Intellect and imagination

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.

1936 map of part of Mongolia with ruins of Karakorum, “former residence of the Mongolian emperor”

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

20 thoughts on “Intellect and imagination

    1. The imminent arrival of the BBC/HBO series had me rereading His Dark Materials and the associated novellas (though I read the first of The Book of Dust instalments soon after it came out) and it has been an immersive experience.

      And now, with the second series of HDM being broadcast I’m in awe of how rich the lives in Pullman’s imaginary worlds are that the scriptwriter/s and actors can flesh out the characters from what is not said in the text and yet remain true to the authors vision.

      So here’s to your own rereads in 2021, a bright experience for when our own world remains in turmoil.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I really enjoyed this book Chris. There are some difficult aspects of it regarding the separation of Lyra and Pantalaimon (and I know my daughter stopped reading it for a while as a result). My only slight doubt about it was in the elemental characters of fire and water. As the book proceeded closer to its end, I couldn’t see how Pullman was going to bring it to any kind of conclusion. However, he did it brilliantly I thought. I can’t say anything about it here of course, but it was a perfect stopping point, managed perfectly, before moving on to the next book. I loved it!

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    1. Those elemental characters were a puzzlement to me too, Alastair, and the separation of heroine and daemon is as painful for the reader as Lyra and Pan, as I’m sure it was meant to be. I can sort of vaguely see where the final instalment may be heading but, knowing Pullman’s way, he will no doubt confound us all! I too loved this middle volume, and am tempted to read it again sooner rather than later.

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  2. Thank you for the review. It’s so interesting to find out other people’s thoughts about a book. I’m afraid my own impressions of this second trilogy are less favourable: Much detail, little substance. ‘La Belle Sauvage’ was a very long book but, in the end, didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t know already. The prequel problem. Overall, I find Pullman’s books becoming unfocussed and I disliked the fairy tale elements in ‘La Belle Sauvage’ because, to my mind, they undermined the rationality of Lyra’s world set up in the previous books (I know, I know, baulking at fairies when I easily accepted angels…). I liked the rigour of the first books – they dealt with the big picture; being scaffolded on Milton helped, of course. With this set, I can’t find the structure for the decoration and so the whole quest feels ‘muddy’.

    I also questioned the tone, wondering who the book exactly these books were aimed at; for instance, there’s a scene towards the end of ‘The Secret Commonwealth’ that should have been questioned more by editor and author as its content is too old for children but its treatment is not grown up enough for adults. It seemed included to shock, to say, Look, She’s all grown up now, rather than to set scene, drive plot or establish character (I have similar issues with Neil Gaiman’s work – the constraints imposed when he’s writing for children make those books ‘better’ – more tightly constructed, more tonally balanced, more implied and less spelled out – than his looser books aimed at adults). Having read two books of the three, I’ll continue when the third is released and hope that there I see the point.

    [I too am enjoying much of the telly adaptation, especially the mingled timelines and Lord Boreal, although all the way through series 1, I was screaming ‘Not enough daemons!’.]

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    1. Ooh, thank you for this detailed response and, I have to say, there’s not a lot I would implicitly disagree with, though “much detail, little substance” feels a little harsh! Pullman isn’t beyond criticism—much like pretty much all authors—but as I try to give writers, up a point, the benefit of the doubt, I’m assuming here that the wealth of detail he offers is there for a purpose and not inconsequential padding. To deal with specific points:

      1. La Belle Sauvage was uneven, I concur with that, and the fairy aspects did sit uneasily especially after we’d swallowed all the anti-theocracy stuff in His Dark Materials. If The Fairie Queen was a starting point for him here then Milton and Blake are indeed strange bedfellows for Spencer. I wonder though if Pullman is deliberately trying to angle Faërie as the grounding for Brytain after despatching the Authority and Metatron in HDM? Obscurely, this feels as if he’s trying to rival Tolkien in claiming the secret commonwealth as providing the foundation for a British mythology?

      2. The sequential publication of the Harry Potter books seemed to grow in sombreness with the increasing maturity of their readership, and I guess something similar may be intended here. But, yes, TSC does fall between two stools, between what might be too distressing for younger readers and what appears mealy-mouthed for more cynical adult readers. In my ‘benefit of the doubt’ mood I’m assuming that there is method in his apparent madness!

      3. With Gaiman I am entirely in agreement with you.

      4. “Not enough demons!” I know what you mean, especially in the Trollesund and gyptian camp scenes. But then, the adults could easily have had insect daemons, or small rodents or reptiles, not too visible in long shot—they didn’t all need to be snow leopards or Skraeling attack dogs. I think HDM2 must have tried to address that issue.

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      1. Thank you for such a generous reply. I hope I didn’t appear contrary for contrariness’ sake! I suppose my harsh reaction results from disappointment. The first trilogy was so good, especially the first two books, that my expectations were high; had they been lower, I’d have gone easier!

        1. Interesting. I’m not well up enough on Spencer to have an opinion on whether it’s the text-in-conversation with ‘The Book of Dust’. My main concern is that we knew what the rules were in the first trilogy, even the Authority was in the end made up of the same material as everything else. These fairies appear wrought of other stuff entirely. Their incursion into the text reminded me of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn in ‘The Wind in the Willows’ – a lovely episode but one outside the story.

        2. Agree, but that scene felt off within the bounds of ‘The Secret Commonwealth’. The later Potter books introduced their more adult content more gradually and – mostly – presented it in a fantasy form. I share the common view that later Potter could have done with more rigorous editing but not for that reason.

        4. Of course, but still the lack of visible daemons amongst the children had a big impact on what should have been the emotional core of series 1. Thus far, I’m enjoying series 2 more, probably because the world is built, the characters are drawn, and it can get on with the story.

        I’ll bow out now. It’s been good to chat about such a thought provoking book. Thank you.

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        1. Just a quick reply to your points:

          Yes, the Diania and garden party episodes shared some qualities with the Piper at the Gates of Dawn scene (and also with an episode in Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle, as I mention here: https://wp.me/p2oNj1-7L). But other episodes, especially those with Bonneville, are conscious echoes of bits of Spencer I remember reading years ago: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-hyena.

          “Rigorous editing” may be a factor lacking in recent more successful authors like Rowling and Pullman, but against their tendency to include so much possibly extraneous material (‘artistic integrity’ might be the excuse) are the advantages that nerdy-in-the-extreme fans get to immerse themselves more thoroughly in these fantasy worlds and that spin-offs are more likely…

          We’ve been interweaving series two episodes with series one catch-up (my partner is only now getting round to the books so desperately needs further clarification, more than I can easily provide) so it’s interesting for me to see how cleverly details in the current series have been quietly prefigured in last year’s episodes. So, yes, the groundwork has been established.

          And thank you too for this extended conversation!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful review, Chris, and nice discussion above….

    I have yet to tackle this new series, but read Serpentine over the weekend. I was crushed at the separation between Lyra and Pan and I can understand someone wanting to end their association with Pullman’s world right there. There is a certain sensibility, I think, that draws people to these kinds of novels where there is a fantasy aspect you love, but also a reality you have to accept.

    I sometimes hesitate to read reviews of books you critique, Chris, if I know I am going to read it myself. You do such a thorough job engaging your readers with these posts, so I can’t always help myself! I have to admit, now I feel more prepared!

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    1. Thanks very much, Laurie. Serpentine was devastating but for newcomers it represents the essential stepping stone between The Amber Spyglass and The Secret Commonwealth, explaining how the rift between the two halves intensifies over the years: it’s very familiar, and well observed, but heartbreaking nevertheless. And even though Pullman wrote it sixteen years ago, long before he got going on The Book of Dust, that rift is the mainspring for events in this instalment.

      Reviews are tricky, aren’t they? How much to reveal, how much to conceal. Apart from well-known classics (and maybe not even then) I try to do two things: 1. Function like a blurb and introduce the key elements that may draw the reader in—or put them off! 2. Give a flavour of what follows, identify themes that leap out at me, raise red flags if necessary. But never, ever, give a full synopsis of the type you find Wikipedia.

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  4. I did not like The Amber Spyglass after loving the first two books of HDM, so I stopped with Pullman there. But I think I should reread the first set and consider moving on to this one. He is fantastic at putting ideas into images and narrative, when the ideology doesn’t outweigh his storytelling skills.

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    1. Pullman simultaneously enlightens and irritates his legions of readers, doesn’t he, and while I’ve found just a few of his works so-so in execution I do rate his powers of imagination. With this novel I really enjoyed the thriller element, which reminded me of those classic Cold War spy mysteries especially as the fantastical elements were downplayed compared to HDM.

      As for the Spyglass instalment, I found my recent reread helped to put it into perspective because I too thought it confusing and unfocused the first time. I hope you may be more inclined to like it during a second read.

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  5. Thanks for a great review! I stopped reading The Secret Commonwealth about two thirds of the way through. The pain of Lyra’s separation from Pan, and particularly their constant misunderstandings, was so evocative of the kinds of issues I have with my autism that it hit a bit of a sore spot. That feeling of a relationship that I desparately care about going all wrong no matter how hard I try is really familiar and painful – too painful to carry on at the time I was reading it.

    I still have a desire to finish it and want to know what Pullman does with this wonderful world he has created and sitations he’s set up, but I will need to gather some strength of will to do it!

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    1. I do so know what you mean, Jo—I felt that all the constant setbacks (and not just the Pan/Lyra relationship breakdown, distressing as that is) were constantly dragging me as reader down, especially as it went on for page after page. But as I followed the several journeys eastward, with the characters’ different quests, I kind of saw that these were necessary obstacles on the way to a hoped-for resolution in the final instalment. “It’s the journey,” as the cliché goes, “not the destination,” and that definitely applies to The Secret Commonwealth. I’m sure the effort will be worth it, Jo, courage, mon brave!

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    1. Do read the first trilogy, His Dark Materials, before embarking on The Book of Dust: and at least start with series 1 of HDM broadcast last year by BBC/HBO (the second series is about to conclude this weekend in the UK). As you like such a range of subjects — philosophy, mysticism, anthropology, literature, travel — you’ll find many of them touched on in Pullman’s fictions, of which this alternative world fantasy series probably stands at the apex.

      And thanks for reminding us of the Beethoven anniversary this year, I don’t know how I missed that! Ashkenazy is a passionate performer and this certainly came across in the extract you linked to on your post.

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      1. Thanks, I will do that and my first book will be Northern Lights, His Dark Materials. And, thanks very much for visiting my blog and following! Beethoven is divine! I always discover something new in his compositions.

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        1. You’re welcome, Diana, your literature reviews are intelligent though not uncritical and I’m looking forward to exploring more of them.
          Beethoven: I’m a classically trained musician though nowhere near virtuosic on the piano — I prefer performances where emotional response triumphs over virtuosic technique, and I believe Ashkenazy’s performances largely do that.

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          1. Thank you. I also find Ashkenazy’s performance emotional, conveying clearly to the audience the sheer brilliance and emotional intensity of the composition. That’s a rare gift he has. That is so interesting that your background is classical music! I have deepest respect and admiration for classically trained musicians. One of the regrets of my life is that I was not introduced to a piano at a young age. I started learning it only last December (reading notes, etc. – the whole package) and, as an adult beginner, it is quite a challenge. Hopefully, I will be in position one day to play something on the piano that doesn’t sound so very bad 🙂

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