them the most. The two return to the Botanical Garden that night, play a round of hide-and-seek, and discuss their possible future at the boarding school. Lyra asks Pan if she’ll ever tell her what he and Kirjava did after Lyra left him on the shore of the world of the dead, and he agrees to. One day, that is, but not now. Kirjava promised the same thing. And so their thoughts to turn what has happened to them, their journey to inadvertently end the Kingdom of Heaven, and to Will, so far and so close at the exact time. When they discuss the Republic of Heaven, it’s clear that Pullman never once spelled out what this is for a reason. That definition is impossible because it will depend on those left behind, of their desires and hopes, and of their efforts to celebrate the things of this world for the first time as an entire community.
“We shouldn’t live as if it mattered more than this life in this world, because where we are is always the most important place.”
It’s a powerful message, both of urgency and immediacy, of turning our eyes from a reward in Heaven that isn’t there. And obviously not everyone believes this, but it was prevalent in my life growing up. I was taught that our lives were merely the test to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and what we did here in our incredibly small lives would determine our eternity. Like original sin, or the concept of Jesus’s salvation, it was something I couldn’t find a way to understand. For me, the idea that God would determine our eternity based on an infinitesimally small period of existence was absurd to me. It would be like deciding a child’s fate by judging their actions in the first ten minutes of their life. Why turn our focus to that? Why not assure the world we live in is just and good for the sake of that life itself instead of for an otherworldly reward?
We are all tasked with building the Republic of Heaven here on earth, and it’s a philosophy that ends The Amber Spyglass and fits well into my view of life. Heaven as a term is re-appropriated here to mean something entirely different than its traditional definition. The Republic of Heaven exists in what you and I choose to do with our every waking moment in life. Do we choose to fight for those who are marginalized and left behind? Do we choose to further the pursuit of knowledge of our own world, whether through science, art, literature, music, or even the most personal and private discoveries? Do we cherish the land we live on? Do we cherish the interactions we have with the fellow humans who thrive alongside us? Do we instill values in our friends, our families, our siblings, our offspring, the strangers we pass on busy streets or in subway tubes or in bustling airports by treating one another not as disparate enemies, but with the knowledge that we are all Dust, all chemicals and particles that swirl into existence and fill the leaves, the trees, the lakes, the streams, the birds in the air and the beasts of the land? Do we stretch out our arms to accept the ferocious and unending beauty that does exist in the experience of being alive? Do we learn to embrace the desires, the loves, the emotions, and the sometimes fickle forces that bring our bodies joy and completeness and give us glimpses of something larger than ourselves but never better than the worth of a single life? Or do we turn our eyes to a world in the sky and simply hope that one day, things will be better than they are now?
I bid goodbye to the world of Lyra and Jordan College and dæmons and witches and mulefa and Will and Mary and the gyptians and I accept that it’s time the Republic of Heaven came to earth. And I type that with tears in my eyes, much like when I ended the Harry Potter series, but these are not tears of grief or loss. I have felt something in my heart that is rare and burning and loving for these characters, for this message, for this world, and I am merely in awe that I have had the honor of experiencing all of this. I want to avoid the usual end that I give to these series-ending reviews because I almost feel silly at this point doing such a thing. The profound respect and joy I feel within me for Philip Pullman almost hurts because I have found a soul in the world who knows how I feel without ever having lived a second of my life. That doesn’t happen with me, and the more I think about His Dark Materials, the more prepared I am to state that this is the best series of books I have ever read, and the more I wish that they could never end. But these things do end, and that’s why I know that I have to bring the world of these three books here to where we live, in this time we exist.
If I will take anything from this trilogy (and I do take a lot of things away from it), I will end this final His Dark Materials review with this: There is no experience quite like being alive, and I will continue to do what I can as one person to assure that everyone I meet can find the joy in this very fact. I hope you find the Republic of Heaven here on Earth.
A bit of an update about the near-future of Mark Reads! I have put them aside for too long, so for the next week or so, I am going to finish off Mark Re-Reads Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. BECAUSE WHY NOT. Right? RIGHT? Additionally, I’ll squeeze in that review of A Clash of Kings as well because we have a very many things we need to talk about.
As I promised, before I start The Hobbit / Lord of the Rings, I want to do what I did last time I finished a long series and do a single, one-off book that is not part of series. We will start that book on September 19, after I complete the Harry Potter reviews, and here’s all I will tell you: It’s by an author who wrote something for a show I watched on Mark Watches.
Finally, despite finishing His Dark Materials, I will do a single post for each companion book (Lyra’s Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North) and will be composing pieces on all three books, as well as Philip Pullman’s newest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, over on BridgeToTheStars.net, starting on Friday, September 16th. The easiest way to find out when I post these is to follow me on Twitter: @MarkDoesStuff
Thank you all for coming along with me on this journey, and for discussing religion for over three months straight and NOT bringing on the second coming. I would call that a miracle, but I know that all of you worked hard to be respectful, insightful, and wonderful, so the onus is on you. There are no miracles here. Thank you.