notgettingenough 's Reviews > The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
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's review
Oct 06, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: childrens
Read from September 22 to October 03, 2010


It is so surprising to me that the thing I found vastly irritating right at page one of the first of this series - the daemon - so quickly captivated me. You have this daemon in you, all of us, just as the story goes. And as a child it is anything, it has the fantastical vision that children have, there is nothing to stop it. But then we mostly grow up and we mostly lose the idea that we can do anything, we lose imagination, we lose the unconscious bravery of our childhood, we lose the intrepidness and curiosity with which we were born. And so our daemon can no longer be anything. It is a static reflection of the settled thing we become as we move into adulthood. Well, I cling to the idea that whether or not I've grown up, I nonetheless have a daemon which can be anything but I dare say that’s fanciful.

Daemons die. They die because they were fighting for you, or because you couldn't fight hard enough for them, or because they are spurned - there are at least some things your daemon can be that thrive on the nourishment that is given them by others. You can't fight to save it because you can't force people see it the right way. They take away the thing that succoured your daemon and made it and you blossom, you see it lying on the ground, dying, and there is nothing you can do. You can't save it, only other people can.

If you think about it, when you read these books, the reason you feel so utterly gutted whenever one of these creatures dies, is because you know what it feels like. You know that what is being described is exactly something dying in you, a process of loss that makes you a lesser person. Grey replaces lit-up, fear replaces joy, a sick pit in your stomach replaces a heart that beat too much from happiness. These things happen and in a heart-beat something infinitely precious is being severed from you. And I feel as helpless in their path as a small child watching something monstrously large taking their daemon away. And I guess like a small child I watch and hope something even bigger will come along and save us.


A satire on the nature of academic research that one can only compare favourably with David Lodge’s work in this area.

“‘Shadows are particles of consciousness. You ever heard anything so stupid? No wonder we can’t get our grant renewed.’….’It’s Dust,’ said Lyra authoritatively. ‘That’s what it is.’ ‘But you see, you can’t say this sort of thing in a funding application if you want to be taken seriously. It does not make sense. It cannot exist. It’s impossible, and if it isn’t impossible it’s irrelevant, amd if it isn’t either of those things it’s embarrassing.’….’Everything about this is embarrassing, she said. ‘D’you know how embarrassing it is to mention good and evil in a scientific laboratory? Have you any idea?’ One of the reasons I became a scientist was not to have to think about that kind of thing.’ ‘You’ve got to think about it,’ said Lyra severely.”

Lyra, you see, is a child, so unlike research academics, she can have a plain interest in the truth.

Later on, beginning p. 250 is a terribly amusing exchange between Dr Malone, trying to live up to the virtuous Lyra, her research associate who wants to take the money with the strings and Sir Charles, puller of the strings and more powerful than any piddly peer review. I love the part where he tries to seduce them with the lure of defence money if they tow the right line.

But quite best of all, right near the end, the wonderful line of another child, Will, who, when a witch says ‘"No. No! That can’t be true. Impossible!"’ retorts so angrily with the simple clear mind of unaffected honesty: ‘"You think things have to be possible? Things have to be true"'.

I would love to live by these words.
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Reading Progress

09/22/2010 page 34
10.0% "It was a kind of magic she could work to make herself unseen. True invisibility was impossible, of course: this was mental magic, a kind of fiercely-held modesty that could make the spell-worker not invisible but simply unnoticed."

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Manny If I may express myself in Onion headline form:


For a good example of a scientist who wasn't narrow-minded, why not spend a couple of minutes browsing this page of quotes from Niels Bohr? For example,
We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough.

message 2: by notgettingenough (last edited Oct 04, 2010 02:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

notgettingenough Manny wrote: "If I may express myself in Onion headline form:


For a good example of a scientist who wasn't narrow-minded, why not spend a couple of minutes browsing thi..."

These are great.

If anybody says he can think about quantum physics without getting giddy, that only shows he has not understood the first thing about them.
Niels Bohr

I'm SO relieved that I can feel ill when quantum physics is mentioned.

I love this:

There are trivial truths and the great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.
Niels Bohr

Oh and these:

No, no, you're not thinking; you're just being logical.
Niels Bohr

Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.
Niels Bohr

Jessi Scheffler I too absolutely loved this idea of daemons! I am still hoping that will's daemon will appear just as with his father....
I wish the idea of daemons were used more often!!

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