The Subtle Knife

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The Subtle Knife
First edition
AuthorPhilip Pullman
Cover artistPhilip Pullman & David Scutt
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesHis Dark Materials
GenreFantasy novel
PublisherScholastic Point
Publication date
22 July 1997
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
Preceded byNorthern Lights (The Golden Compass) 
Followed byThe Amber Spyglass 

The Subtle Knife, the second book in the His Dark Materials series, is a young-adult fantasy novel written by Philip Pullman and published in 1997. The novel continues the adventures of Lyra Belacqua as she investigates the mysterious Dust phenomenon. Will Parry is introduced as a companion to Lyra, and together they explore the new worlds to which they have both been introduced and search for Will's father.


Twelve-year-old Will Parry is caring for his mentally ill mother when he accidentally kills an intruder and runs away to Oxford. There, entering a portal to a parallel universe, Will discovers the deserted city of Cittàgazze where he meets Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon Pantalaimon, who similarly arrived from her world via a bridge in the sky created by her father, Lord Asriel.

The witch Serafina Pekkala eavesdrops on Mrs Coulter, Lyra's wicked mother, torturing a witch for the prophecy that concerns Lyra. Serafina kills the witch before she can reveal the details and takes a troop of witches to search for Lyra, while aeronaut Lee Scoresby searches for Stanislaus Grumman, previously believed dead, as he may have knowledge of a powerful object which Scoresby intends to use to protect Lyra.

Will returns to his world through the portal and finds information about his father, who went missing on an expedition. Lyra searches Will's Oxford for information about Dust, mysterious particles connected to consciousness. On the advice of her alethiometer, a truth-telling device, Lyra meets the physicist Dr Mary Malone, who has a computer that can communicate with dark matter. Lyra realises that dark matter appears to be the same as what she knows as Dust in her own world.

After accepting a lift from a gentleman introducing himself as Sir Charles Latrom, Lyra realises he has stolen her alethiometer. Sir Charles forces Will and Lyra into retrieving a mysterious knife from Cittàgazze for the alethiometer's return. They defeat a youth who has taken the knife from its holder, Giacomo Paradisi, but Will loses two fingers in the fight. Giacomo explains that this is the sign of the knife's next bearer, and explains its power: the ability to cut through any material, even the fabric between worlds. He also explains that their world is haunted by soul-eating spectres, which prey on adolescents and adults but ignore children.

Will uses the knife to cut a hole from Cittàgazze into Charles's home. They overhear a conversation with Mrs Coulter. Lyra realises that Charles is Lord Boreal, having travelled from her world long ago, and Will hears news of his father, who discovered a doorway between the worlds. They escape to Cittàgazze with the alethiometer and are rescued from marauding children by Serafina Pekkala, who attempts unsuccessfully to heal Will's wound with a spell.

Sir Charles visits Dr Malone, threatening to cut her funding unless she co-operates with him. She later follows Lyra's suggestion to communicate with dark matter with her computer. The consciousness Dr Malone communicates with instructs her to destroy the computer and travel through the same window between worlds used by Will and Lyra, explaining her role is to "play the serpent".

Lee Scoresby finds Grumman living as a shaman known as Jopari (a corruption of his original name John Parry): Will's father. Grumman has summoned Scoresby to take him to the bearer of the knife and to assist Lord Asriel, who is assembling an army to rebel against an ancient being called the Authority. They set off in Scoresby's hot air balloon but are forced to land by soldiers of the Church. Scoresby contacts Serafina for help and dies holding off the soldiers so that Grumman can complete his task. Serafina leaves Lyra to follow Scoresby's call.

Mrs Coulter tricks Charles into revealing the secret of the knife and kills him. She uses the spectres, which she has learned to control, to torture a witch into revealing the prophecy: Lyra is the second Eve. Mrs Coulter plans to destroy Lyra rather than risk a second Fall.

Will finds his father, who staunches the bleeding in his hand and instructs him to join Lord Asriel's forces. Immediately thereafter, Grumman is killed by a vengeful witch whose love he had once spurned. Will returns to camp to find a pair of angels waiting to guide him to Asriel. He goes to awaken Lyra, but discovers she is missing and her guardian witches' souls have been drained by spectres.

Critical reception[edit]

Parents' Choice Gold Book Award; American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults; Booklist Editors' Choice; Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year; Horn Book Fanfare Honor Book; Bulletin Blue Ribbon Book; Book Links Best Book of the Year; American Bookseller Pick of the Lists


Before the release of The Golden Compass, a film adaptation of the first book in the series, on 7 December 2007, New Line Cinema said that an adaptation of The Subtle Knife would go into production only if the first film was a success.[1] The Golden Compass made over twice its budget worldwide but was a disappointment in the United States, leaving the fate of its sequel unclear. The international rights were also originally sold to provide financing for the first film, thus amounting to a significant disappointment for New Line Cinema. Producer Deborah Forte, however, was adamant that she would finish the trilogy, saying, "I believe there are enough people who see what a viable and successful franchise we have."[2] However, Philip Pullman later remarked at the British Humanist Association annual conference in 2011 that due to the first film's disappointing sales in the United States, there would not be any sequels made.[3]

An audiobook adaptation, featuring a full cast and narration by the author, was released in 2000.[4]

As the second novel of the His Dark Materials trilogy, the book has also formed part of a radio drama on BBC Radio 4, starring Terence Stamp as Lord Asriel and Lulu Popplewell as Lyra,[5] and as a two-part, six-hour performance for London's Royal National Theatre in December 2003, running until March 2004, and starring Anna Maxwell Martin as Lyra, Dominic Cooper as Will, Timothy Dalton as Lord Asriel and Patricia Hodge as Mrs Coulter, and a second run between November 2004 and April 2005.

The second series of the joint BBC-HBO television adaptation of His Dark Materials, approved in September 2018, will cover The Subtle Knife, with introductions to the book's central characters beginning in the first season.[6]

Further reading[edit]

  • Lenz, Millicent (2005). His Dark Materials Illuminated: Critical Essays on Phillip Pullman's Trilogy. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0-8143-3207-2.
  • Frost, Laurie (2006). The Elements of His Dark Materials. The Fell Press. ISBN 0975943014.


  1. ^ McNary, Dave (4 January 2007). "New Line pulls in pic scribe: Amini to pen second part of Pullman trilogy". Variety. Retrieved 13 December 2007.
  2. ^ Dawtrey, Adam (13 March 2008). "'Compass' spins foreign frenzy". Variety. Retrieved 13 March 2008.
  3. ^ Philip Pullman receiving the award for services to Humanism, at the BHA Conference 2011. YouTube. 25 July 2011. Retrieved 2 December 2019.
  4. ^ "The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman". AudioFile. 2000. Retrieved 2 December 2019.
  5. ^ "His Dark Materials cast their magic on BBC Radio 4". BBC. 2 December 2002. Retrieved 2 December 2019.
  6. ^ Thomas, Leah (29 November 2019). "What HBO's His Dark Materials Is Doing Is a Book Reader's Dream". The Mary Sue. Retrieved 3 December 2019.