The novella, which was commissioned in 2004, is finally available to the public.

By Nick Romano
October 15, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Credit: Random House

Warning: Spoilers from Serpentine are discussed in this article. 

In 2004, four years after author Philip Pullman published The Amber Spyglass, the final installment of his Dark Materials book trilogy, the National Theatre in London asked the acclaimed fantasy writer to contribute something to their fundraising auction. Pullman, having already been thinking about other tales to tell about his young heroine, Lyra Belacqua, decided to put pen to paper once more to craft a short novella. The result was Serpentine, about 70 pages worth of story about Lyra returning to the Lapland port city of Trollesund (where she first met the panserbjørn Iorek Byrnison) after the events of The Amber Spyglass for a particularly illuminating conversation with Dr. Martin Lanselius, human consul to the witches.

The only people to possess the novella since then were Glenn and Phyllida Earle, who won the piece in said auction for "an astonishing amount of money," according to Pullman. But now, to mark the 25th anniversary year of The Golden Compass, the first novel of His Dark Materials, Pullman and Random House are finally publishing this story for the masses so the public can see Pullman's first kernels that would lead to the Book of Dust, the author's latest trilogy set years after the events of the first series.

"When I wrote Serpentine, I had no idea that I was going on to write another trilogy, showing Lyra as an adult, but she and her world wouldn’t leave me alone," Pullman had said in an earlier statement. "When it comes to human affairs, a billion invisible filaments connect us to our own pasts, as well as to the most remote things we can imagine; and I hope that, above all, these books are about being alive and being human.”

Separation anxiety

Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy set his character Lyra in an alternate reality from our own, one where a person's soul exists outside the body as a talking animal companion. The daemon is an extension of the individual. If something happens to one, the other feels it, and neither are able to move too far apart from each other without feeling intense distress. For Lyra, a young orphan girl, her daemon is Pan. Like all daemons of children, he was able to shape-shift into different animals until Lyra reached puberty, after which Pan settled into the form of a pine marten—signifying Lyra settling into her own person towards adulthood.

During the events of The Amber Spyglass, as Lyra approaches puberty, she walks through a portal to the Land of the Dead. But, in order to cross over, she must leave her daemon behind. Both Lyra and Pan are forever changed from this event. Not only does it cause them intense trauma, which they are still dealing with in The Book of Dust, but it also grants them the ability to physically separate from one another.

The only other beings said to have this ability are the witches, magical beings with prolonged lives who are able to fly through the use of cloud pine branches—hence a witch's daemon is always some kind of bird. Every witch must go through a ceremonial coming-of-age ceremony when they are younger in which they do something similar to what Lyra did: they travel to a land far to the north where their daemons are too afraid to go. When they return, they receive the ability to separate from their daemons.

But Lyra is not a witch. In Serpentine, she's a mortal girl somewhat stricken with post-traumatic stress from her time among the dead. So, she hitches a ride to Trollesund with one of Jordan College's archaeological teams so she can ask Dr. Lanselius about her predicament.

Serpentine

The title of Pullman's new novella takes its name from Martin's daemon, a green snake, who brings a new revelation.

First, Martin, as Pan learns from his daemon, is the human lover of Serafina Pekkala, witch queen of the Lake Enara clan. As was also evident by the fact that the serpent daemon was able to slither outside into the garden with Pan while Martin held a conversation with Lyra in his home, Martin, too, has the ability to separate from his daemon.

Martin explains that the location for the witches' ritual is "a place of devastation" in Siberia. Long ago, this marked the city of a great empire that found itself at war with the spirit world — which Lyra took to mean another parallel world. "A blast of fire" wiped them out and now nothing lives or grows there.

He explains Serafina's daemon Kaisa, like all witches' daemons, felt a sense of betrayal in being separated from her. But, ultimately, both witch and daemon prepared for this moment beforehand. Lyra and Pan did not.

The Book of Dust

The Book of Dust acts as a companion to His Dark Materials. While the first novel, La Belle Sauvage, goes back to the events that led Lord Asriel to drop off baby Lyra at Jordan College, the second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, picks up with Lyra as an adult. Set 10 years after The Amber Spyglass, the book sees Lyra and Pan's relationship drastically changed since the Land of the Dead. They are barely on speaking terms, though they try to repair their bond. It's this dynamic that Pullman first began tinkering with in Serpentine.

Following their visit with Martin in the novella, Lyra and Pan bring up one of the porters at Gabriel College named John. He and his terrier daemon never spoke to each other. "Some people, witches and normal people as well, sort of quarrel with their daemons," Pan tells Lyra after Martin's snake daemon explained it to him. "In the end they come to hate each other. They never speak, they try and hurt each other, they just feel contempt, they never touch..."

Having read The Secret Commonwealth, it's no surprise to see how this evolved into the fraught relationship they have in the present. Lyra initially grappled with whether to ask Pan about his own trauma from being separated from her in the Land of the Dead. In the end, they realize that, after their whole lives of knowing what each other thought, they would now have parts of themselves hidden from each other — a novel concept when you think Lyra and Pan are extensions of the same being.

As Pullman writes in the author's note, "When it comes to human affairs, a billion invisible filaments connect us to our own pasts, as well as to the most remote things we can imagine; and I hope that, above all, these books are about being alive and being human.”

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