The Secret Commonwealth:
The Book of Dust, Volume Two
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Chris Wormell.
David Fickling Books / Penguin 2019
“Dæmons don’t exist.
We might think they do; we might talk to them and hold them close and whisper our secrets to them; we might make judgements about other people whose dæmons we think we see, based on the form they seem to have and the attractiveness or repulsiveness they embody; but they don’t exist.”
— From Simon Talbot’s ‘The Constant Deceiver’
Intellect and emotion may be the dualism that governs the human condition: imagination may be the link that binds them together. In The Secret Commonwealth the rift between Lyra and her dæmon Pantalaimon which was brought about in The Amber Spyglass (and which became more evident in Serpentine) is now an apparently unbridgeable chasm. Lyra’s absorption with treatises and fiction dominated by intellectualism has only served to further alienate her from Pan; it doesn’t take much to push the dæmon to begin a search for Lyra’s lost imagination, and that nudge comes with Pan witnessing a murder.
Where the His Dark Materials trilogy developed into individual quests through various worlds to arrive at a resolution, and La Belle Sauvage turned into an epic voyage through flooded countryside to safeguard a one-year-old, The Secret Commonwealth combines both as we follow key players from Brytain across Europe to the Asia Minor in just one world — Lyra’s. As we follow those players, Pan, Lyra, and Malcolm (along with one other) we learn just how much danger they’re in, are given clues concerning the bigger picture, and learn about great movements of peoples in that world which not only echo contemporary events in ours but also throughout the ages.
At nearly 700 pages the middle book of Philip Pullman’s second trilogy following the career of Lyra Silvertongue is almost impossible to characterise succinctly, let alone summarise — even if that was desirable — so I shall resort to impressions: impressions of mood, of characterisation and of possible significances.
Let me begin with dualism. There is the age-old dualism of Good and Evil which is self-evident here, between the Magisterium and its arch-manipulator Marcel Delamare and entities trying to counteract it, such as the Oakley Street group and its secret agent Malcolm Polstead; this is what drives much of the action because the Magisterium has lost none of its power (nor its lust for further power) despite the demise of the Authority and Metatron in The Amber Spyglass. That there are further revelations which make Delamare’s search for Lyra a personal matter only adds a further strand into the complex texture of this novel.
Dualism also manifested in the ability of certain human individuals to separate from their dæmons, with the alienation that inevitably seems to follow. The form that Lyra and Pan’s alienation takes is not just of diverging personalities, it is characterised by Pan as the gulf between intellect and imagination. This kind of separation of interests is one that sometimes leads to the souring of the relationships between couples and between friends, so it’s unsurprising but still distressing that it happens to the characters Pullman first enchanted us with in Northern Lights.
For me The Secret Commonwealth is the epitome of a cross-genre novel. So, yes, it is fantasy, with its dæmons, and its alternative world and history. But it’s also a thriller in the mould of those Cold War spy novels, even if some of the bugging is done by alethiometer rather than conventional technology. It’s also a novel of ideas: it touches on literary antecedents and inspirations such as Milton, Spenser and Blake, alludes to populist anxieties about borders and immigration, and hints at the scientific theories of particle physics involving dark matter which underlay His Dark Materials and is implied by this further trilogy The Book of Dust.
This instalment has disappointed some, who have felt it too long, too unfocused, even too indulgent. Myself, I fully endorse what I think Pullman was trying to achieve. If we look at how His Dark Materials was, however loosely, structured we find it went from (1) Lyra’s Brytain, with its Oxford, London, fens and Arctic wastes, to (2) Will’s world and then the Cittàgazze world, then to (3) many worlds, including the Land of the Dead, the world of the mulefa‘s world and the Republic of Heaven. So far The Book of Dust comprises (1) Brytain, moving down the Thames from Oxfordshire through floods to London, and (2) multiple routes from Brytain across Europe into Asia Minor, variously via the fens, Paris, Geneva, Prague, Istanbul, Izmir and onwards. If the pattern continues, the final volume of The Book of Dust will have our various travellers journeying eastwards towards a goal in Central Asia, with the many worlds of The Amber Spyglass supplying themes to parallel those in the last instalment of The Book of Dust.
And what is the significance of the title The Secret Commonwealth? It’s related to a population which we have already met in La Belle Sauvage, namely the denizens of Faërie. When Malcolm and Alice are travelling through the flooded countryside with their precious cargo, they meet a figure who will certainly have featured in a 17th-century Scottish treatise by Robert Kirk, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns & Fairies. Their existence is hinted at a few times in this novel, notably by the gyptian Giorgio Brabandt to Lyra; she asks him,
‘What’s the secret commonwealth?’
‘The world of the fairies, and the ghosts, and the jacky lanterns.’
‘Well, I’ve never seen a jacky lantern, but I’ve seen three ghosts, and I was suckled by a fairy. It happened in the great flood twenty years ago.’
At the centre of this instalment is the heartache that emerges from the estrangement between Pan and Lyra, one that of necessity began in The Amber Spyglass and which allowed Lyra and Will to accomplish the witches’ prophecy. From pain comes a greater good, but the betrayal felt by Pan is a wound that mayn’t be healed in a hurry—if at all.
I have no doubt that the last volume of The Book of Dust will be a great fairy story — and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly. And, it goes without saying, The Secret Commonwealth has been all that I’d hoped for and expected from the middle instalment of a trilogy: exciting, profound, and a wonderful lead-in to what promises to be a fine and magisterial conclusion.
Further discussion, with spoilers, will follow this review in due course