“The Tower of the Angels”
S1: The world’s changing. They’ve all sensed in. The prophecy is clear. Duty is to protect the girl and boy wherever they are. Something happened as well as people are going to be left to cross.
S2: And I’m looking for a girl named Lyra. Welcome to the authority Slate’s His Dark Materials podcast, it’s season two episode for the Tower of the Angels, where Slate’s resident scholars of experimental theology. My name is Laura Miller. I’m a books and culture columnist for Slate. And my demon is a sea otter named Sukie.
S3: And of course, I’m a writer at Slate and my demon as a prairie vole named Gilda.
S4: Well, Dan, this is a jam packed episode. Is it ever? Yeah. We begin with some very Lord of the Rings style voiceover about the subtle knife and its origins. We have Lee Scoresby finding Stanislas Gruman. Mr Curtseying it up. Way up on the yen is the river where he has become a shaman and drops more crucial info about the knife that even more than we got from the from that initial voiceover. We have Wil and Lyra finding a secret entrance to the tower and discovering who it is, who is up there. There’s a big fight scene that leads to a major development for will. We have witches attacking the Magisterium so they can travel through Azriel anomaly. We have Lee and Gruman not too far behind, heading up to the Arctic to go through it themselves and find Azriel. We have Borio putting the moves on Mrs Colter, who is clearly not into it. And last but not least, Mary Malone has a conversation with dust. So there’s a lot to talk about. But in today’s Deep Dive, we’ll be focusing on the guild, the knife and the Spectre’s, how they’re all connected and what those connections mean.
S3: As always, honest the authority. We’re going to do our best to talk about the worlds of Philip Pullman’s books without spoiling the story of the books. So I’ll fill in the blanks. For those of you who haven’t read the books in a while or at all, we’ll discuss things like demons and witches and dust inspectors in great detail. But we won’t give away what’s in store for Lyra or Wil or anyone else. Nevertheless, if you’re a person with a serious allergy to knowing anything ahead of time, some of the stuff we talk about might be considered spoiler adjacent.
S4: And we’re here to answer your questions as well. If you’ve got a burning query about his dark materials or you can’t figure out how to work here aletha ometer, just email us at Ask the Authority, all one word at Slate Dotcom from the mailbag.
S3: This week, we’ve got a question from the very wittily named Elizabeth Seraphina Donelly. She asks, Why does Mrs Coulter’s monkey demon never speak? I have no freakin idea, Laura.
S4: OK, well, this all spins back into my big theory about how this series is handling Mrs Coulter. Although it’s also true that I don’t think the the demon ever speaks in the books either. No, I mean, I think the deal with Mrs Coulter is that she is very profoundly alienated from herself. We have seen scenes where the monkey demon attempts to comfort her and she sort of swats its little paw away like Melania with with with Donald Trump. And, you know, she can separate a great distance from it, which is very weird. And it’s not really clear how she learned to do that, because everybody who knows how to do that seems to be some sort of witch. And she’s not a witch. I mean, I think the relationship between Mrs Coulter and her demon is really remedial. Like sometimes it’s a it’s very aggressive and it it acts out a, you know, violent impulses. Sometimes she just kind of abandons it. And so in in the. The second trilogy that Philip Pullman has written in this world, it’s not complete yet. The Book of Dust, there is a character who mistreats his demon, and this is seen as as just very taboo and kind of horrifying in Lyras world. And I think the fact that the demon doesn’t speak, that it doesn’t have a name really suggests the degree to which Mrs. Coulter is a really hates herself, just to put it succinctly, which is what makes it meaningful in the last episode when when the monkey does try to take her hand at that moment of high drama for her after her conversation with Lisa Scoresby.
S3: And she allows it to. Yes. And and her relationship with her demon isn’t quite like Hugh Bonneville in the first book of the Book of Dust, where Hugh Bonneville, like, beats his demon in a way that’s deeply disturbing. Yeah, it’s more that it seems less like self-hate. And as you say, like self alienation, if that’s what we’re tying the lack of the monkeys speech to. But I don’t know that I’m 100 percent convinced only because there have to be other people in this world who, you know, are alienated from themselves. And, you know, we know from further reading in the trilogy that there are people who don’t get along with their demons as a way of demonstrating that they are not feeling good about themselves at that moment. But that doesn’t mean that they’re demons don’t speak. It means that they bicker and argue and those demons all the time. And so I feel like there still must be something more about Mrs. Coulter in this mysterious unnamed monkey demon that that we still don’t know what. I bet it has something to do with that demon’s ability to move further away from her, as you say. But I don’t know if it’s as simple as just alienation. You could be right down. Well, we’ll probably never know. But if you have a profile, Philippon and again, demand an answer. We also got a great email from an actual archaeologist of the upper Paleolithic telling us a little bit more about where Pullmans links between ancient human history and dust come from. I’m going to read a little bit this email. It was so interesting. It’s from a listener named Krista Darcel. She writes, Pohlman definitely read five books about Paleolithic archaeology and decided to work it into his books. Dan points out that the book hints that there was a big dust explosion in humans between 30 and 40000 years ago. This is not an accident on Parliament’s part. At the time Pohlman wrote the series, European and American archaeologists generally agreed that there was some sort of behavioral revolution that took place around this time. The idea was that although humans were anatomically modern by roughly 200000 years ago, they were not behaviourally modern. European and American archaeologists studying Paleolithic archaeology at the time believed there was a sudden explosion in art complex, toolmaking, symbolic thought and generally complex behavior. The way I’ve always read it, as the Pulman was attributing our complex behavior as a species to dust and explicitly linking the timing of the arrival of dust to how archaeologists actually saw the beginnings of complex behavior in the archaeological record. Unfortunately for Pulman, she continues, this idea about a split between anatomical and behavioral modernity was totally wrong and was rooted and unintentionally racist. Archaeology turns out that all those complex behaviors were slowly developing over time in Africa, ever since our species became anatomically modern. It’s just that nobody bothered to look for them. In Africa, researchers saw early, anatomically modern humans reach Europe, and it looked like there was an explosion of complex behavior. That, of course, only emerged once people were Europeans. For Pulman, however, this would have been the prevailing thought at the time. So I can’t fault him and I still take pleasure in knowing he tried to ground his books and real scientific hypotheses. I love this. I love this email. I love this information. Thank you. Krista Pohlman has a real chance on this new trilogy that you mentioned, Laura, to update some of his world’s assumptions and assertions about the eurocentrism of culture in Lyras world, much as it was for many centuries in the view of Europeans in our world, he’s definitely expanded the story beyond Europe. This most recent volume takes us into the Middle East, although it’s still awfully Eurocentric in its perspective. And so I hereby challenge Philip Pullman to write another little standalone novella, sort of like Once Upon a Time in the West. Except this one is about Mary Malone coming to understand the racism underlying her dark matter studies. I would read it in a second.
S4: It sounds fantastic. I hope that happens. All right. Well, let’s move along to the episode discussion. So we start with this voiceover and voiceover in movies based on books tends to be a giveaway that a whole lot of unwieldy backstory and exposition has to be delivered before we can go. With the plot and in this case, I believe the person narrating is Ruta Gedmin, artists who play Sarafina Pecola but who could almost have kept her original name. So Ritchey doesn’t sound, although in fact, the witches are not familiar with the world of Chita Garza in the books, and she wouldn’t have been in the position to explain the origins of the subtle knife. So she’s sort of turning into this sort of oracular figure that it’s not actually that true to the nature of witches. Diane, what do you think about this decision to open the episode this way?
S3: I could not stop laughing at how one ringy this stupid voiceover was. They chose poorly the very first episode of the series in season one had a little like Seraphina voiced intro to about layer on the prophecy. And that was the moment previously in the series where I most was like, Oh shit, are they just going to make all the same mistakes the movie did? The movie also opens with a voiceover from the actor who played Sarafina Pecola like giving telling us one ringy exposition. This was like above and beyond. You know, I’m sure it is useful to the people who have no experience with the story should such people be watching the series at this point. But like, it just smacks so much of of everyone involved in the series just throwing up their hands and being like, fuck it, I can’t figure out any way other way to do this. Let’s do some voiceover.
S4: Yeah, it’s never really a good sign unless you’re in some kind of film noir. I also feel like the origins of the knife get explained reasonably well in the course of this episode, and it seems really unnecessary to me.
S3: Terence Stamp basically delivers most of that information. Then, you know, Stanislaw Gruman delivers the rest.
S4: Yeah, it seems totally unnecessary, but maybe they thought it was just really confusing and abstract. Well, who knows? Something else worth noting in this info dump is that whatever damage the guild has done to cheat to Gaza has been multiplied by the rift that Azriel opened up in the Arctic, this gateway that apparently leads not just from one world to another, but to multiple worlds. And each of those worlds has that we know about has suffered as a result. There’s been apparently a rise in the spectre population and she Gaza and atmospheric disruptions in the Lyras world. This fog that everyone keeps talking about, it’s not stated. But there is also kind of an implication that climate change in our world might perhaps be another effect. Well, OK. So obviously climate change is real and not caused by a fictional Byronic rubble’s grandiose experiment. But but this is an indication that while Pulman obviously admires the spirit of free inquiry and scientists like Murray Malone, he also is part of the tradition that sees the dangerous hubris in scientists or technocrats or whoever who disregard the repercussions of their work, especially the repercussions to the natural world.
S5: Right. Well, what has learned, Azrael left out like a like a beyond Oppenheimer type guy who will do anything to accomplish his experimental needs, damn the repercussions for whatever might happen to innocents caught in the slipstream.
S4: Yes. Then his crazy Dr. Frankenstein lab. And Frankenstein is the ultimate archetype of this sort of figure.
S5: We’ve also in this episode got Leave-taking, a motorboat up the NSA river through clouds of mosquitoes in search of Stanislaw Scarman. Gruman is a white guy who’s taken on the appearance of a native shaman, which is one of those things about the books that feels like just a tiny bit comical in 2020. Although lovely Andrew Scott does his best with a spray on tan and a little topknot. He’s wearing this like patterned denim with, like native images on it. I don’t know, man.
S4: He was actually in the book. He’s actually living in a village of the Tatas.
S5: Right. And like they view him with both fear and respect because he can change the weather for them.
S4: So basically, he’s the male equivalent of a witch. He’s got this cool Osprey demon named Sergeant Carter who can travel far away from him, who goes to fetch leave from the river. And, you know, he has powers he can’t fly, but he has powers similar to a witch’s powers.
S5: Right. He can control the weather with some sort of great effort. He’s he calls Lee to him with this ring, say Kottoor can travel far and wide and functions independently of him in a way that which is demons do. It’s very fitting that the hot priest’s demon is voiced by flyback herself. Phoebe Walbridge, I hope she gets more like this. Is it sexual tension between him and his demon throughout this this series? So after Stanislas Gramin or as he calls himself. Joe Perry did his whole speech to Lee Scoresby about how he left his wife and son, and he was so sad about this, my 13 year old who’s watching with me, the one who’s not named Lyra, who hasn’t read the books, went, oh, he’s Will’s father. So I think that this very poorly hidden cat is now fully out of the bag for most viewers. Yes, Joe Perry is John Perry. Will’s dad lost in this world after he found a window on his Arctic voyage in Will’s Oxford, Oxford. In the books he roams Lyras World for, I think like a decade. He presents his discoveries about the magnetic poles to the German Academy and becomes a scholar. He visits Oxford. He meets Lord Azriel. He’s the one who tells him about the windows between worlds. He gets tripped and he gets a hole drilled in his skull, just like the usual stuff you do when you visit a new place.
S4: Yeah, Dan, here is something that has always somewhat puzzled me. How did Gruman or John Perry get Lee’s mother’s ring all the way from Texas?
S5: That is, it’s totally unexplained in the books. It’s pure magic. It’s pure. There is this thing that Lee has not thought about for decades, but he instantly recognizes it as the ring that his mother always wore, supposedly Navajo in design. And he is very disturbed by this as he is in the series by this notion that this item from his past has has been called summoned the way he was summoned to John Perry. But it’s only explained by Magic Joe Perry is a shaman. He can do all kinds of stuff when he really sets his mind to it. He tells Lee that he wants to find the subtle knife and its bearer, the person who is who has been granted the ability to wield it. And he wants to take both of those things, the bear and the knife to Azriel Lee, who thinks ADM is kind of an asshole, is not so keen on this idea. John Perry agrees that ADM is a little bit of an asshole, but still thinks it’s a great idea because here is where Joe Perry explains one of the big themes of his Dark Materials trilogy. Let’s listen to this clip.
S6: Mr. Scoresby, there are two forces that have always been at war with each other. Those who repress, who command, who don’t want us to be conscious, inquiring beings and those who want us to know more, to be stronger and wider, to explore. And those two forces are lining up to battle as we speak. And if the right side has any chance of success, Israel will need a knife. That may well be. But I come here for one reason. That’s a girl named Lyra.
S4: Meanwhile, back in Will’s Oxford, Lord Borrell is slinking around Mary Malone’s lab, dangling last minute funding for their research and offending Mary by admiring her work ethic for a woman, for a woman. Now, Dan, we often speculate about Borel’s end game. And I have to admit, I’d always just assumed he was genuinely trying to take over Mary’s lab and capitalize on that research and get whatever he could out of it. But as I watched that scene with that clueless remark and then the reference to defense funding, which seemed completely gratuitous, you know, it’s actually hard to see how he’d even be able to get defense funding because, again, he’s this guy who has no history. It’s a very perplexing how Lord Borrell has attained the powers in our world that he has given, that they’re all part of the the sort of secret intelligence world. And he is a man without a past because he did not grow up in in our universe. So that made me wonder if maybe what he’s doing in this scene is just deliberately messing with Mary, like trying to get her to quit or drive her out of the lab for some reason because she’s worried that she’s getting too close, not because he wants to find out where the research is going.
S5: Well, and he does have an in with her colleague. Right. Who has leapt at the chance of of the shadowy money because he knows they’re about to get shut down. My guess what? He doesn’t know anything. That’s not the guy socketed just right. But I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think that Borrell knows that necessarily. I don’t know that he knows who has made any connection to dust. In fact, it’s never quite clear to me how he figured out exactly what their research was about. Really.
S4: I think Lyra told him, didn’t she?
S5: I guess I guess she confirmed it. Yeah, that’s right. I if it seems hard for me to believe that he would think anyone in this world would be able to connect the dots. And so I if I were Lord Borrell, I would be much more interested in finding Lyra than I would be in taking over that lab. But, you know, all these sort of inconsistencies in the presentation of this character in the TV show seem to me to point more into the problem that you run into when you have a character in a book who’s. Basically, like a functional sketch, like a plot moving character, someone who makes things happen so your main characters can respond, who’s drawn, if anything, is like a little bit of a doofus here in the show, you have the happy accident of him, of having cast an actor who is incredibly smooth and commandeering and menacing as hell. And so what do you do with this guy who is like actually kind of a poor fit for the dummy who you’ve cast him as? You don’t seem to know exactly what to do with him or what his game should be. I mean, I don’t know that I think that he could probably pull something like defense funding, whether it’s his own, you know, not insubstantial money or some connection with the same military intelligence organization that gave him the pale faced man to order around. But it seems equally possible to me that really his only game is to just get married Melun out of there so he can do whatever he wants on that lab at his leisure. Maybe one day bring Lyra back to it when when he and his ever so clever brain believes he will double cross Mrs. Coulter, who knows. But yes, it’s not 100 percent clear to me. It’s even less clear to me now what this guy’s game is than it was before. Other than that, he just likes to walk into places and glower. He’s really good at that well.
S4: And collect stuff and collect stuff. I mean, there are there are some cracks in the facade in this episode. You got to admit we’ll discuss them soon. Yes. All right. Anyway, the big action, this week’s episode is Will in Lyras expedition to the story. They jungly the Tower of the Angels. The tower was the headquarters of the Guild of the Tower of the Angels. And this week we’re going to take a closer look at that organization and the role it plays in this story. All right. So the guild is a brotherhood of some kind that was responsible for creating the subtle knife, although Pullman has never quite explained how they did it or exactly when that happened. But will in Lyra meet an old man played by the great British actor Terence Stamp? Always a delight to see him. Oh, yeah. He’s playing a character named Giacomo Paradies, who is tied up in the tower. That’s because there’s another person in the tower, not one person, but to a young man from the city, Tullio, who has taken the knife from Jacomo and he is using it to fight off the Spectre’s.
S5: Tullio is the brother of Paolo and Angelica, where the two girls that Lyra and well met, and she took the ones who have British accents, even though they’re obviously Italian. And we are led to understand that when Tullio came of an age that Spectre’s got interested in him, he, as a way of self-preservation, stole the knife from Giacomo Parodic as a way of keeping them at bay because the knife scares away. Spectre’s will Tullio have a big fight? Will gets digitally reduced here. Two of his fingers are sliced off, but he wins the knife and Tullio runs away.
S4: And this knife has remarkable powers. I mean, we see it slicing right through some metal angel decoration, but that’s only the least of it.
S7: As Giacomo tells Will in this clip, there are two sides to the subtle knife. This edge will cut through any material in the world, it will even ward off and kill Spectre’s before it looks like the one about Vanga like the blade to try to cut me apart. The other edge is more subtle. Still with it, you can cut an opening out of this world altogether.
S4: It does seem like the knife has been around for a while. Like the Aletha ometer. It’s a tool that seems to have a mind of its own. It indicates who should be the next bearer. By slicing off their fingers, Jacomo shows Will that he lost the same fingers. That will do. That’s the sign of the bear. And according to the books. Way back when it was actually Joe Perry who healed of those wounds, Giacomo’s wounds. Somehow there’s also a tradition around who becomes its bear and the rules that Bear is supposed to observe. So, you know, it’s been around for a while.
S3: And those rules were like the knife created by this guild, the guild headquarters being here and shipped to Gaza seems to me to have to do with the chittick as a world status, as a gateway world, as we discussed last episode, a link between lots of different universes. Right. All roads lead through to to Gaza. We even see Lord Borrell and Mrs Coulter skulking around as they’re trying to get from their Oxford to Wales, Oxford. But it’s never quite clear to me what the Guild of Philosophers is was meant to be doing other than hosting the bearer. Right. The bear seems to often come from their ranks, but in the before times, before all the spectre showed up, what was their job? Did they just sit up there eating good bread and philosophising? Do you have any idea?
S4: Well, I, I suspect that they are philosophers in a really sort of premodern sense of philosophy. Just like in Lyra’s world, people who are effectively scientists are called experimental theologians. Right before we had what we call scientists, before the scientific revolution and even during the scientific revolution, people who did science were called natural philosophers. And that was what Galileo was. That was what Aristotle was. Aristotle was both someone who had ideas about dramatic structure and the nature of existence, but also made a lot of observations of the natural world. And I’m assuming that the gills of the Tower of the Angels were philosophers in that old sense. I mean, they made this knife, which clearly is an extremely advanced artefact and must be the result of a lot of study and experimentation or divine intervention possibly.
S5: Yes, because it’s not like they then use that technology of thousands of years ago to make a bunch of other amazing stuff.
S4: Well, that is an excellent point.
S5: Yes, it seems to me like what they mostly spent their time doing, whatever their actual goal was, they didn’t use their tower to, like, drop watermelons off it and do experiments in gravity. They instead used the knife to break the rules. One of those rules is to not use the knife or base purposes, not for your own gain, but it seems like the guild ended up doing just that. They chose poorly. They made a fortune by cutting their way into and out of other worlds in order to steal valuable objects and make themselves rich. That’s why to Gaza is the city of the magpie’s. Those are birds that are famous for stealing stuff. And so the guild seems analogous in some ways to me in this world to the role that the Magisterium plays in Lyras world. It doesn’t seem like the guild rules over the people of Gaza as much prominence as the tower has in its geography. But it does seem like it was an institution formed at one time with benevolent goals, but which, due to human weakness, eventually becomes a force of evil, a force for malevolence. And so I think of these two institutions and I compare them to the other major institution in these books, the historic materials, books, the colleges, Jordan College and St Peter’s College, which despite budget problems and Mary Malone’s version and infighting between Cadie scholars and Lyras version, it remains mostly a force for good in this world. So I’m curious for Philip Pullman, what do you think separates an institution on the side of right on the side of free will as as Joe Perry lays it out with an institution on the side of wrong and institution on the side of of autocracy?
S4: It doesn’t seem to me like the Magisterium was necessarily ever that benevolent. I think Pulman tends to see organized religion as a bid to gain power over people, to use people’s quest for meaning or understanding as a way to control them. But, you know, I could be wrong. There could be at some point, you know, the Magisterium was this sort of I don’t know, Charles. Irritable or communal organization that mostly helped and supported people, now it mostly right.
S5: Was there some early magisterium founded by St. Paul and his deben on the road to Damascus?
S4: Yeah, exactly. We don’t know that much about the creed of the Magisterium. So, you know, it’s hard to say. It’s not like they ever talk about Jesus or anything along those lines.
S8: But I do think that the guild is a little different in that where the Guild went wrong was that it was careless and selfish, not necessarily that it had this lust for power. So I think there’s a hierarchy of, I guess you could say, wrongness and the ultimate wrongness is the desire to control people and restrict what they what they know, what they can learn, what they can do, what they can think. And that below that still not good, but not necessarily as bad. It’s just the just the greed that the guild succumbed to. I mean, obviously, there was a kind of great spirit of inquiry that enabled them to to create this amazing object in the social life and probably other things as well. I mean, the tower has this sort of association with Galileo, even though it’s really just an association. It’s not, you know, an explicit one. But, you know, Galileo and his experiment dropping things from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I mean, the tower does suggest a sort of looking upwards and outwards and wanting to learn things, but instead of kind of embracing that for its own sake, which I think is what we see with Mary Malone, you know, she’s just curious and she wants to know what the universe is made of. The guild sort of degraded that by just using it to get rich.
S4: So I think, you know, the characters who Pulman admires are actually people who have a moral code that they stick to, people who do not try to control or repress other people and what they think and say and believe and also people who have. I think it could be almost anything, something they care about that is not purely selfish, whether it’s the natural world and on the part of the witches or community in the part of the Egyptians, you know, these are all good people in Lyras world who have values that are not power and greed.
S5: Another difference, I guess, between the Magisterium and the Guild is that the guild has not become so corrupt that it cannot produce individual men of honor. Right. Jacomo Parodic, the current bearer for all the ills that previous bearers have done with the knife, he seems to have his head screwed on. Right. He’s very careful about how he gives the knife to will. He teaches him as best as he can, the rules and urges him to follow them. And we get the sense that that he has been trying to all these years. I mean, maybe that sense is based only on the fact that he’s played by Terrence Stamp, who just seems like an upstanding dude. But we do get the sense that unlike unlike the Magisterium, which is corrupt from the bottom to the top, no one involved in the Magisterium seems to have a clean sheet. And as as these Causby says last episode, there’s no there’s nothing they haven’t touched and made gross here. There’s at least this one guy.
S4: Maybe there were others in this institution who were not sullied by the things that their compatriots were doing, or he seems like somebody who might have been led astray, but who now has understands the error of his ways because he does say, I think you’ll you’ll be a better bearer than I will.
S5: Yes, that’s true. He does say that. So, yeah, maybe he he made some mistakes in his day, but he is hoping that they might be corrected by this young, upstanding man who definitely seems like the guy to do it. What are the instructions he gives them is that he needs to close up the windows after he cuts them. Presumably the guild has not been doing this up till now, since there’s freakin windows all over the place in these novels and the series that previous bearers have just carelessly left open. But Will seems like a guy, you know, the guy who pays for his food even in an abandoned cafe or who sweeps up in the abandoned in that they’re staying in. He seems like a guy who is definitely going to clean up after himself and close all those windows.
S4: Yeah, he really does. And it’s very important that those windows be closed because there are other ramifications to making those cuts and leaving them open as as time goes by that we will learn about later in the story.
S5: So we know that the city is now filled with Spectre’s related to this big rat wrench in the world that Florida Azrael has created with his reffed. And the Spectre’s are now flooding the city and Tullio gets the worst of it once. Well, takes the knife. He’s running through the streets trying to find his sisters, he gets pounced on by a specter and devoured like a hyena leaping on him so long. Tullio Jack Thorn said on Twitter that Tiller was supposed to get a whole arc this season, including a big role in the stand alone episode that was never filmed, the one that was supposed to feature Lord Azriel that got canceled because covid made it too hard to shoot. Instead, all we get is this fight with well, and then this moment of you getting eaten by the Spectre and the book, it’s way worse. It happens in front of his sisters who are like trying to drag him away and like swinging wildly in the air at the Spectre’s they can’t see even as it eats him from inside. And it’s excruciating and it’s very, very slow. The way the Spectre’s consume people in the books is very different from this sort of like beast leaping upon you in the series. There’s a passage in the in the book The Subtle Life that describes exactly how a witch feels when she’s being attacked by a spectre.
S3: And it is some grim shit. I’m going to read it to you on page three 14. The witch is named Lina Felt.
S5: She felt a nausea of the soul, a hideous and sickening despair, a melancholy weariness so profound that she was going to die of it. Her last conscious thought was disgust at life. Her senses had lied to her. The world was not made of energy and delight, but a foulness, betrayal and lassitude. Living was hateful and death was no better. And from end to end of the universe, this was the first and last and only truth. There she stood, boin hand, indifferent, dead in life.
S4: Yeah, well, now Pulman has said that he created the Spectre’s as a metaphor for mental illnesses like depression or mood disorders. Spectre’s don’t exist in Will’s world, but in the novel he does make a connection between what the creatures do to their victims and the devastation caused by his own mother’s mental illness. Dan, you’ve pointed out that the Spectre’s in this series look a lot like the mentors in the Harry Potter series, and the similarity doesn’t end there. The mentors, as their name suggests, has a similar effect on their victims.
S5: Yeah, they leach away everything good in your life. They do it through taking away your good memories. They leave you only with the bad shit. They may leave you a shell of yourself only with the bad things left in your brain.
S4: Yeah, it’s interesting that children’s fantasy literature deals with this issue surprisingly often. If you once you become alert to it, sometimes it uses metaphorical monsters like Spectre’s and Domantas. But I was just listening to an audio book of The Phantom Tollbooth, narrated by Rainn Wilson, highly recommended. And I was startled by the mood of the hero of that book, Milo, at the beginning of the story as reading it as a child, I just thought, oh, he’s bored the way I was so often bored when I was a kid. But the author, Norton Juster, is more a lot more specific than that. He he writes, quote, Wherever he was, he wished he were somewhere else. And when he got there, he wondered why he bothered. Nothing really interested him, least of all the things that should have. And that seems to me like a really straightforward description of a depressed state. And if you consider that, you know, if you take that into consideration, you can see that the rest of The Phantom Tollbooth is really Milo’s metaphorical journey back to appreciating life and the world and and the the energy and delight that that poor which lost, you know, he regains that in the course of that that book.
S5: Children’s authors are really great at finding ways to help kids access the kinds of emotional states that is sometimes hard to get adults to talk about. And depression is one of those. Right. And I think all these books are pretty valuable. It just in that one particular way, the specters are also really important because they are another piece and the puzzle of dust. We know that Spectre’s like dust are more attracted to adults than they are to children. We know that to use the subtle knife, the bearer has to enter a kind of meditative state, very much like the state that Lyra enters when she uses the Aletha ometer to communicate with just the state that Mary Malone is trying to put herself in as she’s sitting in front of her computer. We know from this episode that the Spectre’s are repelled by the knife tullio Jacomo use the knife to keep Spectre’s away. Lyra mentions that the the super sharp side, the side that you use to cut through things on Earth looks like it’s made of the same metal that she saw in the blade of the device that separated kids from their demons of anger. And all of this information will contribute to the characters starting to figure out what dust truly is. And we also get to see in this episode for the very first time, will figuring out how to cut windows in reality with the subtle knife. Now, this for me, this is the effect I’ve imagined forever. Like I was interested in demons. But given that there was never a movie of the subtle knife, this was the thing I always wanted to see. When I thought about if there was going to be a film of these stories, I wanted to see that knife cut through the air. And I will say that this series is very good on this, that they take great care in showing the whole process. They’re like these little strings, like the strings of a harp in the air and Will chooses between them until he finds the right one representing the right world. Then there’s this effort that it takes to slide the knife between worlds and the window sort of flops open as if the matter of the universe has become a little bit soft and floppy. It’s really lovely how the effect is done. It’s my favorite effect on the series so far.
S4: It is great and it’s sort of a piece with the way that dust is represented as these sort of golden lines, both in the I think the credit sequence, but also when it’s talking to Mary Malone, right?
S5: Yes. Yes. There’s a real affinity between the way the dust seems to line up in these rows and columns. And the lines of the world’s that will is trying to cut and all those lines that converge at the end of the the opening credits of the series.
S4: OK, so let’s get back to the rest of the episode. Although before we go, there’s another small detail that I’ve always loved from the scene, which is when Pan Comforts will over has the pain from his fingers by touching him. Now, as all of us know by now, even those of us who haven’t read the book but faithful listeners to the authority know this is a taboo in Lyras world. But pAnd does it, as he says in the novel, because Wil doesn’t have a demon of his own to comfort him, not to get all psychological again. But the idea of the ability to self comfort is an important one in child development, something Philip Pullman as a schoolteacher would be familiar with, and that the fact that Pann just sort of spontaneously tries to give this to well, it’s a little moment that just shows us how close Lyra and Wil are becoming.
S5: And I love it as a kind of an interesting way to think about consent in this world, because what’s taboo is someone trying to touch your demon. Right. But that doesn’t it’s not the same as your demon who is part of you making the choice to touch someone else. Yeah. And Lyra, though she’s shocked by what Panh does, seems to accept it and to feel a little bit closer to Will at that moment because a part of her has chosen to reach out to him in this way. I think that’s really quite lovely. We see the witches wreak havoc on some magisterium airships just switching their way and stabbing everyone and blowing them up than they had or straight through Avril’s anomaly there. In search of Lyra, we see Lee Scoresby and Jo Parry cut a deal. Lee will take Will’s dad in search of the knife bearer will. If Joe Perry promises that Lyra will come under the protection of the knife, how he can promise that, I don’t know. But the good news for him is that had already happened, basically. And then there’s this dinner scene between Mrs Coulter and Lord Borrell. Mrs Coulter, who apparently has the Concord of Zeppelins, has gotten back from Russia, Muscovy in like a day in serious time and is already back in London where Lord Borio meets her. After sending her that telegram saying, I found her, I found Lyra and Lord Borrell persuades Mrs Coulter to go to Will’s Oxford with him by telling her that they can capture Lyra there. Laura, what did you think of the scene with Borrell kind of trying to hold Mrs Coulter’s hand?
S4: Yeah, well, this is the first time we get an inkling of at least some of what Borrell is after. And it’s Morissa Coulter. I mean, yes, she is brilliant and beautiful, but she also seems like way more of a handful than a control freak like this guy would want to take on.
S5: She would have real ideas about how to decorate his library, for example.
S4: Yeah. And it’s fairly obvious that she I mean, she’s giving him very little encouragement. She gives the most for her kind of transparently insincere smile. And he just seems to buy it. And he’s coming across as foolish in a way that seems like a big departure for this character who is so smooth. And now he’s played by kind of a sexy actor. And, you know, he just seems like he should be a little bit more astute about what her response. But she was a la femme Lord Burrill.
S5: The scene also contained some great commentary from the same thirteen year old who finally figured it out about Will’s dad when just like in the middle of it, she was like, why are they taking so long to say their lines so well that they will attempt at a charge sexual atmosphere? I think despite the best efforts of Lord Borrell Snake.
S4: Yeah, it’s a it is a Lyra esque remark. I mean, there’s this idea that certain things go over the head of children that adults instantly understand. That comes up a lot in the books. Right.
S5: This episode also includes Mary Malone’s first conversation with dust using the medium of her her computer at the cave. Let’s listen to what dust has to say for itself.
S9: From the spirit, from what we do know that matter and spirit online. You’ve always been that. Making kite, so does that mean angels have intervened in human evolution? Yes, boy.
S4: OK, I got to confess that the first time I read the trilogy, I found this scene when Mary Malone finally makes direct contact with Dust to be the most thrilling moment in all of the books, even more thrilling than the realization that, you know, the Libres universe in our universe, we’re going to be connected. I think that part of this was it was this was back in the 1990s when the books first came out and when computers were still mysterious enough to seem like they might be able to just unlock the secrets of the universe from your desktop. But I mean, wow, she literally is unlocking the secrets of the universe. And and then when Mary asks, Dust are the angels, why they intervened in human evolution, a really interesting question. The answer is vengeance. And that has got to be the greatest cliffhanger ever.
S5: I also really love this scene. I really love Mary Malone and the book. It’s not an ethereal voice coming out of speakers. Her computer in the book doesn’t, I guess, doesn’t have speakers or the the dust chooses to communicate with her through words, appearing on a screen in a way that is almost a sort of war games with Matthew Broderick typing and the computer responding. But I found that for whatever reason, even more spookier and more astonishing, just these words produced by dust as fed through the processes of the computer into Mary Malone’s eyes. I do like the voice that they use, which seems both male and female, about also something in between. It’s sort of a chorus of voices. The multitudes of dust seems like if you’ve gone to all the trouble of generating this voice, this is the voice you should have to be delivering pretentious voiceovers at the beginning of episodes, not Sarafina Pecola, but never good.
S4: Excellent point. I agree with you. There was something more thrilling about the idea that there’s just this woman in probably some sort of fluorescent lit lab late at night with maybe like, you know, a dirty take out coffee cups on her desk and a pile of papers. But then inside this machine, she’s talking to this incredible, mind blowing, almost incomprehensible entity or entities. I mean, is there any more potent sort of depiction of what scientific discovery is like?
S2: You know, it often happens in these really banal surroundings. And then suddenly there’s this one person in the world who knows something that nobody else knows.
S5: It is true that scientific discovery would be a lot easier if your computer just told you the thing. Very true.
S2: So this has definitely been the most exciting episode of the season so far for me. But join us next week when we discuss the potentially even more exciting Episode five, The Skoller. Join us then. And in the meantime, talk to us on Twitter.
S5: I’m at Magician’s Book and Dan is at Dan Quoits or email us a question or a comment or your expertise and Paleolithic archaeology at Ask the Authority at Slate Dotcom.
S2: Our producer is Phil Cercas, Slate’s editorial director for audio is Gabriel Roth. I’m Laura Miller. I’m Dan. And remember, without stories, we wouldn’t be human beings at all.