La Belle Sauvage: The Book Of Dust Volume One

Philip Pullman

David Ficking Books/Penguin, £20

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Once upon a time in Oxford, while standing on the roof of Jordan College, waiting for the starlings to begin their twilight murmuration, their nightly chitter and swoop, Lyra Silvertongue saved the life of a witch’s daemon. The creature came tumbling from the sky, mobbed by birds; she bundled it through a trapdoor and into the tower. In doing so, she disturbed from his studies Dr Polstead, an academic in his mid-twenties who had once been the girl’s teacher. “He was stout, ginger-haired, affable; more inclined to be friendly to Lyra than she was to return the feeling,” Philip Pullman wrote in the short story Lyra’s Oxford, which was published as a stocking-filler in time for Christmas 2003. “His daemon was a cat, as ginger as he was.”

This was the first glimpse readers had of Malcolm Polstead. Three years later, in the novella Once Upon A Time In The North, we were afforded another, even more fleeting; the endpapers included a facsimile of a letter from Lyra, seeking his advice on whether she could include certain documents in the bibliography of her dissertation: “ … some of them are scraps,” she wrote, “not much more than ephemera, but they all build up a picture.”

Remarkably, Pullman has done something of the same building from scraps in La Belle Sauvage, the first novel in his new trilogy, The Book Of Dust. Malcolm Polstead is his central character. A minor player in one minor book, barely there at all in another, an individual whose existence was hitherto a handful of lines, has been elevated to hero status.

He is a potboy in a riverside inn, three miles from the centre of Oxford, on the opposite bank from a priory of nuns. Malcolm is an only child, 11 years old; stocky, not yet stout. He has an “inquisitive, kindly disposition” and takes pleasure – like Pullman – in woodworking. He does not have great expectations. Secretly, he would like to grow up to be an academic researching “the deepest nature of things”, but is cheerfully resigned to taking over the landlordship of the Trout from his father. The book opens in this Dickensian atmosphere. Three travellers arrive and engage this smart lad in conversation. There is talk of money, school, politics, an orphaned girl. Roast beef is consumed. Baked apples and custard. The mood is cosy, domestic, but a mystery is beginning to build. One thinks of Pip at the forge, about to be unshackled from dull destiny.

The action of La Belle Sauvage takes place over the course of two months around ten years before Northern Lights, the first book in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and is set in the same world: an Oxford and England much like our own, but at a slightly earlier stage of technological development.

Readers of His Dark Materials (of which there are at least 18 million) will be familiar with the notion that each human has a daemon, a sort of spirit-animal, usually of the opposite gender, which is the physical embodiment of something like their personality, conscience and soul. The daemons of children can change form; the transition to adulthood is marked by one’s daemon settling as a particular creature. Malcolm’s daemon Asta has not yet settled as the cat we know she will become, but Alice – the 15 year old dishwasher at the inn – has a jackdaw daemon. Pullman, deeply interested in innocence and experience, has the young boy accompanied on his adventures by this older girl who is aware of her looks, dissatisfied with them, and whose developing sexual feelings are a manifestation of a desire to be valued and loved.

La Belle Sauvage is the name of Malcolm’s canoe, but is probably also a reference to Lyra, described in Northern Lights as “a coarse and greedy little savage”. She appears in this new book as a baby. Those who have followed her adventures and understand her importance will likely be moved by the first glimpse of the infant in the crib, her daemon Pantalaimon, in the form of a swallow chick, nested beside her. This girl who shall grow up to have such agency and will is helpless and vulnerable. There are those who would do her harm. It will be up to Malcolm and Alice to save her.

The book, 560 pages, is in two parts. The first, daemons aside, is a work of realism. The second, The Flood, by far the superior, is more like a knightly quest with the texture of folk tale and myth. There is a giant, an enchantress, a witch. Spenser’s Fairie Queen is an explicit influence, but Pullman has also read deeply in English folk tale and the Brothers Grimm and seems to draw from that spring here.

There is a feeling that the old pagan Albion, land of rivers and greenwoods, is seeping up through the earth in rebellion against an increasingly restrictive Christianity. We have not yet arrived at the full power of the Magesterium – Pullman’s word for the courts and councils of the church – but learn that a liberal government has been replaced by one that is authoritarian. The move towards theocracy is on. There is a children’s organisation, The League Of St Alexander, which suggests the Hitler Youth, or Orwell’s Spies in Nineteen Eighty-Four; it is taking over the schools under the leadership of its founder Mrs Coulter.

Oh, yes, she’s in it. As are other characters familiar from His Dark Materials: Lord Asriel; Farder Coram; Hannah Relf. Coulter and Asriel are underdrawn, as if Pullman felt he could coast on the residual power from their appearances in the original trilogy; he probably can, but it’s arguably a fault of La Belle Sauvage more generally that it doesn’t quite work as a stand alone novel. If His Dark Materials is a great cathedral, this is a flying buttress: marvellous in its way, but there to support rather than astonish.

Of the new characters, the most fascinating is Gerard Bonneville, a proper monster: a scientist with an interest in elementary particles and a sex offender with an interest in young girls. Pullman depicts him as a sado-masochist who beats his own daemon, a hyena. Going back to Dickens, one thinks of Bill Sykes and Bull’s-eye. He also has a touch of Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter, frightening children as they flee on the river. In Daemon Voices, Pullman’s forthcoming book of essays on storytelling, he writes that his stories often start with “fragments of half-forgotten films”, and perhaps that 1955 picture is one.

John le Carré, whose work Pullman admires, appears to be another influence on La Belle Sauvage. This is, among other things, a spy novel. Secret messages hidden inside a tree recall Moscow Rules and dead drops. The anti-church espionage network is known as Oakley Street, “an innocent and misleading name” Pullman writes, but one with real-world resonance. Donald Maclean, one of the Cambridge Five, met his lover and KGB controller in a bedsit in Oakley Street, Chelsea, while spying in the Foreign Office. Does Pullman intend that reference? His games with names, his magpie intertextuality, adds to the depth and pleasure of the work.

This is a more adult novel than anything in His Dark Materials. Whether that trilogy could truly be described as children’s writing is debatable, but lots of children certainly read it. Parents may wish to know that this book has some strong language and sexual content. On first reading it may seem uneven, frustratingly flat in its slow first part for anyone who has reread the earlier books in preparation and now craves rebel angels and armoured bears. The hype has been such that La Belle Sauvage could scarcely be anything but a little disappointing. There also appears to be some contradiction between Lyra’s origin story as told in Northern Lights and what we learn here, although that is perhaps explainable.

Rather than a new masterpiece, this is simply a very interesting book. There are worse things. It is to Pullman’s credit that he has tried to do more than play to the crowd with a reworking of greatest hits, and one now awaits the final two parts of The Book Of Dust – set ten years after the conclusion of the original trilogy – with expectations that are, like La Belle Sauvage itself, rather more realistic.