Last week saw the publication of Philip Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth, the second in the Book of Dust series. It was launched, with appropriate fanfare, at Alexandra Palace, with readings from Anne-Marie Duff, Niamh Cusack and others, and an on-stage interview with the author himself in which he revealed that he was driven to write the book after thinking about his protagonist Lyra growing older.
Lyra herself is something of a Greta Thunberg figure, unsmilingly speaking truth to power in the service of a greater goal, and finding herself ostracised and criticised as a result. The character is where Pullman’s most daring ideas find fruition. If the protagonists of children's books grow up, readers must expect to find them changed and Lyra is far from the charming 11-year-old heroine of the original trilogy. She is now 20 years old, a student and estranged from her daemon Pantalaimon, who still harbours resentment towards her for her actions in The Amber Spyglass. Like many young and impressionable adults, she has found a totem – in this case, the modish moral philosopher Simon Talbot, whose central argument is that objective reality does not exist. We recognise that Lyra has agency, and that part of this agency involves making mistakes, however horrendous and stupid that they seem, against a backdrop of apparently irrevocable social change.
Much of the original appeal of the His Dark Materials series lay in the way in which Pullman portrayed ‘Brytain’ as a parallel world to our own, with significant differences but with equally notable similarities. In The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra, Pantalaimon and Malcolm Polstead – the now-adult protagonist of La Belle Sauvage – undertake physical and personal journeys across Europe with seismic consequences. It is not too much of a revelation to suggest Pullman’s political beliefs show themselves in numerous ways, from the anger with which he portrays bigoted and violent attempts to ostracise terrified Eastern European refugees to his scathing treatment of hypocrisy in the form of the malevolent Magisterium, the evil Empire of the original trilogy.
His villains are often charming, erudite figures who, as soon as they show their true natures, become both terrifying and hollow. Antagonist Simon Talbot’s intellectual vacuousness might be a waspish dig at some of Pullman’s fellow authors, but a more relevant comparison is surely our current Prime Minister, another master of concealing his seeming lack of conviction with fine words. Some of these allusions and ideas will resonate with his readership of all ages, whereas others may only seem relevant when they, too, are Lyra’s age or older. Yet it is for the Greta Thunbergs of this world – the generation arguably more alert to the dark realities of the wider world than any before it – that Pullman is writing.
As he says early on: ‘the oldest human problem, Lyra…[is] the difference between good and evil. Evil can be unscrupulous, and good can’t. Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back. To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ‘em.’
By the end of The Secret Commonwealth, which finishes with a tantalising ‘To be concluded’, Pullman asks his readers: ‘this is the world as it is, and it’s up to you to make it a better place. Will you accept the challenge?’ Most, whatever their age, will be only too happy to.
The Book of Dust Volume Two: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman is out now.