Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth revisited

April 4, 2021

     It was time to revisit The Secret Commonwealth, which was published a year and a half ago; I’m looking forward to the next and possibly final novel, which may come out in the autumn, if Philip Pullman and his publishers stick to the existing schedule…

This time around, I was struck by just how much this book is about daemons, the relationships between humans and their daemons, and, for those of us living in the world without them – at least without the separate, visible companions – quite deep reflection on what the daemon may symbolise. In Lyra’s world, as she grows older, it becomes apparent/ she learns that quite a number of humans can separate/ be separated, voluntarily and involuntarily, from their daemons: we are a long way from the horrors of Bolvangar in the first volume of His Dark Materials. Lyra and Pan have fallen out; she changes as she grows older, becomes more cautious, less adventurous, and he leaves her, to try and find and bring back her imagination…

Lyra has read a novel set in a world in which humans have no daemons (and yet, curiously, she does not seem to make a clear connection with Will’s – ie our world), and she has read a philosophical work which argues that daemons are a figment of the imagination; in my terms, she’s struggling with the relationship between the material and the spiritual, a struggle which many manage completely to avoid in our world. But the secret commonwealth, a sense of hidden but real connection in mysterious ways between all sorts of beings and creatures, which does not exist on a rational level, keeps impinging on her as she pursues her adventures.

We’re also engaging with Pullman’s view of our own world, as reflected at one remove in Lyra’s. Pullman clearly does not like many things about the ways we live – and I’m happy to agree with him there – and we see characters engaging in that struggle for the Republic of Heaven that was formulated at the end of His Dark Materials, working beneath the surface of society in numerous ways for decency, and a sane and sensible attitude to life for everyone, against superstition and power games. Pullman’s message is a subversive one, especially as he engages with the blurring of the lines between truth and lies which is going on even as I write. For Pullman, the rational approach alone is not sufficient, and furthermore seems to be being used to reassure people that it’s OK to be selfish… which it’s not (within limits).

I’d have expected the cataclysmic events at the end of His Dark Materials to have made more of a difference to Lyra’s world even ten years later, than they actually seem to have done; the Magisterium and its religious fanaticism seem as strong as ever.

I think Pullman is also writing about what happens to us as we grow up, grow older, hopefully mature, certainly as we become adults. Lyra’s journey isn’t an easy one, as she reads and argues, and tries out new ideas for size. Many people do this, and are perhaps radically transformed, or develop along quite unexpected paths; her conflict with her daemon is at one level an obvious externalisation of a process a good number of us experience internally as we grow older. Pullman wants his readers to stop and reflect, I feel: back with Socrates’ idea of the unexamined life not being worth living. And beneath it all are the important values of decency in our own behaviour, and care for the less able or less fortunate than ourselves, very Christian values expounded by an author who at the same time is ferociously challenging the mind-controlling structures of established religion. Subversive, as I said before, and very good stuff.

You may feel I’ve said precious little about the novel itself. True, and I invite you to read what I wrote first time around, here.

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