Spoiler Alert! The following article discusses the His Dark Materials television series up to Season 2 Episode 7 “Æsahættr” and it spoils all the events of The Subtle Knife as well as events in The Amber Spyglass. Proceed with caution! In this His Dark Materials book comparison, we’ll be looking at The Subtle Knife (TSK) Chapter 13 “Æsahættr”, Chapter 14 “Alamo Gulch”, and Chapter 15 “Bloodmoss”. The main deviations from the story this week center around Will and John Parry’s final meeting, Lee Scoresby’s final stand, and Asriel’s storyline during the events of TSK. We’ll also touch a little on Lord Boreal since I actually forgot to mention this last week! But, here we are, my friends. Here we are at the end of The Subtle Knife! Strap in, people, we’ve got a lot of quotes and a lot of story to cover.
• There’s an interesting bit of discourse between Lyra and Pan early on in Chapter 13 where she talks about Will’s father. At this point, no one knows who he is or about his importance. But Lyra correctly deduces that he is undoubtedly someone as important as her own father. “Who d’you think Will’s father is, though? And why’s he important?” Later she says, “He’s bound to be someone important, almost as important as Lord Asriel. Bound to be. We know what we’re doing is important, after all,” (The Subtle Knife, “Æsahættr” Page 230). I just think this is a good little quote to talk about the subject of destiny and fate. With so many characters battling for free will, it’s ironic that all these characters are so closely tied together by their destinies and prophecy.
• Pantalaimon’s conversation with Will is essentially plucked right from the book and it’s a delight to see it on screen. It’s just one of those scenes that sets the stage for Lyra and Will’s relationship for the future. I liked getting a bit more insight into Lyra’s mind in the book. “Lyra lay unmoving, but her eyes were wide open in the dark, and her heart was beating hard,” (The Subtle Knife, “Æsahættr” Page 237). This is right before Lyra talks about feeling like she’s changing. Later on, Lyra thinks that she’s become more attuned to Will’s feelings, having developed focus when it comes to Will in particular. “Everything about him was clear and close and immediate,” she thinks (The Subtle Knife, “Bloodmoss” Page 273). Book readers will know these are all small steps toward their inevitable final story arc in The Amber Spyglass. It’s just been nice seeing these little moments pop up after doing a closer read.
• Ruta Skadi’s return comes after spending almost 7 chapters away from her. In Chapter 6 “Lighted Fliers,” Ruta talks directly to angels. There is a whole scene where they fly with her and boost her flight so that she can travel through worlds like they do. They are able to travel through thin spots in the world without cutting into the fabric of the worlds. With Ruta’s return, she describes Asriel’s fortress that is on another world. I’m not going to type out the whole thing here, but it’s quite a spectacle. She sees all different kinds of people, not just humans, but lizards and apes and great birds with spears. Asriel’s army is massive and he is at the center of it all. Of course, sometimes when Book Ruta Skadi goes on about Asriel, it has a strong tone of thirst. Sorry guys, Book Ruta Skadi is VERY thirsty for Asriel. She sneaks into his bedroom at this point and presumably has sex with him, and then in the morning Asriel basically tells her “Yeah, sure, witches can join my army.” One would wonder why he didn’t think to recruit them earlier on, and this gesture feels more like throwing a dog a bone.
• After this encounter, we see Ruta caught on a cliffside with the ghasts and this is the scene we see in the “Æsahættr” episode. Except the cliff ghasts follow her into the Cittagazze world and one even falls from the sky. Will manages to kill one of them with his Subtle Knife.
• Despite me eye rolling every time Ruta Skadi appears in the books (there’s a whole moment where she marvels at how powerful her child would be if she was fathered by Asriel also a moment where she thinks the witches are actually Æsahættr, it’s a lot), her scenes are often the most cinematic. I wish we’d gotten to see more of it. I suspect we might have gotten the scene of her flying with the angels and arriving at Asriel’s fortress. Perhaps even gotten to see some really weird creatures join his fight?
• At night, Ruta and Serafina spot over a dozen angels just watching Lyra and Will as they sleep, and Serafina recognizes the gathering as a pilgrimage. “She understood why these beings would wait for thousands of years and travel vast distances in order to be close to something important, and how they would feel differently for the rest of time, having been briefly in its presence. That was how these creatures looked now, these beautiful pilgrims of rarified light, standing around the girl with the dirty face and tartan skirt and the boy with the wounded hand who was frowning in his sleep,” (The Subtle Knife, “Æsahættr” Page 245). Again, another scene I would have loved to see. I sense that they are holding back on angels for Season 3, but they actually play a much larger part in TSK and they’re quite crucial to the war against the Authority. Although granted, watching some kids sleep is probably too creepy, pilgrimage or not.
• One of Lee’s main character revelations is his adherence to his morals and also his struggle between morality versus the reality of survival. They touch on this in the episode, and I actually think it’s enough, but this is actually a theme that pops up a lot in Will’s story as well. After watching John Parry take down three zeppelins, Lee thinks about whether or not he has ‘discharged his duty’ with John Parry. When Hester questions him, he says, “It ain’t a contractual thing. It’s a moral thing.” But then Hester parries back, “We’ve got one more zeppelin to think about before you start fretting about morals, Lee. There’s thirty, forty men with guns all coming for us. Imperial soldiers, what’s more. Survival first, morals later,” (The Subtle Knife, “Alamo Gulch” Page 261). This comes up again, when Lee fighting the soldiers on his own. “‘I don’t like taking lives, Hester.’ ‘Ours or theirs.’ ‘No, it’s more than that,’ he said. ‘It’s theirs or Lyra’s. I can’t see how, but we’re connected to that child, and I’m glad of it,'” (The Subtle Knife, “Alamo Gulch” Page 266). His conversations with Hester reveal that he is perfectly aware of what the reality of the situation is, but he also knows the moral implications. He isn’t the type to shoot someone in the back, but if it’s to protect Lyra? If it’s to protect someone he loves? He’ll do what he needs to do.
• “Alamo Gulch” is truly one of the most emotional chapters of the book, and while I loved seeing it come to life on television, it really can’t match up to the sheer drama of the version in TSK. With the forest on fire, a storm racing, napalm raining from the skies, this isn’t just about survival. The Magisterium intends to capture Lee and John, and Lee manages not only to kill the majority of the soldiers, but he kills them all. Here are some traumatically depressing lines from Lee’s final stand that are sure to leave you misty-eyed. Honestly, read this entire book, but if you can’t get your hands on it right now, read these lines.
- “I love that little child like a daughter. If I’d had a child of my own, I couldn’t love her more. And if you break that oath, whatever remains of me will pursue whatever remains of you, and you’ll spend the rest of eternity wishing you never existed. That’s how important that oath is,” (The Subtle Knife, “Alamo Gulch” Page 265). AN OATH THAT JOHN PARRY IMMEDIATELY BREAKS!
“‘Hester, don’t you go before I do,’ Lee whispered. ‘Lee, I couldn’t abide to be anywhere away from you for a single second,’ she whispered back,” (The Subtle Knife, “Alamo Gulch” Page 269).
“Another crack, and this time the bullet went deep somewhere inside, seeking out the center of his life. He thought: It won’t find it there. Hester’s my center,” (The Subtle Knife, “Alamo Gulch” Page 269).
“He said, or thought, ‘Those poor men didn’t have to come to this, nor did we.’ She said, ‘We held ’em off. We held out. We’re a-helping Lyra.’ Then she was pressing her little proud broken self against his face, as close as she could get, and then they died,” (The Subtle Knife, “Alamo Gulch” Page 270).
• So, why did Hester say this is my fault? Well because back earlier in the book when Lee visited the observatory, he stole a ring from the hand of a dead Skraeling and that ring caught the eye of the Magisterium when Lee used it again. Obviously, there’s no way that Hester could have foreseen this happening, but she blames herself because she told him to take it. The line makes less sense in the context of the show because this entire plotline got removed.
• If there is any negative commentary on the fact that Will spends a majority of his time with his father in the final episode talking about going home, please point them to these book quotes: “He longed for his father as a lost child yearns for home. The comparison wouldn’t have occurred to him, because home was the place he kept safe for his mother, not the place others kept safe for him,” and then, “His heart craved to hear the words, ‘Well done, well done, my child; no one on earth could have done better; I’m proud of you. Come and rest now…’ Will longed for that so much that he hardly knew he did. It was just part of what everything felt like,” (The Subtle Knife, “Bloodmoss” Page 272). Will does not want to fight, yes, he is a warrior, but he is a reluctant one. He wants desperately to go home with his father and for his father to help him take care of his mother so that he can have a normal life. It’s why their scene together in the show actually makes total sense given what we know of Will.
• This is also the point in the book where we see Mrs. Coulter kill off Boreal. She’s not only got her zombie bodyguards at this point, but she’s also controlled the Spectres. The way that Book Mrs. Coulter controlled the spectres is a bit vague. “They know I can give them more nourishment if they let me live than if they consume me. I can lead them all to the victims their phantom hearts desire. As soon as you described them to me, I knew I could dominate them, and so it turns out. And a whole world trembles in the power of these pallid things!” (The Subtle Knife, “Bloodmoss” Page 275). While not as exact as the explanation in the last episode, it is pretty much on-brand with Mrs. Coulter. And after she reveals this and finds out about the Subtle Knife, she promptly kills Boreal a la poison.
• Before Boreal’s body is even dead, Mrs. Coulter also attacks one of the witches who has been watching from the distance and interrogates her. When the witch reveals Lyra’s true name to Mrs. Coulter, at this point, Mrs. Coulter isn’t so much concerned with protecting Lyra. After learning that she’s Eve, Mrs. Coulter tells the witch that she will have to destroy Lyra to prevent another Fall. She also realizes at this moment that Asriel’s war on the Authority is connected to Lyra’s fall. Obviously, for readers of the book, we know that Mrs. Coulter will have to face her own humanity when she finally has her daughter in hand. She won’t be able to do anything but care for Lyra and love her despite her best efforts against it.
• And now we’ve reached it, John and Will Parry’s brief reunion. A moment I’ve been both looking forward to and also dreading. In TSK, Will does not recognize John Parry at all. In fact, if you’re not a totally attentive reader, you might figure out the twist around the same time the characters do. Instead, Will’s hand has been hurting him and it hasn’t healed. The witches’ ritual failed and they’ve begun to regard him with fear, concerned that his hand is cursed beyond his magic. Taking a walk at night, he comes across a strange old man. This man is unfamiliar to him, but the two of them get into a fight. However, the fight soon stops when John Parry realizes that Will has lost two fingers. In the dark, he uses his bloodmoss ointment to heal Will’s hand. After nothing working, this works perfectly and Will immediately begins to feel relief, but neither character realizes the true identity of the other yet.
• Initially, Will wants to reject the knife, especially when being told that he has a job as the knife bearer. Will is focused on finding his father, not helping Asriel in a war or being a soldier. But John tells him this: “‘Have you won your fights?’ Will was silent. Then he said, ‘Yes, I suppose.’ ‘You fought for the knife?’ ‘Yes, but—’ ‘Then you’re a warrior. That’s what you are. Argue with anything else, but don’t argue with your own nature.’ Will knew that the man was speaking the truth. But it wasn’t a welcome truth. It was heavy a painful,” (The Subtle Knife, “Bloodmoss” Page 283). This connects to what I was talking about with Lee above, also much like how Lyra compares Will to Iorek. He is a reluctant warrior, but a victorious one. Will is often tied to fighting and violence, he is often the one who fights off other people, but he never indulges in it. It’s a necessity. He does it to protect the people he cares about, like his mother or Lyra. He has a command over the knife that puts him into his own league. Even the witches compare him to Lord Asriel. It’s a great thematic throughline that connects many of the main characters.
• Although we didn’t get a grand speech from John Parry in the episode, his speech to Will in “Bloodmoss” actually is somewhat connected to Asriel’s big monologue to the Angels about fighting the Authority. Asriel says he fights for freedom of knowledge, understanding, truth, and acceptance. Similarly, John Parry tells Will, “Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit,” (The Subtle Knife, “Bloodmoss” Page 283). I thought that was a nice little nod to these two dads with the same ambitions with matching notes of abandoning their kids (though, granted, John Parry did not want to).
• But now it’s time to talk about John Parry’s book death. To do that, we need to talk about The Worst, Most Petty Witch Ever aka Juta Kamainen. A crash course on Juta. She fell in love with John Parry, he politely told her no thank you because he was still in love with his wife and loyal to her, Juta then made it her life’s goal to kill John Parry because how dare he reject her. THAT’S THE REASON JOHN PARRY DIES. I’ve mentioned many times that I really dislike the book witches. I think they’re temperamental and insanely arrogant. Aside from Serafina Pekkala, it’s hard to really pinpoint another palatable witch character, come for me if you want, but they’re exhausting characters. Anyway, so now that I’ve given you the background, let’s set the scene. Will and John have fought, John’s healed Will’s hand and encouraged him to take up the fight against the Authority, and now John would like to see WIll’s face just once. It’s significant that John is basically on death’s door at this point, living in another world and also expending so much of his power taking down zeppelins have taken a toll. But let me show you this bit of painful dramatic irony:
“The shaman saw a boy even younger than he’d thought, his slim body shivering in a torn linen shirt and his expression exhausted and savage and wary, but alight with a wild curiosity, his eyes wide under the straight black brows, so like his mother’s…
And there came just the first flicker of something else to both of them.
But in that same moment, as the lantern light flared over John Parry’s face, somethings shot down from the turbid sky, and he fell back dead before he could say a word, an arrow in his failing heart. The osprey daemon vanished in a moment. Will could only sit stupefied.” (The Subtle Knife, “Bloodmoss” Page 284).
Yes. They have a split second of recognition before Juta (flying overhead to guard Will) looses her arrow and killed John Parry, the man she knows as Stanislaus Grumman. After this shock, Will promptly goes on the offensive. He grabs Juta’s daemon and demands to know why she killed him. Want to know her winning response? “‘Because I loved him and he’s scorned me! I am a witch! I don’t forgive!'” Insert a loud and long sigh. After Will reveals that that man she just killed is his father, the man they’ve been looking for this whole time, Juta is shocked.
“‘What did he ever do that you needed to kill him?’ [Will] cried. ‘Tell me that, if you can!’ And [Juta] looked at the dead man. Then she looked back at Will and shook her head sadly. ‘No I can’t explain,’ she said. ‘You’re too young. It wouldn’t make sense to you. I loved him. That’s all. That’s enough,'” (The Subtle Knife, “Bloodmoss” Page 285). I know that we’re supposed to basically buy that, but it’s honestly bullshit. This is not love, Juta. You were obsessed with a guy who rejected you and you spent the next couple of decades hating him. It’s an impossibly frustrating moment, but also one of those moments that literally pulls a physical reaction out of you. It is so iconic and tragic and awful.
As much as I wish we’d seen this, I’m also immensely glad we didn’t. I’m selfishly so happy that Show Will got to talk with his father and at least know who he was speaking to. I’m glad John Parry got to spend his last moments protecting his son and ultimately dies next to him without some scorned lover dead ten feet away. Oh yeah, Juta can’t handle the reality of her own spite and immediately kills herself. Much like Will, I felt nothing.
• Ultimately, the two final scenes were actually pretty close in dialogue. The same information is imparted. But while “Æsahættr” is gentler, “Bloodmoss” is bitter and painful. In the end, Will dons his father’s mantle in both and is set on his path to go to Asriel. I assume that Season 3 will open with him realizing Lyra has been captured and also encountering the angels who will guide him to Lord Asriel.
Whew. I could have gone on for another thousand words about these last chapters – be thankful I did not – but even I have my limits. If you’ve somehow managed through this behemoth and through this season without reading The Subtle Knife get thee to an online bookstore ASAP! Just under 300 pages, TSK is my favorite of the season and it sets up The Amber Spyglass quite nicely. Oh, and that snippet of Roger? More on that in The Amber Spyglass. Read the books and then come back here and yell at me about how my takes are wrong, I welcome it.
And now, with some time between me and Season 3, I’m going to just casually do another series re-read before I start La Belle Sauvage. Obsessed? Just call me Juta Kamainen.