Written by Philip Pullman
Illustrated by Tom Duxbury
In Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials” every human being has a companion called a daemon who represents his or her soul, externalized and made visible as a talking animal. Your daemon can be a hawk or a ferret or a monkey, fierce or cozy or creepy, depending on what kind of soul you’ve got. It’s one of the cardinal rules of Pullman’s fictional universe that your daemon must remain physically close to you, but like most cardinal rules in most universes this one occasionally gets broken. When it does, it’s a trauma almost beyond description.
Since the last volume of “His Dark Materials” appeared in 2000, Pullman has written two more (superb) volumes of a second trilogy called “The Book of Dust”, as well as a few interstitial bits and bobs that fill in the odd blank spot in his vast legendarium. His latest work, “Serpentine,” is one of the latter, and as befits its title it is the slenderest of creatures, almost plotless and at 80 generously illustrated pages barely thick enough to have a spine. Set five years after the events of the first trilogy, the story finds Pullman’s heroine, the unquenchably curious Lyra, in an unquiet state of mind. She was once (in “The Amber Spyglass”) briefly separated from her daemon, Pantalaimon, and ever since then she’s been haunted by the question of what he did while they were apart.
It’s weird for a daemon to know something its human doesn’t, since they’re ostensibly two halves of one being. “But she had the obscure sense that she shouldn’t ask him directly; he would tell her when he wanted to. However, time went past, and still he didn’t, and it began to trouble her.” Lyra visits the home of one Dr. Lanselius, a pleasantly inscrutable fellow whom she first met in “The Golden Compass,” and much of the action, such as it is, consists of Lyra discussing the mystery of daemons with him while at the same time trying to conceal this conversation from her own daemon, thereby providing an object lesson in exactly what they’re discussing.
More than a charming fantasy, daemons are a rich metaphor for the relationship of the self to itself. Even in our sadly daemonless world, our selves, like Lyra’s, are both whole and divided — into the conscious and unconscious, the part that observes and the part that is observed, the part that speaks and the part that listens. “You know, it isn’t really surprising that there are things about ourselves that still remain a mystery to us,” Dr. Lanselius tells Lyra. “Maybe we should be comforted that the knowledge is there, even if it’s withheld for a while.” “There are lots of things we should be comforted by,” replies Lyra, at her most Alice-like, “but somehow it doesn’t feel very comforting.”
The good doctor’s daemon, it should be noted, takes the form of a snake, and as serpents do she whispers secrets to Lyra’s daemon out in the garden, truths that won’t necessarily surprise Pullman fans but that leave Lyra — who obviously hasn’t read “The Book of Dust” — shocked and shaken.
“Serpentine” is a trifle, but it brings with it all the familiar delights of Pullman’s work: its effortless clarity, its intelligence, its ineffable mix of coziness and darkness, innocence and experience. By the end one feels dark shadows gathering around Lyra, not because of anything that has happened to her, because hardly anything has, but because of what she has learned, which belongs to that particular satanic kind of knowledge that leaves one less innocent, and that once known can never be unknown.