Serpentine- preliminary thoughts


I just finished reading Philip Pullman’s latest book in the His Dark Materials/The Book of Dust universe, Serpentine, and felt the need to write down some of my thoughts. This text will be less rigorously researched and structured than my usual essays, but I am unfortunately terribly busy at the moment, yet wanted to write something about the things revealed in Serpentine. I will begin my mentioning some of the things I found interesting from a sort of (intersectional) feminist perspective, and then go on to discuss some of the revalations, and what they could mean for the final instalment of The Book of Dust. When it comes to that latter discussion, I am heavily indebted to Chloe of Girls Gone Canon, and the yelling discussions we’ve had via Twitter DMs. She’s brilliant.

Firstly, one of the things I noted immediately in starting to read the story was how there is still lasting effects in the North of the change of climate caused by Asriel’s opening of worlds. As the book puts it:

The curse of Bolvangar had been lifted, but the northern lands had still not recovered from the climatic devastation Lord Asriel had caused. However, the retreat of the snows and loosening of the permafrost meant that all kinds of archaeological work was possible (…) (Pullman 2020, 2)

So, while some of the Magisterium’s direct involvement in the North has decreased, the effect of powerful people’s warring and messing with natural resources has still devastated the climate in this region. As I noted in this essay, one could read the Magisterium as a colonising force in many ways, including in the ways they try to take power in the North. I also argued in that essay that the Pansarbjørne in the story can be read as a sort of indigenous people in the area, who are displaced by colonial forces. As we find out in the story, the bears are forced to migrate from their native lands due to this drastic change in climate, and as Serpentine we learn that the climate is still affected. One could compare this to how many indigenous people are some of the first to suffer from climate change in our world, including in our North where Sami people have been heavily effected (WWF, n.d.)

Secondly, I thought the focus on separating from your daemon and having to keep that secret was very interesting. The book describes Lyra’s reaction to finding our Dr Lanselius knew she and Pan could separate like this: “she and Pan relaxed. It was something they had to be on their guard about all the time.” (Pullman 2020, 10) This is of course very similar to much of the plot of The Secret Commonwealth, where Lyra has to constantly be on guard because she doesn’t have her daemon with her. I’m planning on writing a longer essay about this topic at some point, but it very much reminds me of the writings of many cultural and/or feminist geographers. For instance, researchers Linda Sandberg and Aina Tollefsen writes about this when analysing the fear of violence in public felt by people of different genders and ethnicities. They refer to this as the geography of fear and writes: “It has been shown how women restrict their uses of public space more than men as a consequence of fear (…) Research on the geography of fear has demonstrated how fear is related to gendered power relations in space, and is produced in the gender practices of everyday life.” (ibid, 4) Sandberg and Tollefsen then goes on to discuss how ethnicity also plays a role in this, with people of colour often fearing racist violence. This sort of fear often effect people’s movement through public space, and their behaviour in such a space. A somewhat similar study is one made by Lubitow, Carathers, Kelly, and Abelson which analyses trans and gender non-conforming people’s experience of using public transport in Portland, Oregon (2017). They noted that:

Trans women, trans-feminine, and visibly gender nonconforming riders reported higher incidence of violence overall, with trans riders of color and disabled individuals being especially vulnerable to harassment from other riders and even TriMet staff. Drawing on an intersectional perspective, we show how participants’ experiences can be shaped by their multiple marginalized identities. Thus, appearing to be white, gender conforming, masculine, and able-bodied seemed to offer some protection for gender minority transit users. (Lubitow et al. 2017, 1413)

So, several types of marginalisation can put one at risk of violence and harassment in the public space. Lubitow et al. also notes that the fear of violence makes those who fear it likely to change their behaviour. For instance, people might change the route they take to work, or in the case of trans people modify their gender expression so they’re not visibly trans/gender nonconforming. While this is not a perfect parallel to what Lyra goes through, this modifying of behaviour and appearance in public in order to not face harassment seems similar. I hope to return to this topic more in depth in a future essay.

Thirdly, lets get into some possible implications the future of the story, and some theorising… One huge thing mentioned in this book is that in order for a witch to life a full “witch-life” they need to go through with separating from their daemon. Now, this could mean “witch-life” in the sense of a life truly being a part of that culture. But it could also mean “witch-life” in the sense of living a life the length of a witch’s life. I think there’s a clue that this might be the case in The Secret Commonwealth when Fader Coram tells Lyra this story about a man who could separate:

‘That was in Muscovy. He’d been to Siberia, to the place where witches go, and done what they did. It nearly killed him, he said. He was the lover of a witch, and he thought that if he could separate like them, he’d live as long as they did. Only it didn’t work. His witch didn’t think no more of him for doing it, and he died soon after in any case.’ (Pullman 2019, 288)

So, the idea that separation would lead to long life didn’t work for this man, but it also seems like the separation killed him (although there is some ambiguity there). What does this mean for Lyra? Did she get as long a life as a witch when she separated from Pan? We’ve seen other people who can separate in the books, and there is no indication that they are essentially immortal. Do you only get a long life if you’re a witch who separate from your daemon? Does it matter that Lyra has “witch oil” in her blood (according to Ma Costa in Northern Lights)? Does it matter that she drank fairy milk as a baby? I’m not sure. I want to note that many of these thoughts are the result of discussions with Chloe of Girls Gone Canon, I can definitely not take credit for all of it. Another thing we have discussed, and that Chloe has also talked about on this and this episode of Girls Gone Canon is the idea that Lyra and Will are going to meet again in the last The Book of Dust installment, through the spirit world. As we know, Will’s father learnt how to travel the spirit plane, and at the end of The Amber Spyglass there is a hint that Will could learn this too. As we read in Serpentine, there are some places in Lyra’s world where one can access the spirit world more easily, that same place where witches go to separate from their daemons. Dr Lanselius describes it like this:

‘In central Siberia there is a region of devastation. Thousands of years ago there was a prosperous city there, the centre of an empire of craftsmen and traders that reached from Novgorod to Mongolia. But they made war with the spirit world, and their capital was destroyed by a blast of fire. Nothing has lived there since- plant, insect, bird or mammal’

Lyra thought she knew what the spirit world meant. It meant another universe, like Will’s, or like the world of Cittàgazze. If there had been contact between this universe and another, thousands of years ago, long before the way of cutting through one universe to another with the subtle knife had been invented, that was very interesting and she wanted to know more (…) (Pullman 2020, 13-16)

Now, the way this place is described seems very similar to The Blue Hotel in The Secret Commonwealth. That place is described as:

‘A thousand years ago, maybe more, it was a great city: temples, palaces, bazaars, parks, fountains, all sorts of beautiful things. Then one day the Huns swept down out of the steppes- that’s the endless grasslands they have further north, what seem to go on and on forever- and they slaughtered all the people in that city, every man, woman, and child. It was empty for centuries, because people said it was haunted, and I en’t surprised.’ (Pullman 2019, 225)

Now, this is incredibly similar. Furthermore, we know that the Blue Hotel is where daemons who have been separated from their people go, and we get descriptions of a similar area to the one in Siberia where daemons can’t go. So, is the Blue Hotel similar to the place in Siberia too in that it’s closer to the spirit world? What could that mean for the story? Chloe has previously talked about how it’s possible that Lyra and Will will meet each other in the spirit world in the last book in The Book of Dust (again, see Girls Gone Canon). She has also discussed how this might parallel the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In that story Orpheus of course tried to get his wife Eurydice back from the underworld and made a deal with Hades. The deal entails that Eurydice must follow Orpheus while walking out to the light from the underworld, and he cannot look at her until they emerge, or he will lose her forever. Orpheus is unable to hear her footsteps as they go, and he begins to fear he was being fooled by Hades. So, with a few feet left to the exit, Orpheus loses faith, and turns to look at his wife, and her shade is whisked back among the underworld, trapped forever. Chloe has theorised that this could be similar to what happens with Lyra and Will, Lyra will see Will in the spirit world but she won’t be able to bring him back with her in the end. This could also parallel the retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in the 2019 movie Portrait of a Lady on Fire. In that movie the characters discuss the Orpheus and Eurydice story, and one character speculates that Orpheus made a choice to turn around and live with Eurydice’s memory instead of attempting to bring her back. Another character speculates that Eurydice told Orpheus to turn around, to give him closure and a chance of a life without her. Chloe discusses how this could be similar to Lyra and Will’s end too. Personally I think that they will have to once again (similar to the end of The Amber Spyglass) decide to let each other go, maybe as a parallel to Eurydice telling Orpheus to let her go.

These has been some preliminary thoughts on Serpentine! It’s truly a fascinating book, setting up a lot in The Secret Commonwealth, from the climate change and migration, to Lyra navigating a geography of fear, to possible spirit world journeys in the future. I hope to have opportunity to go more in depth into these topics in the future.


Girls Gone Canon. 2020. “Joining Worlds – A Dustcussion on The Secret Commonwealth Ft. Her Dark Materials & The Dark Materials Podcast.” Published March 6, 2020.

Girls Gone Canon. 2020. “His Dark Materials Episode 13 – The Subtle Knife Chapters 9 and 10.” Published May 29, 2020.

Lo the Lynx. 2020. “Colonialism in His Dark Materials.” Lo the Lynx. August 27, 2020.

Lubitow, A., J. Carathers, M. Kelly & M. Abelson. 2017. “Transmobilities: mobility, harassment, and violence experienced by transgender and gender nonconforming public transit riders in Portland, Oregon.” Gender, Place & Culture, 24(10): 1398-1418.

Pullman, Philip. 2019. The Secret Commonwealth. London: Penguin Books.

Pullman, Philip. 2020. Serpentine. London: Penguin Books.

Sandberg, L. and A. Tollefsen. 2010. “Talking about fear of violence in public space: female and male narratives about threatening situations in Umeå, Sweden.” Social & Cultural Geography 11(1): 1-15.

WWF. n.d. “Is Climate Change Threatening the Saami way of Life?” WWF. Retrieved October 20, 2020.

En reaktion på ”Serpentine- preliminary thoughts

  1. Pingback: His Dark Materials season 2 episode 3, a feminist analysis – Lo the Lynx


Fyll i dina uppgifter nedan eller klicka på en ikon för att logga in:

Du kommenterar med ditt Logga ut /  Ändra )


Du kommenterar med ditt Facebook-konto. Logga ut /  Ändra )

Ansluter till %s