SERPENTINE by Philip Pullman

serpentine-by-philip-pullmanWhen 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.⠀

— Philip Pullman⠀

I began this year by reading Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, so I only thought it fitting that I would end it by reading yet another of his fantastic expeditions into human nature. Serpentine is a brief excursion into Lyra’s world, and actually acts as a sort of thematic prequel to Commonwealth, the second entry in The Book of Dust series. ⠀

Serpentine tells a small, intimate story in which Lyra Belacqua joins some colleagues at an archaeological site that happens to be near the home of a past acquaintance — someone who just might be able to answer some of the many burning questions Lyra has been carrying ever since the events related in His Dark Materials. She and her dæmon, Pan, have been growing apart in the aftermath of these earlier exploits, a predicament they can’t seem to be able to solve, causing them both great emotional turmoil. Lyra, true to her curious nature, is determined to decipher this dilemma. She gets some clarification by the end of this novella, but the relationship between humans and their inner-selves is something that will preoccupy Lyra well into her adulthood. Indeed this concern forms the central theme in The Secret Commonwealth (and, I suspect, The Book of Dust as a whole).⠀

I was well into my twenties when I first read His Dark Materials, but the series still ended up being acutely formative. It’s a story that spoke to me on a host of different levels (not least of which a spiritual one) and even though I’ve never sat down and revisited the novels, they still, to this day, live rent-free in my head and heart.⠀

This makes every subsequent glimpse into this world feel like a privilege and a homecoming. There’s something intensely warm and comforting about these novels — probably due to the fact that despite them being mostly dark, serious tomes of the fantastic, they are also some of the most human books out there.⠀

Which is a roundabout way of saying that each return visit to Pullman’s world has felt like coming home. Like visiting old friends. Like gaining some fresh, new insight— however small — into what it means to be human and alive. And the experience of reading Serpentine was no different.


the-secret-commonwealth-by-philip-pullmanWhen the Book of Dust trilogy was still in its formative stage, whenever Philip Pullman was asked anything about it, one of the things he liked to say was that this new set of books could have well been called His Darker Materials, referring to it having much more serious, adult themes. He would say this in a joking sort of manner, however. Good old Uncle Philip.⠀

But Uncle Philip was not joking.⠀

La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of this “equal” trilogy, worked in two ways: first, as a gentle re-introduction into the world, then, later, as a jolt to the system. Pullman quickly abandons the familiar, and, much like the flood that takes place in the story, he brings forth a myriad of new elements into his world. And the world of Lyra’s Oxford, so welcoming at first, suddenly turns, yes, darker — but also infinitely weirder.⠀

And with The Secret Commonwealth, Pullman continues to subvert our expectations at every turn, fulling diving into the stranger, more psychedelic aspects of the world he has wrought.⠀

The Secret Commonwealth takes place twenty years after the events of La Belle Sauvage, and ten years after those in The Amber Spyglass, and we still follow Lyra, older but still familiar: as acerbic and headstrong as ever. But Pullman pulls the rug out from under us soon enough, and we realize that she has indeed changed in numerous ways. Where once she was a wild child, she’s now more serious and stoic. Eschewing “childish things,” she has taken to reading philosophical works that seem like this world’s version of Objectivism. This has created a distance between her and dæmon Pantalaimon, who thinks Lyra has lost her lust for life by “losing her imagination.” After a particularly nasty argument, Pan leaves Lyra, off to search for, one supposes, her innocence. This, along with some sinister forces intent on her capture, propels Lyra into a strange and terrible journey in search of a possibly mythical place where dæmons dwell without humans, in the hopes of reuniting with Pan. As she makes her way further East, we are treated with a handful of increasingly extraordinary vignettes that demonstrate the diverse ways humans and dæmons relate to one another.⠀

Pullman maintains this series is about the nature of Dust, but the relationships between dæmon and human is such a prominent them (which is carried on from La Belle Sauvage where villain Bonneville’s treatment of his own dæmon still haunts), that perhaps The Book of Dæmon would have been a more appropriate title.⠀

In a book full of strange happenings, turning Lyra into an enthusiast of a philosopher who is, for essentially, an Ayn Rand surrogate, is perhaps one of the strangest. Entire sections are devoted to Lyra and Pan having energetic and fascinating arguments about books and philosophy, the merits of imagination and the importance of rationalism. These scenes allow us to see the ever-growing disconnect between Lyra and her dæmon, but they are still slightly jarring and perplexing.

But if His Dark Materials is told through a more grounded, scientific sort of lens (dust equals dark matter), then The Book of Dust is Pullman looking at the world from the other, more mythical side of lens, where dust also equals… a portal to yet another realm, where fae things lie. The secret commonwealth of the title.⠀

This all lends the story a sort of metanarrative layer, one where Pullman seems to argue with his younger self, who perhaps held different views to the ones he holds now. It reads less like a argumentative debate, however, and than it does a sensible, reasonable discussion, wherein one tries try to figure out how to live with other, perhaps opposing worldviews. How they can enrich our perspective. How they can open up the secret commonwealth.⠀

As if to illustrate the point, the other half of this book consists of following Malcolm Polstead, our main character in La Belle Sauvage, now a professor and somewhat of a spy and man of action. His story follows him on a quest to find out more about a certain rose that may hold a connection to Dust, as well as his far more personal search for Lyra, and it reads like an honest-to-goodness ridiculous spy novel and it is a joy to read. These two stories may seem at odds with one another, but the balance each other well, and pushes us through a 600-page narrative like a speeding train.⠀

With The Book of Dust, Pullman has continually surprised me. I have absolute no idea where the story is going. And I can’t wait to find out.