A warm voice in a cold world

When I wrote down my thoughts in response to La Belle Sauvage, which is the first volume of Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, I noted that certain elements appeared incongruous or tacked-on, but that I would withhold judgement on their value or necessity until I’d read the next volume. When the title of the series is written so much larger on the book’s cover than that of the present instalment, it suggests that the reader is intended to receive the trilogy as a single work, and that’s what I’m trying to do—although the third volume’s title and publication date haven’t yet been announced. So were those elements—the fleeting and rather mooncalf appearance of a witch and the land of faerie—seeds sown from which narrative fruits are harvested in the second volume, The Secret Commonwealth? Yes, they are, but even though I only read it recently I think I’d have to re-read La Belle Sauvage to decide if I think those elements feel less extraneous there as a consequence. What I would say is that in The Secret Commonwealth Pullman uses them to take his narrative somewhere materially different from anywhere it’s visited in the preceding parts of His Dark Materials.

The book’s tone shifts very subtly but significantly from beginning to end—or perhaps it was my response which shifted, as Pulman’s intentions and ambitions became clearer. As I recollect the experience of reading, it begins in a very similar register to the Dark Materials trilogy and to La Belle Sauvage (the first volume having felt very much of a piece with Pullman’s earlier trilogy). We have the same prescriptive, slightly intrusive narrative voice, and the same sense of safety in the midst of the peril to which the protagonists are subject. I began with the same sense of unease that Pullman’s authoritarian narrator is mismatched to his liberal arguments, and this sense was exacerbated by a couple of fictional books which he includes in the story.

These books are used to represent a blindly positivistic intellectual perspective, of the kind that I have learned to associate with Richard Dawkins for example, but their portrayal calls something else to my mind. Their arguments are described in much the same way that I have often heard used to characterise the work of certain mid-twentieth century, predominantly French intellectuals—the ones that are often (and usually spuriously) associated with the term ‘post-modernism’. The characterisations in question are made by people who have either not read the thinkers in question, or who have totally failed to understand them, and I have never encountered a piece of writing that actually conforms to such descriptions. Of course Pullman has invented these books, and is at liberty to say what he wants about them, but their appearance made me wary that he was going to set up some kind of opposition between rigorous rationality and the liberal humanism to which he obviously subscribes.

I’m pleased to say that his approach is far more nuanced than that. I might have been slightly disparaging about the philosophical underpinnings of this series in the past, but it seems that as his protagonist Lyra moves into adulthood, so the intellectual milieu in which Pullman immerses her becomes a more complex and challenging one than the earlier parts of this series have espoused. As the book progresses Pullman’s opinionated narrator retreats into the background, and the reader becomes responsible for thinking through the implications of the story themselves. At the same time, the allegorical elements become less straightforward, although they remain front and centre in the narrative. Most notably, the conceit of the daemon, a kind of familiar that accompanies every human in Lyra’s home universe, takes on a new life as driver of the plot.

In earlier books, although they have played important actantial roles at times, these figures have largely served Pullman by permitting him to dramatise aspects of his characters’ inner life, and to symbolise their characters in ways that can be as prescriptive as the occasionally heavy-handed opinions expressed by his narrator. In The Secret Commonwealth they finally take flight as primary engines of his speculative world-building, contributing both significant drivers to the plot and major structural components of the intellectual and geographic space through which the characters move.

That space has also evolved significantly from the earlier works, in which the protagonists are children, and so, one suspects, are their intended readers, irrespective of Pullman’s protestations to the contrary. His world has always seemed a cozy sort of place, for several reasons. Firstly, its material trappings belong to an era for which a great deal of nostalgia circulates in English-speaking culture: there are gaslights, zeppelins, steam trains, balloonists, tribes of river-boat Roma, and archaic, tradition-bound institutions (like his fictional Jordan College, Oxford) of the sort that have largely vanished from contemporary Britain. Aesthetically, it’s a steampunk-lite sort of a world, and that’s a very comfortable place to find yourself, for many readers. Secondly, although he can go to quite dark places at times (Lyra’s father is a child-murderer by the end of Northern Lights), the sense of peril is heavily tempered by the indomitable spirit of his youthful protagonists, and by a never-broken implicit contract with the reader that things are going to work out all right in the end.

Some of the aforementioned tradition-bound institutions are branches of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which in Pullman’s world was relocated to Geneva by Pope John Calvin, before he abolished the Pontificate in favour of network of competing power-bases. The Church retains a great deal of political power, and was indeed a primary antagonist in His Dark Materials. In both La Belle Sauvage and The Secret Commonwealth it is consolidating its power and pursuing socially repressive policies, in territories whose governments lack the will or the courage to oppose it. Given the fact that our protagonist Lyra is no longer a child but a young woman in her early twenties, it no longer feels so unthinkable that Pullman would allow anything truly traumatic to occur to her, and the politics of his world here bear a much closer resemblance to those of the primary world than has previously been the case. Lyra’s world is an entirely less comfortable or comforting place to be—it has become a place in which our own world’s swing to the right and away from the truth has many clear parallels, parallels which bring a sense of real peril to the narrative.

As such it becomes apparent that the position he adopts on events in his secondary world can be taken as positions on our own world. In particular, where I had feared he might be setting up an opposition between humanist values and the rigorous empiricism of certain twentieth-century philosophers, he is really pitting those values against the kind of false rationality embodied by the right-wing regimes of the 1930s and 1940s. He seems to make an argument for the kind of unquantifiable truths that people find in storytelling, in myth, and indeed in much prose fiction, as an antidote to the poison of a dictatorial and perpetually calculating truth engine like his version of the Church of Rome. I don’t see anything to suggest he’s fundamentally an anti-capitalist, and I think he has a strong distaste for the relativism of the philosophers I’ve mentioned, but there is a good deal of wisdom in the way he opposes the particular narratives of the individual to the generic ones of political power. Divination has always been an important trope in Pullman’s narrative and world-building, but here he makes an explicit connection between divination and storytelling, seeming to posit the chance encounter and the intuitively chosen path against the overdetermined, soul-destroying certainty of the calculated bureaucratic decision.

In The Secret Commonwealth these themes are woven into a much more subtle tapestry than in the earlier works of the sequence. By the last section of the book Pullman has given up on telling us what to think, or even on making it explicitly clear what he thinks. Instead he gives us a well-drawn set of characters making their way through complexity, resisting coercion, and trying to finding a satisfactory way to live in a less-than-perfect world, just as we all have to in the primary world. And although he’s no longer holding our hands, or promising us that the world is a cosy place in which our fantasies are likely to be fulfilled, his voice is one of profound warmth and compassion. Such voices are, for me, a more powerful consolation for the cold and reductive society in which we actually live than the kind of comfortable adventure to be found in the earlier books in this series, a consolation that is only made possible by the increasing complexity and unfathomability of Pullman’s world. That it is starting to feel as harsh as our own is a fair price to pay.

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