The View from the Great North Wood

Cultural musings from The Old Grey Owl…

The Secret Commonwealth    

 by   

Philip Pullman

This is the long-awaited second installment of Pullman’s trilogy, The Book of Dust, a sequence that revisits the fantasy parallel England of His Dark Materials. Anyone interested in children’s literature or the fantasy genre as a whole, will have been counting down the weeks until this release, such is the power of Pullman’s fictional world, and the impact that the original trilogy had when first published in 1995. Those original fans will soon be joined by a whole new group generated by the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials which is set to air on Sunday November 3rd. The trailer certainly suggests that it will be a much more successful rendition than the ill-fated dog’s dinner that was the 2007 blockbuster starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Not that that would be too difficult mind you.

So Pullman is hot stuff at the moment. But what about the book? Let’s just get a few things out of the way first. Pullman is A Great Writer. His Sally Lockhart novels are glorious confections of London Victorian adventure mysteries, with pea-soupers and coal stained brick warehouses on the banks of the filthy Thames. Those alone would guarantee his reputation. But it’s the first trilogy, His Dark Materials, that moves him into the ranks of the genuinely great. Engrossing, believable, moving, challenging, Pullman creates a parallel world that is both restrained and oddly familiar. He asks big questions about belief, orthodoxy, law and punishment and democracy. But perhaps his greatest achievement is the creation of his central protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, and his invention of the notion of the Daemon, an animal- like creature that everyone in this world has as a lifelong companion, a representation of the soul, the quintessence of the individual. Lyra is one the most memorable characters in children’s fiction. In all fiction. Appearing first as an eleven year old girl in a version of Oxford University, she is resilient, loyal, brave, intelligent, and without any trace of snobbery or prejudice about race, class or gender. And she is one half of one of the greatest love stories ever told.

Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua in His Dark Materials

The first instalment of The Book Of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, featured Lyra as an infant, rescued from the baddies by Malcolm Polstead, an eleven year old boy. The second book moves us on twenty years. Lyra is now an undergraduate at Jordan College. Malcolm, is a University Lecturer. They both become caught up in the struggle between the CDD, the repressive state police, responsible for rigorously enforcing religious orthodoxy, and the liberal resistance. The struggle centres around the control of the source of a mysteriously powerful species of rose oil that is grown in the Levant (the equivalent of Syria/Turkey) Pullman uses this to reflect upon contemporary struggles between the West and the Islamic world, on the issues of religious wars, refugees, terrorism, populism. It dies s through the vehicle of a journey eastwards from Oxford, to the Middle East. The journey has all the elements of the classic adventure story: the main protagonists are split up and are all on separate quests to find themselves and to find solutions to their separate problems. Their journeys allow Pullman to paint a vivid picture of exotic lands, full of bazaars, train stations, cafes and markets, serially escaping dangerous situations, only to fall into more dangerous situations. It’s exciting and mostly well told. Pullman can still knock out a page turner. Mostly.

But. This is not a children’s book. It’s complex, dealing with real world issues of politics and prejudice. It is quite adult at times, in its language and depiction of relationships. It’s very sophisticated in the way it handles the growing awareness of sexuality of Lyra, following on from The Amber Spyglass. The depiction of a near gang rape is genuinely disturbing. Pullman himself would I think be quite pleased with that verdict. He has been very reluctant himself to categorise his novels as being for children. And there is a strength in that, because it allows him to break free of the constraints imposed by genre. The worst crime Pullman commits, however, is that, at times it’s a little ….dull. The political wranglings of the Pullman equivalent of The Vatican are arcane and convoluted, and I’d be surprised if they held the attention of many children. Certainly not the ones I know nor the ones I have taught. And it suffers, above all else, from the curse of the established writer. It’s far too long.

Weighing in at over 700 pages, this is a book that wouldn’t have got past the first fence had he been an unknown. That first book has to be absolutely tightly- wrought, like a finely tuned piano. Not a spare word out of place, coming in at under 300 pages tops, the draconian guidelines of publishers and agents at least produce economy and crackle. They impose discipline as much as formulaic writing. Look what happens when you’ve made it. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books just kept getting longer and longer as no-one would dare to suggest to the behemoth, Jo, maybe you need to rein it in a bit, love. One can only be grateful that she had only planned seven of them. If she had kept going, we would have been at over the thousand page mark by now, no question. The same applies here. And this, for all its strengths and joys, is a little flabby and baggy.

I’m sounding very negative. It’s still a wonderful book and he’s still a titanic writer. The return of the Great Love, at least in Lyra’s memory and regrets, and the beginnings of a new love to replace it, is fabulous. Even so, it’s only a four star member of his astonishing list of achievements. And when you’ve set the bar as high as he has, that’s a little disappointing. If you’re an English teacher, or you just love books, you still must read this. And hopefully, you’ll love it more than I did.