In 1995, in a universe uncannily similar to ours, Lyra Belacqua and her daemon, Pantalaimon, hid in a closet in Jordan College. From this hiding place, they watched as one man attempted to poison another. Lyra and Pan intervened, setting in motion a chain of events that form the dramatic arc of Phillip Pullman’s award-winning fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials.
Pullman returns to this playground in his latest series, The Book of Dust. The first, La Belle Sauvage, serves as a prequel to HDM, telling the story of how Lyra and Pan arrived at Jordan College. Returning readers might be thrown off at first – the Lyra we meet in these pages is a gurgling baby, who soils her nappies and has to be carried everywhere. As a result, the narrative cannot follow her perspective, interesting as that might be.
Instead, Pullman’s primary set of eyes is a new character, Malcolm Polstead. An innkeeper’s son with a powerful curiosity for the world around him, Malcolm and his daemon, Asta, stumble into a dark underworld of secrets and prophecy when they witness a strange encounter, while they canoe down the canals of seemingly idyllic Oxford.
The set up is similar to that of Northern Lights: a child and his daemon see something, or hear something they should not have, and get caught up, of their own volition, in a series of strange, increasingly life threatening events. There is talk of Dust, that mysterious thing that hangs over and forms the eponymous “matter” of Dark Materials. There are appearances from old, familiar characters, like Lord Asriel and the alluring Mrs Coulter, as well as an action-packed engagement with the gyptian, Fader Coram. And of course, there are compelling new figures as well, including a taciturn teenage girl named Alice, and a sinister, disturbing villain, Gerard Bonneville.
Pullman does a good job of laying the basis for the conflict that forms the meat of Dark Materials. In the first trilogy, worlds are torn apart by a war between agents of the Magisterium, a censoring, Church-like authority, and those who seek a world more receptive to knowledge, and the concept of free will. Perhaps confusingly, prophecy is still integral to this conflict, with Lyra forming its focus. This half-known, barely understood prophecy is what makes her a target in La Belle, and motivates the chase that forms the meat of the book.
When torrential rains pound Britain, Malcolm, Alice and their daemons must navigate the rising waters in Malcolm’s bravely named canoe (which gives the book its title), and flee those who pursue them. Along the way, they stumble into a number of adventures and encounters, some more hair-raising than others.
Pullman peppers his book with shadows of works besides his own. The narrative is capped off with a quotation from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which seems justified by the quest narrative and certain figures who make brief appearances in the text. There are also shades of Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant; the world is made unfamiliar by a flood, the travellers moving through it in search of a safe haven, not entirely sure of the import of the secret, or treasure, they carry. There is a definite note of national myth-making, an effort to fit into a recognisably “British” fantasy ethos that was absent in the first series. Whether this will continue into the second and third books remains to be seen.
“Malcolm would have put up with a good deal rather than upset Sister Fenella, whom he loved with a deep and uncomplicated devotion.
‘Now, what were you going to tell me?’ she said as Malcolm settled on the old stool beside her.
‘You know who we had in the Trout last night? There was three gentlemen taking their dinner, and one of them was Lord Nugent, the Lord Chancellor of England. Ex-Lord Chancellor. And that’s not all. They were looking across here to the priory and they were ever so curious. They asked all kinds of questions – what sort of nuns you were, whether you had any guests here, what kind of people they were – and finally they asked if you’d ever had a baby staying –’
‘An infant,’ put in Asta.
‘Yeah, an infant. Have you ever had an infant staying here?’
Sister Fenella stopped scraping. ‘The Lord Chancellor of England?’ she said. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Dad was, because he saw his picture in the paper and recognised him. They wanted to eat by theirselves in the Terrace Room.’
‘The Lord Chancellor himself ?’
‘Ex-Lord Chancellor. Sister Fenella, what does the Lord Chancellor do?’
‘Oh, he’s very high up, very important. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had something to do with the law. Or the government. Was he very grand and proud?’
‘No. He was a gentleman all right, it was easy to tell that, but he was nice and friendly.’
‘And he wanted to know …’
‘If you’d ever had an infant staying at the priory. I spect he meant staying here to be looked after.’
‘And what did you tell him, Malcolm?’
‘I said I didn’t think so. Have you, ever?’
‘Not in my time. Goodness me! I wonder if I ought to tell Sister Benedicta?’
Known world, new things
Is the book any good? The short answer: yes. There is something comforting about returning to a world we know already, and finding new facets to it. La Belle paints a vivid picture of an Oxford whose tranquil surface hides undercurrents of danger and intrigue, where placid-seeming scholars can harbour deadly secrets, and even acorns must be investigated closely.
Malcolm is a wonderful, warm addition to this universe, a beautifully portrayed boy whose generosity of spirit and ‘romantic’ nature nicely prefigure Lyra’s own, while being distinctive enough to set him apart from the fiery heroine she becomes. Bonneville is, honestly, a darker villain than any we’ve seen in Pullman’s fantasy work, shadowed by hinted-at allegations of sexual assault and abuse. His interactions with Alice are perhaps the most terrifying parts of the book, pushing it to territories that might be considered too dark for preteen readers.
Still, considering that The Hunger Games is preteen literature, perhaps La Belle is not all that savage after all.
La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume One, Philip Pullman, David Fickling Books in association with Penguin.