And The Angels Not Half So Happy In Heaven: Subtle Knives, Sharp Words

The Subtle Knife is the second installment in the His Dark Materials series and the sequel to The Golden Compass (better known outside of the US as Northern Lights). You can read my review of the first book here. The controversy surrounding the books are similar, so I shall try not to repeat myself. Stay tuned for the conclusion of our banned books coverage of His Dark Materials next week as Hannah takes on The Amber Spyglass.



THE DEFENDANT: The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman

THE VERDICT: His Dark Materials and Philip Pullman were the second most frequently challenged book and author respectively in 2008. Both have graced the top 5 in previous years. The series has also attracted the ire of various religious groups, primarily Catholic ones, denouncing it as dangerous bonfire fuel.

THE CHARGES: Most of the issues with the series center around its political, religious (or perhaps anti-religious is a better way of putting it), and violent content. Dubbed the most dangerous author in Britain, Pullman is accused of slipping an anti-Christian message into seemingly innocent fantasy novels that lure children in with their magic and adventure before making their agenda known.

And let’s not beat around the bush: the series is taking the Church and organized religion in general directly to task in this children’s/YA/speculative fiction reworking of Paradise Lost. Ideas such as the fact that the wrong side won the war in heaven, that the Church is by and large the villain, and that a new war is brewing to overthrow God and the Church (with our young protagonists wielding the very weapon that can kill God) are no doubt controversial and shocking, particularly to Christian readers. Issue has also been taken with the sexual content in the later books and the books’ appropriation and creative use of Catholic terminology.

THE REVIEW: Imagine if you would that A Wrinkle in Time and The Da Vinci Code had a baby and then, not surprisingly, that baby grew up to have a very complex, troubled relationship with religion and the Catholic Church in particular and then went off to college where it may or may not have imbibed some hallucinogenic substances while studying the classics. The Subtle Knife is that baby.

While The Golden Compass is much more of what one might expect from a speculative fiction adventure frequently shelved in the children’s or YA section, The Subtle Knife moves the series in a whole new direction that is more epic in the sense of the classics’ ancient poetic narratives than the classic pulpy adventure. For starters, we leave Lyra’s steampunky, Magisterium-run world by the wayside (mostly) and begin with a new protagonist, Will, in our world’s modern-day (at least it was in the 90s) Oxford.

After evading mysterious enemies after something of his father’s and stashing his mentally ill mother with his piano teacher, Will stumbles across a portal to another world. There he meets Lyra and the two discover their quests are inextricably linked. They then journey through this new world, plagued by specters that devour the souls of all but children, and our own world, as they try to unlock mysteries at the heart of both religion and science. Along the way they meet Mary Malone, an ex-nun turned physicist, who helps the children discover that Lyra’s Dust (believed to be the source of original sin) is one in the same with dark matter. These so-called Shadows aren’t just conscious, they’re consciousness, appearing only at the point of human evolution and childhood development where one has an informed, conscious view of the world around them.

Behold, SCIENCE!

Behold, SCIENCE!

This book is a strange medley of science fiction, fantasy, and conspiracy thriller. With its 90s feel and its cast of unusual characters and creatures — everything from witches to the nomadic Gyptians to armoured bears to Texan aeronauts to shamans to scientists to alchemists to soul animals — these books have everything your imagination could ever desire. Running around Oxford trying to deal with blackmailers, thieves, and Church cover-ups also does have an inescapably Da Vinci Code vibe, though the two books are very different. However, in the museum and the bits with Mary Malone, the book veers sharply and suddenly into science fiction, and not the spaceships and blasters kind, the elementary particles and how human consciousness changed somewhere about 30,000 years back kind.

The assumption that young readers won’t just be able to understand such concepts but be able to ponder and think critically about them isn’t new, but it is rare. In fact, it’s rare for writers to assume that adults can or will. The mix of fantastic elements with advanced scientific concepts is reminiscent of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The two also become increasingly engaged with Christian mythology and ideology as their respective series go on. However, the purpose and attitude in doing so is where they diverge.

I will admit that, while I thoroughly enjoy fantasy that plays with mythological/religious creatures, ideology, or iconography and I’m not at all opposed to the book’s overall message that organized religion and Christianity in general are capable of some truly heinous evil, I was a little taken aback by all of it — God, angels, heaven, the Fall, etc — actually being real, even if not in the manner believers would like or expect. It sort of legitimized the Magesterium in a weird way and made the fact that the witches and Tartars have other gods and beliefs something that should be addressed both for the characters’ motivations and the author’s.

Like the witches are voting whether or not to join the war on God but never address the fact that they have a totally different religion devoid (or so I thought) of the Judeo-Christian God with a capital G. That is a serious flaw in the otherwise stellar worldbuilding and narration. I think the idea of all of it being presented as real would have been more upsetting to me as a kid than taking on the Church, to be honest, but that’s probably because my religious background runs a lot more towards Serafina than Mrs. Coulter. Although, it seems that should upset Christians as well, given that Paradise Lost‘s ideas of a war in heaven and a fallen upstart angel Lucifer are niether biblical nor canonical ideas. They’re fanfiction written over a millenia later that was somehow subsumed into mainstream Christianity.

I was also bothered by this turn of events for another reason. See, as soon as the concept of killing God is brought in, he’s suddenly referred to as the Authority. While it may or may not have been intended this way, suddenly not referring to him as God seemed to soften the blow. Kill God or don’t kill God, but don’t pussyfoot around the issue. Anyone who was going to get outraged still did. I also felt like Will insisting his mother wasn’t mentally ill also played chicken with controversy and lost, though perhaps he is an unreliable narrator. I loved the bits about Shadows and their connections to shamanic practices, mental illness, and human pre-history, however. I just wish that particular knife hadn’t been blunted at the last minute.

The pacing is a bit off with this book, but I didn’t really mind. It moves from world- and character building moments with great writing and description to action sequences in a way that seems more like a bunch of episodes than a single book’s arc, but that almost makes it more like a great 90s B-Fantasy adventure, only more mature, literary, and philosophically inclined. To be honest, the lulls were my favorite parts. Will was a great character and it was interesting to see Lyra share the story as she is such a strong character who stands alone, though, admittedly, he did overshadow her at times. And was that ever a good death scene when REDACTED SPOILER and his daemon shared that last adorable moment. Answer your damn phone next time, Serafina.

All in all, this was a great read. The writing was excellent, the characters leapt off the pages (what if Will’s knife *could* cut through the veil or the pages and escape the book into our actual world O.O), and the book is a surprisingly gripping page-turner for how slowly the narrative unfolds. Reading this book actually helped me finally undue the damage that taking a zillion literature and humanities courses in college did. I had to read so much that I forgot how to read for fun and at a leisurely pace. This was really the first book since graduating that I sat down and read all afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed doing so. Perhaps because it has feet firmly planted in both children’s and adult literature and reading demographics, I was able to enjoy the act of reading itself (not just enjoying a book or a story for its own merits) as I had as a child, but I was as engaged and mindful with the text as I had been reading epics or classics or great works of literature as an adult. As one article put it:

No doubt Pullman’s imagination is the reason why the three books – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass – are so popular with children. Adult readers, however, are drawn by two other qualities. The beauty of his writing (he won the 2001 Whitbread Prize for The Amber Spyglass after the rules were altered to allow “children’s fiction” in an “adult” competition); and the profundity of the philosophy that underpins the trilogy: essentially, the heretical notion that there was once a war in Heaven, and the wrong side won (“The shed where God died“).

THE DEFENSE: I purchased The Subtle Knife in the YA section of my local Borders when I was eight years old. For my younger readers, who have only ever known the YA section as a place full of John Green novels, teen paranormal romances, and angst-filled teen lit such as that of the incomparable Alex Flinn, the YA section was a very different place chasing a very different demographic when I was young. For starters, it was right next to or located within the children’s section. It had its teen lit and its Judy Blume and its coming of age stories (Not a lot of vampires, though. Anne Rice was in the Horror or Supernatural/Paranormal section), but it also had a lot more of what is now frequently shelved as “Children’s Classics”: books that could be read by mid- to late-elementary school readers but also enjoyed by the middle school crowd and older, usually with an award sticker on them somewhere to assure parents that they were indeed literary and worthwhile for their children’s education.

The YA section also had gateway series, whose first book or two could be read by children but that aged in maturity of content or reading level as the books went on, such as The Song of the Lioness Quartet or Harry Potter. It is this unclear demographic that gets a lot of these “in-between” books and series into trouble and His Dark Materials is a perfect example. Many parents or teachers may have been alarmed enough by the first book’s depiction of the Church or its comparatively serious consequences and horrors (child concentration camps where their souls are ripped away via guillotine, complete with talking animal friend loss just to really traumatize the kiddos; best friend murder at the hands of a trusted adult/parent; Church assassinations right from the off; and a sudden death cliff-hanger ending worthy of George R. R. Martin). However, the second book definitely moves this series into a more secure and arguably “deep” direction.

Thus, many have argued that the series is not as advertised and lures children in with a seemingly fun and magical adventure only to grow darker and more violent before whipping out the anti-Christian message to corrupt the children reading it. This plays into the idea that speculative fiction is an escapist, fluff media and that YA or children’s books should not grapple with serious theological ideologies or the complex realities of an imperfect world.

Despite recent mainstream successes of the genres that have made some begin to take them more seriously and consider their countless literary gems, these attitudes are strongly entrenched, which serves not only to dismiss books or authors but leads to parents handing a book to their kid without a second thought, only to be horrified when the book has moral ambiguity, real world issues, darker content, naughty bits, permanent consequences, or any kind of serious opinion on anything. Y’know: substance. Dust, settled daemons, the ability to be devoured by specters, sexual awakenings, signs that your child is becoming an adult or at least more of the person they are going to be rather than a ball of potential and blank canvas.

All the more reason to know what your kids are reading, read and/or discuss it with them, or make more informed choices about what books you feel they should read at what age. If more parents did that, there would be way less book challenges and school board meetings ending in arrest. If you do your research and determine this series is a little mature for your child and they might benefit from waiting a few years or you’re a staunch Catholic and this series is not right for your family, that’s your prerogative.

However, what other people’s children read or what books other children have access to in libraries or schools is not. As I have said in my review of The Golden Compass, these books, much like The Time Quartet/Quintet or The Chronicles of Narnia, could be entirely appropriate in the right class or context even in a public school where religion can be a tricky balancing act. It may even find itself surprisingly at home and useful in Sunday School or a church or interfaith Youth Group (see Compass review).

As with many banned books, I poked around the Goodreads reviews of this book to tap into the more personal issues with the series, rather than just those the ALA reports. Not surprisingly, many of them complained of the religious issues at the heart of the series. One review in particular said that it was not fair to make the message and the killing God aspect so apparent and non-metaphorical/allegorical, saying they would have preferred a subtler approach that allowed literature classes or groups to ask children what they thought the Authority might represent to Pullman.

This is a complete double standard with Christian books like The Time Quartet/Quintet, The Chronicles of Narnia, or The Lord of the Rings, where even allegorical or altered Christian content is rather blatant. I mean, Little Women is as much a Christian moral guide as it is a girls’ coming of age story and yet non-Christians like myself still read, enjoy, and appreciate it. Why should The Golden Compass‘s thoughts on Christianity be anymore “unfair and inappropriate” (as one Goodreads reviewer put it) or be accused of pushing a sinister agenda anymore than these much more overtly proselytizing books. I know Christians, Jews, atheists, witches, and all manner of religious or non-religious folk who not only enjoyed but devoured these books. Obviously, something in the books spoke to them just as Paradise Lost or Beowulf or The Ramayana or The Odyssey or any other great epic can speak to people across continents, cultures, and the ages.

At least His Dark Materials tells kids to think for themselves and consciously engage with the world and its dogma to come to their own conclusions. But, as always, that’s probably what scares people most. Like the Magesterium, we prefer when children (and people) do what they’re told without critical thinking or questioning rearing its subversive head. Who needs intercision when you can just cut the ideas and inspiration off at the source by tearing books off the shelves? And is it just me or do a distressing amount of Christians seem to think their kids are going to turn the moment they read anything contrary to their beliefs? Surely one’s firmly held beliefs should be firm enough to withstand a single book trilogy. And if not, well, maybe there are larger issues to address.

There is a similar double standard in the controversy surrounding the books’ creative use of Catholic terms such as oblation, intercision, etc. As I have said in previous articles, there is a weird dichotemy in fiction, particularly fantasy, where minority or antiquated cultures and religions are dubbed Mythology and deemed fair game to use, appropriate, rework, reinterpret, play with, or otherwise have total creative lisence with and no one bats an eye (unless it’s pagan or demonic enough to ruffle Christian feathers). However, Christianity and, in more recent, culturally sensitive times, some of the other larger or more well-known world religions are deemed Religion and are off limits to the same kind of artistic lisence, fictional use, or creative reimagining.

I can't tell if that thing is supposed to be the golden monkey or a specter or a cliff ghast, but I don't want it anywhere near my snake or stroking anything, thank you.

I can’t tell if that thing is supposed to be the golden monkey or a specter or a cliff ghast, but I don’t want it anywhere near my snake or stroking anything, thank you very much.

While cultural appropriation and the representation of cultures and religions is something an author must give thought to and carefully consider the ramifications and receptions of their work, both to the group depicted and mainstream readership, this double standard further reinforces the very issues of representation and misrepresentation involved in these decisions. Just take one look at what books are in the Religion section versus the Philosophy, Mythology, or New Age/Spirituality sections or note the difference in tone between articles about mainstream religuous beliefs versus minority beliefs (such as that of the highway diverted for the elf homes in Iceland) and you’ll get a very good picture of what religions are deemed worth respecting or at least treading carefully around and what religions are considered superstitious nonsense or pure fiction/literature/entertainment.

As for the sexual content, this particular book in the series is pretty tame. The witches and Mrs. Coulter are stated to be attractive ladies and there are passing mentions to the witches’ lovers, but none of that would have given me any pause as a child, especially given all the sexual content kids see every day. There is one scene in which Mrs. Coulter seduces a man, but she poisons him before we see anything more than promises. Sure, her soul monkey strokes his soul snake (way less phallic than it sounds), but that’s at most heavy petting. Furthermore, seductive caricatures or villains (particularly villainesses) are a staple of children’s media. If Jasmine can sensually twist Jafar’s beard in a children’s movie, Mrs. Coulter can sensually twist a man’s soul in a YA novel. I’ll let Hannah grapple with the homosexual angels and ambiguous underage sexual experience/awakening as that occurs in the third book.

Given the liminal nature of this book’s categorization and intended audience, I found the survey in the back of my copy of the book rather puzzling. Yet another note to my younger readers: books used to have things like surveys and order forms in them. You would fill them out and then mail them to the publishing company’s physical address via envelope and stamp. Truly, I lived in the Dark Ages. This particular survey was very clearly aimed at fully-grown, well-read, employed adults, bringing home just how much more genre labels have to do with marketing than content or authorial intent. I wondered how I might have answered the questions on this survey if I had finished the book when I was eight years old. Thus, I have filled it out as such for your own amusement. Consider it my apology flowers for neglecting the blog in recent weeks. My apologies for the small print.


My kids are going to read this one day and then be really confused. I mean, more than they would have already.

My kids are going to read this one day and then be really confused. I mean, more than they would have already.


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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

8 responses to “And The Angels Not Half So Happy In Heaven: Subtle Knives, Sharp Words”

  1. Michelle Joelle says :

    This is such an exceptional review – I found the paragraph on religious appropriation particularly interesting, as well as your treatment of speculative fiction as more than escapism, though I would hesitate to join you in your use of that word. I like Tolkien’s understanding of escapism; he uses it to mean breaking our dogmatic limitations to show us reality, not just idle frivolity. For him, escape is a good thing – not the flight of the deserter, but the freeing of the prisoner. I think that usage actually fits your thoughts on what fantasy/science fiction can do rather well!

    • boundandgaggedbooks says :

      I’m glad you liked it, especially the part about cultural appropriation, as it is something I have given a great deal of thought to over the years, as a writer, reader, and student of religion/mythology. I was actually saying that speculative fiction IS NOT escapism, though, just that it is often dismissed as such. I mean, I’m sure some of it is to some people but no more so than any other genre or media. Tolkien’s understanding of the term is interesting, however. It reminds me somewhat of Mircea Eliade’s own view of escapism, whether in the form of a novel or in the form of religious ritual. To him, they served the same function.

      • Michelle Joelle says :

        Oh, I understood your usage – I was commenting that escape is not necessarily a bad thing that should be avoided or dismissed. I think that speculative fiction is escape in a good way. It allows us to question our assumptions about reality that might be false, limited, or dogmatically upheld by showing us something outside of the box we’re stuck in – which is why some find it necessary to ban fantasy books. They’re afraid of what might happen when their children see something outside of the particular box they’re currently in.

  2. Leslie Barnsley says :

    informative and engaging as always

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