The long and winding road

Book Review — The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

Pullmaniacs rejoice!

Having spent the first volume of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust trilogy as a baby, a twenty-year-old Lyra Belacqua is the central character once more in the trilogy’s second volume, The Secret Commonwealth.

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Photo by Ryan Lum on Unsplash

By way of context, The Book of Dust began with La Belle Sauvage, which explains how Lyra ended up at Jordan College as a baby, carried there by eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead. Chronologically, the three books of His Dark Materials come next, and The Secret Commonwealth continues the story with Lyra an undergraduate and Malcolm a thirty-something scholar at Jordan.

But don’t expect Lyra to simply pick up where she left off at the end of His Dark Materials. As Pullman warns us in a Preface:

the world moves on; power and influence shift, or increase, or diminish; and the problems and concerns of adult people are not necessarily the same as the ones they had when young. Lyra and Malcolm, as I say, are not children any more.

He’s not kidding. Not only do these two have to deal with all the demands of adulthood, the world around them seems a far nastier place than it was in His Dark Materials. But perhaps that’s not altogether surprising. After all, the world in which Pullman has been writing over the last nine or ten years seems more precarious, more vicious than it did in the late-1990s. If Lyra and Malcolm have different concerns to those of their youth, we have too.

The preface prepares us for a shift in style and subject matter from what has gone before. In fact, these books have always been just as concerned with adulthood and how one becomes an adult as they have with describing the adventures of a child. Part of the reason His Dark Materials packed such an emotional punch is because we know — almost from its opening — that Lyra’s innocent childhood scampering about the roofs of the great Oxford colleges or larking about with the townies in Jericho cannot last. It’s all there in the work of Pullman’s literary hero, William Blake. Innocence is not the opposite of experience. They are the beginning and end of the same journey.

One of the signs of Lyra’s entry into the adult world is her embrace of modern rationalist philosophy. The Secret Commonwealth opens with an argument between Lyra and her daemon Pan, who is disgusted by her scepticism and abandons her to go in search of her imagination, which he believes has been stolen by the nihilist philosopher she has been reading, Gottfried Brande. In turn, Lyra travels in search of Pan, who she believes may have ended up in the ghostly city of Al-Khan al-Azraq — a final resting place for lost and abandoned daemons.

These dual journeys cover a lot of ground, from Brytain [sic] to the Levant via Wittenberg, Geneva, Prague, and Constantinople. In a sense, the journeys are not just geographical but emotional as well. While she’s in Oxford, Lyra assumes that growing up requires leaving behind an innocent, supposedly childish world of the imagination, folklore and superstition. But the further she travels, the more she comes to realise that modern rationalism is innocent in its own way of practical, lived experience — that of the gyptians, for example, for whom the irrational “secret commonwealth” (a supernatural world of fairies, sprites, ghosts and goblins) is real and powerful. There are more things in Heaven and Earth than Lyra dreams of in her philosophy.

The journey serves another purpose, however, allowing Pullman to display the power of narrative and to distinguish his type of storytelling from that of the coldly rational Brande, who has constructed a wildly popular novel The Hyperchorasmians “from first principles.” Brande explains:

I built a narrative to show the logical outcome of superstition and stupidity. Every passage in the book was composed impersonally and rationally, and in a state of full awareness, not in some morbid dreamland.

It’s certainly not Pullman’s method, who has few peers when it comes to imaginative storytelling. Each stop along the way introduces a new idea, a new arresting image. But, at the risk of sounding a bit Brande-ish, I wonder whether the sheer profusion of ideas and imaginative flourishes gets in the way of the narrative. There are times when these scenes feel more like set pieces to be admired in isolation, rather than events that drive the story onwards. Lyra’s encounter with the Furnace Man in Prague is a case in point — memorable imagery but the episode feels like it was included because it was too good an idea to waste.

Extended, fantastical journeys have been a feature of these books from the very start. His Dark Materials had plenty of voyages to the remote Arctic wastes of Svalbard, to the Himalayas, to the multiple worlds opened up by the Subtle Knife, to the Land of the Dead, to the world of the mulefa. These wanderings continued in La Belle Sauvage, which featured a similarly meandering — albeit more tedious journey from Oxford to London — broken up with a series of supernatural stopovers.

Indeed, the old maxim of travel being a way of broadening your mind might be taken as a fairly useful summary of what these books are all about. If His Dark Materials describes a journey from innocence to experience, The Book of Dust continues this progress by extending Lyra’s education to include a better appreciation of what’s going on in the world around her — a refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, political instability in the Middle East, social injustice everywhere. Some of these sections were a touch too didactic for my liking. At times, I felt I was reading a report from a war correspondent in Syria than a fantasy set in a parallel universe.

As with most prequels/sequels to much loved stories, my excitement at Pullman’s announcement of The Book of Dust trilogy was tempered with nerves about whether it could live up to the original books. Having read two of the three volumes, I’m still in two minds. There is so much going on in The Secret Commonwealth, I am starting to wonder whether Pullman is using the story to pursue a set of philosophical arguments rather than using the arguments to enrich the story. Has the real story in this series of books — that of Lyra’s move from the innocence of childhood to the experience of adulthood — already come to an end?

But perhaps it’s unfair to write a review of a trilogy part-way through. After all, it’s hard to judge the success of a journey until it’s over.

I’m an avid reader from Wellington, New Zealand. History, crime fiction, literary classic. You name it, I’ll read it. Twitter @pileobooks

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