I want it recorded here that I did not deliberately catch a cold on the day La Belle Sauvage was published just in order to give me an excuse to spend two days curled up in front of the fire reading Philip Pullman’s long anticipated return to the world of Lyra Belacqua. In fact, I would much rather have read it with a clearer head. Nevertheless, it certainly made those difficult first forty-eight hours easier to bear and the need to make sure that I haven’t missed anything gives me the perfect excuse to go back and read it through again as soon as the opportunity arises. I may need to anyway if we have to wait as long for the next volume as we have for this, simply to satisfy my appetite for almost perfect story-telling.
Because, if there is one thing Philip Pullman knows how to do it is tell a story. From the first page you know that you are in the hands of a brilliant raconteur. His characters come to life in front of your eyes, the settings are picture perfect in your mind and the story begins to unfold with a logic that seems irrefutable. We are back in Lyra’s Oxford, a city which physically doesn’t seem to be that much different to the one we know ourselves, but which, in terms of its social structure and the forces which motivate that structure, is very different indeed. Ten years before the events unfolded in Northern Lights, the power of the Magisterium is just beginning to really make itself felt and when eleven year old Malcolm Polstead is confronted in school by a group calling themselves the League of Alexander, who are there to recruit the local children to be the ears and eyes of Holy Church and report on those in their community who suggest that there may not be a God or who mock the Church, he recognises this as something he wants nothing to do with.
Malcolm is the son of the local innkeeper and has as good a life as a child could wish for, helping out in the Trout Inn, running errands for the nuns in the local priory, and spending time on the river in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage. And, like most eleven year old boys he is naturally curious, so when he picks up gossip in the inn about a baby being brought to the priory he hightails it off to see if this is true. Sure enough, there is Lyra, just months old, left with the nuns by her father, Lord Asriel, to protect her from Church forces who are seeking the child as a result of a prophecy about her future. Malcolm, like pretty much all of us who have met Lyra over the years, is entranced by her. Given the scrapes she will be getting herself into on a regular basis ten years down the line, she is a remarkably good baby, which is fortunate, because when circumstances change and Malcolm is forced to flee with her, through horrendous floods and tracked by the Consistorial Court of Discipline, silence on her part becomes a necessity.
With only a local teenager, Alice, for company, Malcolm, having rescued Lyra from the devastated priory, sets out to find somewhere she will be safe from the machinations of her mother, Mrs Coulter, and of the Church. His first thought is to get her to Jordan College, where she might be given sanctuary, but the floods don’t allow this and so swept ever southwards in the valiant La Belle Sauvage, the children aim for Chelsea in the hope that they will be able to deliver the baby to her father.
Pullman has said that this novel should not be seen as a prequel to His Dark Materials but as an equal and in some ways I could be pushed to agree with him. As I’ve made clear, this is a rattling good story which engages the reader completely, just as the earlier books did. However, for the most part, I can only see this as a forerunner of what is to come. Most obviously, of course, it tells about events which precede those in Northern Lights. It reveals to us not only how Lyra came to be living under the protection of the scholars at Jordan College, but how the alethiometer found its way there as well. Furthermore, it is also a prequel in terms of what it asks of the reader. Ideas which had to be given serious thought in the earlier novels, such as the concept of Dust, the relationship between a human and their daemon and most importantly, the question of Grace, are barely touched on here. And, then there is the question of the underpinning of the story’s structure. In His Dark Materials the debt that Pullman owed (and acknowledged) to Milton’s Paradise Lost was easily apparent. If there is such a debt here it would seem to be to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queen, which is quoted on the novel’s final page. However, not only is this work’s influence not immediately obvious throughout the book, but those episodes which it might be seen as having given rise to are, for me, the weakest parts of the story. Their purpose is so unclear that I could happily have lost them altogether.
Of course, there are two other books still to come and it may well be that when we have the completed trilogy more will be made apparent and that cohesive links which seem to be missing now will become obvious. Nevertheless, La Belle Sauvage reads as a far less complex work than any of the books in His Dark Materials and as much as I enjoyed it I hope the forthcoming volumes of The Book of Dust will ask more of me as a reader.