The Subtle Knife

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The Subtle Knife is the second novel in the His Dark Materials series, written by British novelist Philip Pullman, and published in 1997.

The book is the first that starts to properly consider its ideas in a scientific, physical and "real" way. Pullman alludes heavilly to the study of dark matter and particle physics to further embellish his metaphysical saga.


His Dark Materials

The three books of the His Dark Materials trilogy are:

1. Northern Lights
2. The Subtle Knife
3. The Amber Spyglass

The trilogy is set in a multiverse. The second volume begins in our world, Oxford, and introduces a second protagonist, a 'real' character. This volume jumps between three alternate realities: our world, Lyra's world (briefly), and a third dominated by the fictional city Cittągazze in a world that seems technologically equal to our own.


On Radio

The entire trilogy was dramatised on BBC radio in the United Kingdom.


A theatrical version of the three books was produced by Nicholas Hytner as a two-part, 6 hour performance for London's Royal National Theatre in 2004.

On Film

A film adaptation, titled His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass, is slated for release in 2007 by New Line Cinema, supposedly as the first of three films.

See the IMDb ( website for more information.

Plot Synopsis

Brief and Introductory

In the first new world she comes across, Lyra meets a boy named Will Parry, who comes from Oxford in our own universe and is fleeing from the authorities -- he has killed a man to defend his ailing mother.

They travel together through Will's world: Will to find out more information about his missing father, Lyra to learn more about Dust, and both encounter several people from Lyra's world. While trying to recover the alethiometer, which these people had stolen from Lyra, Will becomes the Bearer of the Subtle Knife, losing two fingers in the process.

Meanwhile, the other characters are all working to figure out what exactly Lyra's destiny is, and what to do with the knowledge. A scientist named Mary Malone, whom Lyra had contacted in our own city of Oxford, learns the secret of Dust and of Lyra, and leaves to fulfill her own destiny.

The Subtle Knife of the title was forged 300 years previously in the Torre degli Angeli at Cittągazze, and has the power to cut any material in the various universes, as well as the ability to allow the Bearer to cut through the barriers between universes.

In High Detail

Reading the following will severely reduce the enjoyment of then reading the books.

The book begins with a young boy named Will Parry, of the same age as Lyra—twelve. He lives in our universe—reality—in Oxford. He has an ill mother, who he looks after. He is a strong, independent character who will obviously one day grow into a powerful man. His father was an explorer who was lost, but he has always wanted to go to find him. Indeed, many sinister men often pester his mentally ill mother for information on his father (who was obviously doing something extremely significant before being lost), and on many occasions, Will has had to fend them off.

In doing this, one night, when they break into his house, he accidentally kills one of them. He knows what they are after: a small box of his father's that his mother keeps hidden. Earlier in the day he entrusted the care of his mother to his piano teacher, so now he escapes with this box. The box contains many letters from Will's father to his mother.

Knowing he has killed a man, and being extremely morally conscious, Will runs from his house, and chances to see a strange cat. He follows it through Oxford until it inexplicably disappears in mid air, at the centre of a roundabout. Inspecting this, he finds to his life-changing astonishment that, hidden in the middle of the roundabout, but clearly visible when looked at correctly, is a window in the air, and beyond it is another world.

Entering this other world—his perfect hideout—he finds it to be a Mediterranean-like deserted city by the sea. It is empty. He finds a place to stay, and here is set upon suddenly by a savage little girl of his age. Lyra.

Ascending into the stars at the end of Northern Lights, Lyra walked through a dense fog and, lost, at last found herself in this deserted city. She is frightened of Will, because, coming from our universe, he does not have a dæmon. However, he is not a zombie. Lyra concludes that Will's dæmon must be within him, hidden. Will is equally startled to see that Pantalaimon, Lyra's dæmon, is more than a pet, but is her soul, can shape-shift, and can talk. They don't take to liking each other immediately, both being extremely individual characters, and both being very headstrong and assertive, but Will is more practical than Lyra, and he knows how to cook and is sensible. Lyra finds herself listening to his advice, and does not leave him. Later on, she asks the alethiometer who he is, and it replies, "He is a murderer." "Good," she thinks—she can trust him. They go to bed.

Elsewhere, and back in Lyra's world, which has now been thrown into confusion and chaos because of Lord Asriel's actions, the witch-Queen Serafina Pekkala finds Mrs Coulter. Mrs Coulter is on a ship, and is protected by many guards, and is with several important men and women. She is also torturing a captured witch.

Serafina makes herself invisible, and watches. Coulter wants information on why the witches think Lyra, her daughter, is so special. Serafina kills the captured witch before she can say, and escapes before she is killed herself. She flies off to Svalbard, where she meets up with Lee Scoresby, the aeronaut. He explains, at a clan-gathering, that he wants to find out more about a certain Stanislaus Grumman. At the beginning of Northern Lights, this man's head was shown to the Jordan College scholars by Lord Asriel, but Lee does not think he is truly dead—he thinks Asriel showed the scholars the (false) head just to shock them (which it did).

The witches decide that they must help Lord Asriel in his task—for he has embarked on something great—and that most of all they must protect Lyra. The witch Ruta Skadi decides she will go to see Lord Asriel herself. The meeting is closed, and the actions taken.

Back with Lyra and Will, they meet two children in the deserted city. The two children have their dæmons inside them, like Will. They discover that the city is called Cittągazze, and that it is in fact full of thousands of invisible beings called Spectres. Children (i.e. humans who do not attract Dust so well, and whose dæmons can shape-shift, i.e. pre-adolescents) cannot see the Spectres. However, adults can, and the Spectres kill anyone who can see them. They do this by sucking out their soul—their dæmon—leaving them as zombies. This has caused all adults to flee the city, for the Spectres cannot be killed, but only increase in number. There is no explanation for how the Spectres originally came about.

Lyra wants to find out more about Dust, and the best person to ask is a scholar of Jordan College (that being her home, she thinks it's the best). Will explains he is also form Oxford, and wants to find out more about his father. Thus, they both go back through the window Will found, and both come into our universe, into reality. Lyra cannot find Jordan College (because it doesn't exist), so she goes off to a museum. There, she sees some ancient human skulls, and the alethiometer tells her that they are in fact 33,000 years old (not what the plaque says). More interesting is that the older skulls—before humans had fully evolved—have very much less Dust around them than the skulls of more evolved, more recent humans. An overly kind gentleman, who reeks of being sinister and seems constantly to suggest an undertone of paedophilia, approaches her, and gives her his card after 'befriending' her. She leaves—but he saw the solid gold alethiometer before she does.

Lyra finds her 'scholar'—a physicist called Mary Malone, who is out of funding, and works on exploring Dark Matter. She is working on Dust, and is the only person apart from a few colleagues to know of its existence. This Dust is apparently omnipresent throughout the multiverse. On our Earth, Mary has christened Dust as Shadows, or Shadow-particles.

Mary Malone has a special device that vaguely lets her examine Shadow-particles and take readings of how dense they are around certain objects. Her astonishing findings seem to contravene science: Shadows cluster strongly around inanimate objects if they were made by humans, or in some way showed evidence of a conscious worker; the Shadow-particles know what objects are. They are conscious themselves.

Lyra comes to see her, and persuades Mary to hook her up to the machine. Lyra uses her skills as an alethiometrist (which is effectively communicating with Dust/Shadows) to make the machine's readings go astronomical: the most fantastic results Mary has ever seen. Lyra also consults the alethiometer which tells her that the alethiometer itself, Mary's machine, and even a Chinese divination device (a decoration) that Mary has on her wall, are all no more than elaborate methods of communicating with Dust. Mary is gobsmacked. Lyra leaves.

In the meantime, Will has been to a library and has discovered that his father (John Parry) went on an expedition into the Arctic, but never returned. He meets with Lyra, and eventually they return to the hidden world of Cittągazze.

Will reads his father's letters, in the box that the men (one of which he killed) had so desperately wanted. The letters document John Parry's expedition. John Parry also found a window to another world. That was why he went missing.

Back in Lyra's world, Lee Scoresby is off in search of Stanislaus Grumman, who he discovers had become a leader, or holy man, among some of the Svalbard tribes; a shaman who went by the tribal name of Jopari. In finding all this information, and more, a secret representative of the Magisterium (the Church) tries to kill Lee, but Lee kills him.

Meanwhile, Ruta Skadi the witch flies off in search of Lord Asriel, and spots some flying angels in the sky. She joins them, for they are going to Lord Asriel. It appears that Lord Asriel has passed through many worlds now, and has found an empty one. On this world, he has created a fortress, and to this colossal fortress he is calling all beings from all worlds to join into an army under his command. The goal of this army will be to do one thing: destroy God.

Serafina learnt of this earlier in the book. Asriel, and indeed many races including many angels, all believe that 'God', 'The Authority', is a corrupt, oppressive force that the multiverse should be without. He is recalling the original rebellion of heaven. Originally, God triumphed and cast out the rebellious angels. This time round, all the cast out rebel angels are going to flock to Asriel's banner, along with millions of other beings, and together they shall make that rebellion against God's oppression a second time—with victory.

Serafina the witch-Queen leads her clan of witches through Lord Asriel's hole in the sky—a hole we now see is similar to the windows that John and Will Parry found—and they enter Cittągazze as well, to search for and protect Lyra.

The alethiometer tells Lyra, when she is alone, that she must help Will find his father. However, the next morning, she returns to Will's Oxford alone, to see Mary Malone. There, she is trapped, for some policemen/officials are waiting for her—Mary couldn't help it. She accidentally gives away that she knows Will (who clearly they are after, in connection with his highly significant father, John Parry), and she scarpers. She is saved when the man she met at the museum turns up. She gets in him limousine.

The man's name is Sir Charles Latrom. He benignly takes Lyra where she wants to go, and she leaves him thinking he might be a nice person after all. However, after he disappears, she quickly discovers that he has stolen her alethiometer.

Devastated, tearful, she returns to Cittągazze and tells Will. She is also sorrowful because the alethiometer told her to help Will find his father, but she didn't. As soon as she gets it back, she vows, she's devote herself to doing what it says: to helping Will. Will acknowledges that he is not alone anymore—he and Lyra, though both entirely independent, had by the unfolding events, become a "we." He goes with her to Charles Latrom's house, in his Oxford.

There, Charles lets them in, but is sly and slick, and will not give the alethiometer back. Will notices a snake peep out of his sleeve, and at this point we realise that this is actually Lord Boreal, from Lyra's world. He too must have found a window, and he has been living two lives: one in Lyra's world, and one in Will's, as Lord Boreal and Sir Charles Latrom respectively. Boreal tells them that they can have the alethiometer back on one condition.

He knows about Cittągazze. He knows it contains a knife that many men across many worlds would kill to possess. The Subtle Knife. He cannot enter Cittągazze because the Spectres will kill him. However, Will and Lyra, being 12 years old each, can. If they get him the Subtle Knife, they may have their golden 'compass'.

They are told that the Knife resides in the Torre degli Angeli, so they go there. Within, Will has to fight off an older boy who has already got the Knife. Will defeats the boy, but in the process, has two of his fingers sliced off. The knife, it appears, can cut through absolutely anything as clean as a laser, and Will's fingers bleed furiously. The old man (tied up) who the Knife originally belonged to gets up and helps Will bandage the wound. He then explains the Knife to Will.

Whoever holds the Knife is impervious to the Spectres. That is why the old man is alive here. However, the Knife must never fall into the wrong hands, so the bearer must always change. Will has been chosen by the Knife (every bearer is marked out by the 'accidental' removal of his two fingers by the Knife). Will must become the bearer, and it is a great responsibility. The Knife has the ability to cut into other worlds; in other words, it was the Knife that created the windows Will and Lyra had been walking through. Careless use of the Knife has led to many windows being left open all over the place. Knife-bearers should be responsible. The old man teaches Will how to open and close inter-world windows (a skill not unlike how Lyra reads the alethiometer), and then kills himself before the Spectres do something worse.

The Knife was created 300 years ago. That was when Spectres first appeared.

Will and Lyra leave, and realise that they can use the Knife to steal back the alethiometer, by cutting a window directly into where Boreal was keeping it. At night, they set about this plan. Will hides behind Lord Boreal/Charles Latrom's sofa, when Mrs Coulter walks in. Boreal is clearly being seduced and controlled by Marisa Coulter. She like him is after power. Will takes the alethiometer and escapes, though he is noticed, and the escape is close.

Back in Lyra's world, Lee finds Stanislaus Grumman, or as he is known to the tribe that Lee finds himself in, Jopari. When they meet, Lee asks Grumman why he is called 'Jopari'. In a staggering twist, he replies that 'Jopari' is no more than a mispronunciation of his true name: John Parry. Will's father. John Parry went through the window he found all that time ago, back when he was part of his own world, but never found it again. Stuck in this new world, he learnt many new things: shamanship, and he found his dęmon, brought it out from within himself. He explains to Lee that he desperately needs to find the bearer of the Subtle Knife (unbeknown to him, this is in fact now Will, his son). Lee agrees to help John Parry on a journey to where the Knife-bearer will eventually by fate arrive—John Parry knows this, because of the powers he has gained as a shaman (again, communication, via one of a billion methods, with Dust—an omnipresent, apparently omniscient consciousness of particles).

Back in Cittągazze, Will and Lyra are attacked by a mob of children—the boy Will defeated for the Knife was subsequently killed by the Spectres—he got too old. Will and Lyra run for it. Will's fingers are still bleeding. Serafina Pekkala's witches arrive, and save them. With the company of witches, they continue.

Back in our Oxford, Mary Malone does what Lyra told her (which was told to Lyra by the alethiometer: i.e. by the mysterious consciousness). Mary was told to write a computer program that would make her Shadow-detecting machine turn the readings into words. She tries this out, and types in a question. Instantly, there is an answer. Her interrogation teaches her that the Shadows—Dust—are angels. Angels are structures, or complexifications, of Dust. The Shadows tire of her, and tell her her fate. They tell her to find her way to a specific point, and that she must begin an incredible journey. She will play the serpent. (Whatever that means).

This is all too much for Mary. Everything she's discovered on this Dark Matter project about Shadows has been too much for her: it all wasn't scientific—it was religious, or ethical, or metaphysical—and she wanted to be rid of that; she used to be a nun, and she became a physicist to escape that kind of thing. Now, her mind is blown. But she knows what she must do. She destroys all the equipment and all of her research, gathers up her Chinese divination device (the decoration on her wall), and begins on her journey.

The specific point she had to get to was the roundabout. There, she finds the window to another world. Into it, she enters.

Back with Will, Lyra and the witches, they travel on. Will's hand bleeds furiously. He grows weak. Ruta Skadi returns, and reports that, besides sleeping with Lord Asriel (for they used to be lovers, before Marisa Coulter came along), Asriel's fortress is beyond comprehension, it is so vast, likewise with his army. She also heard a group of cliff-ghasts mention that only 'Ęsahęttr' can defeat God. It is unclear whether Ęsahęttr is a man or a thing. Ęsahęttr in fact refers to the Subtle Knife. Later on, Ruta and Serafina talk whilst Will and Lyra sleep. They both acknowledge that Will is like Lord Asriel: incredibly powerful. Serafina hasn't even dared to look into his eyes. Before sleeping, Will was talking to Lyra's dęmon, Pantalaimon (though Lyra herself was asleep). He confides that he thinks Lyra is the best friend he's ever had. After Will sleeps, we realise that Lyra was awake all along, and her heart is pounding. Once both of them are asleep, late at night, Serafina sees a group of angels floating above them. These angels have made a pilgrimage to see Lyra, she is that important: they had travelled a thousand miles and waited a thousand years to see this one prophesied girl, who would change the fate of the multiverse.

Lee Scoresby and John Parry are together in his balloon, and they are now in Cittągazze. They are travelling to the mountaintop that Will, Lyra and the witches are headed for. They are also being chased by the Magisterium—soldiers of the Church; among other things, Lee's murder of his Magisterial attacker earlier on drew attention to him. They speed ahead.

They are forced to abandon the balloon, and are being closed in on by the guardsmen of the Church. Scoresby agrees to let John Parry go on ahead whilst he stays here to fend them off—this will almost certainly bring about his death, so he forces John Parry to make a pact to protect Lyra. Parry leaves, and Scoresby is killed by the Church.

Back with Will, Lyra and the witches, a witch sees that there are people following behind them. She investigates. It is none other than Mrs Coulter and Lord Boreal. Coulter has found a way of controlling the Spectres: she lets them know that if they do not kill her, she will lead them to an even greater number to feed on; thus, she and Boreal walk freely. The witch makes herself invisible and goes into Boreal and Coulter's tent, where Boreal is being seduced beyond his control. However, Coulter slips him poison as soon as she gets what she wants to know from him: what the Subtle Knife is and does. She then uses a Spectre to capture the invisible witch—which she can in fact see—and Coulter tortures the witch like she did at the beginning. Except this time, there is no one to stop the witch from telling Coulter what she wants to know about her daughter.

The witch tells Mrs Coulter that Lyra's destiny is to become the second Eve. She again will fall from grace, commit a replication of the Original Sin, and will bring unending sin to the world. Coulter realises that Lyra must be destroyed. She also destroys the witch at hand.

It is night. Will cannot sleep. He goes up the mountain. In the impenetrable blackness three other things are happening: his father is also ascending the mountain, a witch who hates his father is flying towards it, and behind them all, Mrs Coulter with an army of Spectres is approaching.

At the top of the mountain, Will fights with the man he encounters, scared in the dark. The man is in fact old and sick, and soon stops moving altogether. He is still alive. He realises he is talking to the Knife-bearer when he feels Will's missing fingers. These he heals.

He tells Will that he must take the Knife to Lord Asriel. It will be the only thing that can destroy God, to end the Authority's reign of oppression. And before he leaves, he lights a lamp so that he can see the face of the Knife-bearer.

Then, for one second, both of them—boy and man—knew they were father and son. A second later, the hateful witch loosed an arrow, it passed through John Parry's heart, and he collapsed dead.

Will grabs the witch and holds the Knife to her neck. She is petrified, and he screams at her. When he lets her go, she kills herself. Will is too shocked to feel anything. He clambers back down the mountain.

When he arrives, he finds that Mrs Coulter has been and gone. The Spectres have killed all the witches, and Lyra has been stolen. There are only three things left there: Lyra's backpack in which the alethiometer is kept, and a pair of angels, who tell him that he must follow them to Lord Asriel.

Will looks from Lyra's backpack to the angels and back again, and does not know what to do.

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