Philip Pullman goes deep on The Secret Commonwealth and the future of His Dark Materials
Philip Pullman isn’t done showing us new worlds. His Dark Materials is almost upon us — that would be the upcoming HBO TV series adaptation of his best-selling book series about an alternate world where humans are forever accompanied by personalized talking animal companions called “daemons,” and the authoritarian church known as the Magisterium exerts powerful control over people’s lives. Unlike the situation with HBO’s previous big-name fantasy book adaptation Game of Thrones, the His Dark Materials novels have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The showrunners already have a three-season structure in mind, one for each of the constituent books: The Golden Compass a.k.a Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. No need for the show creators to worry about having to come up with their own ending themselves.
But even though His Dark Materials is complete, the story of Lyra Belacqua (played by Dafne Keen in the upcoming show) and her daemon Pantalaimon is still ongoing. Earlier this month Pullman published The Secret Commonwealth, the second installment in his new Book of Dust trilogy that acts as a companion to His Dark Materials. But while the first Book of Dust volume, 2017’s La Belle Sauvage, took place 10 years before the events of His Dark Materials, The Secret Commonwealth takes place 10 years afterward. In other words, readers finally get to see Lyra as a young adult! Her maturity means that Pan has now solidified into a single form (a pine marten) but unfortunately, there have been other changes to their dynamic as well.
Hard as it is to believe, Lyra and Pan are barely on speaking terms at the beginning of The Secret Commonwealth. Though they each spend the rest of the book trying to reconnect, they go about it in ways that just push them farther away from each other. This is partly a lingering aftereffects of their brief physical separation in The Amber Spyglass, but Pan also blames it on a few new books Lyra is reading: The Hyperchorasmians by Gottfried Brande, a novel about a world without daemons (imagine that!), and The Constant Deceiver by Simon Talbot, a philosophical tract positing that there is no objective truth. Neither book is real, but reading Pan and Lyra’s furious debates about them, it feels like they might as well be.
“I can’t think of many stories where a character is influenced by a book or philosophy, and yet it is a very salient feature of many thinking people’s lives,” Pullman tells EW. “My youth, my adolescence and early manhood, was tremendously influenced by the books I was reading. While I haven’t been back to many of them, I still remember the thrill of discovery, the sense of great landscapes opening up, as I read the books — one of them being William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. I thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if Lyra was influenced herself by very powerfully expressed philosophies that come to her at an age and at a stage in her development where she’s still trying things out. Hence the two philosophies which seem to be antitheses of each other but are in fact saying the same thing basically, that the world is not as you see it. Rationality is a very good servant, but a bad master, to use the old expression.”
What a wonderful world
These books, and the intellectual debate they produce, make Lyra’s world feel more lived-in than ever before. While His Dark Materials spanned multiple parallel worlds, The Secret Commonwealth dives deep on this one in particular. As both Lyra and Malcolm Polstead (first introduced as a brave young boy in La Belle Sauvage, now an experienced older professor/spy) journey across Europe and Asia looking for answers, they encounter many locales we’ve never been to before. Some, like the Magisterium capital in Geneva, have been heavily referenced in previous books, but now seen for the first time.
“I imagined a modern city, which has one great central activity going on: The governance of the church, the Magisterium,” Pullman says. “Geneva today is a large city which does have one big business going on, which is finance. So I wasn’t straying too far from reality. I’ve been there a few times; it’s an agreeable enough place that doesn’t deserve the bad reputation I’m giving it. I chose Geneva of course because it was one of the centers for Protestantism in the Reformation. The bit of history that’s changed in Lyra’s world, different from ours, is that John Calvin, the leader of the Calvinist Protestants who were based in Geneva, became Pope in Lyra’s world. The whole history of it is set out in bits and pieces throughout. If the center of western Christianity was once Rome, the center of religion in Lyra’s world is Geneva, but it’s a different kind of Christianity. It’s Puritans, who were a bloody nuisance wherever they turned up. In fact they were so disliked in this country that they went off and settled in America, which may have something to do with an aspect of the American mind. The whole cast of mind of The Secret Commonwealth, I hope, is an antipathy to Puritanism, which is another form of extremism. It’s an extremity of behavior: You shall not laugh, you shall not have beauty, you shall not.”
Standing in contrast is the titular organization, the secret commonwealth. As Pullman explains, “the secret commonwealth is a metaphor for the richness of things that are not dominated by one extreme or another. Extremes are a bad place to live, as we see in the moment, with Brexit and populist politics. Always what i’m striving towards is a vision of totality rather than partiality. By that I think of a kind of middle way, between extremes of any sort. We’ll see more of what that means in the third book.”
Lyra later makes her way to Constantinople, which marks the series’ first visit to the Middle East. There are many differences between this version of the Middle East and our own: The Ottoman Empire still rules the region, for one thing, and also there is no such thing as Islam since the Magisterium exerts a monopoly over world religion. But they do share important characteristics — most notably, a refugee crisis caused by political and social unrest.
“The whole refugee situation and the books that are coming out of it are intensely interesting,” Pullman says. “The work of many Middle Eastern writers is astonishing. I’m currently reading this book called No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani. He was an Iranian who fled his own country, went all the way through the Far East and Indonesia and found his way on a boat to Australia. Australians being Australians, they imprisoned him with hundreds of others on this dreadful prison camp island. It’s a true account of what happened and the way he’s forced into captivity. It’s an endlessly fascinating, vital topic that we should look at. I found this was a way of looking at it from another angle. I didn’t intend to make this part of the story, it just insisted on being there.”
The source of the unrest in Lyra’s Middle East has to do with roses. It’s not just any kind of rose, though. Early in the book, Lyra learns of a mysterious red building out in the Chinese desert, guarded by warrior-priests, where a special kind of roses are grown. That strangely beautiful image haunts several characters, including Lyra, throughout the book.
“The starting point for the red building and roses was the name Lop Nor, which is a desert lake that wanders about in western China,” Pullman says. “The same region which at the moment is being very treated harshly by the rulers of China in Beijing, who are imprisoning millions of people and forcing them to change their ways of thought. It’s that region, the hidden place that’s hard to reach and out of sight. That was what I started with: What goes on there?”
Back to the beginning
We soon learn the reason this red building is important: Examining the oil from the roses grown there allows one to see physical, scientific evidence of Dust — the very substance that gives this new trilogy its name.
Dust is key to Pullman’s project here, dating back to His Dark Materials. It represents matter itself having self-awareness, which would dispute against the authoritarian rule of the Magisterium (that meaning can only be found through God and the church). No wonder the Magisterium is so eager to get its hands on these roses before anyone else. In fact, it’s heavily implied that the terrorist-like “men from the mountains” causing unrest in the Middle East are covertly funded by the Magisterium.
“It’s a kind of analogy of consciousness,” Pullman says. “I pictured Dust, as we saw in The Amber Spyglass, as being something that people acquire when they leave innocence behind and set out on the long path to wisdom. Dust is something good in those terms of course, but it’s bad in terms of the strict religion. They see knowledge as a great corruption of innocence. This brings us onto what consciousness is. Nobody has discovered it yet! There are a number of different ideas. The hard question, as Australian philosopher David Chalmers asks, is how you get from matter and molecules to our experience of the taste of an orange, our sympathy when someone we love is hurt…that’s the abstract question i’m building the whole story around.”
Back in The Amber Spyglass, the scientist Mary Malone was able to detect the presence of Dust by examining the oil produced by the wheeled mulefa creatures on their Edenic world. In Lyra’s world, it exists in this special rose oil. These coincidences are no accident, says Pullman. As he builds to the series’ conclusion in the upcoming third Book of Dust volume, he’s working with similar themes and images that have been in the story all along.
“Roses have been with me for some time,” Pullman says. “I did all the chapter heading illustrations for The Amber Spyglass, the last illustration is for the scene where Lyra and Will part. It features two roses tied together with a ribbon, but the blossoms are looking in different directions. So roses were always a presence in my mind, somehow, for this story. The fact that the action of Book of Dust is centered on this mysterious place where the roses grow, it was kind of there from a long time ago.”
This is what makes it so interesting that HBO’s His Dark Materials show will land shortly after the release of The Secret Commonwealth, because there are events in the latter that hearken back to the beginning of the first series. The showrunners have even teased that the show will include references to the events of Book of Dust — from the very first scene, in fact.
“Other links are nice to be able to put in,” Pullman says. “For example, there’s the magician in Prague, the furnace man, who brings together his son and his son’s daemon in this act of parental destruction that starts off his machinery. That was kind of an echo of what happens at the end of The Golden Compass where Lord Asriel sets things in motion by dividing Roger from his daemon. That was an act of fission if you like, and this is an act of fusion. They both involve destruction and things developing out of destruction. There are patterns and analogies and rhythms that you can set in motion when you’re doing a really long story. These patterns and correspondences and repetitions are part of any long story as they’re part of any long musical work. The final movement will refer back to the second theme in the first movement, and so on. This is how you make something large that has a coherence.”
Pullman can’t tease too much of what will happen in the third book since he hasn’t finished writing it yet, but he hopes it’ll be shorter than the “doorstop”-like The Secret Commonwealth. Even so, “It will lead to a resolution, a revelation, or some other thing. The themes will be worked out. It will be nice to end it, as Mozart’s Symphony No. 1, ending with a complicated fugue that involves the entire orchestra.”
The Secret Commonwealth is available now where books are sold.
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