What can ‘The Amber Spyglass’ tell us about death?

With the hotly-anticipated BBC adaptation of ‘His Dark Materials’ set to premiere this weekend, Abi Pattenden reflects on how the series covers the topic of death

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Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Freeman Brothers’ Manager – and avid reader – Abi Pattenden

Freeman Brothers has been carrying out funerals for our local communities in Sussex and Surrey for over 160 years. As funeral directors, we consider ourselves experts in our field. We are proud of the care and professionalism we offer to local people from our offices in Billingshurst, Crawley, Horsham and Hurstpierpoint. We feel we have a responsibility not to sit in isolation – to engage and hopefully be informative on issues relating to our business. This means looking for connections between our role and the wider world, and connecting them to our own aims to make people’s funerals personal and meaningful; and encourage people to plan for their own funeral and communicate their own wishes in advance, to enable their families to fulfil those requirements when the time comes.

Today, Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers, talks about one of her favourite books, Philip Pullman’s ‘The Amber Spyglass’, in light of the upcoming TV adaptation of ‘His Dark Materials’, the trilogy of which it is the third book.

I am a great believer in the power of books and reading. I firmly believe that a love of reading means you are never truly alone, and for me, one of the excitements of going on holiday is choosing new books to take, because I don’t get nearly enough time to read any more. I’m not picky about genre (although I find non-fiction difficult unless I’m interested in the topic) or target audience and recently have read a lot of books based on recommendation, including from colleagues at Freeman Brothers. I also like to return to my best-loved books over and over again, and a series of books I have read and re-read is the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, by Philip Pullman. There’s something comforting about a familiar read, but I also like to discover things I have missed or forgotten, and often I only appreciate the details on a repeat read.

The third of the trilogy, ‘The Amber Spyglass’, has quite a strong focus on death, and the more I re-read the book, the more I find it powerful, moving, and relevant. I’m going to talk about the reasons for this today but I should preface my comments by saying – warning – this contains spoilers about all three books within the trilogy.

The books’ protagonist is Lyra Belacqua, a 12-year old girl who lives in Oxford. This is not the Oxford of our world, though, but a parallel world where some things are the same but some are very different. The time period is unclear because in some ways it is reminiscent of the Victorian period, but parallel worlds seem to be in the modern day. One of the main differences is that everyone in Lyra’s world has a ‘daemon’, an external manifestation of their inner selves, which can converse with them and, until adulthood, change shape at will.

Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, is a character within the story, and a major part of the trilogy’s narrative concerns the efforts of the Magesterium, a religious body which seems more-or-less in charge of Lyra’s world, to split children from their daemons in an attempt to prevent sin. Earlier in the books, one of Lyra’s friends, Roger, is killed when he is split from his Daemon, and it is her promise to try to find him that drives the narrative on and eventually brings her to the World of the Dead.

The entrance to the World of the Dead is in another parallel universe and, like our own world, there are no Daemons here. However, in this world, you can see ‘your death’ as a figure, who gradually gets closer to you through life until your own time comes. Lyra encounters an old person whose death is cuddled up with them in bed and there is a very moving passage about death being with you throughout life and welcoming it as a friend. Perhaps this will seem strange, or even appalling, to some. However, I believe it is possible to have a good death. I also believe that if we accepted death as part of our lives, as many people do in other cultures, we would perhaps be less afraid. Through my role at Freeman Brothers, I have learned that not talking about death doesn’t prevent it from happening, but that talking about it means people close to you are informed of your wishes. This is reassuring and helpful to them when arranging the funeral as they know they are doing the right things, and what the person who died would have wanted.

After finding its entrance, Lyra and her friend, Will, enter into the World of the Dead. Pantalaimon has to be left behind, because Daemons cannot travel there, and the depiction of the separation between them is very upsetting. In the World of the Dead, presented as some kind of limbo, the characters encounter all the dead people and the Harpies who guard them. The Harpies are initially presented as cruel, but Lyra is able to bargain with them; when people enter the World of the Dead, they must tell the Harpies their story – and those who have lived full lives will be able to enter. The existing dead are allowed to disintegrate into the air, implying their time in perjury is ended, and Lyra fulfils her promise to Roger about rescuing him – although probably not in the way she had planned. The consequence of this turn of events, though, is that Lyra and Pantalaimon’s relationship is never quite the same as it was. I always feel reflective after reading this part of the book and often I stop at the end of that part before continuing to the conclusion of the story in the next reading session.

‘His Dark Materials’ is often billed as a Young Adult book and its first part, ‘Northern Lights’, was made into what I think of as a children’s film, ‘The Golden Compass’, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, in 2007. The reviews of the film were (at best) mixed and plans to make the remainder of the trilogy are permanently on hold – probably not surprising considering the darker themes of the third book, which as well as covering the issue of death, also features an exploration of human sexual desire and the killing of God.

The trailer for the BBC adaptation shows it as a big-budget enterprise, and plans are underway to adapt the second book at least. The issues covered within the trilogy are complex and thought-provoking and I’m not sure if they suit a visual medium as well as the written word.

I’m a big fan of radio (you can read my piece on a an excerpt of Rebecca Front’s audiobook here) and often have issues with characters not looking as I imagine them, if I subsequently see the actor, and the same often happens with film and TV adaptations of books – although I think Dafne Keen is similar to the Lyra I have often pictured. Also, the books (and film) were controversial with some religious groups which does make me worry that the adaptation may not cover some of the religious themes that develop throughout the trilogy, which (in my opinion) would weaken it. However, the lessons of the third book – the inevitability of death, so the drive to have a good one, and the necessity to live a full life, have always stayed with me, and if the TV series makes a success of discussing these themes, then I will welcome it.

The series begins airing on Sunday 3 November 2019 – will you be watching? Let us know your thoughts! There may be more from Abi as the series progresses…


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Written by Abi Pattenden


November 1, 2019

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