Thursday 21 January 2021

Portals in 'His Dark Materials'


In this second post about portal fantasies, I’m considering Philip Pullman’s trilogy, ‘His Dark Materials’. (I had meant to talk about these books alongside some other titles, but found so much to say about them, the rest can save for later.)

            In my first post I chose a few classic fantasy novels, mostly written for children, and looked at how the authors make us believe in the portals through which their characters travel to other worlds. The three most important things to get right – often but not always employed together – are first, to show the portal and its situation carefully enough that the reader can visualise it; second, to describe the physical sensations of passing from world to world; third, to consider the psychological effect on the persons undergoing this unusual experience. In fantasies with child protagonists, this last is made easier by the unwritten rule which states that children will readily believe in strange things and magical occurrences. For fantasies with young adult or adult protagonists, it becomes more of an issue: readers expect a degree of scepticism from older characters which must  be shown and overcome.

            Furthermore, the majority of portal fantasies involve just a small group of characters passing into other worlds, or only one, if the portal leads to a dream-world like Wonderland. The adult Mr Vane stumbles alone through the mirror into the visionary universe of George MacDonald’s ‘Lilith’; in its precursor ‘Phantastes’, twenty-one year-old Anodos is told that he will find the way to Fairy Land and wakes next morning to find his bedroom transforming into a woodland glade – just as Max’s bedroom in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ turns into ‘the world all around’. In a complete absence of parents who might ask questions, Milo opens the mysterious package containing the Tollbooth and enters a world of fascinating adventures. Jane is rescued from the Doulton Bowl by the adult Mary Poppins, but Mary Poppins is (a) magic herself and (b) never explains anything.

            But ‘His Dark Materials’ contains a huge cast of characters of all ages who go journeying between worlds, and I would argue that the whole first book – ‘Northern Lights’/’The Golden Compass’ – is a prolonged and brilliant effort to get us to feel this is credible. It’s other things as well, of course, but just as Lewis Carroll eases us into Wonderland, so Pullman eases us into believing in what Lord Asriel is attempting to do. And it’s a magnificent success.

            Suppose Carroll had described the White Rabbit all at once. The very first thing you’d notice about a rabbit dressed in a waistcoat is that it is dressed in a waistcoat. But that’s only the third thing that Carroll tells us. We get there by degrees. The rabbit is white (eg: not a wild brown one). It has pink eyesit talks – and then it pulls a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket!

This is sleight of hand, but sleight of hand is just fine if it works. And it does work: spacing out the perceptions in this way gives Carroll time to show how Alice reacts: slowly at first, taken by surprise – then electrified, on her feet, racing after. Swept along with her, we forget to wonder what her big sister might be perceiving, or doing.

            ‘Northern Lights’/’The Golden Compass’ (I’ll refer to it as ‘The Golden Compass’ from now on, since the American edition is the one I own) actually opens in another world, but one which is recognisable and maps on to ours geographically, although socially it appears to be about a century behind. It is differentiated from ours most obviously by daemons, the external soul-creatures of every human being, their beloved animas – and by numerous other small, significant touches. Electricity exists in Lyra’s world, but is not yet commonly used for lighting and is known as anbaromagnetism. Physicists are experimental theologians. Travel is by balloons or zeppelins, not planes: by canals, not railways. There is no obvious magic here, but the book itself is a portal: we compare Lyra’s world with what we know of our own, and remain conscious of both.

            The first hint of more exotic worlds comes from Lord Asriel’s slide-show to the scholars of Jordan College: through a particular filter, the mysterious Dust can be seen showering its glowing particles upon an Arctic explorer and revealing in the lights of the Aurora ‘towers, domes, walls… Buildings and streets, suspended in the air!’ – a city in another universe. The explorer who was investigating this phenomenon, Dr Stanislaus Grumman (aka John Parry), disappeared eighteen months before. Claiming to have found his head, Asriel wants the college to fund a new expedition.

            Now we know the story will take us into the North to find out what’s happening there, but the revelation will be long delayed: not for another 160 pages will Lyra herself see the towers and domes of that city in the Aurora, and not until the end of the book will anyone travel that way. Lyra isn’t especially interested in celestial cities. Her immediate, pressing concern is to follow the trail of her best friend Roger, and find out what the mysterious Gobblers are doing with the children they kidnap. She learns to use the alethiometer, escapes from ruthless Mrs Coulter, joins the gyptians, journeys to the Arctic, befriends an armoured bear: so much goes on, but the heart of the book is the bond between child and daemon. Pantalaimon is a part of Lyra, her soulmate, companion, comforter and ally. It hurts physically and emotionally if human and daemon are separated by more than a short distance.

 It was such a strange, tormenting feeling when your daemon was pulling at the link between you; part physical pain deep in the chest, part intense sadness and love. … ‘Don’t, Pan!’ … The pain in Lyra’s heart grew more and more unbearable, and a sob of longing grew in her throat.

The Golden Compass, 195

Only witches’ daemons can part from them, and the first time Lyra sees a witch’s daemon on its own, the sight fills her with sick fear.

            The importance of the child-daemon bond is constantly emphasised: Pullman gives it full weight, since without entirely believing in it we wouldn’t appreciate the full horror of what Mrs Coulter’s Oblation Board is doing. Here’s the moment Lyra finds out:

She lifted the lantern high and took a step into the shed, and then she saw what it was that the Oblation Board was doing, and what was the nature of the sacrifice the children were having to make.

            The little boy was huddled against the wood drying rack, where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all as stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him, as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon with her left hand, hard against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child.

                     The Golden Compass, 213

Even just typing this out makes my heart beats faster. It’s such powerful writing. Look at the juxtapositions, the description of the fish on the racks tacitly indicating the condition of the child himself: gutted, dried. And Lyra holds warm, living Pantalaimon, while little Tony Makarios clings in his loss and desperation to a piece of dried fish, not for food, and not in hope, because there is no hope. He clings to it because he has nothing else. 

Having truly felt all this we don’t question that the unspeakable act of severance could release the enormous energy Asriel needs to open the bridge between worlds. The last breathless chapter of the book – Lyra’s race to rescue Roger, Pantalaimon ‘changing rapidly in his agitation: lion, ermine, eagle, wildcat, hare, salamander, owl, leopard, every form he’d ever taken, a kaleidoscope of forms among the Dust’ – Roger crying, running back and forth from Asriel, whose leopard daemon holds his own little daemon fluttering wildly in its mouth – the Aurora blazing above the cliffs in ‘a cataract of glory’, the struggle on the clifftop, the severance – Roger lifeless in Lyra’s arms –

 A jet of light, a jet of pure energy released like an arrow from a great bow, shot upwards from the spot where Lord Asriel had joined the wire to Roger’s daemon. The sheets of light and colour that were the Aurora tore apart: a great rending, grinding, crunching, tearing sound reached from one end of the universe to another; there was dry land in the sky –


 The Golden Compass, 394

It’s awesome, stunning, and it wouldn’t mean anything like as much without the massive gut-punch of Roger’s death towards which the whole book has been building. How has Asriel found out what this unleashed power can do? How does he know how to use it? We’re not told, and we don’t care about the mechanics. It's sleight of hand again: the best sort. Writers have to do this. Speaking as one myself, we're not scientists. Our job is to make you believe in the story. We believe in this immense force and its power to crack open the universe because Pullman has made us feel it.



         ‘The Golden Compass’ is a magnificent book, a modern classic. On this re-reading it still blows me away. ‘The Subtle Knife’ is almost as good, but there are things that bothered me about it when I first read it, and they still do bother me, and it’s mostly to do with portals. If ‘The Subtle Knife’ were a stand-alone novel I might have no problem with it: magical items of great power and ancient heritage are an old fantasy trope. Like the Ring in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, the subtle knife should only be carried by the chosen bearer, on whom it bestows apparently useful powers. Where the Ring bestowed invisibility, the knife enables the bearer to cut windows between worlds and thereby to hide, dodge and steal. And in the end, like the Ring, the knife turns out to be a curse not a blessing: an object that the bearer is required to destroy. With all this, however, it's basically a gadget. Unlike the Ring it has no presence of its own, no psychological effect upon Will. It isn't personal

               The knife's been in existence for three hundred years, but Will Parry doesn’t obtain it until halfway through the book. He belongs in our world where such things don’t or shouldn’t exist. But, close to midnight on the Oxford ringroad, on the run from the police and the men who invaded his house, Will watches a cat disappear through a ground-level ‘patch in the air’:

 If you were level with the patch so that it was edge-on, it was nearly invisible, and it was completely invisible from behind. You could see it only from the side nearest the road, and you couldn’t see it easily even from there, because all you could see through it was exactly the same kind of thing that lay in front of it on this side: a patch of grass lit by a streetlight.

            But Will knew without the slightest doubt that that patch of grass on the other side was in a different world.

The Subtle Knife, 57

This is convincing partly because the portal is so clearly and carefully described. Pullman makes sure we know that it’s not easy to spot (on this busy Oxford road) since what can be seen through it looks similar to what’s around it. It also helps that Will is still a child because, as I’ve said, of the convention that children in fantasies are unfazed by things like portals. Will's heart beats hard, but he crawls through without hesitation to find himself in the abandoned, lamplit, harbour town of Cittágazze, which is then also carefully and beautifully described. Looking for somewhere to sleep, he just happens to choose a small café which just happens to be the one Lyra has also chosen, but if you’re like me you’ve been wondering when Will and Lyra will meet, and you won’t care about the coincidence.

            Lyra tells Will that she and Pantalaimon came to Cittágazze over a bridge her father made, and were then lost in a fog for days. It’s unclear whether the bridge led straight to Cittágazze or if Lyra came via intermediate worlds, but when Will says ‘So there’s three worlds at least that are joined on’, she can tell him, ‘There’s millions and millions… No one can count how many worlds there are, all in the same space, but no one could get from one to another before my father made this bridge.’

            But Will immediately points out that if no one could move from world to world before Asriel’s action, how can she explain the window he found? In fact, Lyra is wrong. And this means a rethink of what we thought we knew about Asriel’s project.


  In ‘The Amber Spyglass’, we’re told that the windows between worlds have been left by previous bearers of the subtle knife, who over the three hundred years since it was forged have cut their way into world after world – thousands of worlds, thousands of times – without bothering to seal the gashes left behind them; and the consequence of their carelessness is the appearance of Spectres and the leakage of Dust from all the universes. I don’t find this as easy to believe as Asriel’s simple, single, shock-and-awe, crack-of-doom blast. Would such learned men really have been so profligate and so careless? I suppose they might. Like global warming, the Spectres and the problems with Dust are the unintended result of once ordinary if thoughtless behaviour. Still: all the effort, all the agony, sweat and tears of the last book and here in Cittágazze is a knife, ‘a little knife, and it barely fits the hand,’ as Lorca says, ‘but it slides in clean’ to the fabric of the universe and does the job without fuss. And it does it again and again. For me, this takes away from Asriel's deed and Roger's sacrifice. The subtle knife isn’t quite a McGuffin Hitchcock’s term for the thing the plot revolves around, which all the characters want, but about which the audience doesn’t care – but its existence and the existence of so many window-portals does create difficulties.

For example: Lord Boreal belongs to Lyra’s world. He’s an important man there, a member of the Council of State. But as ‘Sir Charles’ he owns a lovely house in Will’s Oxford, works as a spy (presumably for MI6), runs a Rolls Royce and employs a chauffeur. How he has managed to establish himself in this identity is a mystery. When Will asks how he knows about the knife and Cittágazze, he replies:

‘I know many things that you don’t. … I am a good deal older and considerably better informed. There are a number of doorways between this world and that; those who know where they are can easily pass back and forth. In Cittágazze there’s a guild of learned men, so called, who used to do so all the time.’

            The Subtle Knife, 166 

Cutting a window into Sir Charles’s Oxford house to retrieve the stolen alethiometer, Will overhears Sir Charles telling Mrs Coulter that he personally knows ‘a dozen or so portals’, and that Cittágazze used to be the ‘crossroads’ out of which they all opened, but since Asriel’s perturbation of the worlds, that is no longer so:

‘When I looked through one of the doorways earlier today, you can imagine how surprised I was to find it opening into our world, and what’s more, to find you nearby. Providence, dear lady! The change meant I could bring you here directly, without the risk of going through Cittágazze.’

            The Subtle Knife, 199

If Sir Charles/Lord Boreal alone knows of a dozen portals leading from his and Lyra’s world into Cittágazze (he surely doesn’t know all of them), how come the citizens and the curious children of Cittágazze haven’t found and used them, either out of curiosity, or more urgently to escape the Spectres? Of all people they should be familiar with their own town and the doings of their own ‘learned men’. If Cittágazze is really this hub, if its learned men have been passing to and fro, if Will’s father has found at least one window in the Arctic of our world, if there are thousands of portals – why hasn’t Asriel discovered a single one, given his particular interest in the subject? Serafina Pekkala says: ‘Look what he’s done already: he’s torn open the sky, he’s opened the way to another world. Who else has ever done that? Who else could even think of it?’ Well, Boreal’s been commuting through Cittágazze for years. How is it that he knows about the subtle knife and Asriel doesn’t even hear about it until the angel Baruch tells him, in ‘The Amber Spyglass’?

More difficulties occur when the witch Ruta Skadi describes her visit to Lord Asriel’s fortress in yet another universe. In the company of a group of angels, she’s flown out of the world of Cittágazze through an invisible gateway high in the air:

‘Angels!’ she called as she sensed the change. ‘How have we left the world I found you in? Where was the boundary?’

            ‘There are invisible places in the air,’ came the answer. ‘Gateways into other worlds. We can see them, but you cannot.’

            The Subtle Knife 142

 We don’t know who cut these aerial gateways, or how. Ruta Skadi goes on to describe Asriel’s fortress:

  ‘… ramparts of basalt, rearing to the skies, with wide roads coming from every direction, and on them cargoes of gunpowder, of food, of armour plate. How has he done this? … He was preparing this before we were born, sisters, even though he is so much younger. But how can that be? I don’t know. … I think he commands time, he makes it run fast or slow according to his will.’

            The Subtle Knife 270

If this is really so it’s a get-out-of-jail-free card, I throw up my hands and Lord Asriel enters the kind of Dark Lord territory where explanations become irrelevant. I’m aware of the Miltonic resonances: Milton’s Satan is the origin of the species, and in building himself himself a tower of adamant above a lake of molten sulphur, among mountains under which satanic mills direct ‘volcanic fires’ to feed ‘mighty forges’ while preparing to wage war on the Authority, Asriel runs true to type. It’s pointless to ask how he achieved it, but it’s a far cry from the slide-show at Jordan College... Asriel is Milton’s Satan reimagined: instead of ‘evil be thou my good', Asriel does evil that good may come. He believes that a worthy end justifies the means. But we’ve been made to feel so deeply the dreadfulness of what he did to Roger that I’m surprised no one unconnected with the Magisterium is ever critical of him. Maybe it’s just pragmatism. Even Lyra… immediately after Roger’s death in ‘The Golden Compass’, she is so angry with her father, we’re told that ‘if she could have torn out his heart she would have done so there and then, for what he’d done’. But afterwards she seems to forget her anger. She blames herself for betraying Roger, not Asriel, and when she meets Will and tells him how she crossed the bridge her father made, her account seems untouched by anger or by grief. If anything, there’s a hint of pride. 

            To help us believe in the subtle knife and its powers, Pullman makes sure we can visualise it – the rosewood handle inlaid with angels in gold wire, the ‘swirl of cloudy colours’ of the blade and its two edges: one of ‘clear bright steel’, the other ‘just as keen, but silvery in colour’. Lyra recognises this edge to be the same metal as the blade used by the Oblation Board. It’s an observation that explains some things: if it was made from the same stuff as the subtle knife, no wonder it can cut children from their daemons! But that must mean that the silvery metal has been invented twice, once by the philosophers of Cittágazze and independently by (I suppose) material scientists or experimental theologians working in Lyra’s world for the Oblation Board. Both have used the metal to make blades, it’s just that one is a knife and the other’s effectively a chopper. You’d think the Oblation Board might have tried to find out what a point could do.  

Having felt it once, [Will] knew what to search for again, and he felt the curious little snag after less than a minute. It was like delicately searching ot the gap between one stitch and the next with the point of a scalpel. He touched, withdrew, touched again to make sure, and then did as the old man had said and cut sideways with the silver edge.

The Subtle Knife 184

This is brilliantly vivid. Compared with the explosion of power at the end of ‘The Golden Compass’, it's the difference between blowing up a building and picking a lock. And the knife is handier than Asriel’s guillotine. It makes possible all the marvellous adventures of the last two books, from the exciting episode when Will rescues the alethiometer from Sir Charles’s house, through his descent with Lyra into the land of the dead and the freeing of the souls there, to cutting the Authority out of his crystal prison and the final renunciation of the knife and its power, with the heartbreaking concomitant that Will and Lyra must part for ever. (As Frodo must part from his friends in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.)

           But in ‘The Amber Spyglass’ the portals and the time-line grow ever more confusing. I may be missing something, but how does Mrs Coulter manage on foot, or at least without any obvious means of transport to carry Lyra’s unconscious body from the world of Cittágazze, through another window, all the way to a cave in the Himalayas of her own world? Within two days Baruch the angel is able to report that Mrs Coulter is snugly established with Lyra in her Himalayan cave. But the window through which she has escaped opens into bleak, flat northern tundra, and when Will follows her through it he faces a trek of four thousand miles southwards to catch up with her: weeks of travel. How did she she do it? We never find out.

            Similarly, the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison swims from Lyra’s world into the world of Cittágazze to find Lee Scoresby’s body. We’re not told how far it is or how long it takes, only that he arrives a deliberately vague 'some time later'. But can it really have been long enough for him to find that the bodies of that battle have become dry bones? Especially since, after paying his own special type of homage to Lee’s body (uncorrupted because of Serafina Pekkala’s spell), Iorek sails south with his bears to encounter Will, who has been travelling for only three or four days since that same attack, on a landing stage by the great river.

            And if Lord Asriel really has never left his own world before blasting the sky open above Svalbard, where has he found time to make so many alliances with people from other worlds – with the tiny Gallivespians, for example, whose lives are so very short? Should all the confusion be put down to the great disturbance caused when he severed Roger and his daemon?

The writing is so vivid, the characters so strong and the story so exciting, that most of the time we’re simply swept along. Nevetheless as portals proliferate throughout ‘The Amber Spyglass’, my reading brain begins to get frazzled. The last straw is the discovery that the Magisterium has the power to assassinate Lyra in no matter what universe she is currently located. By placing even a single hair from her head in a ‘resonating chamber’, the experimental theologian from Bolvangar explains, ‘the [genetic] information is coded in a series of anbaric pulses and transferred to the aiming device. That locates the origin of the material …’ The ‘genetic particles’ of the hair are entangled at a quantum level with those from which it was cut, so the force of the explosion will destroy Lyra, wherever she is. (At least I think that’s the gist of it.) Then, leading the ghosts through the tunnels of the land of the dead, which is a physical world, Will is directed by the ghost of his shaman father to use the subtle knife and shave the spot on Lyra’s scalp from which her lock of hair was cut. He must then thrust every single piece of the resultant stubble (something quite impractical) through a hastily carved slit in the rock of a randomly chosen otherworld which may be the world of Asriel’s fortress (since he’s later able to access it). When the bomb goes off, the explosion blasts a bottomless hole through the land of the dead. (Maybe Will did drop some of those bits of hair.) Dust immediately begins to flood out of all the universes: the bomb has created a sort of black hole which Will recognises as ‘not another world like all the others but different.’ Into this abyss Asriel and Mrs Coulter fall at last, hurling themselves upon Metatron the evil regent of the Authority, to save Lyra from the power of the Magisterium. Finally the angels – sentient constructs of Dust – will close all the portals in all the worlds.

I can’t say the narrative doesn’t work – it does – but it's grown so complex I can’t really grasp how or if it all hangs together, and my suspicion is that it doesn’t, quite. Rather as Dust is leaking out of all the windows cut by the knife, probability leaks out of the cracks in ‘The Amber Spyglass’, with the author working hard to plug them. I don’t have to tell you that ‘His Dark Materials’ is altogether a magnificent achievement. It is. But as a piece of literature, the first book of the trilogy is the best.

            Turning away from portals, a final thought. Reading ‘The Amber Spyglass’ again for this essay, I kept being reminded of another poem, not this time by Milton. I’ve no idea if Philip Pullman has ever read it or would remember it if he had, but it seems to me to have something of Asriel’s defiance and the unexpected outcome of his rebellion against God. It is a little-regarded sonnet by Rupert Brooke, written in his early twenties, and I like it. It’s a little bombastic, but young poets can be forgiven for that, and anyhow Brooke knows what he’s doing. It’s called ‘Failure’.


Because God put His adamantine fate

Between my sullen heart and its desire,

I swore that I would burst the Iron Gate,

Rise up and curse Him on His throne of fire.

Earth shuddered at my crown of blasphemy,

But Love was as a flame about my feet;

Proud up the Golden Stair I strode; and beat

Thrice on the Gate, and entered with a cry –


All the great courts were quiet in the sun,

And full of vacant echoes: moss had grown

Over the glassy pavement, and begun

To creep within the dusty council-halls.

An idle wind blew round an empty throne

And stirred the heavy curtains on the walls.



Picture credits:

The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass: by Philip Pullman, published by Alfred A Knopf, designed by Eric Rohman.