The Subtle Knife

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The Subtle Knife
First edition
Author Philip Pullman
Cover artist Philip Pullman & David Scutt
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Series His Dark Materials
Genre Fantasy novel
Publisher Scholastic Point
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 341 pp
ISBN 0-590-54243-5
OCLC 44058512
Preceded by Northern Lights (The Golden Compass)
Followed by The 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 and searches for her father. Will Parry is introduced as a companion to Lyra, and together they explore the new realms to which they have both been introduced.

Plot summary[edit]

Evading the police after accidentally killing an intruder in the night, twelve-year-old Will Parry discovers an invisible window in mid air. It leads him to Cittàgazze, an apparently deserted city in another world. There, Will encounters 12-year-old Lyra Silvertongue and her dæmon Pantalaimon, who came there after entering the hole in the sky that her father, Lord Asriel, created at the end of Northern Lights.

Meanwhile, the witch Serafina Pekkala, who was separated from Lyra during a battle in Northern Lights, is searching for her. She discovers that the Magisterium and Lyra's mother, Mrs. Coulter, are torturing a witch to discover the prophecy that surrounds Lyra. She kills that witch when begged, and leaves to call a meeting of the witches council. The witches vote to band together and join Lyra's father, Lord Asriel, in his fight against the Magisterium. Lee Scoresby, a supporter of Lyra, ventures out to find the explorer Stanislaus Grumman, who is rumoured to know of an object that gives protection to whoever holds it, with the intent of ensuring that Lyra obtain that protection.

In Cittàgazze, Will and Lyra become allies; they discover they come from parallel Oxfords in different universes and decide to travel back into Will's world to gather more information. Will wants to find out about his father, who vanished during an expedition; Lyra is looking for Scholars who know about Dust. Lyra is told by her alethiometer (a device that reveals truth) to seek the physicist researcher Dr. Mary Malone who unknowingly is researching Dust (under the name Dark Matter).

Lyra revisits Dr. Malone the next day, but after accepting a ride from the well-dressed Sir Charles Latrom, she discovers that Sir Charles has stolen her alethiometer and she asks Will to help her retrieve it. When Lyra and Will confront Sir Charles, he readily admits that he has stolen the alethiometer and blackmails the pair into retrieving a mysterious knife from Cittàgazze in exchange for its return. They defeat the youth who holds the knife but Will receives a distinctive wound – the loss of two fingers – which the knife's true guardian explains as the sign that he is now the next true guardian of the Subtle Knife, a tool that cuts windows between worlds and cuts easily through anything – both material and spiritual. He explains further that this world is haunted by soul-eating Spectres, which prey on older children and adults but are invisible to children of their age, and that the knife must not fall into Sir Charles' hands.

Lyra and Will plan to steal back the alethiometer by using the knife. While doing so, Sir Charles arrives with Mrs. Coulter, and Lyra realises that Sir Charles is really Lord Boreal, a friend of Mrs. Coulter who came to Will's world long ago and established himself in a position of power. Will, overhearing their conversation, also hears news of his father, who had discovered a doorway between the worlds. Will and Lyra return to Cittagazze, and pursued by children seeking revenge for the death of the knife's holder, are found and rescued by Serafina Pekkala. She attempts to heal Will's wound with a spell, but fails. They then continue on to find Will's father.

Back in Will's world, Dr. Malone is visited by Sir Charles, purporting to be a figure of authority, who tells them that their funding will be discontinued if they do not co-operate with his wishes. Dr. Malone quits her job, but returns later that night to follow Lyra's suggestion that she attempt to communicate with the Shadows she is studying. She is told to travel through the same window between worlds used by Will and Lyra, and that her role is to "play the serpent" and that all her life's work has led to this. She is told where to begin her journey and to destroy her work to prevent others using it.

Lee Scoresby finally finds Grumman living as a shaman known as Jopari, an abbreviation of his true name John Parry. Grumman has summoned Scoresby so he can be taken to the world where the bearer of the Subtle Knife is, and instruct the bearer in his task, which is to find and help Lord Asriel's rebellion against The Authority. They set off in Scoresby's hot-air balloon. Pursued by Magisterium soldiers, they are forced to land. Scoresby dies holding off the soldiers so that Grumman can complete his task.

Mrs. Coulter tricks Sir Charles into revealing the secret of the knife, then after murdering him, uses the Spectres which she has learned to control to torture a witch into revealing the prophecy about Lyra as well as Will and Lyra's location and the manner of their protection by the witch clans. The prophecy is that Lyra is fated to be the second Eve, and Mrs. Coulter states her intention to destroy Lyra rather than risk a second Fall.

Serafina goes to aid Scoresby, having heard his last plea for help, and Will encounters Grumman, who staunches the bleeding in his hand and instructs him in his task. They begin to realise they are long-separated father and son, but a moment later Grumman is killed by a vengeful witch who loved Grumman, as he had not returned her love.

Will returns to camp to find a pair of angels, Balthamos and Baruch, waiting to guide him to Lord Asriel. He agrees and goes to awaken Lyra, but discovers that she is now missing and her guardian witches have been killed by Spectres. Will finds Lyra's abandoned alethiometer. He refuses to go with the angels until he finds Lyra.

This concludes the second novel, with the trilogy concluding in the next book, The Amber Spyglass.

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 will 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.

An audiobook adaptation, featuring a full cast and narration by the author, was released in 2002. See The Subtle Knife Audio.

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, 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.


  1. ^ Mcnary, Dave (4 January 2007). "New Line pulls in pic scribe: Amini to pen second part of Pullman trilogy". Variety, Los Angeles. Retrieved 13 December 2007. 
  2. ^ Dawtrey, Adam (13 March 2008). "'Compass' spins foreign frenzy". Penske Business Media, LLC. Retrieved 13 March 2008. 


  • 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. 

External links[edit]