THE AMBER SPYGLASS

His Dark Materials, Book III

By Philip Pullman

Knopf. 518 pp. $19.95

Genres are meant to be transcended, and our most ambitious writers and artists always push hard against the boundaries. This is as true for those who labor in children's literature as it is for great science fiction authors (Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, John Sladek) and mystery and suspense novelists (Ruth Rendell, Iain Pears, K.C. Constantine). How much can be packed into a book before it bursts the conventions? What can be done that hasn't been done already? The two best credos for any creator are still Pound's "Make it new" and Beckett's complementary "Fail. Fail again. Fail better."

Which isn't to say that a writer shouldn't strive to make his books formally perfect. Yet literature flourishes best, remains truly healthy, only when its practitioners sometimes go Too Far. Many grown-up readers of Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass, the earth- and heaven-shaking conclusion to the long story that started with The Golden Compass and continued with The Subtle Knife, are likely to bristle at its theological and ontological daring: This so-called young adult novel takes on the central religious tradition of the West and finds it wanting--not only wanting, but downright evil. Think of this trilogy as a counterblast to C.S. Lewis's Christian science fiction and his celebrated chronicles of Narnia. Pullman is of the Devil's party, William Blake's party, and he knows it. He has also written the best, deepest and most disturbing children's fantasy of our time. By comparison, the agreeable and entertaining Harry Potter books look utterly innocuous.

In The Golden Compass--winner of the Carnegie Medal, Britain's equivalent of the Newbery--Pullman sets us down into a world reminiscent of late Victorian England, complete with steam locomotives, hot-air balloons and Oxford colleges. But this isn't our Earth, for here every person is connected to a visible daemon, a totemic animal with which one's spirit remains inextricably entwined. In children the daemon can change its shape at will; in adolescents it finally "settles" into a single animal. As it happens, experimental theologians, i.e. scientists, working for the Church's ominous Oblation Board discover that the surgical separation of human and daemon--intercision--releases a vast explosion of energy (similar to the splitting of the atom). Before long, street urchins start disappearing from London, spirited up to the North toward a place called Bolvangar.

When a kitchen boy named Roger turns up missing, his friend Lyra Belacqua resolves to rescue him. Lyra is no ordinary child but the outcome of a fateful liaison. Lord Asriel, her father, is a titanic Renaissance-style overreacher, a mixture of Dr. Faustus and Tamburlaine; Mrs. Coulter, her mother, a belle dame sans merci who can hold any man in her thrall and whose most gentle quality is ruthlessness. On the run from the authorities and her power-driven parents, the resourceful Lyra encounters a magnificent series of characters: the boat-dwelling "gyptians," a hot-tempered armored bear named Iorek Byrnison, the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby and, my favorite, the wise and profoundly sexy Serafina Pekkala, clan queen of the witches of Lake Enara. Along the way, Lyra also learns that she possesses a fateful destiny, one somehow linked to her uncanny ability to read the alethiometer, a mechanical oracle that can answer questions and see a little into the future. A great deal happens in The Golden Compass, all of it thrilling, before the final pages when Lord Asriel unexpectedly opens a passageway between universes and disappears. Lyra vows to follow him.

In The Subtle Knife Pullman shifts the action to a strangely deserted Italianate city called Cittagazze--and to bustling contemporary Oxford. The dramatis personae further expands to include angels and spirit-vampires called Specters; a theoretical physicist (and former nun) named Mary Malone, who is researching the nature of "dark matter"; a mysterious shaman known as Stanislaw Grumman; the sleekly threatening Sir Charles Latrom, who can move between worlds; and, most important of all, 12-year-old Will Parry. At great personal cost Will acquires a mysterious knife of such sharpness that one side of its blade can shred iron as if it were paper. Yet the other edge is sharper still: It can cut holes in the fabric of space.

When The Amber Spyglass opens, Lord Asriel is continuing to build up his battalions for an all-out assault on The Authority (a k a God) and Lyra has been smuggled away by her mother to a cave high in the Himalayas. There the young girl is kept constantly sedated, though in her dreams she finds herself communicating with the dead. Meanwhile, Will is befriended by two rebel angels who urge him to go to Lord Asriel and offer the Subtle Knife as a weapon in the battle against the Kingdom of Heaven. But Will is adamant: He will do nothing until he finds and rescues Lyra.

Alas, despite Mrs. Coulter's strategies, the Jesuit-like Consistorial Court of Discipline has already discovered the girl's whereabouts--and come to understand that all history is accelerating toward this sleeping beauty. To ensure its own survival, the Church resolves to destroy Lyra, and so dispatches not only a great aerial flotilla but also a single lone assassin, remorseless and fanatically resolute. Fortunately, Lord Asriel has employed Gallivespian spies--a fiercely proud people the size of your hand--and so knows the Church's plans: He sends gyropters under the command of his chief lieutenant, the African King Ogunwe, with orders to save the child at all costs.

As these two armies race across the skies toward Tibet, the scientist Mary Malone wanders by happy accident into still another world, a peaceful pre-lapsarian paradise inhabited by gentle wheeled creatures. Alas, this Eden is dying, for some primal essence keeps escaping from it at an ever-increasing speed. This conscious substance, Mary eventually concludes, is none other than her own Dark Matter, what Lyra's people call Dust. She resolves to find a way to stop this entropic drain on the universe. But how?

Let me stop there. To say much more about the action of The Amber Spyglass would certainly diminish the reader's pleasure in an expertly paced and orchestrated novel. Even those who judge his theology objectionable will find Pullman's sheer storytelling power sinfully irresistible. But make no mistake: This book views organized religion as repressive, life-smothering, mendacious and just plain wrong, right from the beginning of time.

"The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty--those were all names he gave himself," explains the angel Balthamos. "He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves--the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. One of those who came later was wiser than he was, and she found out the truth, so he banished her. We serve her still. And the Authority reigns in the Kingdom, and Metatron is his Regent."

In his acknowledgments Philip Pullman admits that he has stolen material "from every book I have ever read." Besides findings hints of Paradise Lost and Blake's poetry, the astute will pick up echoes of the following: Christ's harrowing of Hell, Jewish Kabbalah (the legend of the god-like angel Metatron), Gnostic doctrine (Dust, our sleeping souls needing to be awakened), the "death of God" controversy, Perelandra, the Oz books (the Wheelers), Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungs (Siegfried's mending of the sword), Aeneas, Odysseus and Dante in the Underworld, the Grail legend and the wounded Fisher King, Peter Pan, Wordsworth's pantheistic "Immortality Ode," the doctrine of the hidden God and speculation about the plurality of worlds, situational ethics (actions, not people, being good or bad), the cessation of miracles, "Star Wars," colonialist evangelizing, the fetch of British folklore, the 17th-century doctrine of sympathies (for the Gallivespian communication device, the lodestone-resonator), the popular mythology of the Jesuits as ascetic masterminds of realpolitik, superhero comics and even Pullman's own early novel for adults, Galatea. Fans of science fiction and fantasy may also detect undertones of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, Fritz Leiber's sword-and-sorcery tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Jack Vance's elegant Dying Earth stories.

For the most part, Pullman transmutes all this disparate and often dark material, making it his own. But occasionally some passages sound like mere info-dumps, as in that Gnostic account of creation already quoted, or this:

"Well, where is God," said Mrs. Coulter, "if he's alive? And why doesn't he speak anymore? At the beginning of the world, God walked in the Garden and spoke with Adam and Eve. Then he began to withdraw, and he forbade Moses to look at his face. Later, in the time of Daniel, he was aged--he was the Ancient of Days. Where is he now? Is he still alive, at some inconceivable age, decrepit and demented, unable to think or act or speak and unable to die, a rotten hulk? And if that is his condition, wouldn't it be the most merciful thing, the truest proof of our love for God, to seek him out and give him the gift of death?"

This is heady stuff for a children's book. As is Lyra taking on the role of Eve and Christ. Even the dead cry out from the depths that they were deceived about the afterlife, that there is no heaven, that they yearn to join their atoms to the great flux of the universe. "We'll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we'll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we'll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was."

The physical world: In the end, the "Dark Materials" trilogy is an ode to the joy of living in a physical world, a hymn to flesh, to exuberance, to the here and now, to free thought, imagination and feeling, to nobility of spirit. By contrast, the followers of the Authority represent only fanaticism, brutal violence, lust, servitude, torture and every kind of oppression, all of these justified as necessary means to a supposedly higher end. These ecclesiastics have no redeeming virtues. Yet how, really, does the passionate intensity of Father Gomez, the Church-appointed assassin, differ from that of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, both cold-blooded murderers, who are nonetheless granted an opportunity for redemption?

Despite various flaws--too much overt moralizing, the unwarranted flip-flop in the fundamental character of Mrs. Coulter, not enough Serafina Pekkala--His Dark Materials is an overwhelming reading experience, brought to a sublime and touching close by The Amber Spyglass. In another time, this is a book that would have made the Index, and in still another era gotten its author condemned to the stake as a heretic. Even now some concerned parents may judge that Philip Pullman has gone Too Far in his plain-spoken critique of religious orthodoxy. But as Blake said, you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough. His Dark Materials is a novel of electrifying power and splendor, deserving celebration, as violent as a fairy tale and as shocking as art must be.

Michael Dirda's book "Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments" has just been published. His e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.