Philip Pullman Explores His 'Best Idea' Through Lyra's Adulthood in 'The Secret Commonwealth'

A lot has changed for Lyra Belacqua since the 1995 publication of Northern Lights, retitled The Golden Compass for North American audiences. A 12-year-old with mystic intuition sufficient to read the alchemical, truth-telling alethiometer device, Lyra defied the evil institutions of her society, from the child-snatching Gobblers to the Christian Magisterium, climaxing in a revolt against divinity itself. But in author Philip Pullman's latest novel, The Secret Commonwealth — second in The Book of Dust trilogy Pullman opened in 2017 — Lyra is faced with the reckoning with society demanded of all adults.

The Secret Commonwealth shares its title with a collection of folklore by Robert Kirk, a Scottish minister born 375 years ago this December. Kirk gathered fairy tales from across the Scottish Highlands, but, unlike the Grimm brothers, Kirk's approach was anthropological, validating rural reports of "Aerial People," "Fairies," "Brownies" and "Subterraneans," while extolling the virtues of those with the "Second Sight" capable of seeing their invisible society.

Lyra has such an encounter in the first Book of Dust, 2017's La Belle Sauvage — named for Malcolm Polstead's shipshape canoe, which carries him and baby Lyra over a mysterious floodwater. Bedraggled and in flight from the deranged particle physicist Gerard Bonneville, Malcolm and Alice Parslow (who both return in The Secret Commonwealth as adult allies to Lyra) wash up on the island of a fairy woman, who attempts to claim Lyra as her own. It's not the only encounter with the Secret Commonwealth in La Belle Sauvage, but it is the one that reaches into Lyra's adult life, shaping it in ways she's less prepared to see than her dæmon Pantalaimon.

At the opening of The Secret Commonwealth Lyra has bigger problems than youthful encounters with the supernatural, which she has boxed away as childhood fancy. The scholastic sanctuary which provided her safe harbor in a fictionalized Oxford's Jordan College, has become a vulnerability in adulthood — one which a new, Magisterium-connected Dean is only too happy to exploit. As a child, Lyra could live in the spaces between academic and working class life, but adulthood has forced her to define her place in the world, in practical ways which clash with the multidimensional, spiritual jaunts of her childhood.

The cover for the second novel in "The Book of Dust" trilogy, "The Secret Commonwealth," out now. Penguin Random House

In revisiting Lyra's world, Pullman, 72, doesn't abandon the themes of the renowned His Dark Materials trilogy. The Magisterium is more dangerous than ever in its ongoing weaponization of faith, while the mystery of Dust — a particle somehow connected to human consciousness — draws seekers to Central Asia, where a shadow war rages over supernatural properties discovered in distilled rose oil.

But where His Dark Materials roams across realities, Lyra's journey in The Book of Dust is as much an exploration of the soul she shares with her dæmon familiar, Pantalaimon, as it is a cross-continent adventure. Lyra struggles between an adulthood defined by either "rational" demystification or the willingness to embrace the Second Sight of a dimly visible, occult reality beyond human limitations. The Secret Commonwealth reasserts Pullman's affection for the wondrous and those pieces of reality which can be seen only by those willing to see.

Philip Pullman, author of "His Dark Materials" and "The Book of Dust." Michael Leckie

Speaking via phone from his home in Oxfordshire, Pullman illuminated some of the ways Lyra's adult adventures both continue and depart from His Dark Materials.

What do you think will surprise readers about the adult Lyra? How do you think she's changed?

I think people might be a little taken aback at first, by how down she is.

In the first trilogy, in His Dark Materials, she's very much a leading character. She initiates things; she has a lot of agency, so to speak. Something happened to her — as her dæmon Pantalaimon recognizes — which has taken that energy and zest and delight in things away from her. That might be a little surprising to people. But I'm talking about what happens to people when they grow up. I remember my 20s and teenage years very vividly because of the enormous emotional changes I went through.

A major element in both The Secret Commonwealth and La Belle Sauvage are the ways in which relations between dæmons and humans can change or get perverted, most notably by separation. Why did you decide to complicate this relationship so much and how did you set about doing it?

It's a result of writing about characters in this new book who are adults, who are not children anymore, who have different preoccupations, different questions to ask, different problems to deal with. The benefit of this dæmons idea is it lets me look at human development — the development of individuals and as people as a whole — from a slightly different angle. The more I write my way through this story, the better the dæmon idea seems to me. It's the best idea I've ever had, probably.

His Dark Materials has become known as an atheist text, but a big part of The Book of Dust is pushing back against a certain brand of "rationalism." Is this your response to the rise of the kind of pop atheist rationalism that's emerged online, or something else?

That's inevitably part of it. But it isn't a treatise, it isn't a thesis, it is a story. It's a very [William] Blake-y one. Blake was very against what he called 'single vision': one size fits all, the one answer that is true for everything and everyone always.

In the world we live in today, the one answer which is true for everyone in every situation has been taken up by various positions, including a kind of strident atheism. And it's just as bad coming from that direction as from the other. It's the singleness of vision that Lyra finds herself wounded by. And her discussion with the Gyptians are part of her moral education in a way. Because she's being shown the value of such things as story and ambiguity and twilight and shadows and not know anything with absolute clarity.

You have these two fictional postmodern texts that Lyra reads, Talbot's The Constant Deceiver and Brande's The Hyperchorasmians. What's the role they play in The Secret Commonwealth?

They've made her doubt things she didn't previously doubt. There's a very interesting passion in William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, which refers to this existential doubt that comes into some people's lives. He calls it being twice-born. Which is not the same at all as being twice born in the kind of Southern Baptist form of the term. The impact a book can have on a young mind is immense. It can hit you hard midships and make you stop and gather your breath; persuade you that something is not as it was. A book can have an enormous effect. I was interested to look back at my experience of reading in my late teens and early 20s.

If there's something that can take Lyra aback, persuade her that's she's wrong about things, it has to be a book. It has to be something you can reread and look at again. You just can't do that so easily with, for example, music. It doesn't work in the same way. And I wanted to look at the effect a book could have on a generation of people. I suppose a comparative example would be Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged: the effect that had on a whole generation of people in power.

There's a new method for reading the alethiometer, which doesn't require books. But it's always been as much an intuition machine as anything, so what are you tweaking or changing about its nature with this new method?

Well, one of the things I was thinking about was the coming of modernism in the visual arts, particularly the development of Cubism. Where we don't see things. Where the painter depicts things not from a single viewpoint, but as if it were fractured, fragmented, jumbled up. That's always intrigued me. The new method is kind of a Cubism of thought. Young Bonneville discovers he can use the instrument in this way, which is very vivid and immediate in some ways, but unhelpful in others. For example, it can only show him what is happening now, he can't see connections between causes and consequences. It's a visually disorienting and nauseating experience. Just as the early Cubist paintings were disorienting and even unpleasant.

It's possible I'm forgetting a specific reference, but as far as I can remember what's never mentioned alongside the Magisterium is Jesus. How closely does the Magisterium map on to Christianity?

If you look at the history of the Christian church, the presence of Jesus is not very prominent. What is prominent are the rules and theories and ideologies developed by the priesthood. That's very salient and dominant. Jesus is there as a symbol of affection and God and so on, but how much notice do we take of what Jesus said in the Gospel? Very little, very little indeed. Jesus, if anything is teaching a pacifist socialism.

We're seeing more of the world in The Book of Dust and I'm curious how you see this world in relation to ours. I mean, Napoleon exists, but the Pope doesn't. This event yes, that event no... is that based on what works best for the narrative, or are there presuppositions or historical pivot points from which your world changes course?

The pivot point deals with the Church, because in Lyra's world when Calvin became the Pope, an unlikely move we might think, and I don't go into all the theology and politics of it, that's for science fiction, if you'd like. The implication is he became Pope and promptly dissolved the papacy, in the name of what we'd call now populism perhaps.

The Bonnevilles are strange villains... kind of twisted academics. What happened to these guys to make them so awful?

The story isn't finished yet and part of the action in the third book will of course deal with the origins of the Bonneville anger.

Why did you choose rose water as the medium for uncovering the truth behind Dust and the Rusakov field?

That's been a theme that's been intriguing me for a very long time. The rose is kind of a central image in Central Asian storytelling. I was intrigued by the flower itself, which seems to be a perfect emblem of every kind of flower; the scent, the beauty of it. I even went to a place in this country where they make rose water and rose oil and I watched the process and that intrigued me even more.

In the last chapter of The Amber Spyglass, the emblem I drew are two roses bound together by a ribbon. And obviously they represent Lyra and Will, and they're facing opposite directions. So there was always the idea of Lyra as a rose, or being represented as a rose.

There's a poem by Gérard de Nerval, the disinherited French poet, which describes "a trellis where a rose and a vine entwine." It's a wonderful poem, evoking the spirit of some melancholy: "I am the shaded one, the widower, the unconsoled..." I thought, "Yeah, that's an image I want." So I'm basically just installing whatever rose images I find. These things come together in a way that isn't logical, but nevertheless has a powerful binding quality.

One of the strangest scenes involves elementals, an alchemist and some sort of infernal machine. It expands our concept of dæmons considerably. It also seems to have something to do with the mechanization of magic, which is an undercurrent throughout the books. What are you exploring in the Prague segment of The Secret Commonwealth?

It's a kind of mirror image of an incident at the end of The Golden Compass, when Lord Asriel opens the way to another world and discovers a huge source of power in splitting a child from his dæmon. That, if you like, is fission. This is fusion, where the alchemist Agrippa combines the contradictory elements of fire and water and sets his philosophical machine going. But again, it results in the destruction of a child, or young person. I don't know what it means, that's for people to think about. I described what I saw in my mind's eyes. And I was accompanied by the sensation that this means something.

But I don't want to interpret my books to people. That's not my job, really. Furthermore, there is no one right answer. There are some writes I know, like William Golding, who firmly believed there was one right way to read his books. I'm the reverse of that. Once the book is out there in the public eye, it's not my book anymore, it belongs to the reader. And the reader can interpret it in any way they like.

You've lent your voice to many causes, including as a patron to the Palestine Festival of Literature and as president of the Society of Authors. What is the writer's public role or duty?

It's a complicated one, because it's slightly different from that of the "public intellectual." The public intellectual is someone who I take to probably be an academic. Or someone with academic standing. Maybe a historian, or a writer on constitutional politics. The novelist or the poet have a slightly different relationship to that. If I started writing books, or writing stories that overtly, or allegorically put forward as a point of view, I can tell you here and now they'd be much worse than the books I already write.

At the same time, I am a citizen as well as a storyteller, and writing a book of this length takes a long time. It takes a long series of sessions of silent, hard work. Now, nobody does that unless they believe in what they're doing. Nobody does that without revealing their beliefs. You can't separate your own morals and political convictions from a work of that length and still find it possible to do it. You've got to believe you're saying something worth saying, even if you're not sure what it is. The function of the novel in public discourse is to give voice to present embodiments of examples of moral learning, moral failure, moral growth.

It's closely bound up with one's own morality, whether you believe it or not. That's an intrinsic part of us as human beings, unless we're psychopaths. Whether it's a novel or a play or a movie, or whatever it is, it can't help presenting the morality you live by. But again, when I support that cause or this cause — and just for the record, I'm very keen to remain in the EU and not go for Brexit, and I say that whenever I get a chance — whatever that is, that's not how I write stories.

As long as they keep turning the pages, that's all I can wish for, really. Someone once asked me, "What do you want readers to feel after they've finished one of your books?" I'd like them to feel the fervent desire to go out and buy the next one.

The Secret Commonwealth is out now.