Favorites February: The Amber Spyglass

Hey all! Welcome to my last installment of Favorites February 2020! I’ve really enjoyed reading one of my favorites series from my teen years, His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. I’m a little bit sad to say that the series on the whole didn’t quite live up to my memory of it, but I still love and will always love it. Thanks for reading, those of you who have, and now on I go!


Will is the bearer of the knife. Now, accompanied by angels, his task is to deliver that powerful, dangerous weapon to Lord Asriel – by the command of his dying father. But how can he go looking for Lord Asriel when Lyra is gone? Only with her help can he fathom the myriad plots and intrigues that beset him.

The two great powers of the many worlds are lining up for war, and Will must find Lyra, for together they are on their way to battle, an inevitable journey that will even take them to the world of the dead…

Why I Love This Book

  • The allusions to Greek mythology.
  • Seeing Will and Lyra’s relationship grow.
  • The way spirituality is so essential to the functioning of the universe.
  • When Pan settles. *sigh*
  • The mulefa are so effing interesting!
  • The moment when Lyra re-names “No-Name” as “Gracious Wings.” I teared up, no joke.
  • I’m a sucker for bittersweet endings. This book is FULL of them.

Word Spotlight: The Mulefa’s “Eden”

This book takes place in more worlds than any of the previous ones. In addition to the handful of worlds they just pass through, Will and Lyra spend an extended amount of time in Cittàgazze, the World of the Dead, the world Asriel has built his castle in, and the world of the Mulefa. All of these worlds are interesting in their own way, but I have always been most fascinated in the Mulefa. It might be the most on-point element of speculative fiction in the series.

Similarities to Our World

  • Grass, trees, blue sky
  • That’s pretty much it.

Differences from Our World

  • All species developed with a described “diamond” shaped skeleton. Instead of a backbone with four limbs, two in front, two in back, species in this world have limbs arranged two on the side, and one on each the front and back. Fascinating!
  • This is the first world they visit where the inhabitants do NOT speak English.
  • The Mulefa can see Dust.
  • No advanced technology beyond rope braiding has been developed, though horticulture is advanced.
  • No church or religion.
  • The “bad guys” on this planet are some truly terrible birds that remind me a bit of cranes.

This world is fascinating for so many different reasons, too many to get into here. I love the idea that in another world evolution went in a completely different direction, and this was the first book where I saw this executed with any real success. The Mulefa, their simple but happy way of life, and their connection to Dust also reminds me distinctly of the spirituality and Earth-connection many indigenous populations have. I love seeing that philosophy and way of life lauded and given true value. This world and its significance to the plot and themes are a huge part of what makes this book successful, despite some of the less outstanding execution of other parts of the novel.

Discussion Questions

Questions taken from Penguin Random House. Please feel free to play along in the comments! It’s a DISCUSSION, lol.

1. Why do you think the subtle knife breaks when Will thinks of his mother? When the knife breaks, do you think Mrs. Coulter is aware of her influence on Will? Are there any connections between Mrs. Coulter and Will’s mother?

To use the Subtle Knife or the Aletheometer, one must put ones mind in a state of utter relaxation. You have to think without thinking. When Will thinks of his mother, it pulls him out of that relaxed state of mind. He feels tense, troubled, afraid. Without his mind in the right state, he can’t use the knife, so it inevitably breaks.

Mrs. Coulter is definitely aware of her influence on Will, the way she is aware of her influence over everyone. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this influence is never properly explained, but even aware of her trickery Will is unable to resist her influence. As for connections between Mrs. Coulter and Will’s mom, I think they primarily function as foils to each other, but I don’t really have time to get in to that now.

2. In each book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, a special device is introduced in connection with the pursuit of Dust. What are the different properties of each instrument? How does each instrument reflect the personality of the person that uses it?

The aletheometer or “Golden Compass” communicates with Dust or “tells the truth”. It represents Lyra well, as she is a compulsive liar. However, in this book she finally stops lying when she is unable to lie to the harpies.

The Subtle Knife makes pathways between worlds, which Dust escapes through and is destroyed. It is a weapon, but it’s makers decreed it should not be used for “base purposes”, or fighting. In a similar way, Will is a reluctant warrior. He fights only because he has to. But he is dangerous, and if his path went a different direction, Dust could have been destroyed forever.

The “Amber Spyglass” allows Mary to see Dust. This represents Mary’s nature as a scientist and learner, a person who wants to understand the world. It also reflects the way she is mostly an observer in this story. She doesn’t do anything, and even her role as the serpent is on the sidelines.

3. When asked to mend the subtle knife, Iorek is hesitant: “Sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don’t know. Sometimes in doing what you intend you also do what the knife intends, without knowing.” What do you think the knife’s intentions are? Based on these intentions, who do you think created the knife and for what purpose?

We learn that the Knife is actually creating a hole between the worlds it connects, and edge so fine that even Will cannot sense it. Through this hole Dust “escapes” or is destroyed. Specters, which feed on Dust, are also created. In this way, the Knife’s intentions are to destroy Dust, which is actually contrary to what Will and Lyra are ultimately working toward. The creators of the Knife in Cittàgazze I don’t think likely had this intention at all! Like Iorek said, the Knife seems to have a purpose beyond what its creators intended.

4. By the end of The Amber Spyglass, what similarities can you see between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter? How is Lyra’s storytelling different from Mrs. Coulter’s lying?

In this book the similarities between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter are so strong that you can’t help but wonder how you were so surprised to find out they were mother and daughter. The biggest of these similarities is the lying. They both lie compulsively, to the point that Asriel even observes of Mrs. Coulter that he doesn’t think she knows how to stop. Lyra also struggles to stop lying. The difference, I think, is mainly that Mrs. Coulter lies to get what she wants, whereas Lyra just lies for the fun of it. Lyra likes to tell outrageous stories, because she knows others are entertained by them, and it is certainly fun for her to tell. Mrs. Coulter lies in order to manipulate people. Which, don’t get me wrong, is certainly something Lyra has done in the past. But typically if she’s trying to get something from someone, she tells the truth.

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