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His Dark Materials’ ever-modern Lyra returns after 19 years in The Secret Commonwealth

The Golden Compass’ Lyra is now 20, sadder, and maybe not wiser.

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman. Knopf
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Lyra’s back in the spotlight.

That’s the first and most important thought that swept through me when I opened up The Secret Commonwealth, the second volume in Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy. Lyra Silvertongue — tough, tricky, tragic Lyra; Lyra who is at the center of Pullman’s beloved His Dark Materials trilogy; Lyra who lies brilliantly but has a magic instrument that will always tell the truth — is back at the center of a full-length novel for the first time since The Amber Spyglass came out in 2000.

Between then and now, Pullman has given Lyra a starring role in a couple of novellas, slight little things that mostly existed as a chance to revisit the rich mythology of the world of dæmons and witches in which she lives. And she appeared in 2017’s La Belle Sauvage, the first volume in The Book of Dust, which took place before the events of His Dark Materials, but in that book she was a baby. She didn’t do anything much herself.

But from the first page of The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra is inarguably at the center of everything. She moves the plot.

To be specific, we’re dealing with an adult Lyra here. She’s not a baby or a child anymore. The Secret Commonwealth begins years after the events of His Dark Materials, and Lyra is 20 years old now, a college student.

Meeting her again after all these years is like running into a childhood friend at a school reunion and feeling a shock of estranged recognition hit you straight in the gut: Oh, you’re just the same as you always were. But then again: Oh, you’ve changed so much.

Lyra and her dæmon are at the center of The Secret Commonwealth, and probably the center of The Book of Dust too

The greatest change that’s come over Lyra in The Secret Commonwealth since the days of His Dark Materials is that she and her dæmon Pantalaimon keep quarreling with each other. They no longer like each other very much. And because Pantalaimon is part of Lyra — her soul, taking the form of a pine marten to whom she can talk — that means she no longer really likes herself.

Describing Lyra’s situation in the language of our own world, we might say that Lyra is depressed. (Pullman has said he doesn’t like that term and prefers to say she’s “melancholy.”) But because Lyra can see and talk to the part of herself she is quarrelling with, she experiences her depression less as self-loathing and more like something akin to a romantic betrayal. “You filthy little rat,” she tells Pan during a fight. “You cheat, you thief, you let me down.”

Lyra and Pan have never fully recovered from the events of The Amber Spyglass, which saw Lyra painfully separating herself from Pan — or, as they both think of it, abandoning him — in order to journey into the land of the dead. “It was the worst thing you ever did,” Pan tells her in The Secret Commonwealth, and she responds, “I know.”

And now, college student Lyra has begun to flirt with new ways of thinking about the world, quasi-Nietzschean and Ayn Randian philosophies that alienate her from Pan still further. They’re intellectual systems that on the one hand argue in favor of a worldview of pure reason — with no place for such fancies as dæmons and witches and talking bears and all the other things Pullman refers to as “the secret commonwealth” — and on the other hand argue that there is no real truth anyway so nothing matters in the end.

Pantalaimon is disgusted with these new ideas. They’ve made Lyra lose her imagination, he tells her. So he leaves her to go off in search of it, leaving Lyra all alone. And Lyra, brokenhearted, sets off on a quest of her own to find and reunite with Pantalaimon.

As she travels, Lyra finds herself adopted by a scattered fellowship of sorts, comprised of other people whose dæmons have abandoned them. She learns about their experiences in a long series of bittersweet stories about all the ways there are to lose a part of yourself, and all the ways in which you have to go on living afterward.

There’s one woman whose dæmon fell in love with a woman she did not love herself. There’s an impoverished family who sold away all their dæmons in order to have enough money to buy food. One man who suffers from a melancholy like Lyra’s tells her that he looks for his dæmon everywhere he goes, that he is haunted by a dread “that I will see her with a man who is me, who is my double.”

This kind of vexed relationship between person and dæmon never seemed quite possible in His Dark Materials, where people were sometimes traumatically severed from their dæmons in a horrific act of violation but otherwise seemed to always live in a state of perfect bliss and unity with them. But more complicated human/dæmon relationships have been foreshadowed in The Book of Dust by La Belle Sauvage’s villain Gerard Bonneville, who viciously beat his own hyena dæmon in an act of self-punishment that was never fully explained. It’s beginning to seem that dæmons — and the possibility of hating one’s own dæmon — are at the center of The Book of Dust in the same way that bodies and the ecstasies and realities of the flesh turned out to be at the center of His Dark Materials.

Parts of this book feel dated. But Lyra is the kind of heroine who always feels modern.

Both Lyra and Pan are in danger as they travel because they’re being hunted by two sinister forces. First, there’s Marcel Delamare, Lyra’s estranged uncle who blames her for the death of her mother, his sister, the diabolical Mrs. Coulter. He is rapidly consolidating power in the still-dominant Church and has begun sending out his henchmen to search for Lyra. And second, there’s Olivier Bonneville, the son of Gerard Bonneville from La Belle Sauvage, who blames Lyra for the death of his father — and who can read the alethiometer, the magical tool that always tells the truth, just as well as Lyra can.

Neither of these two villains is quite as effective as their predecessors, who could be genuinely terrifying. The big tell is probably their dæmons: I can barely remember anything about either Delamare’s or Olivier’s, while I will never forget Mrs. Coulter’s sleek golden monkey or Gerard Bonneville’s cowed and beaten hyena.

With that said, I don’t think that either Delamare or Olivier is really supposed to be that menacing. Everyone who interacts with them comes away thinking about how incompetent they are, how easily manipulated. They’re not the real threat to Lyra. The real threat is Lyra herself and the way she’s come to think about herself.

Notable for his absence is Will Perry, the secondary protagonist of His Dark Materials. Will and Lyra fell in love over the course of that trilogy and then wrenchingly, heartbreakingly parted forever, and while he doesn’t make a miraculous reappearance in The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra thinks about him all the time. “He’s still the center of my life,” she says, in a moment that feels both utterly earned — because the climax of His Dark Materials depends on the reader believing that Will and Lyra really and truly loved each other, and I absolutely do — and also tragic, because Lyra last saw Will when she was 13 years old and she is now 20.

Lyra does get a new love interest, though. There’s a rising romantic tension between her and Malcolm Polstead, who was the child protagonist of La Belle Sauvage and is now a professor at Jordan College, the men’s college where Lyra grew up. But their relationship is complicated by both an age difference and a power differential. Malcolm is 11 years older than Lyra and spent nearly all of La Belle Sauvage caring for her while she was a baby; now, he is a professor and she is a student, and also he was briefly her teacher when she was 15. While personally I find those circumstances off-putting, Pullman waves any such objections aside with the clear expectation that his readers will, too.

The relationship, Malcolm tells one friend, is “completely forbidden, by every kind of moral and —”

“Once, yes, but not anymore,” she responds, cutting him off. “You’re both adults.”

The passage feels slightly dated, as though it was written in accordance with ideas about consent and power dynamics that were in vogue 10 years ago but are no longer considered conventional wisdom. And there are other, similar moments that pop up again and again throughout The Secret Commonwealth, most notably when Lyra travels to this world’s version of the Middle East for the first time and is immediately sexually assaulted. It all feels oddly old-fashioned, especially coming from a writer like Pullman, who is so self-conscious about his own radicalism.

But while I occasionally found myself wincing as I read The Secret Commonwealth, the book always kept pulling me inexorably forward. And an enormous part of that pull is thanks to Lyra, who felt like a thoroughly modern heroine in 2000 and continues to feel like one now, nearly two decades later.

Meeting Lyra for the first time as a child reader was a revelation. The heroines of children’s literature are often preoccupied with being good and virtuous, even when they are tomboyish and unruly, but Lyra was never particularly interested in those concerns. And in large part that’s because despite what Pan’s criticism in The Secret Commonwealth might suggest, she always had very little imagination. As a child, she lied happily and with a clear conscience; she was good at it because it never occurred to her not to be, because she didn’t have the imagination to wonder if something might go wrong.

Lyra was never good or imaginative or bookish. She was practical and kind and relentless, and I had never read any character quite like her before. Nineteen years later, I still haven’t.

Lyra at 20 is sadder now than she was as a child, more pessimistic and restrained, more polite to strangers, but she is still fundamentally Lyra. In an early scene in The Secret Commonwealth, she bossily forces a classmate to skip a lecture and sneak off campus for lunch because Lyra can see that the girl needs comforting over something; Lyra both wants to comfort her, because she’s kind, and wants to know what the story is, because she’s nosy — just like she always was. And the deepest pleasure of reading The Secret Commonwealth comes from watching Lyra become more and more like the best parts of her child self, remembering how to lie fluently and commit herself to a quest with ferocious tenacity.

What was always most compelling about Lyra was that she was an unstoppable force of character, a giant ball of charisma whose kindness was so fierce that it seemed to border on cruelty. Coming back to her after all these years is such a profound pleasure that I can do nothing else but sit back and watch her charge forward into the night, ready as she always was to remake the world in her own image.

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