Once again Philip Pullman has pulled off a remarkable high-wire act. The celebrated English author has just written a 630-page adventure story brimming with contentious ideas about religious tyranny, the loss of imagination and the nature of consciousness — all in a book that’s marketed to children.
Actually, Pullman doesn’t consider himself a children’s book author — "this is a marketing question, not about the way the books are written," he says — but he’s somehow managed to write a book that’s both a page-turner and a philosophical investigation into some of the deepest mysteries in science.
The new book, "The Secret Commonwealth," picks up the story of Lyra Belacqua — now known as Lyra Silvertongue — from his earlier series "His Dark Materials." It’s the second book in Pullman’s new trilogy "The Book of Dust."
In the original series, Lyra is a carefree 11-year old girl in Oxford, England, who’s suddenly pulled into a world of intrigue that pits her against the all-powerful Magisterium and sends her to the Arctic to rescue kidnapped children. She learns to master a mysterious truth-telling device known as "the golden compass," and falls in love with a boy from a parallel universe. Pullman brings the story around to weighty questions about authoritarianism and original sin, which led some critics to call his series "Harry Potter for grown-ups."
For all his acclaim over the last three decades, this may be Pullman’s moment — thanks to the new blockbuster adaptation of "His Dark Materials" by the BBC and HBO.
Pullman’s fantasy world — filled with witches, talking bears and "daemons" (people’s alter-egos that take animal form) — is rendered in glorious steampunk detail. And the fierce and unstoppable Lyra emerges as a hero for our time. In fact, screenwriter Jack Thorne finds "quite a lot of similarities" to the young climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Pullman loves to write about big ideas, and recent scientific discoveries about dark matter and the Higgs boson have inspired certain plot elements in his novels. The biggest mystery in these books — an enigmatic substance called Dust — comes right out of current debates among scientists and philosophers about the origins of consciousness and the provocative theory of "panpsychism."
In a rare interview, "To the Best of Our Knowledge" executive producer Steve Paulson reached Pullman at his home just outside Oxford to talk about the ideas behind his novels.
This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Steve Paulson: Why did you come back to Lyra and the story of your earlier trilogy, "His Dark Materials?" Did you feel like there was unfinished business in the story?
Philip Pullman: Yes, I thought it was unfinished business, but I raise a query over the word "decide." There are things you decide when you're writing a book and there are things that are decided for you by the characters, by the situations, by the muse. I felt I had to tell the story.
SP: What did you still want to write about?
PP: Mainly Dust. The Dust that figures in the title of this trilogy, "The Book of Dust."
It's the Dust that's mentioned in the very first chapter of "The Golden Compass" — Dust with a capital letter D. It's the mysterious thing that exists everywhere. But the people with the knowledge who are in charge, the Magisterium, are afraid of it because it seems to be linked in some weird way with human consciousness and sin and all the things they would like to control and banish, if they could.
I didn't get to the point of actually saying much more about Dust than what's said in "The Amber Spyglass," the final book of the first trilogy. I'd been wondering how I could revisit that.
via the author
And I'm very grateful to the world of science for its utter failure so far to discover what dark matter is. I made a link to the dark matter in our universe — the matter that's holding the galaxies together gravitationally — and I was keeping my fingers crossed that we wouldn't discover what it was before the book was published. Well, 25 years later, they still don't know. In fact, they’ve found a new kind of darkness, dark energy.
SP: You pick up the story when Lyra is 20, so this is the first book when she's no longer a child. She's in college and seems to have lost her zest for life, which is very different from the 11-year-old Lyra we knew earlier. Why is Lyra struggling so much?
PP: Because people do. One of the things I wanted to do in this series of books was to write a fantasy that was psychologically true. And I wanted to use the things I discovered — about the daemon, for example, and about Dust — to explore what it's like to grow up.
We see Lyra on the cusp of adolescence in "The Amber Spyglass." She has her first experience of falling in love, and that makes a huge difference to her, as I think it does for everyone. It marks a point when we're moving out of childhood and into an adult world, which has got strange, mysterious, exciting and dangerous things like sexuality in it, but also intellectual curiosity. It's the time in our lives when we're most curious about the world. How does it work? Why are people so cruel to each other?
It is the time of our lives that’s often marked by profound wonder as well as profound depression.
Lyra is a very ordinary young woman, so like all of us, she's going through this. But with the daemon, which is like the embodied soul of human beings — which has the form of an animal — I can do something that's harder to do in our world. I can express a sense of alienation from oneself by having the human being Lyra and her daemon not liking each other, not being able to speak to each other.
That was a very dramatic way of expressing the kind of alienation from oneself that we do often feel if we're a sensitive, intelligent adolescent.
SP: This is a brilliant way of showing how so many 20-year-olds can lose their sense of self — and maybe even be filled with self-hatred.
PP: I thought it would be interesting to go into what's led Lyra to this state of mind. It’s obviously the things she's been reading and hearing about.
There are two philosophers in the book, two very different public intellectuals, who’ve had a great influence on her. Pantalaimon, her daemon, detests them and what they say. But she's very interested in what they say, as many young people in her world are. I thought it was interesting to look at the influence that books can have on young people.
SP: So Lyra falls under the sway of these two writers, who I would describe as postmodernists.
PP: One is a postmodernist who doesn't believe there is any such thing as truth, and he's very flippant about it. The truth is whatever you want it to be.
And the other is a much more rigid, dogmatic scientistic writer who scorns everything irrational and insists on the most severe kind of rationality.
SP: I read him as a Richard Dawkins-type character.
PP: Well, I never like to tell my readers what to think. If that's how you see it, that's fine by me.
SP: So Lyra's daemon, Pan, accuses Lyra of losing her imagination and sense of wonder.
PP: That's right. So he sets off in search of her imagination. Now, what am I drawing on here? It's that Latin epic romance called "Orlando Furioso," where the hero Orlando loses his wits and someone flies to the moon to see if they can find them.
This has always struck me as being a charming idea. It is really a romance rather than a novel or an epic. And I mean a romance like "The Faerie Queen," which is why I've got quotations from "The Faerie Queen" at the end of this book, to signal this is the kind of world we're in. It's a world where magic exists, where strange things can happen and where people go in search of things like imagination.
SP: One of the central tensions here is this dichotomy between reason and imagination and the sense that we’ve lost our imagination. A century ago, the sociologist Max Weber had a word for this — "disenchantment." It seems like Lyra has become disenchanted with the world.
PP: "Disenchantment" is a very good word. It's a state of mind, which is also very well described in that Wordsworth poem "Ode on Intimations of Immortality."
It begins, "There was a time when meadow, grove and stream, the Earth, and every common sight, to me it did seem apparelled in celestial light, the glory and the freshness of a dream."
That was when he was a boy, but now he's grown up and the magic is gone.
SP: Lyra asks herself, is the universe alive or dead? And it seems like that's what she's trying to figure out. How can she believe once again that the world is alive?
PP: That's exactly it. And I'm going to face that question squarely in the third book. She's going on a journey in search of herself.
SP: What does the title of your new book, "The Secret Commonwealth," refer to?
PP: It's the title I stole from a little book that begins "The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies," which was written in the late 17th century by the Scottish clergyman Robert Kirk. He must have been a pretty liberal churchman because he made a study of the local legends and myths about fairies, ghosts and spirits.
It's a charming little book, and I thought the title was far too good to go to waste. It's that world of folklore — of ghosts and wisps and fairies, which represents the imagination.
SP: I find this so interesting because you are a highly visible atheist, and atheism typically values reason and science above all else. And yet this story celebrates the hidden parts of reality which fall outside the realms of rational analysis. I know this is a fantasy novel, but your story seems to be a critique of excessive rationality. You're saying we need to rediscover the imagination and this invisible, magical world.
PP: Yes, I am saying that, but in welcoming the world of the irrational, I'm not rejecting rationality. What I'm rejecting is what William Blake called "single vision," the view that there's one answer, whether it’s Marxism or science or fundamentalist Christianity, and everything must be subordinated to that because I am right and you’re wrong.
There is an honored place for reason and rationality because the discoveries of science in the past 300 or 400 years have immeasurably benefited the human race. But if you only allow yourself to see things through the filter of scientific thinking, you will miss a great deal of what's there.
I’ve just been reading a very good book by Philip Goff. He’s a philosopher who is very interested in the theory of panpsychism. It’s a theory about consciousness, which is such a mysterious thing to discuss.
We are clearly made of matter. We can look at every cell, every atom, every molecule in our bodies, and it’s all matter. You can't find any spirit there no matter how much you cut it up, but it is nevertheless conscious. And the traditional way of explaining this is to say the body does material things and the spirit does the consciousness. But that’s become harder and harder to believe. All the scientific explanations for consciousness seem to stumble or fall or come against a paradox which is irreconcilable.
What panpsychism does, and this is what I like about it, is to suggest that consciousness is a normal property of matter. We accept that mass is a normal property of matter, and so is electric charge. If you view consciousness as a state in which matter can exist, then the problem goes. Everything is conscious.
That's not to say that the cup of tea from which I am now drinking is conscious and saying to me, "Come on, hurry up, you haven't finished this yet."
Or to say that every leaf on the tree is as conscious as I am.
No, but consciousness is something that pervades everything. And although many philosophers find this vision hard to accept, poets don't find it hard to accept.
William Blake, another of the great Romantic poets, talks of "every particle of dust breathing forth its joy." So the notion of the world is alive, the world is conscious, is something that I find very persuasive. You don't have to believe in a Christian God or a Muslim God to believe that.
SP: And this idea of trying to see everything in the world as alive is Lyra’s challenge. That opens the door to a different kind of mindset about how we look at the world.
PP: It certainly does, and this is what I think people like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion and the young people who've been protesting so passionately about the state of things — they’re onto this sort of thing. There's a sense that the people who run the world have up until now treated the world as a dead thing that they can scavenge for whatever they want. They can tear coal and pump oil, they can burn it and hurl the smoke into the atmosphere, and it's all dead and it doesn't matter.
Well, we're discovering now to our great cost that it's not all dead and it does matter. The Gaia hypothesis taps into the same feeling.
SP: You’ve incorporated this idea of panpsychism into your novel. You have this mysterious substance called Dust, which is somehow connected to consciousness. I know this is part of the mystery of your story, but can you tell us more about Dust?
PP: Yeah, I'll try. One of the things that helped me think this through was the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN. There's a Higgs field which permeates everything, and this is the particle associated with that field. That's why this teacup weighs something when I pick it up. And that's why things stay on the shelf and don't float away because they have mass.
The Higgs field and the Higgs particle were a good model for how Dust works. Dust is a particle and there’s a field associated with it, like the Higgs field, which permeates everything. But we're going to see more of that in the third book.
SP: Why is everything about Dust so secretive? And why does the Magisterium want to control it?
PP: In just the same way that the Catholic Inquisition of the 17th century persecuted Galileo, who brought new ideas like the sun being at the center of the universe. The Church persecuted them because they seemed to contradict what the Bible said. And the Church, being in control of everything, wanted to command people's thoughts as well as what they did. They were very fierce and severe in defending this knowledge that we now know to be untrue.
So the Magisterium in my book is doing the same sort of thing with this idea of Dust, which seems to be connected with the change in consciousness that comes to us in adolescence, with the awakening of sexuality, with the change in William Blake's terms "from innocence to experience."
These are all tied up together, and because they involve this notion of sin and because it goes back to the story in the Book of Genesis that Adam and Eve sinned by eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It was discovering the knowledge of good and evil which marked them out. They were innocent no more, and they had to leave paradise. I refer to that story in "His Dark Materials."
SP: Of course, this moment is traditionally seen as the fall from grace. But you're saying eating the apple was when they discovered self-consciousness.
PP: That's correct. I can see why people would think it was heretical, but I have never understood why a God who invented us would not want us to know about things, and would tempt us with the knowledge of something and then forbid us to enjoy it. That seems crazy to me.
SP: I’m curious, what do you think of the new BBC adaptation of "His Dark Materials"?
PP: I think it’s great. It's got a very good cast. The script is very good. It's skillfully taking the story from the first book and making it into a series of eight single episodes. You've got to be very craftsman-like with this sort of thing. The writer Jack Thorne is a master at adjusting the pace of the story to fit exactly into the demands of a single episode.
And it looks right. The feel of everything is good. I'm very happy with it.
SP: Were you very involved in the production?
PP: I was sort of slightly involved. My name is there as an executive producer.
I didn't get a chair with my name on it, which I was rather sorry about, but apart from that, I have been involved mainly in commenting on what's been done so far and making a few suggestions. But I haven't tinkered with the main thrust of the story or the characters at all.