The Secret Commonwealth
by Philip Pullman
Like many other fans of the original trilogy – and already well into The Secret Commonwealth – I sat down three weeks ago to watch the BBC’s production of His Dark Materials. At lunchtime on the following day, I discussed it with a friend. Of course, it was too early to judge the series as a whole. However, we agreed that, whatever the first episode’s merits for us, it must have been difficult getting into the story for anyone who hasn’t read the books.
Moreover, the production suffers in other ways. There is a lot of darkness, even when it isn’t needed to carry the scene. At times, the dialogue is muffled and nearly inaudible. (I find this increasingly true of TV drama.)
Having watched the second and third episodes, my opinion hasn’t changed. I’m enjoying the show; apart from the above-mentioned weaknesses, I think it’s great for fans of the trilogy, and far superior to the terrible movie of a few years ago. Yet it’s hard work for anyone new to the story. My wife, who hasn’t read the books, wondered about all sorts of things. ‘Why is Lyra’s daemon a butterfly; it was a stoat a moment ago?‘ ‘Why is Mrs Coulter kidnapping the children?’ And Boreal is a real puzzle; he had me going for a few moments, slipping between Lyra’s Oxford and ‘ours’. Surely that comes into the second book.
The Secret Commonwealth, the second book of Pullman’s new trilogy raises the same kind of questions. It’s a great story for readers who know what’s going on. However, I do wonder if Philip Pullman has done enough to attract new readers to his work. So much of the story depends on what happened before, not only in La Belle Sauvage but in the three original novels. Are kids, and adults for that matter, going to be happy to work through the 1,100 pages or so of His Dark Materials before tackling the book they just bought?
So, having voiced those little thoughts, what about the second volume of The Book of Dust itself? What is The Secret Commonwealth about?
‘The room was in utter confusion. Chairs were overturned, books pulled out of shelves and thrown on the floor, papers in a scattered mass on the desk. The rug was pulled back and a floorboard had been taken out. “Well, they found it,” said Lyra.’
About twenty years have elapsed since baby Lyra was left by her father in the safety of Jordan College. She is now a student at St Sophia’s, while her daemon Pantalaimon has settled as a pine marten. Malcolm Polstead, who rescued her from the Great Flood, and is ten years her senior, is a lecturer at yet another college.
The two parts of Lyra’s personalty are at odds with one another in fundamental ways. As a result of Lyra’s abandoning of him to visit the world of the dead, Pan can now separate from her in the same way as witches’ daemons do. While roaming Oxford one night on his own, he witnesses a murder. The dying man begs Pan to take his wallet, which with difficulty he does. The wallet identifies the victim as Dr Hassell, an Oxford botanist who was also an agent for Oakley Street, the secret organisation opposed to the Magisterium. The contents of the wallet in turn lead Lyra to a battered rucksack in a left-luggage locker.
Disturbing events are taking place in the Middle East concerning the production of a special kind of rose oil in which the Magisterium is interested. Now Lyra’s find leads her to Hanna Relf and back into the company of Malcolm, though she has no recollection of their adventure twenty years ago. Her life is still in danger, from the Magisterium and other enemies, led by the sinister Marcel Delmarre and his assistant Olivier Bonneville, an adept at a new method of reading the alethiometer.
‘Marcel Delmarre listened to the Prefect’s words with satisfaction. [H]e had made sure, by private enquiry., by blackmail, by bribery, by flattery, by threat, that the motion to elect a smaller council would be passed, and who should chair it.’
The plot and subplots of The Secret Commonwealth are complex. New characters keep popping up, both good and bad, connecting this novel with the four previous ones. Old readers will usually identify them, though their present motivation is not always clear – and takes time to reveal. Too much detail here would be a spoiler, so I will stick to the central theme.
The friction between Lyra and Pan escalates. He accuses her of losing her imagination and leaves her to search for it. Kicked out of Jordan College by the new Master, Lyra takes temporary refuge with Malcolm’s parents, but having no daemon makes her conspicuous. Realising she is being hunted by the forces of evil without knowing why, she goes to her old friend, the Gyptian Farder Coram for help. Furnished with a new identity as a witch, she sets out on a quest across Europe, Turkey and beyond in search of Pan, of a mysterious city haunted by daemons, and to the desert source of the rose oil, which has strange optical properties.
Meantime, Pan is also making his way across Europe, as is Malcolm, on a mission for Oakley Street. All three are travelling in the same direction, following similar trails, yet never meeting. The Magisterium, headed by Delmarre in his new powerful role, continues to pursue Lyra; Bonneville pursues Malcolm.
After many new adventures, Lyra will reach her destination where – perhaps – even greater dangers await her. But we are going to have to wait on Mr Pullman while he writes the third volume of A Book of Dust!
The Secret Commonwealth is a great story, better than La Belle Sauvage. It is less linear and more engaging. I detected a few inconsistencies but they didn’t matter and didn’t spoil the fun. It was a bit disappointing that we don’t get to meet Will again.
Well, maybe in the third book…..
Oh yes, and what IS the secret commonwealth? You’ll have to read the book!
And finally, for new readers (and viewers), here is a titbit (hopefully) by way of clarification as to what daemons are:
Human beings in Lyra’s world have lifetime companions, daemons, which take animal form.
Daemons are not pets; they are not separate individuals but part of the human self, like the soul in our universe and language. Apparently ours take animal form too, which makes a certain amount of sense.
With a few exceptions, humans and their daemons cannot separate. They cannot be parted by more than a metre or two.
Until puberty, a child’s daemon can change form – animal, bird or insect; adults’ daemons have a fixed form. They reflect the adult’s personality. Thus Asriel’s Stelmaria was a snow leopard while the daemons of servants are often dogs. Spies (the bad guys) tend to have snakes.
Although part of the individual, daemons have a rational self which can argue, support or console the human part.
The Daemon’s in all of us!