Secret Library

His Short Materials: Philip Pullman’s Serpentine

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys a slim but beautifully illustrated short from the world(s) of His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman’s new book, Serpentine, is not a novel, nor even a novella. Nor is it technically new: it dates from 2004, although it is only being published now. The action of this very short book (it’s barely 70 pages, with numerous illustrations) takes place just after the events of the original trilogy, His Dark Materials, and before the events of The Secret Commonwealth, the second novel in Pullman’s new trilogy, The Book of Dust.

Pullman wrote the story for charity in 2004, at the request of Nicholas Hytner, with the manuscript reportedly selling for a substantial sum. Only now is it being shared with a wider readership – and it’s a beautifully produced little book which fans of Pullman’s work will want to own, read, and buy for fellow fans of the world of His Dark Materials.

In The Secret Commonwealth, which I reviewed here, Lyra Belacqua had grown up into a young woman studying at the University of Oxford, where she still lived in Jordan College (although not for long). She was Lyra Belacqua no more: now, as we know from events in the original trilogy, she went under the name Lyra Silvertongue. Pantalaimon, her daemon, had settled down into a pine marten (in Pullman’s rich fantasy world, the most distinctive feature of this world is that 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 hardened certainty and immutability of one’s adult personality). The story of Serpentine takes place just after Lyra and Pan have learned that they can do something most people and their daemons are unable to do: they can separate, and be more than a few feet apart from one another.

As the brilliant Stuart Kelly notes in his review of Serpentine, it would be churlish to view this slim volume as a mere stocking-filler. Pullman likes to use shorter works as overtures or prologues to the longer epic works to come – something he did to great effect with the first trilogy, His Dark Materials. Here, the relationship between Lyra and Pantalaimon – and between humans and their daemons more generally – is very much the core of this short story, much as it had formed a central part of the original trilogy as well as The Secret Commonwealth. As that recent novel showed, Pullman is still finding new philosophical and existential questions to ask, and explore, through the human-daemon relationship. Here, the issue at hand is, specifically, Lyra and Pan’s ability to separate.

One of the most important themes that Pullman’s daemons allow him to explore is the transition from childhood to adulthood, so it’s fitting that Serpentine takes place just after Lyra and Pan’s adventures in the frozen northern land of Trollesund. Becoming a young adult is about learning who you really are and what your place in the world is – something that Pullman’s bête noire, C. S. Lewis, notoriously never allowed the Pevensie children to do in the Chronicles of Narnia (Susan is barred from heaven after she discovered lipstick, essentially). Of course, putting it like that makes it sound hackneyed and trite, not to mention vague, but that’s the beauty of Pullman’s daemon device: it acts as a powerful symbol for human personality and how this changes, and faces numerous challenges, during the troublesome years of adolescence.

In Serpentine, we see Lyra and Pan pay a visit to Dr Lanselius, in order to try to come to terms with the ramifications of this new revelation that they are able to be apart from each other. In a move that prefigures the recent novel The Secret Commonwealth – and shows how far ahead Pullman planned, even in embryo, his new trilogy (even though he tells us in the afterword that he had no intention of writing a further trilogy back in 2004 when he wrote Serpentine)  – Lanselius warns Lyra of the ‘coldness’ between daemon and human that follows the initial separation. It’s something that haunts The Secret Commonwealth and enables Pullman to write Pan’s best dialogue in the entire series.

At one point in Serpentine, Lyra tells Pan that one day she’ll find a secret that he’ll never know about. ‘And I bet I’ll know it within five minutes,’ he replies. Pan goes on to remind Lyra that, whilst she misses things, he never does. Their relationship is one of the standout aspects of Pullman’s work that features Lyra and Pan. Perhaps it’s the greatest thing about these novels (and shorts). There’s a greater sense of fragility and strain to their relationship (if such it can be called) in the latest books, and one can’t help feeling that Serpentine paves the way for more conflict in the final novel of The Book of Dust – which we may be treated to next autumn. This book is a slight, and slender, warm-up for that book – but die-hard fans of Lyra and Pan will not want to be without it.

Serpentine was published yesterday by Penguin Books. I am grateful to the publishers for an advance review copy, pictured above with friend of Interesting Literature, and daemon extraordinaire, Clyde the cat.

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. Fascinating. Has anyone – including Mr Pullman – actually *read* Lewis’s Narnia books? The Pevensie children do grow up and Narnia and reign there as adult Kings and Queens. Susan is not ‘barred from heaven’ because she isn’t killed in the train crash with her brothers and sister – she is still alive at the end, presumably with a long life ahead of her. (I read ‘The Last Battle’ as a child, and, had I been offered the choice of perishing in a train crash or returning to school after the holidays I would unhesitatingly have opted for death, even with no guarantee of an afterlife.)