Two years after Philip Pullman published La Belle Sauvage, the prequel to His Dark Materials trilogy, we have its long-awaited sequel, The Secret Commonwealth. Set ten years after the end of The Amber Spyglass, it follows the further adventures of Lyra, now a 21-year-old student at St Sophia’s College. Oxford. No longer a child, orphaned and (as she is about to discover) penniless, she has bigger problems even than her yearning for Will. She is estranged from her daemon, Pantalaimon (or Pan).
Part of Pullman’s striking originality lies in his conception of a world like and unlike our own, in which human souls are visible as animals. Everybody must stay close to theirs, but Lyra has learnt to separate from Pan — something that makes her a terrifying freak. While apart from her one night, Pan witnesses the murder of a botanist, recently returned from the ‘Near East’, where fanatics are destroying its unique roses. The two set off to find out why.
Alas, the passionate, dreamy child who once read her truth-telling alethiometer through grace has changed. Two books extolling reason have left a marked impression on the adult Lyra. It’s the kind of thing that (like denying Narnia) afflicts many child protagonists as they grow up, and in consequence, Pan leaves her a short way into Lyra’s new adventure. ‘GONE TO LOOK FOR YOUR IMAGINATION,’ he says in a parting note; and so Lyra’s most urgent quest is to be reunited with him.
She is one of the great heroines of children’s literature, the direct descendant of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden and Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite. Despite her fluent lying, she is, we were told in His Dark Materials, without imagination. Yet what precisely is imagination? What is Dust?
Pullman tackles this as he plunges us into Lyra’s adult psyche, describing the discomfiture of the male gaze and the terror of near rape with assurance. The riparian odyssey of her babyhood in La Belle Sauvage was slightly too episodic; this book returns us to the energetic inventiveness of a master-storyteller expanding his creation. The latest trilogy seems partly designed to retrofit a new hero for Lyra in her own world, the doughty Oxford scholar Malcolm Polstead, who combines appealing sturdiness with sensitivity. Eleven years older than the young woman whose nappies he once changed, Malcolm realises that he is (predictably) in love with her, following her trail as she travels from Prague to Smyrna.
There, as here, all countries are in ferment, and where His Dark Materials channelled the north and its myths, now the topos is the Arabian Nights, and the art of storytelling itself. Some of the most affecting scenes are when Lyra finds herself travelling by boat with terrified refugees: impossible not to think of our own fleeing Syrians. The increasingly tyrannical Magisterium is after Lyra once again. Previously drawn from the Christian church at its worst, it now adds a fanaticism suggestive of Isis, and indeed Momentum. It is opposed to the Secret Commonwealth, the term for the supernatural world of daemons, fairies, witches, boggarts and the like, first coined by the real-life 17th-century minister and folklorist Robert Kirk.
The book is violently enjoyable and enjoyably violent, but is also suffused with wonder, beauty, delicacy, perceptiveness, kindness, decency and romance. The writing is as exquisite as it is compelling. This is, in short, exactly the kind of novel that you give up hoping for when leaving behind the world of children’s literature for that of the adult.