Secret Library

The Less Deceived: Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews the second volume in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, The Book of Dust

The first volume of Philip Pullman’s ‘equel’, The Book of Dust, got off to a slow start, although La Belle Sauvage showed the His Dark Materials author’s skill at handling big themes in an engaging narrative. Things moved at an almost glacial pace for much of the first half of the novel, but we gradually came to learn how young Malcolm Polstead’s chance discovery of an acorn containing a secret message dragged him into a world of intrigue, religious authoritarianism, and danger, part of which centred on the baby named Lyra Belacqua.

Now, in the second volume of the trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume Two (Book of Dust 2), Lyra Belacqua has grown up – not into the young girl who was the heroine of His Dark Materials, but into Lyra Silvertongue, a young woman who is studying at the University of Oxford, where she still lives in Jordan College (although not for long). Pantalaimon, her daemon, has settled down into a pine marten; in Pullman’s rich fantasy world, everyone has a daemon, but while they are a child their daemon changes from creature to creature, reflecting the impressionable and protean nature of childhood as set against the (relatively) hardened certainty and immutability of one’s adult personality.

And ‘certainty’ is a key theme of the novel. In The Secret Commonwealth, as in His Dark Materials, daemons are not just an interesting side-detail of Pullman’s fictional world, but a core plot element – and, inevitably, character element. Tensions are strained between Lyra and Pan, and it’s clear they’re still dealing with the fallout from the events of the previous trilogy, now a decade in the past but still sending ripples through their lives. Pan argues with Lyra over her reading: specifically, her interest in the work of an Oxford philosopher named Simon Talbot, and a German philosopher, Gottfried Brande. The former, who has written a book with a Dawkinsesque title The Constant Deceiver, thinks that all reality is rather suspect and many things we think exist may be mere delusions, while Brande, known as the Sage of Wittenberg, has a given name which punningly suggests one ‘freed’ of God, and there’s certainly something somewhat Nietzschean about him. He also believes that daemons don’t objectively exist but are mere figments of humans’ imaginations. Lyra, according to Pan, has been won over by such thinkers, which he obviously takes as a personal slight: by association, Lyra is saying she isn’t sure whether he exists.

Indeed, so estranged do the pair of them become – already, unusually, able to separate in a world where humans usually have to stick closely to their daemons – that Pan literally leaves Lyra, and they embark on separate quests which relate, among other things, to the mysterious murder of an Oxford botanist (witnessed by Pan in the novel’s opening chapter). The ensuing adventure takes us to Germany, West Asia and Central Europe, but Pan and Lyra remain on different paths: Pan journeys to Wittenberg to confront Brande, and we begin to see how The Secret Commonwealth builds upon Pullman’s earlier trilogy, with its adult heroine confronting similar institutions which had threatened her, and other youngsters such as her friend Will, during their childhood. Whereas in the previous trilogy the enemy was organised religion telling lies to children and stealing their childhood from them, the core theme of The Secret Commonwealth is the threat to imagination – not just childhood imagination but that of adults too – posed by an uber-rational outlook. It’s clear to us as readers, as it is to Pan, that daemons objectively do exist in Pullman’s world, and when we meet Brande as Pan interrogates him, he strikes us as paranoid about being found out, neurotic and insecure, either deluded by his own philosophical pronouncements or terrified of being exposed as a liar.

Imagination and its importance to us as humans is, then, one of the chief themes of The Secret Commonwealth: the title of Pullman’s novel refers to the world of fairies, spirits, daemons, and other numinous or supernatural entities banished from Talbot’s and Brande’s Eden. Is Pullman attempting to backtrack on his own earlier work and show us the benefits of a belief in the supernatural? I don’t think so. It’s clear he is consistently against dangerous lies and powerful organisations controlling people, whether it’s the Church or popular ‘rationalists’ who deny the power of the human imagination. This is what Pan represents: Lyra’s ‘soul’, but in inverted commas. But then the human imagination is one of the real success stories of natural selection, and perhaps the one which comes closest to suggesting that divinity actually does exist in the world.

But The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume Two (Book of Dust 2) is also a novel that seems to respond to our own times of political polarisation and simplified narratives: when Pan accuses Lyra of seeing the complex world of colour in reductive black and white, it sounds like Pullman’s own frustration with the world of social media, news channels, Brexit, Trump, and the rest of it, where we’re always right and the other side are just wrong, wrong, wrong. Although The Secret Commonwealth ends with many questions unanswered, it shows Pullman more confidently in control of his themes and materials than in the previous novel. It is His Dark Materials for the uncertain world of worrying certainty we now all inhabit.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

One Comment

  1. No, I don’t think Pullman is backtracking either. I think he suggests a healthy scepticism about many things is in order, especially those about which we can have no certainty. He still makes his readers think, although to me he’s following his ideas from HDM in a different way. Enjoyed your piece, and offer you mine in exchange: https://litgaz.wordpress.com/2019/10/07/philip-pullman-the-secret-commonwealth/

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