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Thoughts On The Amber Spyglass, The Ending Of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy

So I recently read The Amber Spyglass, ending a literary relationship that’s been going on for 15 years. I have loved the first two books all that time and simply didn’t want it to finish. But at some point you’ve got to remember you won’t be able to converse with confidence on the subject until you do finish and just get it over with.

The Amber Spyglass

And as one often finds when they’ve waited so long, reality can’t match expectation. The finale didn’t live up to what I believe were the promises – there was a conclusion but Pullman left much unanswered, too much, I and others believe, if the thousand-odd forum posts I found just on one subject are considered, for a series that the author’s stopped writing, non-sequel spin-offs aside. There are ambiguous endings and then there are questions for which answers are out of reach and Pullman’s series is one of the latter.

I suppose it means there’s something to talk about.

So I wasn’t keen on the ending. Crucially, I was under the impression, from what the first two books implied, that the last would be about Will and Lyra’s restoration of the Creator to power. That the ending was merely a case of letting the usurper out of his life-giving tomb, and that happening without comment and done by the children by accident, was a nonentity. What happened to the Creator? Where is he or she or it? We’ll likely never know and yet Pullman went to great lengths to make you interested in it all.

Perhaps it’s his Atheist self talking, perhaps he himself saw the Creator an unimportant subject, not important enough to discuss. The Creator’s gone – no big deal. We have to work our lives out ourselves. But I think he almost owed it to us to explain, indeed I think the fact his series is about rewriting religious history and questioning religion, that it’s a response in part to the problems with The Chronicles Of Narnia, demands it. (There are spoilers in this post for the last book in that series.) There is nothing for us to work with, nothing we can use to form an idea or opinion, we can only idly guess. And that’s a great pity.

We’ve also Pantalaimon’s reference to Lyra, when he says he and Will’s daemon, Kirjava, were discussing something when the humans were separated from them and he’ll tell her about it when she’s older. At least in this case we can make informed guesses, for example the ambiguity regarding travel between the worlds and Lyra’s parting line about creating the Republic Of Heaven could relate to Pan and Kirjava working out a way for the children to see each other again. Other possibilities include a period of intimacy between the daemons, which seems most likely if we assume that Will and Lyra had intercourse under the willow tree. However the possibility of sexual intimacy between the daemons rests on that fact, of Pan saying he’ll tell Lyra what happened/was discussed when she’s older, and also the fact that, earlier in the series, adult characters discussed the relationship between two people (I believe Farder Coram and Serafina Pekkala, I believe) and Pullman says, to paraphrase, that the talk went over the children’s heads because they were too young to understand the sexual references – which conflicts with the possibility of the willow tree.

This is where we get to the sex – did they or didn’t they? It’s a difficult subject to discuss, not so much because it’s ambiguous but because of the ages involved. Pullman makes mention of ages early in the introductions to each character and provides a rough idea – a possible idea? it’s difficult to say – as to how much time passes over the course of the series. As far as my own thoughts and those of fans I’ve read about are concerned, the length of time between Lyra’s sitting in the wardrobe and the ending of the series is any when between 3 weeks and a couple of years. I personally think 3 weeks unlikely given all that happens but it’s not completely out of the question. My understanding was that it was about a year – all that travelling must have taken time and unless Mary’s a language whiz she would’ve needed time to learn the mulefas’ mode of communication. Whatever the time, we’re talking 9-13 years old for Lyra and 11-14 for Will – and that’s with added slack.

So that’s the main difficulty, which obviously leads to the second pre-question issue – whatever we assume about the possibility of sex will reflect on Pullman’s creation, and assuming two children slept together is highly uncomfortable. This is surely why Pullman has never given a straight answer to the question.

I’m of the opinion, however uncomfortable, that Will and Lyra did sleep together and I’ve thought it from the first. Pullman makes reference to the long branches of the willow tree, how they obscure the resting children from view and to me that clearly signifies something going on. It’s a literal fade-to-black, behind-the-curtain moment. This conflicts with the way Pullman spoke of their lack of knowledge during that Farder Coram/Serafina Pekkala conversation but I consider he may have forgotten – errors happen – or that the mature-of-mind children figured it out in the meantime as there’s a lot to be said for emotions and physical feelings. And now I feel the need to wash the whole idea away with a gallon of soap we’re going to move on.

To me that the children consummated their love is key to what Pullman was doing. The series is about growing up, about Adam and Eve in the Garden and also about C S Lewis’s treatment of Susan Pevensie’s growing maturity. Where Lewis didn’t allow Susan into Heaven because she had begun puberty – begun to explore life as an independent, begun to look at religion in a new way, questioning her belief as people often do as they become adults – Pullman says that Susan ought to have been allowed to explore and grow up and that to do both is natural and shouldn’t be hampered. He lets Lyra’s growth be accepted where Susan’s wasn’t. It’s a direct response, a commentary and a criticism of a literary issue we’ve been struggling with for decades.

Mary Malone, as openly acknowledged in The Amber Spyglass, is the serpent in the Garden and again Pullman alters things so they aren’t as damning. Mary ‘tempts’ Lyra through her tale of falling in love with a man, a nice, innocent enough history, no malice or goal behind it as far as Mary is concerned, she’s simply doing as Dust tells her, telling stories. Lyra feels the pull to choose a life with Will instead of a life without him: choose love and in doing so cause everyone to die and live in hell forever, or forfeit love for the greater good of allowing the dead their freedom to dwell in the atmosphere of the living. And whilst Eve took the apple, lost her innocence and fell, so Lyra takes the apple but doesn’t fall, she pushes past that. Lyra’s loss of innocence isn’t the end of perfection as Adam and Eve’s was.

By keeping the window of the after-world open, we can spy potential hope for the pair even if it’s bitter-sweet, an eternal resting of separated atoms blending together in the sky. Lyra and Will choose selflessness, showing that a loss of sexual purity isn’t the same as sinning, and put humanity and creatures before themselves. They’ll spend their days teaching people about love, bringing peace to worlds in conflict.

Will I ever be at peace with the ending, the lack of the Creator, the convenient and unsatisfying end of Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter? No, but if nothing else Pullman has ensured that I needn’t have worried about finishing the series because he’s left a legacy of thoughts that’ll last me at least twice as long as my waiting period.

What did you think of the final book and the trilogy as a whole?

Update on 18th August 2016: I’m pondering a possible connection between the land on the dead and the Catholic idea of Purgatory – did the window there have to be left open so that people could leave Purgatory easily, Pullman’s answer to the thought that a person must spend time there before deliverance, making it that there’s no damnation, just a quick journey through?


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