Fun Facts about The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman


The Subtle Knife is the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. It was first published in 1997 by Scholastic Point. Unlike Northern Lights that remains solely in one world, The Subtle Knife begins to explore other parallel worlds, and frequently jumps between three worlds.

The story opens with a new perspective, this time with Will Parry, a young boy from our world. And just like he did with Lyra, Pullman introduces these characters in the middle of a moment and expands the story around them. Will’s life is nothing like Lyra’s, and in our own world a lot more familiar, and after fleeing from his own problems stumbles across a window and finds Lyra, Pan, and a range of new things, both exciting and terrifying. Together Lyra and Will continue on their destined paths and open up a whole other level of Pullman’s creation adding even more depth and complexity to that established in the first book.

Just like Northern Lights, Pullman has included his own mini illustrations. The chapter illustrations are there once more, but Pullman has also thought it would be helpful for the readers to “have unobtrusive running-heads on each page, saying ‘Lyra’s world’ or ‘Will’s world’”, but his editor suggested he do it with little drawings instead; an alethiometer for Lyra’s world, a hornbeam tree for Will’s, a (subtle) knife for Cittàgazze etc. He chose not to explain them because it would be fun for readers to work out themselves that they’re for and what the symbols mean.

The title refers to the dagger found in Cittàgazze by Will and Lyra. Named The Subtle Knife or Æsahættr (pronounced “as-hatter” by the BBC Radio adaptation) meaning “God Destroyer”, it is described as looking like an ordinary dagger but able to cut through any material or substance – lead, flesh, even able to cut through the membrane that separates the worlds from each another. It has also been called “Teleutaia makhaira” which means “the last knife of all”.

The Subtle Knife has won a range of awards. It has won the 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, as well as American Bookseller Pick of the Lists.

Adaptations wise, The Subtle Knife was included in the 2003 His Dark Materials audiobook with Northern Lights, as well as the 2004-5 play, and was also formed part of a radio drama on BBC 4. In terms of film, the details and information of a film adaptation are contradictory and ever changing. Deborah Forte, producer of The Golden Compass, is adamant she’ll finish the trilogy, and originally New Line Cinema said a sequel would only be made if the first film was a success, but despite making twice its budget worldwide, the film did poorly in the USA, making the sequel’s fate unclear. Pullman said in 2011 that because of these poor sales in the USA no sequel would be made, but he has admitted he would still like one. I think The Subtle Knife has slightly less obvious religious controversy that I’ve noticed so it may go down better in some places, but even then it is all about doing the story justice. It’s too important not to.

You can read an extract from The Subtle Knife here.


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