Brimming with Curiosity: On Philip Pullman’s ‘La Belle Sauvage’

November 16, 2017 | 11 books mentioned 9 min read

1.
It was my then-girlfriend (now wife), G, who spotted the unassuming flyer by the door of the Church of St Mary the Virgin, just a few steps away from the elegant dome of the Radcliffe Camera. There was something about Philip Pullman giving a talk, and it was the next day, and there wasn’t anything about an admission price. We had to go.

G and I were studying abroad in the U.K. that year and visiting Oxford for the first time. G would later go on to study at Oxford, which was a longtime dream. We’re part of the generation that grew up with great fantasy series: the Harry Potter books came out when we were Harry’s age, and we both read The Lord of the Rings voraciously as children, snubbing those who only saw the movies (which we also loved). Oxford, as the home of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and the filming location for many scenes in the Harry Potter movies, held a special magic for us. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, with its reimagined version of Oxford, was also part of that magic.

What we should’ve realized about Philip Pullman’s talk that morning in Oxford, and the fact that he was giving it in a church on a Sunday morning, was that it was in fact a sermon. Which meant we had to sit through mass in order to hear him speak. The place was packed, and we heard some local ladies mention that they noticed many young new faces in the pews. I’d never attended an Anglican mass before, and I was glad to find out that much of it consisted of listening to beautiful singing.

Pullman is an outspoken agnostic, so it’s a credit to the Church of England and to this church in particular that he was invited to give the sermon. He climbed up the pulpit in his trailing black robe, wisps of white hair framing his round head, rimless glasses around his eyes. Philip Pullman has said that if he had a daemon—a kind of animal companion the characters in his books have, a physical manifestation of their souls—it would be a raven. He certainly looked like one that day. Instead of talking about God or analyzing a quote from The Bible, Pullman used his mellow storyteller’s voice to talk to us about the motivating force in his own life: intellectual curiosity.

2.
Pullman has been promising his readers a sequel to His Dark Materials for a long time. We’ve even known the title for several years: The Book of Dust. The Dust in question is a mysterious substance, conscious matter that clusters around human ingenuity, that is a driving force behind the plot of the original trilogy. Pullman, as if to help us wait for his new opus, has published two short stories and an audio story in the intervening years, but these amounted to pleasant collectibles that excited briefly but could not fully satisfy.

Now, finally, with the publication of the new trilogy’s first volume, La Belle Sauvage, Pullman’s readers are seeing the fruits of his work these last 17 years, and I’m happy to say that the wait has been worth it.

covercovercoverAuthors do well to limit the scope of the first book of a trilogy. With the exception of a few short scenes, The Golden Compass sticks to the point of view of Lyra, a scrappy orphan with a knack for lying, as she travels north from her home in Oxford, in search of her kidnapped friend, Roger. She befriends witches, armored bears, and a Texan aeronaut along the way, and, of course, learns who her real parents are. At the end of The Golden Compass, Lyra crosses into another world, using a bridge in the sky opened by her father in a horrific scene in which he sacrifices Roger, tapping into the energy that connects Roger to his daemon to wrench open the heavens. In the second book, The Subtle Knife, Pullman puts his omniscient third person narrator to greater use by expanding the cast of characters and the setting. That book begins by following Will Parry, a young man from our own world, as he runs away from home. The change in perspective is so stark that I remember wondering if I was really reading the sequel to The Golden Compass when I first opened it or if there had been some kind of printing error. Eventually Will meets Lyra and they become close friends. As The Subtle Knife progresses and leads to The Amber Spyglass, the action gets bigger and madder, introducing a defrocked nun physicist, angels split into two warring factions, tiny knights who ride dragonflies, creatures from another world who get around on wheels made of large seeds. All the action drives towards a cosmic conflict, a moment of redemption, and a heart-wrenching scene between our two protagonists.

Pullman has certainly kept things (relatively) intimate for the first volume of The Book of Dust, which takes place exclusively in Lyra’s world, and largely in and around its alternate version of Oxford. La Belle Sauvage recounts the (mis)adventures of Malcolm Polstead, about a decade before the events of The Golden Compass, with Lyra present as a baby. Malcolm is a capable boy, quiet, sensitive, serious, and crafty. He’s equally at ease talking to adults, repairing broken windows, or canoeing out onto the river to watch birds. He’s the perfect young hero, very much in the mold of Will Parry, although Will had an inner darkness because he grew up without a father and had to take care of his mentally ill mother, whereas Malcolm lives with loving parents. The darkness in La Belle Sauvage comes from Malcolm’s unexpected ally Alice, a withdrawn girl who’s capable of defending herself when necessary, and who, because she’s older than Malcolm, is also more aware of what the adults are up to. Tellingly, though, her daemon hasn’t fixed into its final form yet, which suggests that she still hasn’t quite figured out who she is.

coverThe villain, once again, is organized religion, which takes the form of a powerful, dogmatic, and politically implicated Catholic Church and its tentacular agencies, such as the ominously named Constitorial Court of Discipline. In Pullman fashion, everyone who’s associated with the church is automatically suspicious, with the exception of a few good nuns across the river. Yet the one character who actually stalks our heroes and endangers their lives isn’t an agent of the Church: he’s a psychopathic, manipulative, relentless French scientist called Bonneville, and he’s out for revenge. Bonneville’s daemon is a horrendous, maimed hyena that symbolizes his violent impulses, and it’s telling that he’s often in conflict with her, at one point even striking her. I was reminded of a scene Pullman wrote for the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, in which the character of Mrs. Coulter hits her golden monkey daemon. As the characters keep saying in La Belle Sauvage, only the very deranged would hurt their own daemon.

3.
After a pleasant but slow-moving first half, La Belle Sauvage climaxes with a dramatic flood, not of biblical proportions—although several characters refer to its scriptural precedent—but rather of biblical implications, since it unexpectedly carries away Malcolm and Alice, along with baby Lyra, and we know that Lyra’s survival will lead to the world-changing events of His Dark Materials.

covercovercoverJourneys are an essential element of Pullman’s original trilogy: to the north, between worlds, even to the land of the dead. But whereas the travels in those books took their mythological underpinnings from the Old Testament, along with a smattering of Nordic imagery and a sheen of science fiction, here the fantasy elements are decidedly folkloric. The journey itself is less epic in scale, and even a little rushed as Malcolm, Alice, and Lyra paddle from island to island in a changed landscape. The flood strips away the veneer of modernity and unleashes the magic of old Albion. Malcolm becomes an Odysseus-cum-gallant knight who encounters, in quick succession, vicious nuns in their fortress-like priory, fairies that must be tricked like Rumpelstiltskin, enchanted riverbanks where a thick fog causes adults to forget their past, and a pagan river god who guards his tributary of the Thames. Finally, we reach a “quiet rode” inspired by Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a figurative place of rest that is both a pause in the journey and a break in the story. In these dreamy, feverish scenes, Philip Pullman is tilling the same creative soil at Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. It’s the soil of English myth, and of English country folklore. So less high fantasy, and more of what Neil Gaiman would call English fantasy.

coverIn earlier chapters the novel flirts with other genres, especially thanks to the character of Dr. Hannah Relf, an Oxford scholar who works with the Bodleian’s alethiometer, a mysterious truth-telling device that Lyra will eventually use herself. Careful readers will recognize Dr. Relf from short scenes in the original trilogy when she enquires about Lyra’s education early in The Golden Compass, and then offers her a place at a boarding school and the chance to study with her to read the alethiometer at the very end of The Amber Spyglass. In La Belle Sauvage, Dr. Relf works for a secret service agency that protects democracy against the agents of the Church, who are bent on stifling free speech and personal freedom. We’re plunged into a light spy novel: there are secret levels of government at war with each other, tradecraft, double-dealings, spy masters ready to do the very worst to bring about good—right out of the pages of the world’s most famous spy novelist, another Oxford-educated writer, who happened to study at a college on the same street as Lyra’s beloved Jordan.

coverThere’s also a more sinister undercurrent, whiffs of an Orwellian brand of dystopia. In dispiriting early chapters, one of the Church’s organizations called the League of Saint Alexander takes over schools in the Oxford area, with the aim of having children snitch on parents and teachers who don’t follow the church’s dictates. Pullman was inspired by the kind of tactics used in Soviet Russia; I was reminded of the terrifying children in 1984 who are trained to spy on their parents and report them as bad party members. Pullman, who worked as a middle school teacher before writing full time, has an excellent ear for schoolyard arguments.

4.
The prerogative of the curious protagonist of a YA novel is to observe and half understand the world of adults. Think of the number of scenes in which Harry Potter overhears an interesting conversation from underneath his cloak of invisibility. In La Belle Sauvage, Malcolm is rather conveniently always at the right place and time to witness important events and talk to the right people. That convenience could be explained on the one hand by the fact that he lives and works in a pub his family owns, The Trout, and so gets to meet and talk to many adults who frequent it, and on the other by the fact that greater powers—Dust, perhaps—bind him to the task of protecting Lyra, just as Lyra herself will one day be nudged into action by the alethiometer and the prophecy that foretells her role in replaying humankind’s fall.

Yet I was somewhat bothered by the role Pullman has Malcolm play within the larger story. Although Malcolm is the protagonist of this book—his precious canoe even gives the volume its title—we know that his place is inevitably at the fringe of the greater drama of Lyra’s story. Lyra’s parents, Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel, who both have arresting cameos in La Belle Sauvage, are powerful, charismatic individuals. They’re also beautiful and noble. So it seems almost inevitable that their daughter will grow up to become someone important. Similarly, Will Parry’s father, unbeknownst to Will, is a world-crossing scientist and shaman. Will’s story is entangled with Lyra’s, but as the bearer of the subtle knife and, later, as the figure of Adam, he takes his place as Lyra’s equal.

What about poor Malcolm? Well, he’s a publican’s son, and for all his craftiness and courage, and the fact that Dust appears to play some role in guiding his actions, he will always be subservient to Lyra. When he meets baby Lyra for the first time, his immediate thought is that he will be “her servant for life.” Before the end of the book, he will have risked much to make sure that she’s alive to fulfill her destiny in a decade’s time. I can only hope that Malcolm will return in the next volumes of The Book of Dust to get some credit for everything he’s gone through, and that he’ll grow up to be more than a servant. He deserves a story of his own.

It’s only with the publication of the second and third volumes of The Book of Dust that we’ll be able to recognize the figure in the carpet, and to see if Pullman has been able to create a story that holds together in his new trilogy. From the information Pullman and his publishers have made public, I assume that it will be a baggier series than His Dark Materials because it has to cover a longer time period. The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, will apparently be set 20 years after the action of La Belle Sauvage, with Lyra as an undergraduate student. Pullman has the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes he made in The Amber Spyglass, whose plot, though enthralling, hung together only with an added dose of suspended disbelief.

At least with La Belle Sauvage Pullman has avoided the biggest pitfall: by expanding his cast of characters and nodding to his past books while keeping this novel different in tone, he’s avoided sounding as if he was writing his own fan-fiction. Pullman’s novels communicate big ideas, and some have criticized him for the relentless dogmatism with which he pursues them, but for all the god-killing and evil priests, Pullman is first and foremost an extremely skillful storyteller—the warmest, fuzziest kind that takes readers by the hand and guides them with sharp prose and a fast moving plot. There was some violence and some fairly dramatic moments in His Dark Materials, yet I found La Belle Sauvage more mature because it explores psychological darkness as well. There are whispers of pedophilia and sex crimes at the fringes of the story, which heightens the sense of danger, and underscores the theme of innocence and experience, which plays an essential role in Pullman’s books.

The Amber Spyglass ends with Lyra declaring that she will build “the Republic of Heaven” on earth, in a celebration of the physical world and its joys. That’s exactly what Pullman is doing with the universe he’s expanding with each new book, except he’s building his republic with words, with stories, with human characters brimming with curiosity.

comes from Montreal, Canada and completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. He currently teaches English and French in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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