Review: “The Secret Commonwealth” by Philip Pullman

In The Secret Commonwealth, everything has gone topsy turvy. There is constant upheaval, both in the plot and in Pullman’s world which we thought we knew. Whilst La Belle Sauvagereally ought to have been reduced to a chapter in this book, The Secret Commonwealth is a definite return to Lyra’s world.

Only it’s not really Lyra’s world as we knew it.

In the first trilogy, and in particular the first book, Lyra’s world was a through-the-looking-glass version of ours. It was a wonderful, steampunk, fantasy Earth where you could chat with your souls and witches could fly.

But in The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra’s world feels mundane. There are washing machines, greasy cafes, trains. The fantasy elements seem to have vanished. In the original trilogy, ghosts and ghasts and god killings were possible; now the latter is a metaphor. Because of this, the banality of Lyra’s world, and Lyra’s own cynicism, doesn’t simply seem boring, but utterly bizarre. Much is made of Lyra’s new-found scholarliness and her fashionable, ‘rational’ way of thinking. This thinking in Lyra, in particular, comes across as worse than ridiculous; it’s a logical fallacy since this is a girl who has travelled to the land of the dead, met angels, told the future, and killed God.

To Pullman’s credit, he writes upheaval well. The reader’s certainty going into the book that we know the world of the series has been undermined. We are bound up in the “fog and superstition and magic,” of the old trilogy [quote from The Book of Dust]. Throughout the book, our expectations are expertly and consistently subverted. Lyra and Pan, previously a single entity, “radiate contempt” to one another. People without daemons, described in previous books like people without faces, form an underground network. Lyra is the quiet, scholarly one, whereas Pan wants to rush into adventures. And disturbingly, Lyra cannot lie.

It would be easy to accuse Pullman of poor world-building, of haphazardly backtracking and changing to suit his new ideas, but these changes seem intentional and reflect a greater theme.

Lyra in the original trilogy was a conniving little shit. She lied, stole, ran from her lessons and crowed about her own specialness as the daughter of the elite. Which isn’t to say that she didn’t end up a likeable character, nor to say that she didn’t mature. Lyra’s wits, resilience, and bravery were admirable, particularly to a certain anxious nine-year-old reader. But Lyra’s perception was limited. Her world and perception was of a bizarre upbringing in Oxford (a weird enough place in our world). Who’s to say that there weren’t people without daemons? Who’s to say that Lyra’s fantasy world was the norm? Despite her occasional savagery, Lyra’s childlike innocence is integral to the original trilogy. It is why she can lie so sincerely, why she believes that she can do anything, and ultimately, why she is so dangerous to the forces of oppression.

Which brings us onto William Blake. Like Lyra, when I read the first trilogy, it was with a single perception. As far as I was concerned, a book was just a book, and chapter quotes were to be skipped over. But then I got older, read Blake, and gained a new perception of the books. Pullman has credited Blake and his influence in the series is clear. The first trilogy – with its fantasy, pure love, the fact that this universe and all the rest can only be saved with childlike innocence – reflects the Songs of Innocence. And the second trilogy, a more violent and graphic world, wider in geographical scope, and one where the seeming childhood imagination and innocence have been suppressed and replaced with wing clipping rationality is the Songs of Experience.

Pullman’s portrayal of rationality is inherently Blakian, ‘The Hyperchorasmians’ is cold and callous. Nothing but logic matters, and if something is not logical, it should not exist. The tale of the secret commonwealth, by contrast, is told by a straight speaking Gyptian, unlike the vaguely paedophilic, hypocritical author of ‘The Hyperchorasmians’. Lyra’s acceptance of the secret commonwealth is linked with a reclamation of self, breaking out of her rationality-induced numbness.

Pullman doesn’t portray experience as horrible and innocence as something which is lost forever. The plot is driven by Lyra and Pan’s desire to reunite with one another. The rose oil can only be reached by those who have undergone separation – in other words, experience, and there are hints that she and Will may not be as separate as initially thought.

It seems impossible to return to the world of the first trilogy, too much has changed: the readers, the author, depictions, the characters, the political context.

So don’t go reading The Secret Commonwealth looking for a comforting return to a childhood favourite, but read it for an unsettling, adult exploration of self, religion and rationality.

– Fabia Shaw 

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