Author Philip Pullman at Oxford University. Photo: Michael Leckie

Author Philip Pullman at Oxford University. Photo: Michael Leckie

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. 

‘It must’ve been very frustrating for her to have the greatest adventure in her life and then go back to normal,’ Pullman said. ‘I don’t think she’d like that. I was also intrigued by Dust and what it is, and there were places I wanted her to go’. Readers will be delighted – if perhaps surprised – to discover quite where he has taken her.

There is a feeling of relentless danger, scenes of violence and even the odd four-letter word in The Secret Commonwealth. Paired with Pullman’s usual depths of imagination and humanity, it is another reminder that for him, conventional ideas of what a book for young people should look like do not apply.

The Secret Commonwealth comes at a time when popular writing for younger audiences often deals with complicated social and personal issues head-on – see John Green's The Fault In Our Stars or Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series for honest and unpatronising treatments of awakening sexuality, for instance – while definitions of what constitutes ‘appropriate’ reading for children have largely softened.

Yet even by those standards, The Secret Commonwealth feels like bold new ground. This is not simply due to the adult-oriented material, but because Pullman is now writing for an audience of young people who are more engaged with the wider world - those who would march with Extinction Rebellion, say, or protest against Donald Trump. 

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.

Philip Pullman and The Secret Commonwealth Volume Two

Photo: Michael Leckie

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.

  • The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume Two

  • It is twenty years since the events of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One unfolded and saw the baby Lyra Belacqua begin her life-changing journey.

    It is almost ten years since readers left Lyra and the love of her young life, Will Parry, on a park bench in Oxford's Botanic Gardens at the end of the ground-breaking, bestselling His Dark Materials sequence.

    Now, in The Secret Commonwealth, we meet Lyra Silvertongue. And she is no longer a child . . .

    The second volume of Philip Pullman's The Book of Dust sees Lyra, now twenty years old, and her daemon Pantalaimon, forced to navigate their relationship in a way they could never have imagined, and drawn into the complex and dangerous factions of a world that they had no idea existed. Pulled along on his own journey too is Malcolm; once a boy with a boat and a mission to save a baby from the flood, now a man with a strong sense of duty and a desire to do what is right.

    Theirs is a world at once familiar and extraordinary, and they must travel far beyond the edges of Oxford, across Europe and into Asia, in search for what is lost - a city haunted by daemons, a secret at the heart of a desert, and the mystery of the elusive Dust.

    The Secret Commonwealth is truly a book for our times; a powerful adventure and a thought-provoking look at what it is to understand yourself, to grow up and make sense of the world around you. This is storytelling at its very best from one of our greatest writers.

    *The first book in The Book of Dust trilogy, La Belle Sauvage, is coming to the stage in the summer of this year. Performed at The Bridge Theatre from July 2020, it will be a theatrical spectacle not to be missed*

    Reviews for The Secret Commonwealth: The Book of Dust Volume Two:

    "[Pullman] has created a fantasy world, made yet more satisfying in rigour and stylistic elegance. This is a book for getting older with" Guardian, Book of the Week

    "The Secret Commonwealth is ablaze with light and life. The writing is exquisite; every sentence sings ... To read Pullman is to experience the world refreshed, aglow, in Technicolour" i

    "Pullman's story is still thought-provoking ... This book elegantly weaves in live issues, from Europe's refugee crisis to facts in the post-truth era. And Pullman's prose is rewarding as ever" The Times

    "A long, taxing, complex journey, laced with beauty, terror and philosophy" Metro

    "As ever, Pullman's story is complex and vast but home to some of the finest storytelling in the 21st century. Revel in whole new worlds and enjoy one of literature's most wonderful heroines before she comes to HBO and the BBC" Stylist

    "Pullman is confronting readers with the horrors of our own world reflected back at us. In The Secret Commonwealth he creates a fearful symmetry" The Herald

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